How Evo Morales's Third Term Will Challenge Bolivia's Social Movements

The strategy of “defeating” the political right by incorporating elite sectors into Bolivia's ruling MAS party will be put to the test in Evo Morales’s third term.

Emily Achtenberg 3/28/2015

Evo Morales pre-inaugural ceremony at Tiwanaku (La Razón).

Evo Morales and the MAS

On January 22, with officials from 40 countries in attendance, Evo Morales—Bolivia’s first indigenous president—was sworn in to begin his historic third term. Set to govern until 2020 with the ruling MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party, Morales is now the longest serving head of state in a country once famous for its frequent military coups and political turmoil. By some accounts, he is the most popular head of state in Latin America.

Aqui no mandan los gringos, aqui mandan los indios” (“here native people, not foreigners, govern”) Morales reminded the assembled multitudes.  The previous day, at the prehispanic ruins of Tiwanaku, thousands of indigenous, campesino, and international observers witnessed Morales receiving the blessing of Andean priests in a highly ritualized traditional ceremony.

While these symbolic gestures help to reaffirm the indigenous and insurgent roots of Morales’s political project, much about Bolivia and the MAS has profoundly changed since Morales first came to power. Back in 2005, Morales was elected (with 54% of the vote) by an alliance of indigenous, campesino, and other popular movements, on a radical platform to redistribute land, reassert state control over the country’s natural resources, and refound Bolivia as a plurinational state. He was fiercely opposed by conservative elites in the eastern lowlands departments (the “media luna” or half-moon), whose secessionist threats subsequently brought the country to the brink of civil war.

By contrast, in last October’s election Morales carried 8 of Bolivia’s 9 departments, including 3 of 4 in the eastern lowlands. He won with 61% of the vote, close to 40 points ahead of his nearest opponent (representing a badly fractured opposition). On Morales’s coattails, the MAS gained a 2/3 majority in both legislative chambers, assuring the “super-majority” needed for some laws and for potential constitutional changes.

The MAS achieved these victories, in part, by incorporating into its ranks significant elements of the lowlands agribusiness and ranching elite, as well as former conservative neoliberal party militants. Today, the MAS is a powerful corporative organization rooted in entrepreneurial as well as popular sectors in every region of the country, with a more centrist political agenda.

What explains this transformation of the MAS from a party (and government) of the social movements to a “big tent” hegemonic power, and what does it portend for Morales’s third term and for ongoing popular struggles in Bolivia? Morales, in his victory speech, was quick to proclaim the “defeat” of the political right and the replacement of the “media luna” by the “luna llena” (full moon) of a “united Bolivia.” Still, what political analyst Pablo Stefanoni has characterized as the new “post-polarized” Bolivia  appears to be far from unified, presenting a new landscape of contradictions and challenges.

The New Nationalist - Plurinational State                                     

Evidence of the MAS party’s political realignment can be seen in the new 5-year program outlined by Morales at his inauguration. In addition to broad social goals (such as poverty reduction), the new MAS agenda is heavily focused on nationalist themes (regaining the seacoast from Chile) and development goals associated with technological advancement (industrialization of natural resources, high-tech hospitals, international airports, and the transformation of cities into urban “citadels of knowledge”).

Similarly, Morales’s recent electoral campaign showcased projects like the spectacular La Paz-El Alto aerial cable car system—financed entirely with national savings—and the Túpac Katari satellite, which brings the internet to schoolchildren in remote corners of Bolivia. Developmentalist themes that evoke national pride appear to have virtually supplanted more radical notions of plurinationalism, indigenism, redistribution, and communitarian socialism in the MAS political discourse.

While Stefanoni notes that the plurinational state may be the most nationalist in Bolivian history, on the economic front there has been a shift towards greater pragmatism. Soon after declaring his victory to be a “triumph of nationalization over privatization,” Morales announced that there would be no further nationalizations. Instead, he has adopted what Stefanoni calls a “more market-friendly approach to decolonization,” along with a “neo-developmentalist” perspective emphasizing technological innovation fueled by a robust extractivist economy.

The Changing Face of Bolivia

While the new MAS worldview may be seen as a betrayal of radical indigenous and socialist ideals, it also reflects a pragmatic response to Bolivia’s changing economic, social, and political realities.  

Thanks to Morales’s successful state-led economic strategies and prudent fiscal management (combined with the global commodities boom), Bolivia’s once lackluster economy has lately experienced unprecedented prosperity. This includes annual growth rates averaging more than 5%, a vast expansion of the country’s international reserves, and a huge increase in the value of hydrocarbons and mineral exports which has largely been recaptured by the state and redistributed to benefit the country’s poor and indigenous majority.

Popular cash transfer programs for the elderly, schoolchildren, and pregnant women, and widespread infrastructure improvements—such as schools, hospitals, and domestic gas connections—have reduced poverty rates and markedly improved the living standards of ordinary Bolivians. In turn, increased purchasing power and domestic demand have fueled an unprecedented expansion of consumerism, and the emergence of an indigenous entrepreneurial bourgeoisie—whose new-found wealth is symbolized by the colorful “neo-Andean” mini-mansions of El Alto. According to Economic Minister Luis Arce, this shows that “everyone has the opportunity to get rich in Bolivia, because today’s economy is for everybody.”

Anthropologists have struggled to explain a seemingly paradoxical identity shift revealed by the 2012 census, where only 42% of Bolivians self-identified as indigenous (compared to 62% in 2001). Stefanoni theorizes that this reflects a more fluid concept of identity in an increasingly urbanized, ethnically-mixed, and upwardly mobile population, as well as a decline in the social significance of indigeneity—once a badge of resistance, but now the official rhetoric of the state. The aspirations of Bolivians today, he argues, have less to do with ethno-cultural values than with education, entrepreneurship, and access to the more material aspects of decolonization.   

The strong economy has also made possible the integration of substantial sectors of the eastern lowlands agribusiness and political elite into the MAS project, with the opportunistic recognition by these groups that they have more to gain as beneficiaries of the “Evo-boom” than as Morales’s political adversaries. This has led to an implicit pact with “productive” elite sectors (including soy, timber, and cattle-ranching interests) who have agreed to recognize the legitimacy of the MAS government, in exchange for concessions to advance their business model. The alliance has been consolidated around a nationalist program for “food security” and expansion of the agricultural frontier, with a commitment by Morales to quadruple the areas of agricultural production in Bolivia over the next 10 years.

Popular Struggles, Constraints, and Challenges

The MAS party’s national-popular, neo-developmentalist perspective appears to reflect a more centrist drift of the electorate, and has been strongly ratified at the polls. Still, it presents new contradictions and challenges for both popular movements and government in Morales’s third term.

Notwithstanding recent improvements in living standards, Bolivia still has one of the highest rates (58%) of  “multidimensional poverty” in the hemisphere, after Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala (taking into account social indicators such as housing and health, as well as income). The Morales government’s excessive reliance on extractive industry to finance programs to address these needs represents a continuing contradiction.

On the one hand, as Kathryn Ledebur of Bolivia’s Andean Information Network has commented, the temptation to generate revenues quickly is not difficult to understand in this context. “People who have had their basic needs postponed for centuries, you can’t say to them, ‘Wait till we get the windmill farm up and running,’” she notes.

Still, within the past year, the Morales government  has expanded hydrocarbons exploration into the national parks (which overlap heavily with indigenous territories), adopted a new mining law that permits water diversion from peasant farming communities to mining operators, and begun studies to identify shale gas deposits in the Bolivian Chaco for potential fracking. Such controversial projects are increasingly resisted by indigenous, environmental, and human rights organizations, furthering a rift with the Morales government that was precipitated by the proposed construction of the on-again, off-again TIPNIS highway in 2011-12.  

These popular sectors that were critical to Morales’s original victory in 2005 have been increasingly marginalized by the MAS government, as obstacles to the new productive economy. Even more resistance will likely be generated by proposed new projects that seek to advance the vision of Bolivia as a regional energy power: a controversial nuclear plant in the earthquake-prone La Paz department, and two hydroelectric dams on the flood-prone Brazilian border that are strongly contested by local farming communities and environmental activists.

On the agricultural frontier, a slowdown in the Morales government’s once-vibrant land reform program has aggravated traditional conflicts between peasant farmers migrating from the highlands in search of more productive land and lowland indigenous peoples staking claims to their ancestral territories. Further concessions to large-scale agribusiness and timber interests, now incorporated under the MAS umbrella, will come at the expense of both campesino and indigenous groups and deepen the divisions between them.

Pressures from organized informal sector workers who have been traditional bastions of MAS support, and their conflicts with other MAS-affiliated sectors, will continue to shape the political landscape. Independent “cooperative” miners, who have resisted nationalization, won important concessions in last year’s mining law to protect their privileged status relative to their state and private-sector counterparts.  Independent minibus drivers in La Paz and El Alto have mobilized against new municipal bus systems—and even, initially, against Morales’s flagship aerial cable cars—which they perceive as threatening their livelihoods, provoking fierce opposition from pro-transit neighborhood organizations that have also traditionally supported the MAS.

While a substratum of these sectors has risen to the ranks of Bolivia’s new entrepreneurial middle class, the majority of informal workers are left with insecure, low-paying, no-benefit jobs that they struggle to defend at any cost.  As Nicole Fabricant and Bret Gustafson have noted, few dignified jobs are being created by the extractive economy, and the percentage of labor in Bolivia’s informal sector has remained at around 65% for the past decade.

Conflicts around gender issues and patriarchal practices that are deeply rooted in Bolivian culture have recently intensified in the political arena, and within the MAS party. The Morales government has promoted important advances for women, including electoral gender parity laws that have resulted in almost 50% female representation in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, and a new law that criminalizes femicide.

Still, Bolivia has one of the highest rates of violence against women in Latin America. The national elections spawned a new feminist movement, Machista Fuera de La Lista! (“male chauvinists off the ballot!”) that forced two candidates accused of domestic violence —including a prospective MAS senator—to withdraw. Other women- led movements, both within and outside the MAS umbrella, are mobilizing around abortion and LGTBQ rights, domestic violence and femicide, and the general demand for “depatriarchalization” of Bolivian institutions and society.

Internal factional struggles within the MAS “big tent” have been on display during the run-up to the March 29 subnational elections—the first political contest since Morales’s resounding October victory. Local resentment towards unpopular candidates imposed by the MAS leadership (and by Morales himself) could be a significant factor in determining the outcome of several important contests.

Polls show the MAS losing mayoral races in 7 of the country’s 10 largest municipalities, including La Paz, El Alto, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. Several governorships are also up for grabs, including La Paz. At a minimum, less than favorable election results could complicate the administration of Morales’s third term.

Another major complicating factor is the recent drop in global commodities prices, especially crude oil (which impacts gas exports) and minerals. According to Arce,  Bolivia can rely on its international reserves—now approaching $15 billion or 50% of GDP, the highest ratio in Latin America—to protect its economy. Still, if these trends continue, they could significantly curtail Morales’s ambitious social welfare, public investment, and development programs.   

Until now, the rapidly growing economy has made it possible for the Morales government to placate the demands of diverse social sectors while preserving, for the most part, the wealth of powerful landholding and economic elites. In a more economically constrained future, this strategy may no longer be viable. But, with elite sectors now firmly integrated into the MAS, policies that challenge their interests may be impractical as well.

As popular movements continue to struggle for land, economic security, environmental justice, true gender equality, and the rights of peasant, indigenous, and urban communities, the viability of MAS’s political strategy for “defeating” the right through fragmentation and cooptation could well be put to the test—along with Morales’s political credibility. 

Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and the author of NACLA’s blog Rebel Currents, covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments (


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.