Bolivia’s Path to Camacho (Interview)

Diverse groups oppose Evo Morales, but the right-wing Christian figures representing the country’s old elite that are now grabbing power in Bolivia spells a new tragedy, Bolivian anthropologist Raul Rodriguez Arancibia explains.

November 13, 2019

Demonstrators protest in El Alto against the ouster of Evo Morales. (Raul Rodriguez Arancibia)

Bolivian president Evo Morales fled the country this week after he stepped down under pressure from the military and other calls for resignation. At the head of the coup against him is a mysterious figure, Luis Fernando Camacho, an agribusiness and natural gas magnate from the lowland Santa Cruz region, who was virtually unknown until he catapulted to national and international prominence only days before Morales’s resignation.

As the leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, Morales presided over a period of unprecedented progress in Bolivia, as poverty was reduced and the country’s Indigenous majority was incorporated into the country’s political life. In 2009, the country ratified a new constitution, establishing Bolivia as a “plurinational” state; the wiphala, the multicolor symbol of Indigenous sovereignty in the Andes, soon flew alongside the flag of the Spanish-founded Bolivian republic in official government settings. Morales also faced criticism over pursuing natural gas and mining projects, handling of the TIPNIS conflict, and seeking additional terms in office despite constitutional limits.

I spoke with Bolivian anthropologist Raul Rodriguez Arancibia via instant message on Tuesday, November 12, while police and military vehicles patrolled the streets of La Paz around him, awaiting the arrival of a march of MAS supporters from the nearby city of El Alto. He discussed the events of the last several days, the strategic alliance between Camacho’s ultra-conservative Christianity and some anti-Morales Indigenous sectors, and the future of democracy in Bolivia. This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity.

Jonah Walters: Tell me what’s been going on the past several days.

Raul Rodriguez Arancibia: First, you have to understand that social media and messaging apps have been important this time around—both to inform and misinform. We learn what’s going on through WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts before the TV. Currently, news is circulating on social media that there are marches of cocaleros, and that Evo supporters in El Alto are organizing themselves to enter the city of La Paz. But on TV they’re focused on today’s congressional meeting, which has to accept Evo Morales’s letter of resignation and designate a new president. [Since this conversation, senate opposition leader Jeanine Añez declared herself Bolivia’s interim president.]

Since last night, the military has been summoned by the police and politicians to stop riots throughout the city. There aren’t roadblocks like the last few weeks, but there is still uncertainty. Market vendors, even those who are being careful, continue to suffer vandalism. Yet Plaza Murillo, the central square where the government has its offices and the congressional building is located, still remains blocked by military and police.

JW: I’ve seen videos of policemen removing the insignia of the wiphala from their uniforms. Is the rejection of Evo Morales also a rejection of plurinationalism?

RRA: When Evo resigned, the civil society groups that had called for his resignation staged a public celebration. During the celebration, someone tore down the wiphala in Plaza Murillo [La Paz’s central square]. Other people burned it. I heard a high-ranking policeman say, “Bolivia is not two, but one.”

JW: How did things get to this point?

RRA: I think Evo could have made different decisions and reached a solution in the first or second week of all this. While Evo was busy denying that there was any fraud at all in his election, and that he was the winner without even being recognized by the Organization of American States, the “organic oligarch” of Santa Cruz—Luis Fernando Camacho—took advantage.

In those first two weeks after the elections, people of civil society in La Paz, Santa Cruz, and other cities made fraud allegations. Evo never acknowledged that there was an electoral problem. For him, he had won. This is what made middle-class urban sectors come out to protest against him. Even then, Evo continued to present himself as the undisputed winner in rural areas.

Then, last week, Camacho did something that suddenly transformed him into a national figure. This is the key to understanding everything that has happened since.

On November 4, Camacho came to La Paz to deliver a letter asking the president to resign for fraud. It was a surprise trip. But when he arrived that night, a MAS sympathizer at the airport informed the MAS base organizations. People in La Paz went to his support at the airport. It was a tense night. MAS partisans rallied and didn’t let anyone enter or leave the airport all night. Neither the police nor the military intervened to do anything. The next day Camacho flew back to Santa Cruz. But the confrontation at the airport transformed him from a regional to a national figure.

On Wednesday, he came back to La Paz to deliver that letter. In El Alto, the people already saw him as a racist, but to the middle-class sectors, he was already a hero. In the following days, people protesting against Morales would meet near a luxurious hotel in the upscale neighborhood of La Paz where Camacho was staying. The day Camacho arrived in La Paz, his supporters began to clash with people who opposed him. Later, he went into the streets with Indigenous leaders who are opposed to Evo. You have to understand that there are Indigenous groups that are against the MAS government.

It was in those final days that Evo lost the support of the military and police officials he had put in their positions. Evo gave a lot of money to his military officials over the years, to buy their loyalty. The general Williams Kaliman [commander-in-chief of the Bolivian armed forces], for example, was pro-government.

A banner in El Alto reads "El Alto is to be respected" during a protest against the coup. (Raul Rodriguez Arancibia)

That Friday afternoon, the police started a mutiny in the city of Cochabamba first that spread out in the next hour throughout the country. There were rumors that Evo would order a state of siege, which would have allowed him to send the military into the streets. I was in a market in El Alto, watching people scanning their news feeds on their phones and watching the TV broadcasts. But to order a state of siege you need the approval of all your ministers and generals. They had already started to abandon him.

There is division in the military, and that’s why they didn’t come out to defend Evo on Friday when the police mutineed. That might, Evo made calls to his chief ministers and generals. Something happened in the house of government that night. The military left Evo alone, with only his supporters to call upon for resistance against an ongoing coup d’état. He could not call upon the military. And of course the police joined with the protestors. By that point, police were acting as bodyguards for Camacho.

The police riot on Friday made it clear that Evo’s resignation was a possibility. On Saturday, Evo appeared with [vice president] Álvaro García Linera and [foreign minister] Diego Pary to call for a national dialogue—which would include only political party leaders, not civil society figures—and new elections. But the opposition didn’t want that. They wanted his resignation. On Saturday afternoon, he got in his plane and flew to El Chapare, where his base is the strongest. On Sunday, surrounded by a group of Indigenous leaders, he announced his resignation. That’s when the celebrations started. By that point, Camacho was already popular, having gathered crowds of anti-government protesters in his attempts to personally deliver a letter demanding Evo’s resignation to the government offices.

The day Evo resigned, opposition supporters entered the governmental palace with the Bible and everything. Some people pulled down the wiphala. Others burned it.

Evo created Camacho. He could have stopped him early on, but instead he denied that there was a conflict of such severity, at least publically. Like I said, he thought he had the generals in his hands. But then suddenly he lost them.

If money changed hands to motivate those generals to call for his resignation, where did it come from? That’s the question. It’s strange. General Kaliman was an ally of the government that embraced an anti-colonialist doctrine that Morales established in the country years ago. And yet he demanded Evo’s resignation.

JW: I know you’ve been critical of Evo in the past, but you also worked for a time as a researcher for his government, right? What kind of government did Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party create?

RRA: During Evo’s government there were important political and economic reforms. A new constitution “re-founded” the country in 2009. No doubt about it, these reforms were focused on the country’s Indigenous majority.

The economic growth the MAS administration accomplished was recognized by the World Bank and other international organizations. A big part of this success was the creation of a new middle class among those who self-identify as Indigenous. That class, which Evo’s policies helped create, was nowhere to be found in the last three weeks. Merchants in the “popular zones,” as the Indigenous and low-income sectors are known, were far more concerned with protecting their merchandize from looting.

During the last three weeks, there were no roadblocks or protests in El Alto, for example. Commerce continued as normal. The conflicts really only took place in the non-Indigenous middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods of the city of La Paz.

My hypothesis is that the MAS never developed a way to understand the new Indigenous middle-class that was consistent with the party’s ideology. El Alto is the place where the wealth generated by informal commerce, the wealth of the so-called “new Indigenous bourgeoisie,” is concentrated. But at the same time, it is still a point of arrival for Indigenous migrants from the countryside, who have very low incomes. It was the latter who took to the streets on Sunday to protest against the coup.

Hours before Morales’s resignation, I was in a meeting in El Alto on Sunday, where they called him “racist Camacho.” By then, the roadblocks had already begun to be set up at the entrance to the city of El Alto. At the same time, in La Paz, there were also people meeting to protest against Evo Morales. The latter accused him of calling on his supporters to ambush a caravan of students, doctors, and miners that were coming to La Paz from Potosí to join other anti-government protesters.

Many people may have been looking for an alternative to Evo. But no one was looking for something like Camacho as a successor.

JW: Do you think the MAS will survive?

RRA: It is hard to answer that question now. Evo called on his supporters to resist the coup, and this is what is happening now. But since his resignation, there is a witch hunt happening against Evo supporters and members of his administration. And during almost fourteen years in power, Evo didn’t create anyone else as a political leader. There are no national leaders, not from the MAS line. Just this new radical [conservative] Christianity that has appeared and old political elites who will now return from “exile.”

Despite Evo’s mistakes, what’s going on here is a tragedy. The Indigenous are being wiped from politics. They have disappeared from the media since yesterday.

JW: Will plurinational Bolivia survive?

RRA: Yes. Plurinationality is constitutional. Even those on the Right understand this.

JW: You don’t think that Camacho and his cohort intend to devise a new constitution, or at least restore the mono-national constitution of the pre-2009 period?

RRA: No. That would be a very serious conflict. The constitution Bolivia has today is the result of a pact between various opposing social sectors. Even the most conservative sectors have to enter into pacts with Indigenous organizations.

Even Camacho understands this, and for that reason he has made overtures to Indigenous people. On Twitter yesterday, he posted a video of himself waving the wiphala and talking about tolerance, for example.

Bolivia is divided. It always has been. Evo was never able to solve the problem of those two Bolivias.

I’ve been teaching at a teachers college in El Alto for the last four months. The professors there have all become technocrats of “decolonization.” As one Indigenous professor said to Jovani Samanamud, a MAS ideologue, “You have decolonized badly! Now look what’s happening.”

The MAS administration developed the discourse of Buen Vivir as technocracy. But on the ground, Indigenous communities experienced Buen Vivir in different ways, and developed different understandings of it — sometimes these different understandings came from NGOs, sometimes through Indigenous intellectuals, and so on. At a certain point, Buen Vivir was a way to access funds from the MAS government, which interpreted it as a fundamental characteristic of indigeneity.

JW: Do you think Camacho can win the support of the new Indigenous middle class?

RRA: The Indigenous middle class hasn’t said anything yet. It doesn’t have an ideology. These are more pragmatic people. But I think after this, it is clear that race is an important signifier here in Bolivia.

Still, a lot will change, as we are already seeing. Camacho hasn’t said anything about becoming a candidate yet. But like some Indigenous entrepreneurs, he is pragmatic and a kind of “organic oligarch.” And he did emerge as a leader by questioning the same economic elites in his region.

Remember that Evo was allied with eastern country elites that were focused on agro-industry. Soy cultivation was his way to diversify the Bolivian economy, which was rooted in extractivism. Evo had strong ties with certain elites that allowed him to rule. But Camacho came to question the alliances those elites made with Evo.

Traditionally, elites are families that have inherited forms of colonial power—economic and political power—that have endured throughout the history of the republic. They distinguish themselves through their bloodlines, their Spanish surnames, and alliances between their families. These oligarchs are strong in Bolivia even now. But these traditional elites do not recognize the new Indigenous elites. They continue to think of them as indios and cholos.

Elites in Santa Cruz are newer because they were beneficiaries of economic policies implemented after the revolution of 1952. Camacho’s family one of those beneficiaries—newer, younger Santa Cruz elites, who have taken advantage of the state for decades. He isn’t a mineral or merchant elite; he’s involved in services. In fact, Camacho’s family has big contracts with the MAS government to distribute natural gas in Santa Cruz. His name appeared in the Panama Papers. That’s where Camacho comes from. He’s of a new generation of Bolivian elite.

His discourse about “Indigenism,” pluralism, or “pan-regionalism,” is new. In La Paz, El Alto, and the western part of the country, he wasn’t very well-known until the past few weeks, when people saw him leading large mobilizations and councils, raising allegations of electoral fraud. These were broadcast on national TV, helping to turn him into a national figure. But he has a dark past. He was the vice president of the ultra-rightwing organization Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, during the 2003 Bolivian gas conflict in his region that beat and humiliated low-income and Indigenous people in public clashes.

When he allied himself with some Indigenous sectors that were opposed to the government, the image of a non-Indigenous guy allied with Indigenous people created a strong impression here. That was something never seen before. It was something Evo couldn’t do the last weeks of his government; he showed himself to be isolated in the countryside with his own Indigenous base.

Have you seen the meme of Camacho hugging an Indigenous woman? People are sharing the photo with the line “Come here, handsome camba. Discriminate against me.” [Camba is a slang term for non-Indigenous Bolivians from the eastern part of the country, like Camacho].

The opposition to Morales is very diverse, but it’s difficult to say that it is durable.

Raul A. Rodriguez Arancibia is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Rutgers University, where he researches Indigenous entrepreneurs in Bolivia. He lives in El Alto.

Jonah Walters is a PhD candidate in geography at Rutgers University and a researcher at Jacobin.

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