July 27, 2006

A Conversation With René Antonio Mayorga

MABB © ®

On Thursday last week I had a very interesting conversation with René Antonio Mayorga. For those who don't know him, he is currently one of the most recognized political scientist in and outside of Bolivia. He works at the Centro Boliviano de Estudios Multidiciplinarios (CEBEM) in La Paz; he has been Cogut Visiting Professor in Latin American Studies at Brown University and this year, beginning in September, he'll be a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC. He was visiting the Institute for Iberoamerican Studies (IIK), here in Hamburg (where I work), and taking advantage of this visit, I talked with him. Dr Mayorga agreed to talk with me about Evo Morales, MAS, Bolivia and Bolivian politics. Among his recent publications that I recommend is "La Crisis del Sistema de Partidos Políticos en Bolivia", published in the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies in 2005.

The interview/conversation covered topics such as Evo Morales, the recent events in Bolivia, the nationalization of natural gas, Morales' relations with Chavez and the current Constituent Assembly. What follows is the text of that interview translated from Spanish. Sorry, no audio. Perhaps next time.

MABB: Dr Mayorga, thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

René A. Mayorga (RAM): My pleasure.

MABB: We have seen, in December 2005, Evo Morales being elected president of Bolivia. Certainly a first in Bolivian history. What do you think about it?

RAM: It is important to put the election of Morales in a wider context. It has to be seen as part of the crisis which has been affecting Bolivia over the last five years. Morales' political strengthening and his subsequent rise to power has been the result of the crisis the traditional political parties and the government have gone and are still going through. The traditional political parties, specially, have lost legitimacy because they did not respond to the political and social demands. At the same time the Coca eradication policy pursued by earlier governments (i.e. Banzer in 1997) intensified the social conflicts in Bolivia.

MABB: What is the significance of the achieved 54% of voter support in the December elections?

RAM: One significance is that Morales and his party efectively replaced the elite with campesino (peasant) and leftist leaders. Another is the number itself. For the first time in history, a president is elected without the necessity for Congress to intervene. As we know, the norm was, according to the Constitution, if an incumbent did not reach a majority (51% votes), the decision was an attribute of Congress. It was there that the presidencies were decided since 1982. Morales was able to gain 54% of the votes due to the polarization of the country emanating from the crisis. There were even middle class voters, not necessarily supporters of MAS (Morales' party), who gave Morales a "chance". Additionally, Morales won because the people did not want to vote for the other candidates.

MABB: What is what Morales achieved, revolution or change? Where does he want to take Bolivia?

RAM: What Morales achieved was change, but with some elements of revolution. A political elite was replaced by a new elite. When we say elite we are talking about the leaders at the decision apex who have a hegemonic control. Now there are new people in this apex making the decisions. This new elite, however, is not consolidated, is incoherent and has no training or experience in politics. What happened is not revolution, if we understand revolution as the total substitution of a dominant political and economic systems. Nonetheless, it could become a revolution if Morales is able to shape Bolivia the way he has been saying he wants to. If he succeeds in substituting the current system with the one he's been talking about. Bringing back the ayllus, along with his version of communitarian democracy.

I think Morales' objective is clear. If we take into account the political measures he implemented and his rhetoric it is clear that he is strongly oriented towards a Chavist model, which here means, concentration of power and control by the executive branch.

MABB: There has been a heated discussion about where to put Morales in the political spectrum. Where would you place him?

RAM: Morales is a populist with strong ethnocentrist connotations. He is a union leader with an indigenous origin. Albeit, his ideology is not coherent yet. He speaks of communitarian democracy and the important managing role of the state. He is also an anti-capitalist. That's clear.

MABB: What is the role of Vicepresident Linera in the Morales government?

RAM: Linera has a clear indigenist vision. However, surprisingly, he is turned out to be less of a radical as one would heve thought. He has become the moderator and interpreter of what Morales says. Often we see and hear Linera trying to explain Morales' outbursts to the media.

MABB: What do you think about Morales' performance in the government?

RAM: There are two things to mention, nationalization and the Constituent Assembly. Morales did what he had to do. He promised nationalization and he nationalized the natural gas resources. He promised to call to a Constituent Assembly and he did. Both of these things were long present in the demands of the people. Now, if we take a more detailed look, we can ask ourselves: what kind of nationalization it was? What Morales did was a "limited nationalization" of the natural gas resources. This means the state secures more control of the resources, wich is not equal to the more traditional meaning of nationalization by expropriation. The nationalization process was more like a show, if we remember the coverage of the occupation of the fields by the Bolivian military. A point to highlight is the radicalization of the May 1, 2006 decree compared to the 2005 Hydrocarbons Law. With this decree the state lost its ability to cooperate with other entities and took it upon itself to extract, refine and commercialize the natural gas. This restricts the state to assume all the responsibilities.

MABB: Much has been said about the friendship between Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez. What do you think about the relationship Chavez-Morales?

RAM: From the MAS point of view, the relationship is obviously optimal. But, one has to recognize that behind the cooperative intentions of Chavez, there are elements of power thirst. Chavez wants to become a central piece in the energy industry game in Latin America. In that game, Evo Morales, is just another piece. Let's remember that Morales himself once said: "Chavez is not only my tutor, but also the Bolivian people's tutor". That quote reflects the subordination Morales feels towards Chavez.

MABB: A very scary prospect is the possible secession of Santa Cruz. Do you think that Santa Cruz could one day proclaim independence?

RAM: No, I don't think that there will be, any time soon, the independent republic of Santa Cruz.

MABB: Assuming that Morales gains absolute control of the assembly, and he basically writes his own constitution, Santa Cruz would not be happy if the autonomy issue is not in the form of regional autonomy.

RAM: The scenario you cite is certainly possible, but an extreme one. I think it is more probable that the reality of the process will not allow him to obtain total control of the assembly and as a result he'll be obliged to negotiate. At this moment, I don't see the possibility of a secession.

MABB: What do you think about Morales' intentions of making the Constituent Assembly supreme (even above the current constitution)?

RAM: The Constitutional Assembly cannot have supreme powers. The democratic gains of the last 20 plus years would be reverted. The system would end up turning authoritarian or even dictatorial. Having into account that Morales is clearly anti-democratic (that is, follows the Chavist line), the danger would be that the rules of the game could be altered or redifined at will. One example would be to declare that the 2/3 rule is not adequate and a lesser hurdle would fit better.

MABB: Well, unfortunately the time is up and we have to end this conversation. I thank you for your insight and wish you well on your future endeavours.