September 08, 2008

The Limits of the Bolivian Crisis

MABB © ®

The theoretical limits are becoming more visible in Bolivia as the crisis deepens. On the one side, the fundamental question (see Weber) about the right of the state to exert the legitimate monopoly of the use of force in a given territory is being severely tested. At the same time, the relative strength of the state is also under scrutiny. Has the Bolivian state become too weak? On the other side, once can see how far can discourse go or perhaps to what extent is discourse useful.

At the moment, the Young Civic Unions of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Sucre and Tarija are directly challenging the state's authority. As we can see in the news, they are not only staging road blockades, but in their efforts to intimidate the state, are occupying state buildings and are even planning to shut down border entry points. This behavior raises the question about the weakness or strength of the Bolivian state. Is the state weak?

In my opinion, I think the Bolivian state is not weak, but is unwilling. Is not weak, in the sense that it has the means to exert legitimate violence to bring those events under control. Not only the Bolivian military is up and running and, as they say, firmly under civilian control, but the police forces are also there and capable of acting.

Now, some, for sure will argue, and I will tend to agree, unwillingness to act is a form of weakness.

I think the reason why Morales is unwilling to act is because he knows the moment he orders repression, the risk of deaths increases exponentially. He might also be reluctant because he knows what can happen, either due to his own experience or by simply observing recent past events.

Another possibility might be that Morales is unsure of the military's loyalty. It might just be that once he sets the military in motion, it might take a life of its own and start making own decisions. I think Morales has some good reasons why not to trust the military. An indication is the fact that Morales keeps publically calling on the military to support the change, i.e. his government. For its part, the military has repeatedly had to, also publically, voice its intention to act under the guidelines of the constitution.

So, one can say that the Bolivian state is weak, but not in the classical sense.

Another visible limitation is the extent to which the Morales discourse is useful. Morales has had a strong discursive element in his politics which has helped him maintain high levels of support. In fact, his discourse is made up of a complex plethora of terms. At the front is the anti-neoliberal banner, and following not too behind are terms such as powerful elites, empire, colonizers, equality, etc.

Of all the terms used by Morales, I think, neoliberalism and empire are the ones who are most useful for him. These are two terms which are already defined and those definitions come associated with many other concepts, countries and other things, which to a large extent, play at the feelings of MAS supporters. Supporters know these two terms are the enemy and anyone associated with them is the enemy.

However, if we observe the current events, one cannot help but notice the reduced effect of the discourse when used by Morales. For several weeks now, Morales and his VP have been calling on his supporters to 'defend' the process of change. So far, there have been only sporadic reactions in terms of marches, mainly in La Paz, and some confrontations against the road blockers (which I think these were more out of desperation than any allegiance to Morales).

The question arises then: What are the limits of discourse? Can a particular discourse be used indefinitely?

So far for my thinking out loud!

PS. This week I am in a conference and won't be able to update nor comment as usual. Having said that, I will continue monitoring Bolivia and will make the necessary posts and updates.


Karen said...

Couldn't it also be that Morales knows he can't actually run the lowlands if he does attempt a forcable takeover? I mean, his supporters are mainly skilled in mining and coca growth, while the lowland industries are larger-scale agriculture and energy extraction. I think he is hesitant to move because if he disrupts the basic activities of the media luna, he loses his core source of revenue.

Anonymous said...

Miguel, to what extent do you credit Evo's high levels of support to his terminology? What about Costas' and Cossio's support?


Anonymous said...

And of course it's obvious that easier to block a rural road or a pipeline than it is to keep them open. (As is clear from the many landslides and high water events every year.) I think discourse is a very weak factor in this.

It also seems to me that the current roadblocks in the east are mostly affecting the eastern departments, especially the media luna capitals. They are creating an intensifying crisis in those cities, but what incentive would supporters of the national government have to attempt break them? Of course, this might change when gas supplies to Brazil and Argentina are blocked.


aureliano buenos diaz! said...

Karen respectfully, where do you think much of the manual labor used today in Santa Cruz came from?

His supporters are mainly skilled in mining and coca growth?????

That is what 67% of Bolivians do for a living?

And Bolivia's economy is still primarily based on gas, oil, and minerals. It is the agro-industrial complex of the east which could not function without direct government subsidies to the diesel which powers their machines.

Funny, how centralism and outdated energy-subsidy policies are the lifeline of the soy and olive oil industries which are to some extent funding the violence against the new bogeyman "el centralismo".

Miguel, this Bolivian considers our government's reluctance to exert its legitimate monopoly of violence to be its greatest asset.

Did not the British army consider Ghandi foolish and weak?

GS said...

Miguel, good analysis, as usual. Some thoughts as I read your post:

Evo's reluctance to use force is reminiscent of Carlos Mesa’s. But in this case I would suggest that Evo is content with letting the drama play out in a quasi-legal realm (“quasi-legal” since both sides are not really following the rules) because (1) he is getting some traction there and (2) the situation has not evolved to the point where military force is necessary. Your point about mistrusting the military is also well taken even though I think the military’s leadership is more firmly under Evo’s thumb then you assume. Finally, I’m tending to see the mobilization and use of MAS or pro-government social groups to counter opposition social groups like the Young Civic Unions as an indicator that Evo has not demurred from using force. I recognize, however, that this is not what Weber meant.

mcentellas said...

I'm also worried that rhetoric is now taking a life of its own. Also, like MABB, I'm skeptical about the military's role here. It's not that the military has a right/left orientation. The issue is whether the military wants to shoulder the blame for a large number of civilian casualties. I think Evo is worried that he can't count on them to act. But the longer things deteriorate, I do think a coup becomes more possible (though we are nowhere near that point now).

John also raises a good point: The crisis is disproportionately affecting the cities in regions that are opposition strongholds. So I'm not sure why MAS supporters are hoping to lift that siege. Although ... the blockade of food/fuel to the highland regions is a factor here. Also, I think both MAS & the opposition are obsessed w/ control, and demonstrating their ability to mobilize people (and even violence). That's what makes things scary.

mabb said...

Karen: Morales also has supporters in the lowlands. And these are many! I don*t think one can make such a distinction. However, I do agree that if things are disrupted in Santa Cruz, the central government will also feel it in economic terms.

John: I think the Morales discourse should not to be dismissed. I think it has power to mobilize people. The supporters of Morales are keen on repeating this discourse. Especially, I think, the anti-neoliberal discourse has power to mobilize.

But, of course, I am not saying that discourse is it. The different groups supporting Morales have their own interests and goals. So, to answer your question would be very difficult. It wouldn*t be easy to measure the extent.

On the part of the opposition, I see less of discourse, but a kind of rhetoric equally influential. I mean, democracy and freedom are two words that come to my mind. Of course, autonomy is much more than discourse or rhetoric.

The importance of the disturbances in the lowlands are manyfold for the government. One of them is the political significance. As a president, you want to be able to travel freely in your country and in this moment, Morales cannot.

Aureliano: I hope the weather is nice in Bolivian Macondo. :-)

An assest for the opposition, right?

GS and mcentellas: I think Morales does not have control of the military. I think the military is keeping ties with retired commanders. If Evo thought by retiring two generations of officers was going to control the miliary, I say he made a mistake. Also, I second the point of mcentellas. The military here is reluctant to play a role because it is bound to be the looser. As an institution, it would be devastating for it if in confrontations new dead would result.

And yes, Evo (or maybe I shall say Garcia and Rada?) is not afraid to use force. Taking in to account that he keeps reminding his supporters to *defend* the *change*.

I think, in this case, is not much the region that is important, but the protests and the way they are being carried out. I mean, the government is slowly loosing control of these regions. The people there have started a process of taking over state institutions. So the presence of the central government is being erased. If these institutions come under the influence of the opposition, one step more will be complete in the forced implementation of autonomy. At this stage, the central government has to act!

mabb said...

I forgot. Once again, I ask for appologies because I cannot get to my email and blog as much as I might like to. I am at a conference and access to internet is limited.

I will be back on Saturday. So, this means that my answers might take a bit longer than usual.

Man is hard to write in a Norwegian keyboard!

StJacques said...

I have a point to make regarding discourse.

There is a question as to just how much of the conversation would be "in the open" or whether it would be a closed dialog between Bolivian political leaders.  I think Morales has attempted to do the second and he has failed.  We now see the Media Luna leaders, especially Cossio, asking for outside mediation.  Just today the arrival of the "friends" group, consisting of the Foreign Ministers of Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia was postponed by Choquehuanca, and his reason given is that the opposition is not willing to participate, which does not accord with Cossio's public utterances at all.  And on top of that, there are the statements of the Brazilian Foreign Minister that some kind of agreement will have to be worked out with the autonomy movements coupled with the related disclosure of the Brazilian Ambassador that they are in touch with the Media Luna leaders.

In short; I think Morales fears an open dialog because it will invariably come down to the observance of Bolivian constitutional law, especially if diplomats become involved, since that is always the norm within which they operate.  This is a framework that will work against the achievement of Morales's political goals given the record of the Cerco in February and the exclusion of the opposition delegates from the November congressional session when the Direct Hydrocarbons Tax revenues were reassigned, a matter that has never been presented in a popular referendum.

And I wish I could get some kind of read on what the Bolivian Army is up to in all of this.  I really am drawing a blank beyond the fact that I can see they are not eager to jump into the fray.


mcentellas said...

My gut instinct is that the army will wait to see which side is about to win, then come in on their side. That seems to've been the lesson they learned from the 1970s (don't actually play a role in politics, but do make sure you back the winning side). But that's just a gut instinct based on historical patterns.

StJacques said...

Thank for that mcentellas.

I have been asking myself whether the Bolivian Army may be waiting to see the results of the congressional session, which may be scheduled for September 23 -- I don't really know for sure -- given that the head of the police in La Paz promised the other day that his forces would guarantee secure access to the legislative precincts for the opposition Deputies and Senators on that day.

Mabb has suggested that the opposition will likely play the fools again and dither around doing nothing, and even though I do not have the history of observing Bolivian politics to compare with him, I have read statements recently in which Oscar Ortiz guarantees that if they actually get to vote in the Senate the Constitutional Project will be defeated.

What I'm wondering is, could it be that the Bolivian Army is viewing that session as the "point of decision," after which they may hope that Morales either comes to his senses or they read him the riot act [literally]?  I don't know whether that constitutes "waiting for the winning side" to show itself, but it's the only thing I've been able to come up with thus far.


mcentellas said...

I think the army is more opportunistic than that.

StJacques said...

Just to inform everyone ...

Morales has declared a State of Siege -- the Bolivian equivalent of martial law -- in the Department of Pando.


GS said...

The last comparable crisis in Bolivia, when Mesa was prez, many folks were also wondering what the military was going to do. The US was counseling restraint, the population was pressing for action to clear the roadblocks, Mesa (I'm assuming) did not want to end up like Goni so he was reluctant to us the Army. In the end, the Army did not get involved. There's not reason for me to think that the Army will get involved now unless Evo orders involvement and takes responsibility. I'm less inclined to agree with mcentellas on the "opportunims" bit. I just don't think they are as political as they used to be in the 1970s. The Army does not want to take sides. My two cents.

mabb said...

I agree in general! Let's remember Morales retired two generations at once. That was a move to put the army firmly behind him. Chavez did the same. However, for Morales things have not been that easy. The difference, Morales is civilian and has had a long feud with the military.

I think he doesn't have a firm grip on the military leadership and therefore doesn't trust it. Also, insitctively he must be distrustful of it.

I think, the military will act when things really get bad. One explanation might be what mcentellas is saying.