After the Gasolinazo
On the usually sleepy day after Christmas, on December 26, 2010, Bolivia was awakened with a jolt: the Bolivian government had just decreed a huge increase in the price of combustible fuels. The country exploded in a series of popular protests. A week later, the government revoked the measure. Nevertheless, the price of food and transportation continue to spiral upwards. Social discontent grew; three months later, workers carried out a general strike to demand higher salaries. For the first time in five years, the government faced repudiation by the social sectors loyal to Evo Morales’ party, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS).
The gasolinazo—as the nation dubbed the aborted 73 percent gasoline hike and subsequent mass protests—dramatically altered Bolivia’s political landscape, with widespread implications for the government agenda. The official party still maintained its resources of power—indeed, the president’s second term had begun with a positive outlook for the fulfillment of its political project. Evo Morales was reelected in December 2009 with 64 percent of the votes, while MAS captured a congressional majority. The party also obtained favorable results in departmental (state) and municipal elections in April 2010, winning six out of nine governors’ seats and more than three-fourths of the municipal governments. The undeniable supremacy of the MAS meant that its discursive hegemony permeated diverse spheres of the nation’s political process.
The gasolinazo didn’t change the array of forces in the political arena, but it did negatively affect the strength of the government and the image of the president. It weakened the government’s ability to mobilize politically by fraying the link between MAS and the social movements that constitute MAS’ electoral and political mobilization base. It also decreased the popularity of Evo Morales, whose leadership and reelection are crucial to the ruling party strategy for the 2014 presidential race and to guaranteeing the continuity of MAS.
The MAS party and Bolivia’s social movements are linked in an unstable and fluctuating coalition. The cohesion and breadth of this coalition depend on the dominant issues in the political realm and on the success of the government agenda. With high profile issues, including the nationalization of natural resources, approval of a new constitution and the reelection of Evo Morales, the usual coalition counts on a variety of social organizations—peasants, women’s groups, indigenous organizations, urban settlers, miners, neighborhood boards and retired citizens groups, among others—that respond in a body to the leadership of the government party. Once these are generally satisfied, other types of demands emerge, typically, interest groups or corporatist interests that distance themselves from the coalition and therefore do not act in a united fashion. The gasolinazo was precisely the event that provoked the predominance of corporatist interests among the workers’ unions. Several social movements firmly rejected the price hike measure which they considered anti-popular and neoliberal, thus weakening the pro-government coalition and isolating peasant organizations closest to MAS.
Protests swept the very cities in which the MAS had garnered the majority of the vote the year before. Harsh and unprecedented diatribes against Evo Morales accused him of being a traitor and submitting to neoliberalism. Several polls taken after the gasolinazo showed that Evo Morales’ popularity had dropped to the lowest point in his sixty months of government—with a 56 percent rejection rate on the national level, compared to an approval rate of 70 percent the year before.
Moreover, the political forces leading the protests were quite different from the traditional opposition from the right. One example of this new opposition is the left-leaning Movement Without Fear (Movimiento Sin Miedo—MSM) that holds the mayoralty in La Paz, the seat of the government, and could challenge the MAS in 2014.
The gasolinazo had a twofold political effect: public support for the party government declined and the leadership of Evo Morales was put into question. General rejection of the government’s decision revealed the weakness of the hegemonic capacity of the MAS. The party had managed to dominate the political arena in the last few years through its emphasis on nationalism and the rights and identities of indigenous peoples—discursive linchpins that characterized “the process of change” spearheaded by the MAS and that defined the programatic orientation of the new political constitution.
The return of the state as a protagonist in Bolivia’s economy—particularly in the nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry—modified the relationship between the state and multinational companies. Demands for stability and economic growth were met through state control of natural resources and the production chain for hydrocarbons. Thus, the gasolinazo was seen as a negation of the nationalization; this shift in economic policy has weakened MAS discourse because its nationalist and state-centric stance lost credibility. Criticism and questioning has emerged from those on the left—both from political parties and union movements. The indigenist axis remains firmly in place, however, because the MAS has no discursive rivals in this area, even though indigenous peoples are questioning the state-promoted industrialization program, noting the internal contradictions of this development model.
After the gasolinazo, the MAS faces a double challenge. It needs to both reshape the alliance of the government and the social movements and to recover the president’s popularity. Successfully addressing the first challenge will depend on the government’s adoption of economic measures that will restore the confidence of wage workers and social movements that criticize the neoliberal stance.
With regards to the second challenge, the government has also adopted a new strategy by counting on the coalescing force of nationalism and focusing on the issue of Bolivia’s access to the sea. In March, speaking on the “Day of the Sea,” which commemorates Bolivia’s defeat by Chile in the 19th-century War of the Pacific, Evo Morales said his country will take Chile to international courts to try to regain access to the Pacific Ocean, which it lost in that war 132 years ago. He noted that Chile had failed to respond to a deadline he had set for progress in negotiations. Bolivia’s loss of the sea was an “open wound” that must be healed, he said. He also said that Bolivia would continue dialogue with Chile while seeking a legal solution to its landlocked status.
This invocation of traditional nationalism seeks to restore the popularity of Evo Morales, even though the course of this initiative is highly uncertain because his popularity also largely depends on how the government performs on the economy. Uncertainty returns to Bolivian politics after five years of government under MAS, which had led the transition to a new state model; the state still confronts the historic legacies of inequality and poverty that have characterized the Bolivian society despite the undeniable advances in the strengthening of democracy and citizenship. The gasolinazo was a watershed that reminded Bolivian citizens of that reality.
Fernando Mayorga, a sociologist who holds a doctorate in political science, is a professor and director of CESU at the Universidad Mayor de San Simón in Cochabamba.
Fernando Mayorga, un sociólogo que tiene un doctorado en ciencias políticas, es profesor y director del CESU de la Universidad Mayor de San Simón en Cochabamba.