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Controlling State Power An Interview with Vice President lvaro Garca Linera

by Linda Farthing At the end of a two-hour interview I conducted with Bolivian Vice President lvaro Garca Linera in La Paz on June 20, 2009, I asked whether he had anything he had written recently that he would like to see published in English in Latin American Perspectives. He pulled out his latest book, La potencia plebeya: Accin colectiva e identidades indgenas, obreras y populares en Bolivia, produced in collaboration with Pablo Stefanoni (Buenos Aires: CLACSO-Promoteo, 2008), and pointed to the last essay, Bloque de poder y punto de bifurcacin, written just before the recall referendum that not only reaffirmed both President Evo Morales and Garca Lineras mandate but also proved to be a significant defeat for the right. LAPs translation of this essay appears in this issue. Garca Linera emerged as one of Bolivias leading intellectuals during the late 1990s after he had spent five years imprisoned for his role in the Ejrcito Guerrillero Tupac Katari (Tupac Katari Guerrilla ArmyEGTK), which rejected Che Gueveras foco theory in favor of mass insurrection. Raised in Cochabamba in a middle-class family that had been part of the rural landowning elite until the 1953 agrarian reform, he had been politicized as a young man by widespread popular resistance to the Banzer dictatorship (19711978). In the early 1980s, while studying mathematics at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City, he was active in Central America solidarity work and became intrigued by debates over the Mayas role in Guatemalan revolutionary struggles. Always a voracious reader, he began to read social science broadly, focusing on the search for a Marxist interpretation adapted to Andean reality. Back in Bolivia, he continued what had become an obsession: to challenge the lefts stilted and mechanistic class analysis and develop a theory that articulated Marxism with Bolivias emerging indigenist discourse and movement. By the end of the 1990s he was teaching sociology in La Pazs public university and was a founding member of Comuna, a radical intellectual forum. He increasingly became a public intellectual, appearing for four years as a panelist on the La Paz television program El Pentgono. Generally identified with the more indigenist rival to Evo Morales Felipe Quispe, he surprised many people when he agreed to join Evo Moraless ticket in 2005 as vice presidential candidate. With his European racial features, dressed in a suit, and projecting a cultured and sophisticated image, he has taken on a role of mollifying Bolivias upper and middle classes, terrified by an indigenousrun government. However, even while he has played the role of mediator in disputes with the right, his radical discourse has been modified by the pragmatism necessary to run a small, historically dependent country.
Linda Farthing has written extensively on Bolivia as well as other parts of Latin America.
LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 173, Vol. 37 No. 4, July 2010 30-33 DOI: 10.1177/0094582X10370174 2010 Latin American Perspectives



What follows is an excerpt from my interview that complements the themes raised in the August 2008 essay printed below. You have lived almost all your life in opposition to the existing government. How has your perspective changed in your role as vice president? Actually, the experience of being in the government has mostly reaffirmed the things that I believed and argued long before I ever imagined that I would participate directly in the state. In particular, Pierre Bourdieus concept of the states monopoly on symbolic power has had increasing resonance, helping me understand how the state functions. Robespierres writings on the transition from a monarchy to a republic has also assisted me in interpreting the process we are undergoing, as have Lenins writings from 19181919, in which he discussed the role of the bureaucracy, the lack of political cadres, and the need to activate the traces of productive self-determination in the midst of adverse circumstances. Being physically located within the state has decidedly enriched and deepened my political and intellectual perspectives. What I didnt grasp and I think other leftists dont really understand very welland have not studied very muchis the absolute importance of controlling the states economic power. Within the context of this small country, we wield considerable power to shape the economy and the economic circumstances of much of the population. Utilizing this power allows us to significantly shape the Bolivia of the future. Could you discuss the challenges of decolonizing a state after 500 years of colonial processes? What are the specific challenges that 20 years of neoliberalism have brought? We live in a deeply colonial and racist society. These historical relationships shape and define all the interactions that take place on a daily level, from the way you address people, the use of public space, even who gets precedence in public transportation. Every one of these interactions reflects a deeply stratified society. None of us has any doubt that it will take decades to get rid of these deeply etched internalized colonial relations. But within the government, although the process is slow and halting, we have begun to take some important first steps. We have put indigenous people in the government in record numbers and appointed them to positions they never held before. This is significant in this society, in which previously all that indigenous people could aspire to was being a small farmer or perhaps a petty merchant. Now an indigenous person can be anything from president to a construction worker. That is a huge change and is a first step to transforming the nature of the state and the relationships between the state and the rest of society. How do you understand the differences between a party led by social movements and a traditional leftist party? Look at Marx in the rebellion of 1848: He did not speak of a political party that was highly defined. He spoke of a party made up of workers. While Lenin wrote


about a highly centralized, disciplined party, he also emphasized the importance of expanding and consolidating worker control and communal production structures. So why do we need to have a narrowly defined political party now? Why not a more flexible and fluid body? We recognize that there are certain weaknesses in having a party whose ruling body is made up of the heads of the countrys social movements. We lack a disciplined political cadre, and this is a serious limitation for the MAS [Movimiento al Socialismo] at present. What we have is strong leadership at the top with thin threads of cadres emanating from it, but the bulk of the membership is made up of grassroots people without much political formation. We are well aware of this and are doing our best to address it. Of course, a key result of the structure of the MAS and of our political and social history has been deeply shaped by a long-standing corporativism in Bolivia. People believe that if they have worked for the party, they deserve something in returna job or access to certain privileges. Evo has said repeatedly to social-movement leaders that they should not expect anything from the government, and this often provokes disgruntlement and questioning. He insists that they need to deepen their commitment to the process of social change without seeking personal gain. This is hard for many to accept because that is not the way things have ever been done here. So of course corruption and clientelism continue, and addressing it repeatedly takes up an enormous amount of our time and energy. We have no choice but to stay on top of it all the time. How do you explain the current weaknesses of the right in Bolivia after its failure in the August 2008 recall referendum and the passage of a new constitution? One must never take a self-satisfied approach to a victory over the right. Even when the left wins, as we have, the right will always find a way to regroup, attempt to take power, and impose its agenda once again. Our real problems with the right began once we started attacking their privileges and particularly those who have massive landholdings in the eastern part of the country. By this point, the right was mostly bankrupt in terms of a viable national project and had no new ideas to offer. However, it was successful in appropriating the banner of regional autonomy, which is a long-standing and legitimate demand in Bolivias regions, and effectively rallied people around it. During this time, as the right was gaining power, we had compelling evidence that the United States was actively involved in supporting it, and this is what precipitated our asking Ambassador Goldberg to leave the country in September 2008. The right also made concerted efforts to destabilize the country and bring down our government by attempting to cut off food supplies produced by large agricultural enterprises in the east. But we quickly established relationships with small producers and provided them credit and other supports to strengthen their sector and ensure that the government could never again be subject to threats by the large producers. Then the right invested a huge effort to undermine the Constituent Assembly, using racist attacks to broaden its support. We took a rather passive role during this time, convinced that it was likely to hang itself with its own rope.


The rights first effort to reestablish itself on the national stage was the recall referendum that called for a vote of confidence in the president, vice president, and departmental prefects, held in August 2008. It lost decisivelywe increased our support from 54 percent in the 2005 national election to 67 percent, and two departmental prefects associated with the right lost their seats. Then, in September 2008, the right provoked a massacre of indigenous protesters in the northern Amazonian department of Pando, and this event combined with sporadic racist violence turned the bulk of public opinion against them. This was what I call a point of bifurcationa point where a political situation comes to a head and significantly changes the future course, much as it did in another September, that of 1986, when 15,000 miners marched on La Paz in the March for Life and were forced to turn back before they reached the city because the government deployed a huge number of the military to block their way. Both cases, one a victory for the right that marked the defeat of state capitalism by neoliberalism and the other a decisive loss, involved not the deployment of the states monopoly on coercion and violence but rather the threat of it. In 2008, we seized the opportunity of the recall referendum to retake the initiative and demonstrated clearly to the right that we were willing to take aggressive action against it. Prior to this we had acted pretty leniently, but we learned the hard way that you cannot leave your enemies only half defeated.