Interview, Part 2: Nicole Fabricant on “Mobilizing Bolivia’s Displaced”

Mobilizing Bolivia's Displaced: Indigenous Politics and the Struggle over Land, by Nicole FabricantNicole Fabricant’s book, Mobilizing Bolivia’s Displaced: Indigenous Politics and the Struggle over Land, looks at how landless peasants politicized indigeneity to shape grassroots land politics, reform the state, and secure human and cultural rights for Native peoples. In this second of two interviews (read the first part of the interview here), Fabricant discusses the ways in which indigeneity has been mobilized as well as some of the causes of the widespread disillusionment with the nation’s first Indigenous president, Evo Morales.

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The election of Evo Morales was seen as a watershed moment for Indigenous peoples but many Bolivians have become disillusioned and withdrawn their support over the course of his presidency. Could you talk briefly about the significance of Morales’s election and some of the reasons he’s less popular now?

Morales’s inauguration in January of 2006 was perhaps the single most important moment for Indigenous peoples and many others in Bolivia who had been disillusioned by the neoliberal state. Morales’s election comes in the wake of a series of resource wars. The Water Wars in Cochabamba centered on reclaiming the city’s public water supply from Aguas del Tunari, a transnational corporation which was a joint effort between Bechtel and Suez Lyonaise. Initial discussions regarding participatory democracy, the building of a constitutional assembly to reshape laws, emerged out of some of this very successful organizing. After months of mobilizing across distinct sectors and seizing the central plaza in protest, residents of Cochabamba successfully reclaimed their water supply from this transnational corporation.

The Gas Wars, years later in the city of El Alto, centered on reclaiming gas as national sovereignty. People took to the streets to protest a proposed plan to privatize gas and build a pipeline through Chile (and eventually winding up in the U.S.). The Gas Wars were a critical moment for rethinking the structure of the state and rewriting the laws of resource redistribution. Morales emerged out of these new kinds of resource-based movements and he, in many ways, rode the wave of the protests saying he would both decolonize Bolivia and undo the legacy of neoliberal reforms.

Initially, grassroots movements identified with Morales (he came out of the coca-grower unions) and many activists often described him as “one of us.” In 2006, organizers spoke about how movements had finally arrived at and seized the seat of power. I remember distinctly when he nationalized gas in 2006, MST (Movimiento Sin Tierra, the landless peasant movement) representatives brought the newspaper clippings into the NGO offices and argued that, “we are finally seeing an end to an era of neoliberal reforms.”

Anti-Evo Morales T-shirt worn by a Camba attending a cabildo
Anti-Evo Morales T-shirt worn by a Camba attending a cabildo. Photograph by Nicole Fabricant.

Activists had become disillusioned with Morales in early 2007 as they began to see the disjunction between discourses of “radicalism and transformation” and structural change. Morales made many promises in 2006 that he failed to keep, one of which included a radical restructuring of unequal landholding patterns in the lowlands and new forms of support to small-scale farmers. Agrarian class relations in Bolivia remain relatively unchanged. More recent attempts in 2008 and 2009 to make compromises with right wing elites have created even more suspicions among movement activists. Some described Morales as a “traitor” making secret pacts with some of the big latifundistas. Further, the Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS) case—whereby Morales signed a deal with Brazil’s national development bank to help cover the costs associated with a massive road project, which would run through Indigenous lands and territories in the Isiboro-Secure Territory and National Park—led to much lowland Indigenous resistance against Morales.

As a follow-up to the previous question, how does the group you focus on in the book, the Movimiento Sin Tierra (MST), play into all of this?

The MST in Bolivia supported Morales in 2006 and 2007. In the book, I talk about the ways in which MST assisted specifically in rewriting the agrarian reform law. However, more recently, they have been critical of Morales. Morales even convinced movement members to stop occupying lands in the Eastern region. Occupations have been the backbone of the movement as they used these land seizures as a way of politicizing and bringing governmental attention to landed inequality. Any land that does not serve a social or economic function is considered illegal and should be reclaimed by the government and redistributed to campesinos.

The act of occupying lands forced the government to investigate whether or not the land was being cultivated and usually the land was redistributed to the MST. Without these kinds of occupations, there has been a kind of “demobilization” or “depoliticization” that my colleagues Honor Brabazon and Jeff Webber talk about in a recent paper they wrote on the MST entitled Evo Morales and the MST in Bolivia: “Continuities and Discontinuities in Agrarian Reform,” which is currently under review with the Journal of Agrarian Change. They attribute some of this depoliticization to Morales. However, some of my friends in Bolivia described MST as moving through moments of cohesion and articulation and moments of disarticulation. One activist described it as follows: “When there is a clear enemy, the movement is quite unified. In moments when it is hard to identify the enemy, there are a lot of in-fights.”

How has indigeneity been mobilized by MST activists on the one hand and by Evo Morales on the other?

In the book, I talk about the pre-Columbian agrarian communities like the ayllu—a traditional form of community in the Andes based upon self-sufficiency, communally-held territory and reciprocal forms of labor—that get mobilized and used to rebuild social relations, production, and democratic structures. I see these as imagined alternative lifeways which become sediments of history. In the introduction, I borrow from anthropologist Joanne Rappaport who describes in her book, Cumbe Reborn: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes (1994) ancient Colombian narratives as “palimpsests, whose multiple presents overlay the pasts they seek to represent, pasts conveyed through careful selection of words and images.”

Indigeneity has become a powerful political force in contemporary Bolivia, a vehicle through which to understand historic forms of inequality, the continuities between colonial past and present, and the ways indigenous peoples respatialize agrarian communities post shocks of neoliberal reforms. Further, I trace cultural forms as they travel on marches and on demonstrations, from the grassroots to regional, national, and international spaces of organizing. I also look at the complicated and murky terrain of political uses of indigeneity and point to the many actors who have claimed authenticity, legitimacy through the use and costuming of all things Indigenous.

Evo Morales came out of the coca-grower movement in the Chapare of Bolivia. The coca-grower movements represented a mixed politics, a hybrid of classic sindicato or trade union forms with Indigenous-based discourses and strategies. The Cocaleros also used the idea of indigeneity as a political tool to stand against US policies that enforced zero coca policies through militarization. Coca farmers politicized discourses centering on Indians as original peoples who historically produced and consumed coca, in order to hold onto their lands and other critical resources, as well as their rights to cultivate this native crop.

Tupac Katari poster hangs behind President Morales as he presides over final passage of the new constitution. Photograph by Eulogio Cortés.
Tupac Katari poster hangs behind President Morales as he presides over final passage of the new constitution. Photograph by Eulogio Cortés.

It is no coincidence, then, that many of these practices of performing indigeneity would scale up to the level of the state with Morales’s election. He performed Andean rituals at the famous site of Puerta del Sol in Tiwanaku as he was inaugurated and recited the final words of Tupac Katari in the place where that martyr suffered his brutal death at the hands of the Spanish as he strove to initiate his agrarian revolution. Morales has used Andean Indigenous culture in order to justify state-based transformations. With every new law passed, he also performed some Andean ritual or tradition. However, in the book, I argue that these performances can often become cliché, used over and over by Morales, and when detached from any real structural reform, they also lose their historic significance and meaning.

MST has similarly performed indigeneity (as justification for claims to land) to mobilize displaced peasants, to rethink agrarian settlements and democratic structures. I believe that there is a fundamental difference, however, between localized projects with clear agendas and state cooptation of such practices and performances, particularly when indigeneity become free-floating signifier and detached its from territorial and historic context.

Nicole Fabricant is assistant professor of anthropology at Towson University. Her book, Mobilizing Bolivia’s Displaced: Indigenous Politics and the Struggle Over Land is now available from the University of North Carolina Press.