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From the grassroots to the presidential palace: Evo Morales and the coca growers’ union in Bolivia

Grisaffi, T. (2017) From the grassroots to the presidential palace: Evo Morales and the coca growers’ union in Bolivia. In: Lazar, S. (ed.) Where Are the Unions? Workers and Social Movements in Latin America, the Middle East and Europe. Zed Books, London, pp. 44-63. ISBN 9781783609895

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Evo Morales and the Movimiento Al Socialimso (MAS) party captured the Bolivian presidency with a majority of the popular vote in 2005, and repeated that feat in 2009 and 2014. Morales and the MAS are part of a broader process that swept Latin America in the 2000s, often referred to as the ‘pink tide’, when a wave of leftist leaders, parties, and movements came to power in various Latin American countries. What is unique about the Bolivian case however is that the movements that put Morales in power have commonly been labelled ‘Indigenous,’ a depiction that Morales has encouraged. For example every year he returns to Tiwanaku (the ruins of an ancient Aymara temple located outside the capital city La Paz) where, dressed as an Inca priest he participates in indigenous rituals. In his public declarations Morales has decried the persistence of colonialism and pledged his commitment to protect and lead the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Morales’s rhetoric has sparked the imagination of journalists who have invoked the polarization of Bolivian society, provoking headlines such as ‘Columbus toppled as indigenous people rise up after five centuries’ (Carroll and Almudevar, 2007) and ‘Bolivian Indians hail the swearing in of one of their own as President’ (Forero, 2006). The growing movement for indigenous rights in Bolivia (but also across the continent), has prompted a scholarly boom as academics focused on the timing, location and strategies of indigenous mobilization (Lucero, 2008). However, the embrace of an indigenous heritage is a relatively recent phenomenon for Bolivia’s social movements. Many people previously identified as peasants or workers and mobilized along class based lines. Evo Morales embodies this process, transforming from a left-wing leader of the coca growers’ union to a national indigenous leader. The objective of this chapter is to highlight the role played by the unions in Bolivia’s historic ‘turn to the Left’. In what follows I explain how the MAS developed from its roots in an agricultural union of coca producers (hereafter the coca union) that was criminalized under US drug war policies in the 1990s, to the contemporary moment, when it is responsible for building a government and running a country. The story of the coca union alerts us to the reconstitution of union power away from the traditional heartlands of the left in the mines and factories, towards new spaces, and invoking new strategies – including placing an emphasis on ethnic identity as a way to expand its struggles and to encompass broader social sectors. The case of the coca union also allows us to examine the contradictions and conflicts that emerge when a union transforms into a governing party - in particular the challenge of working within the pre-existing political system while trying to retain a radical identity.

Item Type:Book or Report Section
Divisions:Science > School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science > Department of Geography and Environmental Science
ID Code:80172
Publisher:Zed Books

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