The American media’s scandalously ignorant and mean-spirited coverage of Latin America’s efforts at social reform are part of a longstanding tradition of arrogant manipulation of all sorts of news about latin societies.
If one reads the mainstream U.S. press to understand recent events in Bolivia, the following composite story emerges: Bolivia is a deeply divided and fractured country of profound cleavages, bitter fragmentation, and civil conflict. Most of this can be attributed to the country’s new president, Evo Morales, elected in late 2005. A member of the Aymara ethnic group and Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales is trying to give Indians a bigger role in government and a greater share of the economic pie. This has exacerbated tensions between Indians and the light-skinned descendants of the Spanish elite and inflamed regional tensions between the free-market-oriented east and the socialist tendencies of western Bolivia. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is Morales’s major ally, financial backer, andmentor. As Venezuelan cash pours into Bolivia, Morales hands out much of it himself. Eschewing business attire for jeans and the colorfully woven ponchos of his Aymara tribe, he flies to remote outposts—sometimes on a Venezuelan helicopter—to satisfy requests. Morales’s club-wielding supporters, many of whom are from El Alto, an indigenous shantytown on the rim of the city of La Paz, have often clashed with the celebrating autonomy backers of the light-skinned east. With the help of Chávez, Morales has created an armed indigenous militia that resembles Chávez’s Bolivarian circles. Even though Morales was democratically elected, he has weakened . . . democracy, and hisconfrontational approach threatens social and political stability.
I based this composite on a close reading of 47 articles dealing with Bolivia published between January 2007 and January 2008, by the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Washington Times (italicized words and phrases above, and quotes below, draw on 19 of these articles).1 It reflects recurring distortions in mainstream journalistic writing on Bolivia. There are a few outright falsehoods, like the “indigenous militias,” but beyond inaccuracies, U.S. reporting on Bolivia is misrepresented by the language and narrative form, shaped more by external perceptions and strategies than by Bolivian reality. Two trends exemplify a deeper bias against, and misunderstanding of, democratic sociopolitical change in Bolivia: (1) the personalization of Morales as representative of Bolivian social change and (2) the misrepresentation of the draft constitution and the autonomy statutes of the opposition elite.
Though sometimes lighthearted, reports often suggest that within and beyond Morales and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), lie dangerous collectivist projects. As a “populist,” wannabe “strongman,” or “militant socialist,” Morales is said to earn popularity by playing on “grievances of the poor,” though his policies are dismissed as ultimately destined to fail. These policies are mere “copycat” ideas that follow the “playbook of his great friend” Chávez. Yet while ascribing most of Morales’s ideas to Chávez, reporters are as apt to radically shift their characterization of Morales from Chávez puppet to premodern, nonwestern, and “ethnic,” often merging these assessments in the same article.
When portrayed as an ethnic, Morales is said to primarily favor “his” indigenous supporters. The suggestion is that leaders who have an ethnic identity (other than Euro-American, of course) must necessarily represent only their “fellow indigenous people.” This dovetails with typical U.S. imaginaries about tribal, ethnic, or sectarian politics—whether of Bolivian Aymaras, Iraqi Sunnis, or Kenyan Kikuyus—as predetermined by group politics. There is no attempt to delve into the complexity of indigenous proposals or their sociological form, which are heterogeneous within and between indigenous peoples in Bolivia. Nor does anyone try to untangle distinctions of class, race, ethnicity, language, and region. Reporters thus contribute, willfully or not, to the Bolivian right’s tactic of fomenting precisely this logic of ethno-territorial polarization, which effectively undermines the MAS agenda.
At an extreme is the antiquated portrayal by The Washington Post’s Peter Goodman, who wrote a dismissive critique of “populism” in the paper’s business section that characterized Morales as a “tribesman” and the Aymara as his “tribe.” More common, yet equally misleading, are phrasings like that of The New York Times’ Simon Romero, who writes of Morales as a “member of the Aymara ethnic group” and, in the same sentence, implies that the Aymara are his main “supporters.” The word tribe has no utility for describing any collectivity in Bolivia, and one cannot hold “membership” in whatever one takes to be “Aymara.” Moreover, terms like ethnic group and tribe assume “ethnics” naturally operate as organic groups. This assumption is of little use for understanding indigenous peoples or politics in Bolivia (or ethno-cultural difference anywhere). Beyond analytical inaccuracy, terms like tribe and ethnic evoke other distorted imaginaries. For U.S. readers, these associations mark ethnics as anti-modern at best or inclined toward savage, primordial violence at worst.
Furthermore, reporters characterize Morales’s election as the flashpoint for recent conflicts rather than as the latest episode in many decades, if not centuries, of movement struggle. For instance, The Miami Herald reported that problems derive from the “draft constitution that Mr. Morales has been seeking since the day he was elected.” In this way, Morales and his personal characteristics become the problem. Poverty and inequality, to be sure, are frequently mentioned. Yet Morales is portrayed as pursuing radical, strife-producing, and mistaken policies, doing so in the name of his individual thirst for power. The MAS platform is wrongly attributed to Morales, who alone was pursuing a “grand plan to shape Bolivia into his own vision of a socialist state.” Reporters thus implicitly portray Morales as a radical aberration, merely an Indian parrot of Chávez, rather than the historical expression of deep-rooted social phenomena. This ignores the fact that the demands for a constitutional assembly, gas nationalization, and land reform have all emerged out of multiple social movement struggles, not from Morales’s individual preferences. Save the single exception of The Washington Post’s Dan Keane, who modestly recognized that land reform and the constitution predated Morales’s rise to power, most reporters fail to capture any historical depth or political complexity.
The second area of bias and distortion revolves around the MAS-supported constitution and the so-called autonomy statutes drafted by self-selected leaders of Santa Cruz, the urban center of right-wing opposition to the MAS. The substance, legality, and legitimacy of these two documents are all distorted. As most reporters are quick to write, the MAS constitution, approved by a majority of the constitutional assembly in December, faces problems of legality and legitimacy. With supporting votes of 165 out of 255, it was barely five votes short of the needed two-thirds majority. To become legal, it will be put to a referendum. Beyond voting technicalities, the new constitution’s legitimacy is also questioned because of the context of violence in which it was approved. Yet this violence was provoked by the right precisely for this purpose, though most news sources report that the government caused the violence simply by carrying out the (quite legal) process of creating the constitutional assembly itself. However one seeks to defend or decry it, the draft constitution was voted on by assembly members elected in national elections. They were not MAS appointees.
On the other hand, the “autonomy statutes” put forth by the Santa Cruz elite and their supporters in three other provinces may possess a certain, very circumscribed legitimacy among the elite-controlled media and sectors of the urban middle and upper classes. Yet they possess absolutely no legality, however construed. They were written by unelected figures (directly and indirectly funded by European and U.S. aid, with portions of the final document taken directly from Catalonia’s statute) and put up for approval by a “pre-autonomous assembly” handpicked by the department governor and the unelected business chamber known as the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee. There is thus no basis for suggesting that the draft constitution and the autonomy statutes have any legal equivalence.
Nonetheless, reporters invariably exaggerated questions about the legitimacy of the MAS constitution while ignoring the illegality of the autonomy statutes. The Miami Herald reported that Morales “created the 255 member [constitutional] assembly.” The New York Times paternalistically chided Morales for hurrying to approve the constitution in a “rump assembly” (an oft-repeated phrase, though the elite’s own fictive “assembly” goes unquestioned). In contrast to the constitution, the Times does not describe how the autonomy statutes were created, only noting that the departments “approved” them. The Times also refers to the Santa Cruz assembly as if it were an elected legislative body passing its own resolution to give the department a “bigger share of tax and petroleum revenues.” Not only can a department—even were its assembly duly elected—not vote to grant itself a bigger share of national revenues, but this particular “pre-autonomous assembly” was handpicked. A farcical stage play that would be called an attempted coup or de facto putsch elsewhere is here granted credence by the Times and other papers.
The issue of gas revenues and land reform are also misrepresented. Oft-repeated is the phrase that land reform will “dismantle large landholdings.” In fact, the draft constitution guarantees the right to private property. The MAS land reform deepens an existing law and will only expropriate lands that are unproductive, of fraudulent origins, or not being used for a social function. There is an ongoing dispute about how much land one person can own. Whether one person can own up to 12,350 or 24,700 acres—both still quite large—was the only sticking point in the draft constitution, and will be put to a referendum. These positions derive from long-standing debates in the country, and did not appear with Morales. No reporters catch these nuances.
Nor have reporters researched the existing pattern of gas revenue distribution. Currently, royalties are highly skewed toward producing departments (like Santa Cruz and Tarija). As scholars of natural-resource booms note—and even the World Bank has acknowledged—this exacerbates regional inequalities and pours monies into departmental treasuries with little capacity to effectively spend or invest these revenues.2 Yet reporters invariably represent the MAS constitution as seeking to unjustly or unfairly take revenues and rights away from the gas-producing regions and the autonomy statutes are portrayed as a legitimate attempt by beleaguered producing departments to gain a “greater share” of gas revenues. In fact, the autonomy statutes seek a radical federalism to consolidate unequal distribution of gas wealth and strip virtually all power from the central government through draconian, near-sovereign control over security forces, schools, land, natural resources, and even in-country migration.
Overall, reporting on Bolivia speaks to the imaginary of most U.S. readers who look with paternal sympathy toward a suffering, yet ever incapable of self-governing, “third world.” The limited humanizing of Morales as a noble savage does not valorize the broad-based social and democratic project of Bolivian social movements. The result is complicity with Bolivia’s opposition minority, which has turned to violent street tactics and racist language to foment territorial polarization in Bolivia. The press thereby fails to accurately capture the dimensions of existing socio-political conflict and portrays social movement proposals as dangerous, thus working against any kind of solidarity, however modest, with Bolivians who pursue progressive change.
1. The Associated Press: Harold Olmos, “Troops, Residents Fight for Control of Bolivia’s Busiest Airport,” October 19, 2007; Frank Bajak, “AP Interview: Bolivian President Says Rich Nations Must Pay for Damage to Third World,” November 3, 2007; Carlos Valdez, “Tensions Rise in Bolivia With Dueling Rallies,” December 16, 2007. Los Angeles Times: Patrick McDonnell, “Che’s Legacy Looms Larger Than Ever,” October 8, 2007; Patrick McDonnell, “Dueling Rallies Spotlight Deep Split in Bolivia,” December 16, 2007; Patrick McDonnell, “The Bolivia of Morales Is a ‘Land Divided,’ ” December 28, 2007; Oscar Ordoñez and Patrick McDonnell, “Capital War Is Bolivia’s Latest Battle,” August 5, 2007. The Miami Herald: “Editorial: Morales, Opponents Head for a Showdown,” December 14, 2007; Tyler Bridges, “In Bolivia, Controversy Rages Over Capital Site,” September 10, 2007; Tyler Bridges, “Interview: Morales: ‘Job Is to Take Care of the Poor,” February 19, 2007; Tyler Bridges, “Morales Still Popular in a Divided Bolivia,” January 23, 2007. The New York Times: Simon Romero, “Bolivia’s Leader Says State’s Disputes Can Be Resolved.” December 20, 2007; Simon Romero, “Bolivians Now Hear Ominous Tones in Call to Arms,” December 15, 2007; Simon Romero, “Bolivia Leader Is Mobilizing Armed Forces,” December 10, 2007; Editorial, “Authoritarians in the Andes,” December 8, 2007. The Washington Post: Editorial, “Crackup in Bolivia? Evo Morales’ Attempt to Push Through a Constitutional Rewrite Threatens to Split the Country,” December 14, 2007; Peter Goodman, “Populism for a Price,” August 3, 2007; Dan Keane, “Civil War Talk Stokes Bolivian Fears,” September 30, 2007; The Washington Times: Martin Arostegui, “Rivalries Split Indian Coalition; Some Join Anti-Morales Strike,” August 30, 2007.
2. World Bank, Hacia un nuevo contrato social: opciones para la asamblea constituyente, 2007, electronic document,http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTBOLIVIAINSPANISH/Resources/CSA_esp…. “There are justifiable reasons to believe that a large part of [gas] rents (around 90% based on international experience) should ‘belong’ to the central government instead of the prefectures. The first reason is equality” (p. 54).
Bret Gustafson teaches anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of New Languages of the State: Indigenous Resurgence and the Politics of Knowledge in Bolivia (Duke University Press, forthcoming). Research assistance: Doc Billingsley.