NGOs in Bolivia: Is Evo Morales cracking down on dissent?

Alvaro Garcia Linera

Recent statements by Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera regarding non-government organisations (NGOs) in Bolivia have triggered a heated debate on the left.

On August 11, Garcia Linera accused NGOs of acting like political parties seeking to interfere in Bolivia’s domestic affairs. While respecting their right to criticise government policies, Garcia Linera said foreign-funded NGOs need to understand their place within Bolivian society.

The former guerilla and left-wing academic said: “Does this group of comrades have the right to form an NGO and produce and publish what they want? Of course they have the right, but foreign NGOs do not have the right to come to Bolivia and say they support Bolivia’s development while they do politics and defend the interests of transnationals.”

He highlighted the fact that foreign companies and governments were the biggest backers of NGOs.

“What do we say to them?” he asked. “Finance in your own country, there is no need for you to come and interfere in our country. Our relationship with foreign governments and companies is very clear: service in function of our policy and usefulness in function of a sovereign state; but not for the purposes of covert political action …”

Garcia Linera said foreign governments were using NGOs to push policies that sought to stunt Bolivia’s development under the guise of protecting the environment. The vice-president singled out four NGOS that have been among the loudest critics of his government’s environmental policies.

In response, more than 200 academics from across the world signed an open letter expressing concern for what they viewed as “threats, which if they became a reality, would imply a grave blow in terms of restricting civil rights, among them, freedom of expression and association”. They said Garcia Linera's real issue with the four NGOs was their criticisms of his government’s shortcomings.

Others have defended the NGOs for their role in promoting environmental struggles. In an article on Alainet.org, Carmelo Ruiz said Garcia Linera’s comments come while falling commodity prices worsen the contradictions of the Bolivian government’s “progressive extractivist model”.

For Ruiz, the government of President Evo Morales – Boliva's first president from the indigenous majority who was first elected in 2005 pledging to reverse poverty, underdevelopment and indigenous oppression - is threatened by a rise in social and environmental protests.

Faced with this dilemma, Ruiz said critical voices were saying “protest and repression is inevitable in extractivism” (a reliance on extracting raw materials). But government spokespeople preferred to blame discontent on “imperialist manipulations”.

Along with many others, Ruiz portrayed Garcia Linera’s comments as relatively new. But his criticisms of NGOs predate recent conflicts with some indigenous and environmental groups – and even his 2005 election to office.

Garcia Linera criticised the role of NGOs in his 2005 book Sociology of Social Movements in Bolivia, a book many of his current critics still hold up as the most authoritative study of its kind.

In a chapter focusing on the highlands indigenous group CONAMAQ, Garcia Linera said NGO financing led it to adopt certain “bureaucratic-administrative characteristics”.

He said it partly explained CONAMAQ’s propensity to act more like a lobby group than a social movement, seeking to “negotiate and reach formal agreements with government institutions”.

The book noted how in some communities, NGOs had artificially propped up “ayllus” (a traditional form of indigenous community organisation that makes up CONAMAQ’s base) to compete for local influence against more radical peasant unions.

Criticism of NGO’s role in co-opting and dividing social movements also appears in 2006's We Are No Ones Toys, which Garcia Linera co-authored. Notably, in a chapter on the conflict between indigenous groups and coca-growers in the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS).

In 2011, conflict between these sectors over a proposed highway through the TIPNIS blew up into an international controversy.

Several references are made to the large influence of NGOs over indigenous communities. Local coca grower Feliciano Mamani makes many of the same criticisms of the role of NGOs in TIPNIS that Garcia Linera went on to make in his 2012 book Geopolitics of the Amazon.

Mamani said: “NGOs and other interests that come for our natural resources, control indigenous people through money … where ever there are natural resources there are hundreds of NGOs confusing indigenous peoples and making false declarations …”

Since coming into office, Garcia Linera’s criticisms of the relationship between NGOs and social movements has not changed. His public critique of NGOs, however, has broadened.

Garcia Linera has said NGOs had a huge influence over government ministries before Morales' election. “When we came into government in 2006,” the vice-president said, “we found an executive carved up and handed over to embassies and [NGOs] …

“We could not do anything without authorisation either from the embassies … or certain NGOs.”

This was largely due to the fact that international loans and aid made up about half the state budget for public investment.

The Morales government quickly asserted control over state institutions by nationalising natural resources. Increased revenue from resource extraction put the government in the position to set its own policies, free of dependency or interference by foreign governments or NGOs.

Unsurprisingly, NGO hostility towards the Bolivian government has paralleled its loss of influence over state policies.

This is crucial context for Garcia Linera's comments.

But framing the debate as either a simple case of a government using the rhetoric of national sovereignty to crackdown on opponents or viewing all government critics as stooges for imperialism will only lead to a dialogue of the deaf.

It should not be too hard to defend free speech while respecting Bolivia’s sovereignty. The left should always opposed attempts by governments to crackdown on free speech.

But this is separate to the issue of allowing foreign governments and corporations to do as they please on Bolivian soil.

It is one thing to shut down an NGO or jail opponents for what they say. Garcia Linera says his government has no plans to close down any NGO.

But it is quite another to deny the right of a sovereign government to control the flow of funds from hostile governments into its territory.

Or is the left now to argue, in the name of “free speech”, that foreign governments and corporations should be able to fund whoever they want in Bolivia?

The debate sparked by Garcia Linera's comments raise a range of issues that need to be seriously discussed.

These includes the role of NGOs in the global South, how gaining control over extractive industries has helped loosen foreign control over Bolivia's state and natural resuorces, what alternative sources of funding might exist, and what it would actually takes for Bolivia to overcome “extractivism”.

[Federico Fuentes edits the Bolivia Rising blog and is co-author, with Roger Burbach and Michael Fox, of Latin America's Turbulent Transitions (2013).]

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