The Alliance Between the People and the Armed Forces in Evo Morales’ Social Transformation Project (ARI)

The Alliance Between the People and the Armed Forces in Evo Morales’ Social Transformation Project (ARI)

Theme: Surprisingly, Evo Morales has made the armed forces a major priority. This has sparked widespread interest in the Bolivian government’s proposed defence reform and any possible contradictions within it.

Summary: With the alliance announced by Evo Morales between the armed forces and the people, the President hopes to implement an ambitious reform aimed at making the Defence Department more democratic. The pillars of the reform are the institutionalisation of relations between civilians and military personnel and the new missions assigned to the armed forces. The idea of bringing defence into the realm of public policy is incompatible with Morales’ parallel intention of directly involving the armed forces in his government’s political projects. The risk of politicisation of the armed forces, and the autonomy which they might attain in certain specific affairs, would be a step back in respect of the challenges facing Bolivia in this regard.


The Central Role of the Armed forces in the MAS Government’s Project
In the context of the ‘democratic revolution’ which Evo Morales plans to implement, he has announced that the armed forces must be present and directly involved, since he considers that they have a key role to play. The new government has commenced an ambitious reform programme in security and defence. The aim is to manage defence as another public policy, whose main features include the principle of civilian supremacy. However, President Morales’s plan to directly involve the armed forces in political projects implemented by his party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), threatens to –at the very least– neutralise any efforts in that direction.

The previously scant references by MAS to security and defence and, indeed, the tough criticism levelled at the armed forces in the past, as oppressors, made it difficult to imagine that, having been elected, Morales would make them a central focus of his political discourse. A few days after his inauguration, the President asserted that: “Having reflected deeply in my capacity as Captain General of the Armed Forces, I have understood that it is important to boost, to strengthen our armed forces.” Furthermore, he said it was indispensable to forge a solid link between them and the people, as graphically expressed on the national holiday to pay homage to the flag. The celebrations included an unprecedented procession in which various representatives of indigenous peoples and the armed forces marched together to symbolise the newfound union.

This relationship would fall within the framework of a policy to make the defence sector more democratic. For the government, this democratisation means regulating civilian-military relations and changing some of the missions which the armed forces have been undertaking in recent years. The government’s main proposals have not yet been approved and implemented. Most are pending discussion by the Constituent Assembly set up in August 2006. Nevertheless, the initial measures, decisions and messages generally reveal the overall direction of the planned changes.

Possible Contradictions and Limitations of the MAS Project: Civilian-Military Relations and the Newly Assigned Missions

The watchword of the MAS government’s project is institutionalisation. The institutional weakness in the management of defence has prevented there being a public defence policy. Among the main solutions proposed are the institutionalisation of civilian-military relations, as the only possible method for achieving civilian supremacy and, thereby, democratising the sector. For this complex task, the government has centred its reform on three pivotal aspects: creating a legal framework establishing the regulations to govern defence and civilian-military relations, devising a modernisation plan, and making a significant increase in the budget to finance the reform. Implementation of this complex transformation project will last until 2016.

As for the legal framework, Bolivia has major deficiencies. The government project involves upgrading the national defence strategy to enact it into a law, regulating the action of the Defence Ministry, undertaking reforms of the Armed Forces Organisation Law and introducing a new regulation for personnel administration, promotion and benefits. The modernisation plan includes measures such as strengthening institutional leadership, updating and developing a joint doctrine, restructuring the control and command of the armed forces, rolling out interoperational capacities, creating a strategic intelligence community, establishing logistics and communications systems, modernising and integrating education, innovating and developing technology and creating a reserves system. Similarly, the ‘Equal Opportunities’ programme aims to provide access to officer rank to the traditionally marginalised indigenous community. In 2006, the Defence and Native Indigenous Affairs Ministries started offering scholarships to indigenous people to enable them to enter into military academies and to give them the opportunity to become officers.

The third linchpin of the reform is the budget increase for financing these programmes. The sources of income will be the resources generated by the armed forces themselves, transfers from the National Treasury (Tesoro General de la Nación), the Budget and 2% of the income from the Direct Tax on Hydrocarbons. However, all of these elements do not necessarily guarantee the desired institutionalisation, especially if the kind of informal relationship between civilians and the military that currently prevails is not replaced. Since the democratic transition in Bolivia, privileges and allowances have been widely used to secure the subordination of the armed forces to the civil power. Based on the informal terms of the civilian-military agreement, it is clear that the ultimate aim of these clientelistic policies is that those involved respect each other’s distinct spheres of power. The agreed military autonomy has been expressed through the civil power’s tolerance of the administration of justice and the design of budgets and expenditure. Furthermore, promotions and appointments have been a traditional method of cooptation within the politicisation of the military. In return, the civil power has secured –in addition to military loyalty– vital support in tackling social mobilisation and drug trafficking, problems which, since the nineties, have been a persistent and permanent threat to political stability. The result is that the main mission of the armed forces has been homeland security.

The ending of this clientelistic relationship is a hugely complex change which transcends the sphere of civilian-military relations and reaches the very structure of the State and the political culture of both the government and the governed. Such a monumental change cannot be expected to be completed in the short or even medium terms. However, as well as requiring time, the question is whether the current government is implementing the right measures in order to firmly secure its goal. In principle, the first decisions by President Morales seem to be oriented towards directly undermining the spheres of autonomy hitherto agreed. The very first measure was to purge the high command as a result of the so-called ‘missile crisis’. The crisis commenced in 2005, when it was discovered that Chinese-built missiles belonging to the Bolivian army had been deactivated in the US without the knowledge of the Legislative Assembly. Similarly, the intention of limiting military jurisdiction, removing the ‘secret funds’ or changing the missions assigned to the military may be interpreted as a firm bid to put an end to clientelistic relations and with them the military’s autonomy. However, these measures can be interpreted in a different way, especially when Morales is clearly determined not only to neutralise the armed forces as a possible obstacle to his government’s plans, but actually to make them into allies and agents of the MAS’s democratic revolution. Direct involvement in his programme could end up by pushing the prospect of institutionalising civilian-military relations further into the distance.

The MAS has asked for the armed forces’ support and cooperation on the two issues which it considers to be most significant: the nationalisation of hydrocarbons and the launch of the Constituent Assembly. With regard to hydrocarbons, on 1 May 2006, when the nationalisation decree was published, the armed forces deployed at all the major multinational oil companies’ facilities. This meant they were actively participating in the nationalisation, as the President had already announced. However, there did not seem to be any threat justifying that military presence. It was quite blatantly a nationalistic move, playing mainly to an internal political audience, and Morales did not hesitate to use the armed forces to convey his message to the public.

He also asked for the military’s help in launching the Constituent Assembly, insisting that this meant involving the armed forces in a major political change. The attempt by Morales to gather the support of the military is part of a bid to rally allies behind him as he battles his political opponents. The Assembly is also linked to the question of the regional autonomy sought by the departments of the eastern part of the country. The government fears their separatist ambitions or, at least, seeks to use this accusation against its opponents from the eastern regions. The President has asked the armed forces to guarantee the country’s unity as their main contribution to the progress of the Constituent Assembly. Accordingly, by associating certain departments with separatism and linking the armed forces with national unity, the government is directly involving the military in its own political struggle.

Politicisation of the armed forces with this kind of action could end up by blocking the very transformation and modernisation which the government is trying to implement, hence the other possible interpretation of these measures. As regards military jurisdiction and its delimitation, there is no doubt that the announced reform will be introduced. However, this is a thorny issue for the military and perhaps this is why there is an evident change in the tone of the criticism that has been levelled for years at the armed forces. Morales has exonerated the military of its responsibilities for the repression of 2003 which, by decision of the Constitutional Court, will be tried by civil courts. The accusations relate to the alleged ‘misuse’ of the armed forces.

As for the decision to remove the ‘secret funds’ for expenses, above and beyond the issue of whether State needs them, it objectively shuts off the flow of financing which has until now fed the informal relationship with the military. Nevertheless, the substantial injection of funds promised by President Morales may be understood as compensation for the possible unease which the measure might well have triggered.

The appointment of a new high command, with 28 generals retiring due to the ‘missile crisis’, rather than achieving an impartial elite free of commitments to the political power, might be a way of securing support. The fast-track promotion of generals and colonels on the back of this presidential decision could help boost loyalty to the new government and to the President, ahead of the Constitution and the State.

The government’s decision that the armed forces should cease to be involved in missions relating to homeland security, particularly the fight against drugs and control of social mobilisation, is crucial to its plans. This move means severing another crucial link which fostered the clientelistic relationship between the civil and military powers. Consequently, the government remains coherent with its intention to remove military autonomy and consolidate the principle of civilian supremacy. Nevertheless, the armed forces’ new mission does not necessarily contribute to these objectives. The social development mission assigned by Evo Morales to the armed forces could help give them an excessive military presence in civilian society. The State’s incapacity to meet many basic needs of its citizens and even to be able to guarantee its presence throughout the country could lead to the assignment of civilian missions to the military. However, this decision is coherent with the idea of involving the armed forces as another player in the MAS’s project of political and social transformation.

The government has stressed the need to regain the country’s foreign security as a military mission. Cooperation and involvement in regional integration processes have been considered the best way of developing foreign security. Nevertheless, this does not seem to be the government’s main priority. Border protection, another of the government’s concerns, could apparently indicate that the military mission to defend territory is of particular importance. However, all the information suggests that the military presence is more a colonisation of depressed areas, where there is no State presence, than a strategic plan for territorial defence. In this colonisation task the aim is to involve civilian society in defence plans and thereby create new human settlements.

The priority is to perform missions which foster national development. This is not really a new task, but is envisaged under the current National Organic Law and is a remnant of the tradition of the military dictatorships, in which the armed forces carried out civilian tasks. The measures implemented so far have been to this effect. They include, among others, social campaigns to provide medical and dental services, administering treatments for parasites, giving vaccines and providing vitamins, building roads and civil engineering works and contributing to literacy campaigns, especially in terms of logistics. As for environmental protection, the idea is to create ‘ecological battalions’.

The consideration of the armed forces as ‘drivers of national development’ to achieve ‘national integration’ gives them a high level of popularity. However, the legitimacy gained may be to the detriment of civilian leadership, since citizens might perceive the military as the only authorities which actually help them. At the same time, this mission is performed with no civilian supervision, providing the military on the ground with large degrees of political autonomy. In view of these possible effects, military autonomy could actually increase rather than diminish.

Venezuelan Aid

Financing this transformation project requires major resources. As well as the new sources of financing planned, the government hopes to receive international help and cooperation. For now, Venezuela is the only significant partner, both in this sphere and in others. Recently, the two countries have signed an agreement for the provision of consultancy services to engineering troops in the construction of infrastructure and road works and for courses in Venezuelan institutes to build up the skills of Bolivian military personnel in a number of areas. The same agreement envisages the construction of a military complex in the department of Beni, with a capacity for 2,500 troops, for military and professional training purposes. There are plans to build a river harbour at Puerto Quijarro, allowing a route to the Atlantic from Bolivia and thus activating imports and exports.

The proximity of these two locations to Brazil and Paraguay has raised concerns not only in these two countries but elsewhere in the region, including Chile and Peru. The Bolivian President has attempted to calm his neighbours’ fears by asserting that his purpose is to foster development by integrating national territory, including border areas. However, the signing of this agreement, as well as defining Bolivia’s strategic alignment within the region, as made evident in various ways, contradicts some of the MAS government’s initial statements. It announced that it would seek international cooperation from various countries, so as to replace dependence on the US; yet the results show that this diversification has not materialised. In fact, a similar cooperation system has been maintained based on just one country, with Venezuela replacing the US as its partner. For now it is not possible to guess whether the amount of Venezuelan aid is comparable to the amount received from the US in recent years, although this does look unlikely. Neither can we know whether this new cooperation, plus the national defence funds, will be enough to implement the MAS government’s transformation project.

Political Tensions and Social Pressures that could Hamper the Progress of Defence Reform

For now, the social mission assigned to the armed forces has been welcomed by all actors, although it remains to be seen whether the economic efforts required for its implementation meet with the same degree of approval. Bolivian society is fraught with economic and social problems and so far the reform is not among the demands made by social movements. Despite Morales’ insistence that his government represents these movements, their concerns do not appear to coincide, since defence is hardly a pivotal issue for them. Consequently, there is a risk of this becoming a new source of division with the government, reducing the chances of successfully completing the reform, since the President does not have total control over the social players whom he claims to defend.

The transformation process is fraught with pitfalls. The current uncertainty and social tension does not seem like the best possible backdrop for implementing a reform of this magnitude. The internal divisions within the government itself, the paralysis of the Constituent Assembly, trapped since August in the debate about its own regulation, plus the opposition to the government from the departments of the eastern part of the country are all elements which complicate the political scene and hamper debate and action by the government. Furthermore, the armed forces’ opinion of the MAS government and its project should not be ignored. The sum of all these factors makes it extremely difficult to introduce such a complex reform, the results of which for now are far from being a foregone conclusion.

Conclusions: Current political and social circumstances in Bolivia, as well as the contradictions implicit in the defence sector reform proposed by Evo Morales, raise doubts as to the results of the transformation which he plans to undertake in this area. For now, the tensions and the many political and social demands are preventing the necessary stability from being secured, and blocking the climate of political certainty required to undertake any reform. As for the reform package itself, there are certain aspects which could undermine civilian supremacy and the democratisation of defence, the government’s main objectives.

The MAS party’s intention of applying regulations as the sole criteria for regulating civilian-military relations would signal the end of the clientelistic relationship hitherto favoured by democratic governments to ensure the loyalty of the military. Under this reciprocity agreement, the fight against drugs and the repression of social mobilisation were considered military missions. In this regard, the new government’s plans to change the armed forces’ mission would also contribute to undermining this clientelistic relationship, and with it the power of the military. However, all of these possible steps forward on the road to democratising defence in Bolivia could be neutralised by other measures which are themselves cornerstones of the reform.

As the aforementioned proposals are currently being formulated, the plan is also to convert the armed forces into agents of the MAS’s ‘democratic revolution’, which runs the risk of politicising the armed forces. By assigning tasks relating to social policy as the main mission of the armed forces, there is a risk of militarising areas which correspond to civil institutions. These possible effects would bring Bolivia closer to the Venezuelan model, where similar policies have been implemented, since they share common ideas in respect of the role and centrality of the armed forces. That said, in the Venezuelan case the degree of politicisation of the military and the militarisation of society is considerably greater.

The President’s attempt to make the armed forces a political ally, even granting them an excessively pivotal role, could derail a reform process which, as originally proposed, aimed to put an end to military autonomy and modernise the defence sector; these tasks remain pending for Bolivian democracy.

Sonia Alda
Instituto Universitario Gutiérrez Mellado