Evo Morales’s Bolivia: Where the State Is Becoming a Church

Latin American populism has a lot in common with 20th century totalitarian movements.

By Jorge Velardo Rosso Published on July 22, 2015

Last week, The Stream cited my analysis of the meeting between Pope Francis and Bolivian President Evo Morales, which culminated in Morales presenting the pope with the now-infamous “Communist crucifix.” When we try to understand the pope’s view of economics and politics, and his apparent embrace of Latin American populism, it’s important to know that movement’s historical background. Here is how populism is playing out in my own country, Bolivia.

The new Bolivian constitution adopted in January 2009 declared Bolivia a secular state. Prior to that, the government recognized Catholicism as the state religion, while guaranteeing religious freedom for all. What might surprise North Americans is that the separation of church and state in Bolivia (as in many other Latin countries) does not promise greater religious freedom, but less. Historically, secularizers in Latin America have not sought to free the churches from state interference, but rather to replace the church with the state as the center of citizens’ lives. Patriotism in such a system is treated not as a natural virtue but a new form of religion, the church of the State. And indeed, in the years since 2009, tensions have risen between Christian churches and the Bolivian government.

There’s a distinctly Bolivian flavor to the form which the “church of the state” has been taking under Morales, who has been president for the past nine years. Morales’ economics are straightforwardly socialist and statist. But Morales has chosen to repackage such failed ideas in a folksy, nostalgic wrapper — as a rejection of Western, Christian views about man and nature, and a return to some imagined “indigenous,” pre-Christian Andean mysticism in which man and nature are one. Hence Morales’ warning: “Either capitalism dies or Mother Earth dies.” As an example, here is a quote from the preamble of the new constitution:

In times immemorial mountains were raised, moved rivers, lakes were formed. Our Amazon, our flatlands, our highlands and our plains and valleys were covered with flowers and greeneries. We populated this sacred Mother Earth with different faces, since then we understood the existing plurality of all things and our diversity as beings and cultures. We formed our peoples, and never understood racism until we endured the fateful experience of colonization.

Morales and his government imbue official statements with vague and grandiose claims of carrying out a sacred mission of regeneration, which elevates them above the rule of law. Morales accuses citizens and institutions (including the churches) who oppose his initiatives of harming the welfare of the nation and the people. While Bolivia’s legal mechanisms were designed to avoid the concentration of power, Morales’ government sees the need to monopolize, one might say colonize, all political space in Bolivia.

To accomplish this, Morales dismisses any legal or constitutional objections to his illegal overreaching as the fruit of an evil foreign ideology: “neo-liberalism,” which is the Latin American pejorative for free market capitalism. That system, which has never really even been tried in Bolivia, is employed as a convenient straw-man for Morales to rally the people against, to create an emotional bond of common hatred — inflected with racial resentment against those of European descent. This tactic is all-too-familiar to students of twentieth-century totalitarian movements. And in recent years, whenever churches have dared to oppose his policies, Morales has turned this tactic against them.

Going far beyond the legitimate Christian concern for ecology and gratitude for Creation expressed in the theological sections of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, Morales consistently and consciously rejects the biblical image of man as the steward of nature, uniquely made in the image of God. Whereas Judaism and Christianity de-mystified nature, making way for modern science which allowed man to master (and sometimes over-master) his environment, Morales craves the old, pagan way: Venerating Nature itself as either a goddess or the domain of many gods and goddesses. Needless to say, this approach has nothing to do with promoting the more rational, prudent use and protection of natural resources.

Nor do Morales’ actual policies promote such protection. This is not surprising, given the bleak environmental record of every socialist regime, historically. His environmental approach has differed little from that of every previous Bolivian government — the ruthless exploitation and export of raw materials. However, Morales lays heavier emphasis on such resources being the property of the state, whose power he wishes to extend ever further throughout society.

Predictably, the churches are suffering. Smaller evangelical churches have experienced arbitrary taxation and burdensome regulations, while the Catholic church has endured something much more systematic. Since half of Bolivia’s public schools rely on Catholic religious orders to provide some of their teachers, Morales has made it his business to impose his control on those teachers: After a political struggle that dragged out for several years, Morales has successfully imposed a mandatory program of ideological indoctrination — a two-year political regimen that even private school teachers must attend to be licensed to teach anywhere in the country.

Morales is no isolated would-be tyrant in a small country. He is one face of the new wave of Latin American leftism, which has learned from the tactical mistakes of the 1970s. Military coups by disgruntled junior officers (such as Hugo Chavez first attempted in Venezuela) are not an option. Instead, the left appeals to populist sentiment and resentment and acquires power legally — at first. That keeps foreign countries, especially the United States, from interfering.

But once the leftists have captured the levers of power, they use them relentlessly and without regard for the letter or spirit of the law, or the freedom of civil society. The rhetoric of hatred for markets, for foreigners, for property owners and independent businessmen helps silence voices of opposition, who are frequently tarred as “right wing extremists.” Soon the forms and trappings of democracy have been completely hollowed out, and are merely the façade for an authoritarian government with totalitarian aspirations. The end-game is already with us, in the form of Venezuela’s thuggish “Bolivarian revolution.”

North Americans should keep the real nature of populist economics in mind as the media spin and exaggerate Pope Francis’ statements during his visit to the U.S.


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