Bolivian Indigenous Leaders Form New Caucus, Threaten MAS Majority

A block of indigenous representatives to the Bolivian Legislative Assembly announced that they are forming a new first nations’ caucus. The news unsettled Bolivian politics, as it means that MAS will lose its guaranteed 2/3 majority rule in the Legislative Assembly.

Congressman Bienvenido Zacu, a member of the newly formed caucus, explained that the new political block intends to oppose the road construction through the TIPNIS Indigenous Territory and National park, [i] a proposed project that was outlawed by President Morales’ Ley Corta in October 2011 after sustained protest. When the Consejo Indigena del Sur (Conisur) started a march demanding a reversal of the law, some lawmakers reopened legislative debate on TIPNIS. Representatives of the lowland regions who had supported the Ley Corta banded together to protect it. Pedro Nuni, caucus president, says that the move was “essential to the decolonization process” and asked that MAS “respect their right to their own vision.” [ii]

Caucus attempts to block renewed efforts to build TIPNIS highway

Julio Cortez of the opposition party Convergencia Nacional (CN) joined Zacu and Nuni, both elected as MAS representative.  Five alternates also joined the caucus: four from MAS, as well as one from the opposition party.[iii] They did not resign their party affiliations, but agreed to vote as a group to promote indigenous issues. In 2010 three congress members from the MSM party also broke away from the MAS coalition. The formation of the new caucus means that, on the issue of the road through TIPNIS at least, the MAS party will have 109 votes, rather than the 114 votes they have counted on in the past.[iv] Though MAS will maintain a 2/3 majority in the Senate, the party loses its lower house majority, effectively losing its majority power in the full Assembly. Bolivian law requires a 2/3 majority in order to approve or modify laws and to approve trials for high-ranking state officials. In the Lower House of Congress, a 2/3 majority is necessary to approve or censor government ministers’ reports.

MAS majority reacts negatively; long-term impact uncertain

Some mainstream MAS representatives reacted negatively. Though some try to minimize the impact of the caucus, others question the legality and ethics of the representatives’ “desertion” from MAS. Senator Isaac Avalos even blamed USAID for the decision of the indigenous block to distance itself from the governing party,[v] a hypothesis that should gain little support in the current crisis.  However, based on the ongoing tensions between MAS leaders and lowland indigenous leaders over the construction of the road to TIPNIS, the formation of this indigenous caucus is neither surprising, nor unwarranted. The members of the new caucus have not left MAS entirely; they’ve formed a block within the party around the TIPNIS issue. Only time will tell whether their caucus will split with MAS on other issues.

[i] La Razon, “Indigenas crean bancada y anulan los 2/3 del Mas en la Asamblea,” 19 January, 2012.

[ii] Erbol, “Nace la bancada indigena y nombran a Pedro  Nuni como su primer presidente,” 19 January 2012. Nuni: “Si estamos transitando por una verdadera descolonización, que se respete la soberanía de los pueblos indígenas, que se respete el derecho a tener su propia visión. No podemos nosotros seguir perteneciendo de manera obligatoria a un partido político”

[iii] La Razon, “Delgado dice que indígenas deben actuar junto al MAS,” 20 January, 2012.

[iv]Indigenas crean bancada y anulan los 2/3 del Mas en la Asamblea,”

[v]Delgado dice que indígenas deben actuar junto al MAS,”