The Peril and Promise of Noodles and Beer: Condemnation of patronage and hybrid political frameworks in “post-neoliberal” Cochabamba, Bolivia



In this article, I analyze Bolivians’ public condemnations of patronage—the buying of political support with jobs or favors—over the past decade. The rise of indigenous and leftist governments in Latin America has led many to hope for a transition from neoliberalism. In Bolivia, the new Morales government has promised to effect this transition in part by rooting out clientelismo and peguismo (patronage job seeking), long a mainstay of Bolivian politics. I argue, however, that at the level of everyday practice, Bolivians engage hybrid ideals—of patronage, populism, state capitalism, liberalism, and left-indigenist democracy. Focusing on debates over patronage in the central Bolivian Cochabamba region, I show that most people who denounced patronage were unable to avoid others’ counterdenunciations that they were buscapegas (patronage seekers). Furthermore, while residents of Sacaba often expressed a yearning for ideological purity by denouncing patronage, they also used the language of patron–client reciprocity to assert demands for radical democracy.

In early May 2006, a Bolivian political leader accused his fellow party members of provoking local conflict to gain patronage jobs in their municipal government. He begged them to improve themselves morally in order to facilitate a process of national transformation led by the recently elected Bolivian president, Evo Morales. He spoke at an emergency rally of the municipal branch of Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party in Sacaba, a sprawling provincial municipality of approximately 140,000 residents in central Bolivia that had long been a heartland of support for the MAS.

Under a brilliantly blue autumn sky, loudspeakers on pick-up trucks circulated a dusty field blaring MAS campaign songs that featured panpipes and mournful baritones. Local MAS leaders gave outraged speeches condemning the Sacaba Municipal Council's recent impeachment of the Sacaba mayor, a MAS member. The mayor's ouster on corruption charges had followed six years of municipal political turmoil and the similar downfall of four previous mayors (see, e.g., Los Tiempos 2006). Sacaba's municipal conflict echoed conflicts in dozens of Bolivian municipalities following the 1994 state decentralization reform, the Law of Popular Participation (Antezana 2003).

Then the regional president of the MAS party, Julio Salazar, took his turn at the microphone. Salazar, a long-time leader of Bolivia's militant cocoa-growers’ federation, would be elected a MAS senator in 2009. Salazar told the assembled Sacabans that their envidia (envy) was obstructing President Evo's promise to establish indigenous political power, redistribute wealth, and dismantle the neoliberal economy in favor of state-led capitalism. He pleaded with them to cease maneuvering to bring down the MAS mayor in the hopes of getting pegas (patronage jobs) in a new mayor's administration. “You all need to understand the philosophy of the MAS and of Evo,” he urged. “It is that we must make change inside each one of us … . In your heart, if there is egoísmo[selfishness] and envy, this prevents unity.” Unity was necessary for Sacaba's development and for the national process of “profound change” led by President Evo. This party leader thus diagnosed clientelismo and peguismo (patronage job seeking), glossed as envy and selfishness, as a moral failing of Sacaba residents that could obstruct the process of national change.

Salazar's audience was familiar with the common Bolivian political theory that the individual moral offense of selfishness sparked patronage practices, and that patronage seekers caused municipal conflict (see Albro 2000, 2001, 2007). Many of them had participated in the marches and road blockades that had brought down two Bolivian presidents during the previous four years and brought Morales—the first self-identified indigenous president in Bolivia's history—to victory. In addition to redistributing wealth and power to the indigenous majority and nationalizing Bolivia's natural resources, MAS leaders promised to forge a new type of party by following a platform of principles instead of patronage. They contrasted themselves with generations of politicians who bought votes with noodles and beer (e.g., interview with Valerio Torihuano, transcribed in Zuazo 2009:94). Salazar was, then, lamenting that Sacabans, by perpetuating the older political model of patronage, were preventing MAS leaders’ earnest efforts to establish a national proceso de cambio (process of change). He espoused a rupture of the old ways in favor of a model of ideological purity.

Yet in the rally audience's view, Salazar's very condemnation of patronage was itself a cover for patronage seekers in Sacaba. In this article, I trace the contradictory imperatives emergent in widespread denunciations of patronage in Bolivia over the past decade. A hybrid form of political practice in central Bolivia has emerged, in which people commonly combine practices and ideals that they declare are distinct in theory. I show how political leaders and the rank and file who condemned patronage could not escape others’ accusations that they remained embedded in relations of patronage. Acting within a diverse political field (Bourdieu 2005; Hess in press), Sacabans blended ideals and practices of clientelist reciprocity established by the Bolivian state in the 1950s with ideals of liberalism and left-leaning indigenism. Salazar's public frustrations built on denunciations of clientelism by indigenous and peasant movements since the 1970s and of reformers who designed Bolivia's state decentralization in the mid-1990s during the height of free-market restructuring. These earlier critics, like Salazar, condemned patronage as an outmoded political model. In the final section of the paper, I show how this rhetoric of purity amid widespread practices of hybridity, also, served to perpetuate social inequalities.

This article is based on 36 months of ethnographic research in the municipality of Sacaba between 1995 and 2009. I lived with a local family, volunteered part-time at several NGOs, and interviewed rural, provincial, and urban residents, municipal officials, and agrarian union leaders. As I accompanied Sacabans on their commutes by minibus along the busy highway that cuts through the center of the municipality, I found most people vigorously denouncing clientelism. As with corruption more broadly, I suggest that patronage is not a “coherent category of political practice” (Hasty 2005:273), contrary to the complaints of transnational good governance policymaking and Bolivian political discourse. Those who denounced clientelism in others became the object of other people's accusation of patronage, even though most actors combined multiple political practices.

I join a growing group of scholars that has argued that neoliberalism, like other political models, constitutes a loose repertoire of practices and ideas (Greenhouse 2010; Gustafson 2009; Tsing 2005) rather than the closed system it is often assumed to be. This caution is particularly important in places where governments claim to be postneoliberal, such as Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. Like David Hess and other anthropologists who study quotidian practices of state formation, I view neoliberalism as “situated in a political field that consists of competing ideologies, policies, practices, and agents” (Hess 2011:2), in which “a neoliberal strand” enters a field composed of heterogeneous elements (12). My analysis of the everyday public condemnation of clientelismo complements the important analyses of MAS central government leaders’ rhetoric and policies (e.g., Bebbington and Bebbington 2010; Dunkerley 2007; Goodale 2009; Hylton and Thompson 2007). I argue that Bolivia has changed significantly over the past decade because of its official recognition as a “peasant–indigenous” nation, and because the government has promised to redistribute wealth, abandon neoliberalism, promote state capitalism—and eliminate patronage. Yet, I argue, these new state commitments have added to, rather than replaced, preexisting patronage ideals and practices. Bolivian political culture has experienced both significant continuity and significant change regarding debates over patronage.

Many people in the 2006 rally audience in Sacaba disputed Salazar's analysis of the conflict's roots, arguing that Salazar was an unwitting pawn of those Sacabans who sought to keep the ousted MAS mayor in power simply to preserve their own patronage jobs. These listeners scornfully argued to me, amidst the dust and noise of the rally, that the mayor was corrupt and incompetent; only those clients who received patronage jobs or kickbacks from him would support him. Eric, an urban neighborhood leader, resplendent in white tennis shorts and shirt, exclaimed that the ousted mayor had constructed few public works projects during his year in office and, therefore, had failed the MAS promise to enact municipal development.1 A Sacaba agrarian union leader, Doña Felisa, impatiently disputed Salazar's diagnosis that selfish buscapegas (patronage seekers) had caused municipal conflict. She declared, in irritation, “There is always envy” in all times and places; Sacaba's collective immorality was not unique (interview July 24, 2006). While Salazar was not interested in seeking patronage for himself, Doña Felisa insisted, he ignored the catastrophic venality and incompetence of the mayor. Such unconvinced listeners longed for a pure politics free of clientelism. They suggested that leaders like Salazar, in their single-minded desire to strengthen the MAS by ending Sacaba's embarrassing factional conflict, had been duped by local clients of the ousted mayor. Salazar's anticlientelist rhetoric served as a screen for the real buscapegas, and thus, paradoxically, perpetuated clientelism. Yet Doña Felisa shortly afterward herself faced accusations of selfishness for not distributing local development funds to her home community while she was a MAS congresswoman, and for supporting a right-wing Cochabamba politician, Manfred Reyes Villa, in exchange for pegas (patronage jobs).

Hopes for Rupture with the Past and the Melding of Multiple Political Models

Salazar's was part of a chorus of voices calling for a clean break with the past in Bolivia, and condemning patronage was one of the central elements of this “process of change.” Salazar's plea for citizens to abandon patronage echoes condemnations of patronage among indigenous organizations since the 1970s, and by Bolivian decentralization policy makers since the late 1980s. The leaders of the 1952 Bolivian Revolution, similarly to other Latin American populists, had instituted a patronage model of citizenship along with universal suffrage and moderate agrarian reform. Bolivian governments during the 1950s and 1960s carried out infrastructure projects in exchange for locals’ political support. The 1964 Military–Peasant Pact between agrarian union bosses and populist dictator Barrientos institutionalized this unequal reciprocal relationship further. After the Banzer government massacred peasant union members near Sacaba in the early 1970s, however, indigenist and peasant movements began condemning patronage (Rivera Cusicanqui 1986). Agrarian leaders argued that party leaders “made capital out of the peasant vote as a means to attain and remain in power,” subverting their radical demands and curtailing their political autonomy (Union Puma de Defensa Aymara et al. 1973:174).

During the 1980s, in turn, following the democratic opening, government reformers in Bolivia condemned patronage as antithetical to liberal equality and as an obstacle to government efficiency (e.g., Ayo 2004; Medina 1995:24; Reilly, Ardaya, and Laserna n.d.). Bolivian reformers echoed neoliberal policy makers worldwide, who attempted to instill in subjects the value of taking local responsibility for development (Goldstein 2004; Paley 2001; Postero 2007). Following free market macroeconomic reforms, the Bolivian government decentralized the state with the 1994 Law of Popular Participation (LPP), which created hundreds of new municipal governments, instituted municipal elections, and funneled 20 percent of the central government's budget to municipal governments. The LPP was explicitly intended to quell both popular protest (Molina and Arias 1996) and patronage by shifting responsibility for development to municipalities and communities (Medina 1995; Molina and Arias 1996). Some reformers argued this transition from patronage to liberal representation would require training to change Bolivians’ attitudes and practices from those of “client citizens” to “sovereign citizens” (Keefer 2005; Reilly, Ardaya, and Laserna n.d.; World Bank 2000).2

MAS leader Salazar's condemnation of patronage as a moral failing echoes decentralization reformers’ complaints about the widespread proliferation of patronage after the LPP was launched, however, when the creation of numerous political arenas greatly multiplied the opportunities for patronage seeking (e.g., Albro 2000). As one Bolivian reformer, Ivan Arias, lamented in 2004, city councilors were looking to mayors in newly created municipalities as their patrons, rather than as disinterested public administrators:

we made a good law, but we don't have the subjects to carry it forward … The Ministry of Popular Participation is working on the technical part … but few are working on transmitting values, on … the formation of this new being who proposes solutions and who feels a sense of shared responsibility. [Ayo 2004:25]

Arias, like MAS leader Salazar, thus hoped for a rupture with the past by eliminating patronage as a flawed value.

Most Bolivian political parties had, in fact, already begun to intensify their patronage offerings in the mid-1980s, responding to Bolivian voters’ demands for the redistribution of wealth. The democratic opening in 1982, after two decades of dictatorship, had yielded harsh free market reforms rather than the prosperity and social equality that many Bolivians expected. A new generation of populist politicians combined the rhetoric of kinship and redistribution of wealth with cash handouts and public works projects (Albro 1997, 2000; Lazar 2008; Mayorga 2002). Their new parties competed with widely reviled “traditional” parties that distributed small gifts at election time but maintained a free-market platform. Thus, while decentralization reformers diagnosed patronage as a great obstacle to democracy, populist leaders of new parties, and a significant section of the Bolivian electorate, asserted that leaders should advance redistribution, not market reforms, and that this could be accomplished through patronage.3

When neither old-style nor new populist parties were able to satisfy Bolivians’ demands for jobs and redistribution of wealth, social movement activists began demanding a dramatic rupture from patronage politics. During the 1994 national agrarian union congress, delegates launched the Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of Peoples (IPSP) as an explicitly nonparty political organization. As female agrarian leaders affiliated with the Sindicalist Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB) asserted, echoing complaints several decades before,

we poor pobres (poor) … have always served as ladders so that a few vivillos (shrewd ones) take advantage of the funds and resources of the government and after promising us a thousand marvels, once elected, they forget about all of their offers and subject us to further suffering. [CSUTCB 1994:39]

They hoped that if IPSP leaders and the rank and file rose through agrarian unions, and not the parties, they could break the elites’ dominance over peasants (CSUTCB 1994:39, 194). The MAS was thus born out of these expectations.

Declaring a Transition to a Post-neoliberal Era

The MAS government's promise to end patronage was, then, part of its leaders’ promise to effect a rupture from both neoliberalism and the colonial inequalities that had persisted through Boliva's independence in 1825 and its 1952 revolution (e.g., Agencia Boliviana de Información 2009). MAS leaders hailed Morales's election as the dawn of a new postneoliberal era (García Linera 2007). The MAS government made immediate shifts in policy, exacting higher royalties on natural gas exports, convening a constitutional assembly that dramatically changed the Bolivian Constitution, and increasing funding to municipalities (Dunkerley 2007; Hylton and Thomson 2007).

MAS leaders’ rhetoric combined elite reformers’ and subaltern organizations’ critiques of clientelismo. They argued that patronage was a relic of colonialism and an obstacle to the redistribution of wealth and power, and complained that other parties gave only token and ephemeral benefits in return for the poor majority's votes and support. They proclaimed MAS as a bastion of purity against all the other incorrigible, patronage-oriented “traditional” parties. Valerio Torihuano, for example, a MAS Congressman elected in 2005, argued about his own election campaign: “We didn't buy even one vote, it was an honest vote, a vote driven by conscience, a vote of the pueblo … . I saw that my PODEMOS [competing party] competitor … bought people, getting people drunk; he brought blankets … noodles, rice, shovels” (interview with Valerio Torihuano, transcribed in Zuazo 2009:94). Would-be clients also condemned patronage. As Doña Nely, as a Sacaba MAS activist and a former butcher in the municipal slaughterhouse, explained her decision to campaign for Evo:

We see that he is from the countryside, like us: indigenous. He didn't buy our consciences with noodles or money; he bought our consciences with his wisdom, his humility … . That's why we have supported him without any [self-] interest. He … never even bought us a glass of soda … . Many times, by contrast, other parties have bought people's consciences. [Interview with author, August 24, 2006]

These condemnations of patronage show the prevalence of rhetoric of a rupture with the past in Bolivia after Morales's 2005 election. Doña Nely applauded Evo's purported lack of patronage offerings and her own refusal to seek patronage. Yet Doña Nely, just a few minutes later, expressed frustration that she could not access patronage networks. When I asked how she evaluated the Morales administration six months into its first term, she responded with a sigh: the new government was doing “beautiful things, marvels.” But she wished Evo would send undercover representatives to walk around the Sacaba market inquiring about which of his political supporters held patronage jobs in the MAS municipal government. Doña Nely said with a hint of bitterness: “I always said that if he became president, I would be content. But … right now, Evo is thinking that I have a good job, when actually, I don't have any job; they have pushed me aside.” She thus expressed disappointment that Evo had failed in his role as patron of loyal party supporters. Yet, she said, she didn't want to complain publicly as that would open her up to charges of being a buscapega.

This new message that patronage was unethical coexisted with, rather than supplanted, the long-standing notion that patronage was a legitimate form of reciprocity in Sacaba. Don Berno, a prosperous former bus driver union leader, condemned clientelism in Sacaba, though he acknowledged its economic logic: “those leaders who are bought … fight to defend the mayor … because they have their relatives placed inside, working in City Hall … . I mean, it's a vicious circle…the fight over pegas, [is] an economic pugna [fight] … . There wouldn't be fights if everyone earned a little money (interview with author, June 13, 2006). Don Berno also complained that Sacaba mayors had often played favorites, granting particular communities development funds while denying funding to other communities.

Like Doña Nely, Don Berno explicitly described his decision to support the national MAS party as the fruit of an ideological awakening, gained from a personal relationship with Evo, rather than from self interest. “Making a real analysis, I said that this guy [Evo] is right because these gentlemen [MAS] are fighting for the dispossessed people, for the poor people.” And like Doña Nely, Don Berno coupled the new rhetoric against clientelism with a subtle assertion that the reciprocity between a patron and client could reflect an alternative logic of justice. Don Berno explained with evident satisfaction he had been elected as a neighborhood leader after allying himself with Evo. And owing to his hard work on behalf of his neighborhood, he had earned the trust of both his constituents and of the Sacaba mayor. In the following account, Don Berno describes a conversation in which the mayor (whom he addresses as “Doctor”) approached him and offered him development funds:

[Mayor:]“Berno, don't you want pavement in your neighborhood?”[Don Berno to Mayor:]“Why not, Doctor? Please.” So we went to the [planning] office; they made a blueprint. “Which streets do you want?” he asks me. “My street,” I said. “That's very little,” he tells me. “The one next to it”[I reply]. “That's still very little. [Let's pave] one more.” So then they gave me almost 8,000 … square meters of pavement. [Interview with author, June 13, 2006]

While Don Berno's denunciation of clientelism can been seen as a canny attempt to hide his own clientelistic relations, I suggest that something more complex transpired. Don Berno was annoyed when development funds bypassed his neighborhood and flowed into other neighborhoods he portrayed as less deserving. He suggested that he simultaneously longed for pavement for his own street, the esteem of neighbors and local politicians, and a national transformation in the practice of politics to redistribute wealth throughout Bolivia. Don Berno also argued that rather than immorality (Salazar) or obsolete political models (Arias), Sacabans sought patronage precisely because of the scarcity of jobs and development funds.

Not surprisingly, then, once in power, MAS leaders have faced accusations of their own clientelismo (e.g., Quispe 2009). Ascertaining where to draw the line between “patronage” and “redistribution of wealth” was easier said than done, however. Don Félix, for example, a rural MAS official in Sacaba, blurred the lines between clientelism and the MAS party's leftist indigenism while explaining why some members of the Sacaba MAS had withdrawn their support for the MAS mayor, whose ouster Salazar lamented. The mayor had taken office promising to give 30 percent of the municipal government jobs to rural residents of Sacaba, to match the municipality's rural-to-urban population ratio. But agrarian union members soon realized that the mayor had failed to honor his campaign promise: rural hires constituted only 17 percent. Don Félix told me disgustedly, “He tricked us” (interview with author June 23, 2006). The municipal administration was filled with elites who had joined the MAS party solely to capture municipal jobs. Furthermore, rural Sacabans hired by the municipality were “just drivers, night-watchmen: the lowest of positions. That's where a peasant can work; nothing more,” he exclaimed bitterly. What Salazar and many other Sacabans condemned as pegas—patronage favors for loyal political supporters—Don Felix praised as a just affirmative action program for rural folk who had long been excluded within the municipality and within Bolivia, in the spirit of the MAS promise to redistribute wealth.

This duality was also evident in national debates. After Evo formed a new ministerial cabinet in 2010, many indigenous organization leaders protested the exclusion of self-identified indigenous people from high posts. As the leader of the Confederation of Ayllus and Markas of Qollasuyu (CONAMAQ), declared, “we have professionals who can contribute to this process of change and we have proposals for the development of the indigenous pueblos[peoples] of the country” (La Razón 2010). Similarly, a congressman and vice president of a lowland indigenous federation, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), protested: “It's stipulated in the constitution … . The new cabinet should reflect [Bolivia's] plurinationality” (La Razón 2010).

Yet national MAS leaders, having limited jobs to distribute, disputed that these demands represented affirmative action, instead labeling them pegas. In November, 2007, Santos Ramirez, a MAS senator later imprisoned for embezzlement, reported that Evo had complained to him. “[P]olitical leaders, instead of supporting him, they wear him out [desgastan] … Instead of marking the political and ideological line, they’ve devoted themselves exclusively to signing requests for pegas.” (Los Tiempos 2007). As a result, Ramirez lamented, factional conflicts plagued most regional MAS organizations. Two years later, Evo denounced his agrarian union allies because they “only think about pegas or their candidacy as congressmen or mayors” (Los Tiempos Nov 2, 2007). He commanded them to return to the principles of eighteenth-century indigenous hero Tupac Katari. If not, he warned, the MAS government's “process of change” could fail: “above pegas are our principles … . If we don't recover those principles of our ancestors, surely we will get lost in this process of profound transformations in democracy” (La Patria 2009). As in Sacaba, these national debates indicated that the line between legitimate affirmative action and “selfish” pega-seeking was contested.

This slipperiness stems, in addition to the fundamental unknowability of another person's intentions, from the diversity of acts labeled as clientelismo, which could be an insubstantial offering like noodles to more lasting gifts such as jobs or roads. Narendra Subramanian urges that we distinguish between situations in which powerful elites maintain their power by providing token items to voters—and threaten to use force—to buy their votes by force, and populist contexts in which clients get more significant resources and enjoy more political autonomy (Subramanian 1999:70). When potential clients are highly mobilized and constitute a large portion of the population—as in Bolivia—they can exact more substantial gifts such as jobs quotas and free lunch programs for a broader cross-section of society than can less-mobilized groups.

A picture emerges of leaders and rank and file in all institutional levels of in Bolivia struggling to assert that they were breaking with the past by transforming their political practice while admitting with varying degrees of ruefulness and anger that “traditional” peguismo (the seeking and granting of patronage favors) continues apace. The scarcity of jobs and money made political patronage one of few potential sources of income. These hybrid complaints suggest that the theoretical line between “selfish” pegas, on the one hand, and public interest such as affirmative action, on the other hand, is difficult to hold in practice. Despite the new requirement in Bolivian political discourse to publicly condemn clientelism, few people have been successful at convincing those around them that they are disentangled from patron–client relations.

The Articulation of Multiple Political Models

Scholars in the social sciences have spent the last three decades attempting to understand the implications of neoliberalism for subjectivity and political economy (e.g., Comaroff and Comaroff 2001; Ferguson 2006; Phillips 1997), as Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia—among others—present the tantalizing possibility of a “postneoliberal” order (García Linera 2007; Lepori 2008). Many Bolivians certainly express hope for a wholesale break with clientelism and, therefore, with neoliberalism and colonialism. I suggest, however, that hybrid political practices are a fundamental element of Bolivia's process of historical change. This hybridity of political frameworks and practices surrounding patronage supports the findings of scholars that state formation occurs through the articulation of diverse practices and rhetorics (e.g., Corrigan and Sayer 1985) rather than through sharp ruptures or teleological “transitions.” The fusing of multiple political frameworks—patronage, neoliberalism, and radical democracy—simultaneously evoke the models of state and citizenship that various Bolivian governments have promoted over the past 60 years.

Salazar and LPP reformers shared their hope for historical rupture with theorists of both liberal and Marxist traditions. Liberal modernization theorists (e.g., Fukuyama 1992; Evans and Whitefield 1995; Huntington 1991) assert that societies undergo standard transitions from authoritarianism to democracy; development institutions, following this argument, often emphasize the need for poor countries’ leaders to abandon clientelism in order to effect this transition (Brinkerhoff and Goldsmith 2002; Keefer 2005; World Bank 2000). Some leftist scholars, despite their opposition to development institutions’ policies, have shared the assumption that historical transitions occur as ruptures. Frederic Jameson's critique of corporate globalization and US hegemony asserted that the present postmodern era represents a dramatic transformation permeating all realms of life (Jameson 1991:25). Similarly, some observers maintain hope that Bolivia can shake off its colonial and neoliberal past by enacting a purely radical political project. Political scientist James Petras, for example, scathingly argued that Evo Morales was “all growl and no claws” and refused to enact a “systemic transformation” of Bolivia (Petras 2006). Like some Bolivians, Petras defined an utter break with the past as the only measure of success; he repudiated all instances of the new government's compromise with foreign companies and Bolivian elites as fundamentally “neoliberal” (see also Dunkerley 2007:141).

A small group of political scientists now disputes the linear model of rupture of much-touted “transitions to democracy” (e.g., Bunce 1995; Carothers 2002), echoing older currents of antievolutionism with anthropology. Anthropologists dispel policymakers’ assumption that postsocialism, for example, signifies a sudden break with everyday practices (Buyandelgeriyn 2008; Humphrey 2002; Moore 2005; Verdery 1999). Katherine Verdery argues that Romanian peasants effected a “fuzzy” transition, rather than a wholesale adoption of neoliberal, market-based values, interpreting new legal regimes of privatized land through older frameworks of collectivism (Verdery 1999). If postsocialism represents an accumulation of hybrid practices, not a historical rupture, I suggest that so does postneoliberalism in Bolivia. My argument echoes Sujatha Fernandes's (2010) analysis of popular movements in Venezuela: though the Chavez government officially supported local grassroots organizing, government funding compromised the autonomy of locally based neighborhood groups and state professionals continued to perpetuate elite, technocratic control.

Stuart Hall's concept of “articulation” (1986:53) has proven helpful in analyzing the hybrid form of political ideals and practice emerging in Bolivia (Gustafson 2009; Hylton and Thompson 2007; Lazar 2008) and other postcolonial contexts (e.g., Hansen and Stepputat 2006; Tsing 2005). Just as the cab of a truck (or “lorry”) can be temporarily attached (“articulated”) to any shipping container holding a wide range of items, Hall suggested, any institution—including the state—can be articulated to multiple political models.

If anthropologists agree that Bolivians regularly combine multiple “discursive traditions,” (Goodale 2009:117), they disagree on the extent to which Bolivia is undergoing fundamental change. Anthropologists and historians writing on recent Bolivian politics tend to range between cautious optimism (e.g., Dunkerley 2007; Hylton and Thompson 2007; Lazar 2008:261; Postero 2007, 2011) and tempered pessimism (Bebbington and Bebbington 2010; Goodale 2009; Gustafson 2009). Bret Gustafson (2009), for example, notes that the bilingual education movement of the Guarani, an indigenous group in the Bolivian lowlands, broadened space for debate about how to achieve a break with the long-term subordination of indigenous people. Yet Morales's election and Bolivia's subsequent Constitutional Assembly sparked violent reaction by the right-wing elite, which threatened to subvert the MAS government's proclamations of an end to colonialism. Mark Goodale (2009) similarly cautions that liberalism, dominant since Bolivian independence, continues to constrain Bolivian state-making and the popular imagination. While Goodale notes that various theoretical orientations have emerged over different time periods—market liberalism, European-style syndicalism, peasant nationalism, and human rights—he argues that liberalism has dominated Bolivian society, and that liberalism continues to significantly shape the MAS government's platform (2009:174). I would emphasize, in contrast, a fundamental hybridity to both platform and practices, as seen in debates over patronage.

Furthermore, the amalgamation of political practices can be found in the mundane, latent, everyday political practices of patronage, as well as the spectacular and self-conscious tactics of protests and marches that have captured popular and scholarly attention (e.g., Dunkerley 2007; Hylton and Thompson 2007). Patronage has continued in the post-Evo period, but it now entails private and public moral dilemmas, and is practiced together with authoritarian corporatism, peasant nationalism, clientelism, and communitarian neoliberalism. Some Sacabans have expressed yearnings for Petras's and Salazar's ideological purity, hoping that the MAS party can deliver a new era of national prosperity, racial equality—and an end to patronage. They also used the language of patron–client relations to assert claims to radical democratic equality.

Asserting Authority by Condemning Patronage

Condemnations of patronage in Sacaba can also serve to perpetuate longstanding inequalities. NGOs, social movements, and the MAS party overlap in personnel, structure, and practices to a great degree; and I witnessed authoritarian practices in all of these contexts. One such occasion occurred when Don Carlos, a Bolivian NGO director and MAS supporter, gave a heated lecture against patronage. In October 2005, Don Carlos exhorted the members of a women's group that he had created not to sell their votes in the presidential election (that Evo Morales eventually won.) Some group members, however, as with Salazar's audience, protested that Don Carlos merely denounced clientelism in order to screen his own clientelistic practices.

Don Carlos is an agronomist of impoverished origins from the nearby city of Cochabamba.4 In 2002, he founded the small NGO, Ayni, in Choro, a locality of 1,400 households within Sacaba municipality.5 Perched along a busy highway, Choro had been a center of political mobilization during the agrarian reform of the 1950s, the populist dictatorships of the 1960s, and the coca and cocaine booms of the 1980s. Ayni focused on local healthcare and education through “interculturality,” a concept promoted by the MAS and its allies, intended to convey a process of mutual cultural influence and solidarity between indigenous and nonindigenous peoples (García 2005; Postero 2007:13). Don Carlos helped draft the founding declaration of the MAS party, the Political Instrument of the Sovereignty of Peoples (IPSP) in 1995, when he was an employee of an indigenous-rights NGO. He and his German-born wife moved to Choro in an assertion of solidarity with locals, contrasting themselves with other NGOs whose employees maintained social distance from program beneficiaries.

While some Choreños called him “Don Gringo” because he had married a European, he was generally regarded as well-meaning, if combative. Fewer residents suspected him of stealing community money than they did other, homegrown, community leaders. Elected president of the Choro sindicato (community council), his professional status and NGO funds helped convince recalcitrant municipal officials to disburse Choro's development funds.

In forming the women's group mentioned above, Don Carlos aimed to create jobs by helping members launch a cooperative knitting business. He also intended, he said, to spark the spirit of communal unity in Choro and to create broader political mobilization by making the group a chapter of the Bartolina Sisa National Women's Agrarian Union Federation, a pivotal support base for Morales and the national MAS party. Despite Don Carlos's intentions, however, some group members opposed MAS in private and declared that their chief interest in the group was to talk about domestic violence and to learn baking and embroidery. Other, more impoverished members focused on the money-making opportunities.

I had been a volunteer for several months with Ayni when two group members made an excited announcement at their weekly meeting. They had secured a promise from the local campaign manager of Tuto Quiroga, the right-wing presidential candidate and principal opponent of Evo in the upcoming elections, to buy the women's group an oven. For several months, they discussed buying an industrial-size gas oven in order to launch a baking co-op, but had come up short on the total cost of $US200. One of the women, Fernanda, said coaxingly that they could receive Tuto's campaigners at the women's group headquarters during the party, when the oven would be delivered (field notes, December 8, 2005).

Ximena, the paid staff coordinator, suddenly looked anxious. She said gently that, because Ayni housed the women's group headquarters, they would have to remain nonpartisan. One of the members responded practically that if the campaign pressed them to put up Tuto's red-and-white flags, a usual exchange for patronage largesse, they could simply take them down afterwards. Someone else asked, “But what if they want you to paint the building in party colors?” A few people responded, deflated, that the plan might not work in that case.

Others, however, countered that Don Carlos might support their plan if he turned out to support Tuto and his right-wing PODEMOS coalition. Their discussion demonstrated the women's lack of familiarity with the MAS platform, despite the party's local dominance (Evo carried Sacaba municipality with 64 percent and rural communities, including Choro, with more than 80 percent of the votes [Corte Nacional Electoral 2005]). Don Carlos's distinctly agrarian union language and support of the Bartolinas Federation would have identified him immediately as a MASista to any Bolivian political activist (as would the indigenous movement posters on Ayni's office walls). Ximena clarified that Don Carlos supported MAS. One woman suggested to widespread enthusiasm that they could instead receive Tuto's campaigners at the nearby public health clinic. Ximena maintained a blank look on her face. I assumed that she thought that this was a terrible idea, knowing she was sympathetic to MAS, but that she felt it would compromise the NGO's neutrality to say so. Ximena left to consult with Don Carlos (field notes, December 8, 2005).

Suddenly, Don Carlos, wearing his habitual shabby green parka, burst into the room. A normally excitable man, he was practically quivering with intensity. He said loudly, his boyish face excited and stern, that he had heard that they were planning to receive an oven from Tuto's campaign. He launched into an intense half hour monologue in his rapid-fire mix of Spanish and self-taught Quechua, the local indigenous language—long-winded even by his standards. Don Carlos often interrupted the weekly meeting, for example, to ask the women to cook for holiday festivals or to lecture on the upcoming Bolivian Constitutional Assembly, which often produced visible boredom in the women. This time, however, despite weary looks on many faces, Don Carlos’ vehemence commanded their attention; all eyes remained riveted on him.

Don Carlos condemned patronage on principle and patronage ties to Tuto in particular. He argued that voting based upon platform was the most fundamental right and duty of citizenship. The moment of voting was the “only moment in which we are all worth the same,” rich and poor. He then linked equality to kinship, arguing that voting was the only moment when “we are really brothers.” He underscored the grave importance of voting for the right person—and articulated the common Bolivian patriarchal political model mixed with the metaphor of brotherhood by stating that the president that they elected would “be our father; he will dirigirnos[direct us]”

As Don Carlos launched into a tirade against Tuto, his tone intensified. “Don't forget,” he shouted, “who it was who took away our water!” As a former Vice President of Bolivia, Tuto had supported water privatization in Cochabamba in 2000; privatization led to the tripling of household water rates and sparked massive protest during Cochabamba's “Water War.” This conflict began an era of intense political mobilization that was still present on the day of this meeting. One of the women who had proposed the oven scheme recoiled.

Don Carlos further linked Tuto to the elite, oppressive minority in Bolivia but the women and himself to the subaltern, oppressed majority. He asked, “Quienes son los que nos han pisoteado siempre[Who are the ones who have always trampled us]?” No one answered, so Don Carlos launched into one of his oft-repeated refrains: “If we are poor, it is because someone has set things up that way. If our children suffer because they don't have the opportunity to go to school”—pointing dramatically to a baby perched solemnly on her mother's knees—“it is because someone has made things this way.” He added that Tuto, as vice president and later, as acting president, had negotiated secret deals with foreign companies, selling Bolivia's chief resource, natural gas, at a pittance “behind the backs of everyone … gas at the price of a dead chicken.” Don Carlos urged them to reconsider whether Tuto and his party were “our friends.”

Don Carlos suddenly and visibly caught himself. He switched to a quieter tone, seeming to decide that as NGO director, he should remain formally nonpartisan. In the rhetoric of the MAS party and the national Bartolinas Federation, he again denounced clientelistic vote-selling on principle. He asked the women if they knew that most politicians “put a price on each vote.” He said that they all knew how they spent this money: “noodles.” Fernanda, the co-instigator of the oven scheme, took up Don Carlos’ thread with an ironic smile: “Noodles, T-shirts … ” Her smile suggested disappointment that Don Carlos had vetoed her plan, chagrin at his criticism, yet simultaneously, eagerness to repeat criticisms of clientelism learned at past Ayni workshops.

Don Carlos then warned that they would not receive the oven without strings attached. Tuto's campaign representatives would film for the local news to declare publicly, “Choro is with Tuto.” This, Don Carlos explained, was why he, as director, tried to keep Ayni “neutral.” What would happen if the women's group supported the losing candidate? Several women nodded vehemently, appearing to recall that siding with candidates who lost would forbid them access to the winners (field notes, December 8, 2005).

Don Carlos urged them to drop their support for leaders who did not represent them and instead set their sights on becoming leaders themselves. One of the NGO's central goals was, he said, to help them to become mayors, agrarian leaders, and professionals so as to disrupt the dominance of Sacaba's provincial elites: “Makita mañakuni, sapaykichis ñaupaqman rinankicheqpaq[I am lending a hand so that one day, you all can move forward on your own].” Don Carlos exited the meeting, and no one broached this oven scheme publicly again. They eventually bought a small oven—disappointingly small to several members—with a small contribution from me, from an Ayni employee, and the proceeds of their small cooking business. For various reasons, they never opened their hoped-for bakery (field notes, August 15, 2009).

Don Carlos's condemnation of patronage reveals both dramatic changes and considerable continuities in Bolivian political culture. Like other ardent MASistas, Don Carlos described MAS as the first significant party to follow principles of indigenous pride and redistribution of wealth, rather than patronage.6 The declaration that they were all living a new historical moment, the condemnation of being pisoteado (trampled) by the Bolivian political and economic elite, and opposition to clientelism on principle were all new elements of Bolivian public discourse. Don Carlos asserted that the rise of Bolivian social movements, of the MAS party, and of Evo all marked a historical rupture from 1950s clientelism, 1980s free market reforms, and 1990s intensification of local patronage following decentralization. He seemed to interpret the women's suggestion to get an oven from Tuto's campaign as an outmoded and dangerous adherence to clientelistic political attitudes at a time when the MAS platform-based programs made clientelism obsolete. Don Carlos, then, representing himself as a citizen of this new era, told the women that, in their acceptance of the client role, they were unthinkingly perpetuating an older model of citizenship.

Don Carlos's tirade, however sympathetic I found his political sentiments, was also a classist, elitist exercise illustrative of Bolivia's colonial inequalities. Tania Murray Li (2007) observes a similar dynamic among Indonesia NGO workers who saw their role as forging properly radical subaltern citizens. These leftist NGO workers aimed to “instruct[t] people in the proper practice of politics” (Li 2007:25). Like Don Carlos, Indonesian activists supported the radical redistribution of wealth and power, yet saw themselves as an elite vanguard that needed to raise the rest of the population's consciousness. As Li suggests, politically militant leaders who style themselves as a vanguard may place themselves in “the position of the trustee,” separating themselves from “the position of deficient subject whose conduct is to be conducted” (2007:24–25).

In Bolivia, the interactions between self-professed political radicals and the subalterns with whom they express solidarity may also re-entrench vertical power relations. As in Indonesia, trusteeship in Bolivia emerged from colonialism. Don Carlos's evocation of trusteeship echoed Popular Participation Law reformers who scolded “client citizens” as obstacles to a renewed, liberal democracy (Reilly, Ardaya, and Laserna n.d.; see García 2005:109). It also echoed the 1950s and 1960s authoritarian modes of populist organizing in Bolivia. In the Cochabamba valleys, agrarian union bosses tied to President and General Rene Barrientos dominated provincial political life and squelched demands for more significant land reform. Despite transformations in political practices, then, Don Carlos also perpetuated preexisting hierarchies.

While the intensity of Don Carlos's authoritarian manner on this occasion was unusual, some of his and some of Ayni's employees’ daily practices subtly perpetuated hierarchies even as they explicitly promoted equality. Though occasionally apologizing, Don Carlos often interrupted the dozens of meetings I attended to an extent that would have been unthinkable had the women been his social equals or social superiors. The college-educated Ayni promotora (group coordinator), Ximena, urged the women to become agrarian union leaders and to learn business management. Yet Ximena was a gatekeeper who helped decide which local residents would receive Ayni's scarce job offers as program assistants, and she often set the meeting agendas, rather than letting the women decide. During a Mothers’ Day celebration in 2006, Ayni's German-born codirector, Don Carlos's wife, asserted this social inequality when she thanked the assembled beneficiaries for their participation. To her thanks, she added “All moms give love, but we also damos riñas[scold]. Sometimes I criticize my daughters and sons [i.e., program beneficiaries], but as with all mothers, it's for your own good.” In sum, the language and practices of authoritarian clientelism persisted, coupled with a strikingly new rhetoric and new political practices. My intention is not to condemn these assertions of dominance for their inconsistency, but rather to argue that even the most well-intentioned and resolute people—in any location—would find themselves engaging in hybrid practices.

Don Carlos, in the midst of his tirade about the oven, apparently disregarded the ideological reasons for Choreños’ opposition to the MAS party and the dire economic needs that spurred some women to seek a patronage oven. While some Ayni women's group members were staunch MAS supporters, in keeping with the majority of the region's residents, others condemned the party for the failure of the local MAS-controlled municipal government to build development projects. They also criticized bitterly the local MASistas who wrangled municipal jobs at the expense of residents’ relatives who were desperately seeking jobs. Some feared Evo's leadership of the coca-growers union, associating him with drug trafficking and the corruption of Bolivian society. In this region, in which many had become prosperous from the recent coca and cocaine booms, several members scoffed that Evo was unqualified to be president because it was rumored that he lacked a high school degree, and remained, therefore, an “Indian.” If Don Carlos's suggestion that the women offered themselves as clients out of short-sighted material concerns and a failure of radical consciousness, he disregarded their multiple ideological and economic commitments.

Furthermore, Don Carlos's position as an NGO director dispensing scarce resources embroiled him in relations of clientelism, despite his direct condemnation of it. While he declared his aim as “lending a hand” to the women's group to become self-supporting in the future, the privilege that allowed him to interrupt their meetings at will and to monopolize the attention of the group highlighted the women's subordinate position. None of the members openly disagreed with him, which suggests that they may have feared threatening the flow of NGO resources.

The women's silence following Don Carlos's diatribe about the oven suggests lingering resentments and contrary interpretations. Fernanda, the chief promoter of the plan, insisted that Don Carlos's partisanship necessarily embroiled him and Ayni in the very relations of patronage that he condemned. She complained that “no era justo[it was not right]” that Don Carlos had vetoed the oven “simply because he was for another party; he was in MAS … . Because … the oven wasn't just for me; it was for the whole group” (interview with author, December 27, 2007). Fernanda unsurprisingly portrayed herself as hewing to principle while disputing that Don Carlos had acted on behalf of his principles, and not his self-interest.


I have described the hybridity of political frameworks in Bolivia since the rise to power of Evo Morales. As Hylton and Thompson assert, Bolivians’ political struggles uphold the much-heralded “possibility of social transformation in the contemporary world” (2007:18). Bolivia's example thus extends beyond its national borders and the region of Latin America. Leaders in the MAS era engage in exhortations that citizens should purify their political models and publicly proclaim their commitment to this transformation.

At stake, politically, is the danger that, if supporters of MAS and observers have purist expectations of the new regime, their unrealistic expectations will lead to perpetual disappointment (see Albro 2007). Conversely, if political leaders have purist expectations of citizens—to not engage in patronage practices, for example—they may continue to blame citizens for moral failure or despair of achieving societal change, rather than acknowledging that the structure of Bolivian society continues to make patronage appointments the primary venue through which people gain employment or receive development funds.

Hall's metaphor of a truck (or “lorry”) captures the eclecticism with which Don Carlos, his interlocutors, and Sacabans articulate multiple political frameworks and practices, particularly clientelism, neoliberalism, state capitalism, direct democracy, and indigenist socialism. Departing slightly from Goodale (2009), who argues that Bolivian liberalism continues as an all-pervading logic, I suggest that both practices and ideals have changed in Bolivia, albeit in an additive, hybrid manner. If the hierarchical manner of Don Carlos's exposition smacked of colonial social relations and implicit patronage practices, his rhetoric of being pisoteado and his demand that they not accept a material favor from any politician was distinctively new.

The complaints of Julio Salazar, the MAS official; Don Felix, the MAS municipal employee; and Don Carlos, an NGO director, in fact suggest that projects of radical transformation—away from clientelism and toward radical democracy, as in Bolivia—cannot be ideologically pure. Thus in Bolivia, even those who most eloquently argue for the transformation of Bolivian society to effect the redistribution of wealth and forge social equality, and who argue against clientelism, neoliberalism, and social hierarchies as moral and political evils, also demonstrate the impossibility of purity in their speech and actions. Don Carlos perpetuated unequal power relations in the name of launching a new era of equality. At issue in these condemnations of patronage, I propose, is the need to acknowledge the inseparability of radical politics, multiple strands of clientelism, and practices of neoliberal governmentality. Political change, rather than a rupture with the past, should be understood as a process of the melding of multiple models of state and citizenship.


  • 1

    Throughout the article, I have used pseudonyms for Eric and all other individuals except for public officials speaking on public record.

  • 2

    Social movement leaders such as Salazar were initially opposed to decentralization. They worried that the LPP was intended to squelch popular demands (Postero 2007). In fact, the LPP, sparked protests and supported the rise of local politicians, paving the way for intensified practices of patronage and the rise of the MAS party (Urioste 2004).

  • 3

    These parties were, principally, CONDEPA, led by Carlos Palenque, and UCS, led by Max Fernandez.

  • 4

    Don Carlos often mentioned that he had grown up destitute and was one of only two siblings out of nine who had attained a professional education.

  • 5

    “Ayni” means “labor exchange” in Quechua, Bolivia's most commonly spoken indigenous language.

  • 6

    See Albro (2001, 2007, 2010) and Mayorga (2002) for excellent analyses of the two prominent political parties active in the Cochabamba and La Paz regions during the late 1980s and 1990s—the Civic Solidarity Union (UCS) and the Conscience of the Fatherland (CONDEPA)— each of which espoused a similar platform of redistribution of wealth. Neither party condemned clientelism, however.