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Bolivian social housing under Evo Morales: between envy and Vivir Bien (Living Well)

The town of Charazani. (C) Jonathan Alderman

In October 2019, Bolivia’s self-proclaimed first indigenous president, Evo Morales controversially ran for a fourth consecutive term in office (or third if one doesn’t count his first term, cut short when Bolivia’s 2009 constitution came into effect). Sitting presidents were limited to two consecutive terms in office until November 2017. A public referendum in February 2016 narrowly voted against allowing Morales to stand for office again, but Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal overturned the result on the grounds that restricting Morales to two terms infringed on his right to political participation as a private citizen. Morales was forced from office by the public outcry from a large section of the population against perceived fraud committed by Evo Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party in the election on 20th of October, but since the referendum three and a half years previously, Morales had already been losing legitimacy in the eyes of increasing numbers of the Bolivian electorate.

Morales’ presidency was characterised by major constitutional changes, social welfare programmes, and massive investment in national and local infrastructure. Evo Morales’ supporters particularly highlighted the road-building programmes during Morales’ tenure. On the walls of various properties as one approaches the city of El Alto from the motorway one sees the slogan ‘Evo = roads [carreteras]’. Critics of Evo Morales may associate him with the construction of one particular road: the motorway that was proposed to be built through the TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure), and that led to conflict between Evo Morales’ government and lowland indigenous people and environmental activists from 2011 onwards (see Laing 2015). Here, however, I will examine the effects of another aspect of the MAS government’s wide-ranging infrastructure investment: their social housing programme.

In 2018 I was awarded a Postdoctoral Research grant by the Society for Latin American Studies to conduct research into the effects of the Bolivian State’s housing donation programme on social relations within communities in the municipality in Charazani, in fieldwork between January and March 2019. I had previously conducted research for my PhD in Social Anthropology in the municipality of Charazani between February 2012 and March 2013 with the Kallawayas, an Andean indigenous nation well-known in Bolivia for their healers. I studied their project to create an autonomous local government based on ethnic identity, after the Kallawayas and their language were recognised in Bolivia’s 2009 constitution:

Evo Morales had come to power in 2006 with an agenda to decolonise the state. To this end, a new constitution—written in 2009 through a constituent assembly which sat from 2006 to 2008— refounded Bolivia as a plurinational state, recognising the existence of thirty-six indigenous nations and their right to govern themselves autonomously within the Bolivian state (The constitution does not explicitly state that it recognises thirty-six indigenous nations and peoples, but it does so implicitly through article four, which names thirty-six official indigenous languages of the state.). Philosophically, the decolonising objectives of the state are encapsulated by the concept of Vivir Bien (living well), which is defined in the constitution as one of the moral precepts of the state.

The concept of Vivir Bien, as anthropologist Anders Burman (2017: 155) points out, can mean everything and nothing. As described by Bolivian theorists such as Javier Medina (2011) and Simón Yampara (2011), the concept of Vivir Bien and its Aymara and Quechua translations Suma Qamaña and Sumaj Kawsay respectively describe a (somewhat idyllic) way of life in which people live in harmonious non-exploitative relations with both their human and nonhuman neighbours, an idealised way of living based on an understanding of life within the rural Andean community known as the ayllu. It therefore implies a recognition by the state of the right of indigenous peoples to live well their way. As a description of a non-exploitative relationship with the environment, the term therefore implies an alternative to development, as the Eduardo Gudynas (2014) has pointed out. However, the most striking characteristic of the term has come to be its polyvalence. Vivir Bien was put at the heart of the 2006 and 2010 National Development Plans, with the 2006 Plan stating that ‘one cannot live well if others live badly’ (Plan Nacional de Desarollo 2006: 10, cited in Postero 2017: 94). This was echoed in Evo Morales’ public discourses in speeches including at the UN and international conferences on climate change, in which repeatedly put forward a biocentric vision of living in which the wellbeing of all species, including Mother Earth, are given equal priority (Fabricant 2013: 168-70). However, as Salvador Schavelzon (2015) has pointed out, the meaning of Vivir Bien gradually shifted to become increasingly anthropocentric. Exploitation of the environment, through the extraction of non-renewable resources was justified by Morales’ government on the basis that it would enable human beings to live well, and the term appeared to become nothing more than a synonym for traditional development in state discourse.

One of the first acts of Morales’ government in 2006 was to ‘nationalise’ the gas industry. What this entailed in practice was that foreign companies were given six months to renegotiate their contracts with the state, and the taxes they were obliged to pay on their profits were increased from 18% to 54% (Postero 2017: 97). The government’s policy was to use the increased income from resource extraction (known as IDH – Impuesto Directo a los Hidrocarburos [Direct Hydrocarbon Tax]) to finance programmes that it claimed would enable its citizens to live well. The tying of social programmes for indigenous people to income from extractive industries—what Eduardo Gudynas (2014: 66) has called ‘brown progressivism’—highlights what sociologist Ana Dinerstein (2015: 165) has referred to as ‘the “Janus face” of the plurinational state: the developmental of the capitalist face and the plurinational indigenous face.’ Salvador Schavelzon (2015: 190) has argued that the richness of the concept of Vivir Bien is precisely the ambivalence of its meaning: when used in state discourse to promote extractivism, it retains its communitarian aspect. Thus, in speeches to formally hand over state projects to their beneficiaries, the Bolivian president Evo Morales, and vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera could describe these projects as promoting Vivir Bien, even though the unintended consequences of certain projects might have been to disturb the conditions for living well as it is understood locally.

My postdoctoral research has begun to investigate the Bolivian State Housing Agency’s programme of state-donated and –subsidised housing, focusing on housing in the municipality of Charazani in the north of the department of La Paz, around a six-hour bus journey from the city of La Paz itself. The implementation of Vivir Bien is central to the work of the State Housing Agency, whose mission is ‘to reduce the housing deficit, facilitating access to an adequate and affordable home for Bolivian households, executing programmes that construct social equity and quality of life’ with a vision of ‘formulating, leading, coordinating and executing the Bolivian policy of housing, habitat and territory, in the framework of a communitarian living together in harmony with Mother Earth to live well’ (Agencia Estatal de Vivienda n.d).

Fieldwork Location. (C) Jonathan Alderman

The Bolivian State has funded the construction of two main types of housing in rural communities: emergency housing, donated in full at the cost of 130,000 bolivianos (around £15,000) to the state, to those families who have suffered a natural disaster, such as flooding; and what are known as state houses, that cost around 88,000 bolivianos (around £10,000, these latter being subsidised by the state, with the beneficiaries paying around 20-40% of the cost, in materials, their own labour, and food and lodging for a hired labourer. Each house is made of red-brick, has a kitchen/diner, two bedrooms and a bathroom with shower and a toilet. The only difference between the emergency housing and the state housing is that the former also comes with a stable (for alpacas in the highlands) and an outside toilet, while the toilet of state houses is inside.

Up to 2019, families in Charazani, in twenty-two of the municipality’s sixty-eight communities had received housing from the state. In 2014, 188 emergency houses were donated to families who had suffered flood damage to their house; the next year 105 subsidised houses were handed over to families across the municipality from the highlands to the tropical lowlands. The design of the house at each level of altitude is identical despite the different climates in communities that are based at a range of altitudes from around 800 metres to 5,000 metres above sea level. Ironically, this means that although government policy recognises indigenous nations and peoples’ right to live well their way, the different ways of living (at different altitudes) within an indigenous nation do not appear to have been taken into account in the design. The extent to which the design of the houses truly met the needs of families at any altitude is also questionable, given that even in the highlands where the alpaca stable might have been of use, almost all beneficiaries had bricked this up by the time of my visit from January to March this year, as it was deemed too small to serve its purpose. For most of the families I visited, the toilet also served little use, other than to instil more metropolitan expectations of norms of hygienic behaviour. Many were not connected properly, and those that were, were not always used. One friend in the town of Charazani told me that he did not use his toilet, because he has toilets ‘over here, and over there’ pointing to his fields. To some degree at least, the design of the houses appears to aim at instilling an idea of living well, based on living better. When Bolivian vice-President Alvaro Garcia-Linera formally handed over the first tranche of houses in the municipality in 2014, he announced that he was handing over the houses on behalf of President Evo Morales so that the beneficiaries (whose houses were previously constructed from adobe) could live with dignity.

An emergency house in 2016. (C) Jonathan Alderman

Charazani, (along with Curva, its neighbouring municipality in the province of Bautista Saavedra) is home to the Kallawaya nation. The Kallawayas are well-known in Bolivia principally as healers who perceive the quality of their social relationships as determining factors in their sickness and health. A person can become sick because of a lack of harmony or an imbalance in their relations with others, including both human neighbours and the Kallawaya gods, who are present in the landscape around them. To live well, for the Kallawayas, is to live well with others, to convivir with others in the rural Andean community, the ayllu.

The same house in 2019. (C) Jonathan Alderman

In practice, the implementation of the state social housing programme appears to have the potential to disrupt conviviality in Kallawaya communities. When decisions were taken over whether to apply for housing from the state or not between 2013 and 2014, these had to be taken at community level (partly because the authorities of the ayllu for that year have to certify that the applicants reside there and have fulfilled their obligations towards the community). In many communities, decisions were taken that everyone or no one in a community should apply for housing, in order to avoid envy between neighbours. Envy is regarded by Kallawayas as a potential cause of misfortune and sickness, and the conditions for envy should therefore be avoided if possible. It is thought to be dangerous to be the subject of envy because this can cause harm to the person envied or those close to them, potentially through to witchcraft (Abercrombie 1998:68; Rösing 2008: 84-85, 104-5, 154; Van Vleet 2003: 506-507).

This had led to a variety of responses to the housing programme. In one community, a friend told me that although flooding between 2011 and 2013 had only affected three of the families in his community, they had attempted to obtain houses for all community members in 2014, in order to avoid envy between neighbours. In the end only around half of the community received houses. The next year, when the opportunity to apply for the subsidised state housing came up, the authorities in the community applied for these for the rest of the community, but they were unsuccessful, partly, my friend thought, because many of the communities which received state had not previously received any of the emergency houses, and partly because the income from IDH had been reduced that year, the finance for the programme being dependent on the extractive economy.

In another community when the opportunity to apply for donated state housing came up, they turned it down. In January 2013 I had seen with my own eyes the damage caused by flooding to houses in Lunlaya, a community near the town of Charazani, where my friend Aurelio, a Kallawaya healer, lived. However, the memory was fresh of the discord that had resulted when electricity had been installed in the community a few years previously, but only for those who could afford it (ten out of thirty-five families). In order to avoid a repeat, families whose houses had been affected by landslides decided not to take advantage of the government programme. During a visit to his community in January 2019, Aurelio told me that they were now planning to apply together as a community for state housing during a new municipality-wide application process this year, though he feared that not all families in the community would be beneficiaries at the end of the process. For Aurelio, though, it was poverty that was the biggest cause of envy, and it was poverty that therefore had to be tackled as a priority, in order to eliminate the conditions for it. He therefore regarded the houses as ‘a great help on the part of the Plurinational State’.

In other communities, such as that of my compadre (whose house is pictured below), only a few families applied and received houses—but they did so having had to twist the arm of their community’s authorities to obtain support, and some have told me they actively feel the envy of their neighbours.

My compadre's house. (C) Jonathan Alderman

Despite the misgivings of some regarding the possible threat to communal harmony, the houses in themselves were generally welcomed. Some of those who have not so far received social housing (as well as some of those who have) questioned whether these were really free gifts from the state, and whether they would later be asked to pay taxes on the houses (this question may be particularly pertinent after a change of government). However, the houses represent a metaphorical gift horse for the vast majority of families, for it is as gifts that these houses were received. At the hand-over ceremony previously mentioned, Garcia-Linera remarked that they had been able to build these houses because Morales had nationalised the gas industry. It is possibly as a result of such discourse that several beneficiaries of houses I knew told me that their houses were gifts from the president himself, with one inviting me to his ‘casa de Evo’. The personal appearances made by the President and Vice-President at televised handovers of infrastructure on what seemed like an almost daily basis, may foment the personal connection made between themselves and the public works for their beneficiaries. The one hundred schools, neighbourhoods, stadiums and other infrastructure named after Evo Morales between 2007 and 2018 (though this does not include the social housing in Charazani) may also contribute to what the Cochabamba newspaper Los Tiempos referred to as a ‘cult of personality’ around the president (Los Tiempos 2019). Anecdotal evidence in Charazani before the election on the 20th October 2019 suggested that while Evo Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party appeared to be losing support, President himself had largely retained his popularity. One friend in Charazani emphasised to me that he was not a MASista, but he was an Evista. Another friend, despite having voted against Morales being able to run for another term in office, told me that Morales was ‘the first President to care about others, and to implement programmes like social housing’ (from which he himself had benefitted), and thought it likely that such programmes would be curtailed if another president entered office. Alongside the purported mission of the housing programme, in which Vivir Bien, at the level of discourse, is central, they also acted as connectors with Evo Morales as President, embodying hopes and expectations. This anecdotal evidence was confirmed when I spent election day in the ayllu of Amarete in the municipality of Charazani and witnessed as around 70% of the presidential votes came in for Evo Morales, and yet the MAS candidate to be elected as the local member of parliament received only around 50% of the vote, despite herself being from the very ayllu of Amarete. One man told me that at previous elections everyone, without exception would vote for the party, but now the party was losing support because of concerns about corruption.

The Bolivian State under Evo Morales invested unprecedented levels of funds in projects in rural areas of the country. Bolivia’s refounding as a plurinational state, emphasising through the concept of Vivir Bien, indigenous people’s right to autonomy and to define their own ways of living well, put an equally unprecedented responsibility on the state to shake off the monolithic, monocultural thinking of its previous incarnations whose social programmes attempted to ‘civilise’ rural peoples to a metropolitan-oriented culture. The social programmes of the plurinational state, such as the housing programme described here, needed then to both invest in rural communities, while respecting the autonomy of indigenous peoples. This continues to be vital to the politics of the Plurinational State if its philosophical basis is taken seriously as a political project. Only time (and further research) will tell the degree to which Bolivia’s social housing programme, and other government programmes, do so successfully, under Evo Morales’ successor as president, whoever they may be.

Jonathan Alderman


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