Evo pulls it off, again...

President Morales

As popular as ever: Evo Morales has won a third term as Bolivian president. Eneas De Troya under a Creative Commons Licence

Preliminary results suggest that Evo Morales won around 60 per cent of the vote in Sunday’s general election, and that the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) will have a commanding majority in the next legislature. Evo will be sworn in for a third term – ending in 2020 – in January 2015.  

The result confirms Evo’s extraordinary personal popularity, based partly on his own humble origins and his identification with the country’s strong social movements, and partly on his government’s achievements in office.  

His background as the son of dirt-poor peasant Altiplano farmers, as migrant sugar harvester in Argentina and then as coca farmer from the jungle Chapare region means that Morales’ life history is typical of many of his compatriots. He is perceived as a ‘man of the people’ in a country where, until his first election victory in 2005, politics was the exclusive domain of a small élite. His first victory in 2005 owed much to his leadership in opposition to neoliberal policies at a time when the traditional party system entered a period of crisis.

As president, Evo swiftly moved to extend state ownership over the key hydrocarbons industry, Bolivia’s main source of foreign exchange. He ordered the election of an Assembly to re-write the constitution to extend indigenous rights. He initiated social programmes to use gas income to benefit the poor. Since then, the Bolivian economy has prospered; growth this year will be among the highest in Latin America. Poverty levels have fallen sharply, as have measures of inequality.  

The election result also confirms the weakness of opposition parties and movements. Led by Samuel Doria Medina, a successful business entrepreneur, the main opposition force garnered around 25 per cent of the vote. However, the right-wing Unidad Demócrata (UD) coalition only managed to win in one of the country’s nine departments, the Beni, and there by a narrow margin.  

The opposition failed to win in Santa Cruz, usually considered the bastion of opposition to Morales and the MAS. It was here that Rubén Costas, the present governor and UD co-founder, tried to organize open secession in 2008 against the MAS administration in La Paz. The election result therefore quashes the widespread notion that the country is split into two ‘half moons’, one (the highlands) supporting the MAS and another (the lowlands) the opposition.  

Morales, elected in 2005 with 54 per cent of the vote and re-elected in 2009 with 64 per cent, starts his third administration in a position of strength. Preliminary results suggest that the MAS will have a commanding majority in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, possibly even the two-thirds majority it would need (if it wanted to) to change the constitution. Economic growth seems set fair: the IMF calculates that GDP will expand by 5.5 per cent this year and a further 5.0 per cent next year. Inflation remains under control. Foreign reserves are sufficient to prevent balance of payments problems, and Bolivia’s external indebtedness is lower than in 2005. Credit rating agencies regard the country as a good bet.

However, Evo will need to exercise his authority to maintain his primacy. Social movements, including labour unions, will seek to demand what they consider their fair share in the country’s growth. The business community, based on Santa Cruz, will also push for a larger share of the cake. Bolivia remains perilously dependent for its wellbeing on a single commodity: natural gas. And sooner or later, the question of succession is bound to emerge: as Hugo Chávez showed in Venezuela, even the most popular leaders do not go on for ever.

John Crabtree is a research associate at the Latin American Centre, Oxford, and co-author of the recently published Bolivia: Processes of Change (Zed, 2013)

Country Profile: Bolivia

Victor Ara

Indigenous leader Victor Ara. © Vanessa Baird

A miner, pick in one hand, rifle in the other, adorns many main squares of Bolivia’s highland mining communities, symbolizing the country’s tradition of radical social movements. Although the size of the mining unions is today much reduced, the miners’ legacy lives on in strong social movements in both the rural and urban spheres. It was these that galvanized support for the presidential candidacy of Evo Morales in 2005, and again in 2009. Morales had previously been a leader of the coca farmers who, influenced by the miners’ radicalism, had been a key element of the resistance to neoliberal reforms in the 1990s.

Eight years on from his original election, and with every chance of winning the forthcoming 2014 presidential contest, Morales has brought big changes to this, one of Latin America’s poorest and most unequal countries. In 2006, he reasserted state control over Bolivia’s natural-gas industry, its main source of export and tax revenues, increasing the amount of tax paid by foreign companies. The same year, he initiated the rewriting of the constitution with a view to extending the political and social rights of its majority indigenous population, long marginalized by mestizo élites. The new constitution came into force in 2009.

Under Morales, Bolivia has sought to assert itself on the international stage, too, not only reducing the profile of foreign companies in the economy but also standing up to the pressures long exerted by Washington to eradicate coca, the raw material for cocaine. In 2008, following indications of US complicity to remove him, he expelled both the US ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from the country. A close confidant of both Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba, Morales signed up to the Venezuelan-led ALBA grouping, while seeking to forge new alliances at the global level with countries critical of the US.

At more than 4,000 metres above sea leve, El Alto is probably the highest and largest open-air market in the world.

Vanessa Baird

Leftwing nationalism has a long history in Bolivia, originating in the early years of the 20th century. It erupted in 1952 with the so-called National Revolution, leading to the nationalization of the country’s mining industry, a radical agrarian reform and the introduction of universal suffrage. Morales, who grew up in poverty in a highland indigenous peasant community, has sought to build on this tradition, while linking it more explicitly to the struggle for indigenous rights.

His government, however, has had to face significant domestic opposition. In 2008, he had to face down the threat of secession from élites in eastern Bolivia fearful that the government’s revival of the 1950s agrarian reform would lead to their losing huge private estates. Then, in 2011 and 2012, he had to confront dissident social movements, fearful that the government’s develop­ment plans would trump commitments to indigenous rights and preservation of the environment. A 600-kilometre march from Trinidad in the tropical lowlands to the seat of government in highland La Paz to protest against plans to build a road through an indigenous preserve cast into doubt Morales’ much-vaunted commitment to indigenous and environmental ideals. Rifts also emerged between social movements and within them.

Still, with the country’s economy flourishing since 2006, its exports booming and its once-chronic fiscal deficit transformed into surplus, the government has been able to increase social spending and boost public investment. Poverty levels have declined, particularly because of an increase in employment. Subsidies paid to vulnerable populations – the very young, the elderly and nursing mothers – have also had significant impacts, especially in rural areas. Meanwhile, deep-rooted ethnic and gender divides appear to be being bridged, with previously marginalized indigenous people (especially women) playing a key role in the affairs of government.

By John Crabtree.

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