Bolivia: President Evo Morales triumph in a recall referendum is a verdict in support of his reforms policy.
THE resounding victory of Bolivias President Evo Morales in the referendum held on August 10 has once again shown to the world that the pink tide that is sweeping Latin America is in no danger of ebbing.
Around the same time that Morales won a massive re-endorsement for his rule and the radical reforms he has proposed, another leftist politician, Fernando Luga, was sworn in President of Paraguay. Luga was elected in April this year, ending six decades of one-party rule by the right-wing Colorado Party. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was beside Luga when he took his oath of office on August 15. Venezuela has promised to meet Paraguays energy needs. Paraguay, like Bolivia, is among the poorest countries in the region.
The white elite in Bolivia, long accustomed to monopolising power at the expense of the Indian majority, has not yet reconciled to the new political realities. Ever since Morales assumed the presidency, there have been attempts to destabilise the government. They included moves to break up the country and an assassination attempt. A series of illegal autonomy referendums organised by the Governors of the four eastern States were aimed at eventually severing links with the central government. These States are Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija, where the majority of the people are of mixed race or non-indigenous descent. Morales is the first indigenous leader to be elected President in Latin American history. More than 53 per cent of the population of Bolivia is of indigenous descent.
Given the circumstances, President Morales was left with no option but to go in for a national referendum of his own. Much of the countrys vast hydrocarbon resources are located in these States. Ultimately, the high-risk gamble paid off. As per the countrys Constitution, Morales had to win more votes than he had garnered in the presidential poll. In the end, Morales won comfortably, getting more than 63 per cent of the votes cast. In the presidential election of December 2005, he had won 54 per cent of the vote.
A simultaneous recall referendum on the Governors in eight of the nine prefectures (States) of Bolivia was also held. The Governors of the four resource-rich States were re-elected with large majorities but two other Governors who were opposed to Morales lost in the referendum. One Governor owing allegiance to Morales was also voted out.
Morales, in a speech, said that the referendum outcome consolidated the process of change and emphasised that his government would continue recovering natural resources and the consolidation of nationalisation. He ended his speech by repeating the slogan made famous by the Cuban Revolution: Fatherland or Death. The big crowd of supporters in the national capital La Paz roared its approval by repeating the slogan in unison.
When Morales took over, about 14 per cent of the economy was under state control. Today the state controls 23 per cent of the economy. The Vice-President, Alvaro Garcia, said the goal of the government was to control 30 per cent of the economy.
Those opposed to Morales say that his victory is a pyrrhic one since those who are ideologically against him have also consolidated their positions. But Morales can rightfully claim that he has received a huge mandate at the national level to implement the radical reforms he has promised.
Even in the four States where the Governors opposed to the ruling Movement to Advance Socialism (MAS) hold sway, the President won more than 40 per cent of the vote a significant improvement on his 2005 tally. Morales reform agenda, which is central to a new Constitution he has proposed, includes radical land reforms.
In the four States that have raised the banner of revolt against Morales and the MAS, a tiny white elite controls most of the land. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 25 million hectares of prime farmland here is controlled by 100 families. The remaining 5 million ha of farmland is shared by two million peasants. One rancher, who has American nationality, owns 1,40,000 ha of land in Santa Cruz. Nothing seems to have changed since the time of the Spanish colonialism. In some parts of Bolivia, vestiges of colonialism and racism still exist.
Also high on the agenda of President Morales is the further nationalisation of the hydrocarbon sector, which provides the country with most of its hard currency earnings. The government had met with violent opposition when it took over gas fields on May Day of 2006; it had to deploy the armed forces to put down the uprising. The government had then demanded that the private firms cede 51 per cent of their ownership of gas fields to the state company within six months. Most of the companies have complied.
The Bolivian armed forces, though known for its conservative leadership and interventionist tendencies, is also an avowed defender of a united Bolivia. Any attempt by resource-rich States such as Santa Cruz to secede in all likelihood will not be tolerated by the armed forces.
The oligarchic elite are not in a mood to share with the masses the proceeds from the extraction of the countrys bountiful natural resources. Bolivia ranks among the poorest countries in Latin America despite its abundant resources. The landlocked Andean country has more than 650 billion metres of proven natural gas reserves, the second biggest in Latin America after the reserves of Venezuela. The country is also a net exporter of oil. However, the indigenous population, known as the Andean Altiplano, which constitutes the majority and is concentrated in the mountainous regions, is mainly engaged in subsistence farming. Eighty per cent of it lacks access to even clean water.
The role of the United States in Bolivia since the political ascent of Evo Morales has been controversial. The Bush administration has not made a secret of its dislike for Morales, who is a staunch ally of Chavez. Morales is also a fervent admirer of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. Since last year, Washington has been channelling all its aid money directly to the rebellious provinces, bypassing the central government in La Paz.
In February this year, Bolivia expelled a U.S. diplomat on espionage charges. Bolivia has also sharply reduced security cooperation with the U.S. since then. The government also decided to discontinue the activities of the Organisation for Development of Police Research (ODEP), an intelligence unit funded by the U.S. State Department to investigate narco-trafficking and terrorism. The U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, has openly criticised the Morales governments close relationship with Venezuela and Cuba. Cuban doctors have conducted more than 260,000 eye operations and helped set up clinics for the poor in Bolivia.
Washington has not taken kindly to the Bolivian governments decision to legalise the cultivation of coca either. For centuries, coca leaves have been used by the indigenous community for medicinal purposes.
The Venezuelan government was among the first to congratulate Evo Morales on his landslide victory. As a further show of support to Bolivia, it pledged to build a cement factory in the poor Andean country in collaboration with Iran. The project will cost $225 million. The factory would help the Morales government fulfil its promise to build better roads and affordable housing for the poor.
According to the government of Bolivia, Venezuela has given $100 million already for setting up welfare projects relating to health, education and transportation in backward areas. Besides this, Venezuela has invested heavily in the countrys hydrocarbon sector.
Venezuelas Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said that Morales victory would further strengthen economic cooperation and the new regional grouping, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). This grouping, consisting of Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, is poised to be an alternative to the U.S.-sponsored free trade groupings in the region. Chavez described Morales latest electoral triumph as a victory for our America, a victory against imperialism.
A referendum on the proposed Constitution will be held next year. Morales had wanted to hold the referendum immediately after he was elected but the move was thwarted by the Opposition until recently. The countrys present Constitution does not allow two national referendums in a year. The proposed Constitution will recognise Bolivia as a unitary but a multi-ethnic state. Another provision calls for state ownership of natural resources, including oil, gas and coal. The previous government had privatised the hydrocarbon sector under controversial circumstances.
Under the new Constitution, the government will introduce direct federal taxes on the oil and gas industry. Currently the revenue is shared by the central and State governments. If the revenue goes straight to the coffers of the central government, the Governors of the rebellious States will not be in a position to destabilise the government.
Other key provisions in the proposed new Constitution relate to land reforms. The new Constitution, if approved, will help bring about radical changes in the countrys politics. Economic and political power will shift from the richer northern and eastern lowlands to the poorest and heavily populated western highlands. The new Constitution will give native Bolivians the right to self-determination and the management of their own resources.