Bolivia

Morales’ hat-trick

Print edition : November 14, 2014

Evo Morales at a campaign rally in El Alto, Bolivia, on October 8. Photo: Juan Karita/AP

Morales with Fidel Castro (centre) and Hugo Chavez in Havana on April 29, 2006. He has dedicated his victory to these two leaders, who he says are his role models. Photo: JAVIER GALEANO/AP

Bolivian President Evo Morales’ landslide win for a third successive term in office is a victory of nationalisation over privatisation and a huge boost to peoples in Latin America and the world struggling against capitalism and imperialism.

"I am convinced that capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity and the environment; enemy of the entire planet."

-- Evo Morales, Presidnt of Bolivia



WHAT EVO MORALES profoundly believes in is anathema to the ruling classes in India and the West. But in Latin America, the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist ideology has taken firm root. The thumping victory of Morales in the presidential election in Bolivia held in the second week of October, which gave him a third term in office, is a graphic illustration of this. He dedicated his victory to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, his role models.

“There was a debate on two models: nationalisation or privatisation. Nationalisation won with more than 60 per cent,” Morales said in the victory speech. Felicitations came in from fellow socialist leaders in the region, including the Presidents of Cuba, Venezuela and Argentina. “In your name this triumph of the Bolivian people is dedicated to all the peoples in Latin America and in the world who struggle against capitalism and against imperialism,” the 54-year-old Morales said.

The majority of South American countries retain an egalitarian and socialist form of government. The trend started at the end of the last century when Chavez was elected President of Venezuela. Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia are among the countries that have elected left-wing leaders in the past decade. Latin America until the 1990s was treated by the United States, the “colossus of the North”, as its backyard. Any country choosing an alternative model of development was considered an enemy by the U.S. Since the 1950s, left-wing governments in Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua and Grenada were overthrown violently with the active involvement of the U.S. Authoritarian plutocrats and right-wing military strongmen were installed in office by the U.S. The Duvalier family in Haiti and General Augusto Pinochet in Chile are only two examples.

In the October 12 elections, President Morales won a resounding victory in the first round itself. A run-off is only necessary if the winning candidate polls less than 50 per cent of the votes. The Movement towards Socialism (MAS), the ruling party led by Morales, won a comfortable two-thirds majority in both the houses of Parliament, winning 24 out of the 36 Senate seats and 80 of the 130 seats in the House of Deputies.

Neoliberal yoke

Ever since he appeared on the political scene, Morales has been creating history. A fiery trade union leader without a college education, he first came to prominence as the leader of the coca growers’ union. He played a prominent role in the overthrow of two corrupt and compromised Presidents. Before Morales took over the presidency, Bolivia was plagued by chronic instability. The average life expectancy of a government was less than two years. Military interventions until the 1980s and violent street protests subsequently saw many Bolivian Presidents deposed or forced to flee. The civilian governments that took over in the 1980s imposed free market, neoliberal policies that led to the elimination of price control and the dilution of workers’ rights.

It was the privatisation of water resources in the late 1990s that triggered a social and political upheaval. Protests erupted all over Bolivia as the government was unrelenting in its collection of the “water tax”. Even the collection of rainwater and water from private wells was not exempted. Morales played an important role in organising the protests, which forced the government of Hugo Banzer to rescind its decision on privatisation of water resources in 2000. Morales stood for President for the first time in the 2002 election. Despite explicit warnings from the U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia that voting for Morales would jeopardise U.S. aid to the country, he came a close second in the race.

The fiery socialist rhetoric of Morales and his championing of the coca growers cause had infuriated Washington. The U.S. has been demanding a complete ban on coca cultivation. The indigenous people in the region have been cultivating the plant from time immemorial and using it for making tea as well as for medicinal and cultural purposes.

Bolivia again erupted in 2003, this time over the decision by the government to introduce more privatisation, increase taxes and sell gas to private companies. The violent crushing of the movement, which resulted in the deaths of around 100 protesters in the capital, La Paz, and the satellite city of El Alto, led to the resignation of President Sanchez de Lozada, who had succeeded Banzer. He could last only 15 months in office. In a referendum in 2004, Bolivians overwhelmingly voted to renationalise their natural gas resources.

Decades of neoliberal policies had left the vast majority of the populace in dire poverty. In 2005, Bolivia’s gross domestic product (GDP) was lower than what it was in 1998. The trade unions and social movements decided to change the political structure of their country radically. Until then, three parties had taken turns to be in office: two of them claimed to be left of centre but all of them bowed to the diktats from Washington and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These parties had become discredited among the masses. The left-wing MAS led by Morales stepped into the vacuum.

Rise of a radical

In December 2005, Morales won the presidential election for the first time with around 54 per cent of the vote. It was the highest-ever victory margin recorded in the country’s history. The leader of the coca growers’ union, now the President, loyal as always to his roots, wasted no time in brandishing his radical credentials. “Long live coca. Death to the Yankees,” he said in his native Aymara language. One of the first things he did after taking over the presidency was to re-establish majority state control over the gas sector, increasing Bolivia’s share of the profits to 82 per cent. Before the coming of Morales, Bolivia had to be satisfied with a mere 18 per cent share of the profits. Bolivia has the second largest gas reserves in Latin America after Venezuela. Morales’ bold decision to go ahead and nationalise the gas sector laid the foundation for the future well-being of the country’s economy. Earnings from natural gas exports constitute almost half of the government’s revenue. Before 2005, gas accounted for only 7 per cent of the government’s earnings.

Morales also pledged to rewrite the Constitution, one of the major demands of the protesters, trade unions and social organisations. In 2006, a Constituent Assembly elected for the purpose of rewriting the Constitution met in the city of Sucre. A new Constitution was approved by the delegates but it met with stiff opposition from the old white and mixed-race elite concentrated in the provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija and Pando. In a last-ditch effort to stop the new Constitution from being adopted, the opposition tried the gambit of secession. A referendum of sorts was held in the four States, but only a minority of voters participated and the entire exercise had no legal or constitutional sanction. Morales, however, acceded to the opposition’s demand for a recall vote. In the election held in August 2008, Morales again scored a resounding victory, getting two-thirds of the vote. Meanwhile, the secessionist movement lost all steam after the brutal killing of 13 MAS supporters and the torching of government buildings and schools in the east of the country in September 2008.

Breaking ties with U.S.

The Bolivian government ordered the expulsion of the U.S. Ambassador Phillip Goldberg after the violent incidents. Goldberg was openly consorting with the separatist leaders and indulging in acts that the government considered subversive. While ordering the Ambassador out, Morales said that “we don’t want people who conspire against democracy” to remain in the country. Washington retaliated by expelling the Bolivian envoy to the U.S., imposing economic sanctions on Bolivia, and banning the country’s participation in the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. Bolivia responded by sending all U.S. Drug Enforcement agents in the country along with U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) workers packing. Full diplomatic relations between the two countries are still to be restored. Bolivia, along with Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua, is among the staunchest members of an alliance against the West in the region.

Morales stood for election for a second time after the adoption of the new Constitution in 2009 and won with 64 per cent of the vote. Since then the country has witnessed steady growth. A commodity boom came in handy for the government. Extreme poverty fell from 35 per cent in 2005 to 18 per cent in 2013. The number of Bolivians living in extreme poverty has fallen to one in five from more than a third in a population of 10 million. Minimum wages more than tripled. The unemployment rate is the lowest in Latin America. Thanks to a successful literacy programme, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has declared the country free of illiteracy.

Morales, after his re-election, once again emphasised his goal of turning Bolivia into “an energy centre for the region”. The government has been successful in ensuring that coca cultivation has not led to the production of cocaine. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime has lauded the Bolivian government’s efforts at curtailing the production of cocaine without the use of strong-arm methods. Washington has used its “War on Drugs” policy in the region as a camouflage to attack left-wing groups.

Morales told the media that he would not be seeking another term after his current term ends in 2019. He said that he would prefer to retire and stay in his rural farm where he once tended llamas along with his father as a boy. Washington has been alleging that Morales is becoming increasingly authoritarian and is seeking to change the Constitution so as to perpetuate his hold on power. Morales will have another five years in which to groom a successor. As of now, he towers over all other politicians in the country.

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