Bolivia Under Evo Morales By Isuru Perera-Somasinghe

Class: Latin American Politics                                                  Major: Politics/ International Study ’15

    When assessing the Bolivian government under Evo Morales, the first Bolivian indigenous president from the party known as Movimiento al Socialismo or MAS, it is important to pay attention to the 3 main areas of the governing project: the political, the social and, most importantly, the economic focus. Running with a leftist agenda and strong support from the indigenous, rural peasants and urban poor, Morales promised what many considered radically leftist policies, such as nationalization of mines, land reform and the eradication of the corporate and regional influence of countries from the global North, particularly the United States. His famous campaign concluding remarks ‘Long live Coca! Death to the Yankees!’ highlighted his anti-American sentiment. It must be noted that although the governing structure can be divided into 3 different groups, all 3 groups significantly overlap, alter and depend on each other simply due to the fact that the socio-political climate of Bolivia is predicated so greatly on the economy and vice versa. To the disappointment and critique of many, Morales’ government, following his election, did not deliver on the above mentioned promises, instead, it has maintained a fairly moderate political stance, prompting many to dub his governance inconsistent to what was presented during his election.    In my opinion, the accusation of Morales being ideologically unstable is rather unfair given the reality of Bolivian politics and politics in general. As cited in S. Sandor John’s Bolivia’s Radical Transition, Bolivia has endured several decades of political uncertainty as a result of extreme political polarity, where coup after coup have occurred–particularly in the years leading up to Morales’ election. Despite not taking a radically left path to governance, the Morales government has implemented significant changes that have resulted in the long-term improvement of politics, civil society and the economy.The social and political elements of the MAS government can be intertwined together. Before elaborating further, it is important to note that Morales did, in 2009, what no other Bolivian president had done: win a second consecutive tern with a greater margin, 64% with 90% voter turnout.1 This factor alone should be a justifiable indication of how much a majority of Bolivians trusted Morales and the path he was taking; no critical review of his politics by an outsider like me can be a better reflection than the choice of the Bolivian citizens and voters. Despite this, one cannot deny that the government readjusted its goals, differing from what was promised, particularly economically. The issue of the nationalization of mines, a strong running point for Morales during the 2005 elections, was not addressed effectively once he gained power as his “plan of nationalization… watered down [to] a proposal to increase taxes on private mining companies,”2 which illustrated his retreat from aggressive leftist policies of nationalization. In my opinion, this refocusing was based more on the reality of politics than it was on the fact that Morales had shifted ideologically, like previous leftist leaders of the past such as the MNR President Paz Estenssoro in the 1950s under President Paz. In order to create a government that benefited all the people, Morales needed to walk a straight line of moderation, as opposed to the more popular polarized visions of ‘left or right’.Jeffery Webber criticizes this approach, comparing it to Bolivian Colonel Gualberto Villarroel’s approach in the 1940s where he stated that, “We are not enemies of the rich, but we are better friends of the poor.”3 Webber criticizes a populist approach as potentially detrimental, as has been in the past when leftist regimes attempted populism by failing to “confront the economic and political power bases of the urban capitalist.”4 While Webber is accurate in saying that Morales did not crack down on the elite and the powerful, he is wrong to generalize this ‘failure to confront’; the Morales government’s political positioning is predicated on its economic plan, which will be highlighted later on in this paper. I fundamentally disagree with the accusation that the administration and the president have failed to deliver to the people in key ways, because in reality, the Morales government has made significant strides to balance the scales politically. Perhaps one of the most significant actions by the Morales government in the right direction was the proposal of a new constitution in 2009 that included the rights of the indigenous while also incorporating elements of the indigenous culture.The new constitution put forth by Evo Morales heralds one of the biggest steps towards granting much needed rights to the indigenous population by incorporating them into the focus of state activities, “based in respect and equality among all, with the principles of sovereignty, dignity, complementarity, solidarity, harmony and equality in the distribution and redistribution of social product, where the search for a good life predominates, with respect for the economic, social, juridical and cultural plurality of the inhabitants of this land.”5 Despite the utopian appearance of the constitution and how good it looks on paper, Nancy Postero elaborates on how much of a struggle it was to pass a bill in Congress to schedule a public referendum on the constitution, and how President Morales had to take an extremely critiqued unconventional path to achieve this. The question about the democratic nature of Morales’ governance arose when MAS “bused many of the delegates–but not those from opposition parties—to the nearby city of Oruro and, in a highly controversial special session, passed a version of the constitution.”6 Although Morales’ actions may have resembled that of a “political power grab,”7 one must also take into consideration the necessity for Morales to act in such a way, given the blatant rightwing opposition he faced. Even when Morales and his Vice President, Garcia Linera, reached out with “calls for negotiations with the far right.” These groups responded with blatant rejections and often with “massive and coordinated direct actions: road blockades; racist attacks against unarmed pro-government rallies; terrorization of poor, mainly indigenous neighborhoods in the eastern lowlands.”8

With this mounting opposition against, not only the government, but Morales’ supporters (particularly the indigenous), one must ask the question: was Morales’ unconstitutional or unconventional maneuver to change the constitution entirely wrong and contradictory of the “peaceful and democratic revolution” path he claimed to partake in when he came into power? Could their claim to “legitimacy at the international level” be questioned now that Morales had gone down this path?9 In my view, Morales did the most appropriate and ideal thing because the “liberal democratic institutions that existed could not accomplish the form of justice they [MAS] felt that Bolivia needed.”10 Under the previous constitution, the indigenous’ rights were not protected, despite accounting for over 60% of the Bolivian population. However, under the new constitution, they were protected. The authors of the new constitution included “particular indigenous cultural values as the fundamental ethical basis for the state”11 that focused on ethical and moral principles. For example, the use of the “Aymara moral code, do not be lazy, do not lie, do not steal – ama qhilla, ama llulla, ama suwa12 is particularly significant because it highlights the adoption of these values by the state. The constitution calls for “universal rights for all Bolivians… those social and economic rights that UNDR (United Nations Declaration of Human Rights) recognized but that don’t appear in the U.S. constitution.”13 Therefore, to criticize Morales for adopting an undemocratic approach to establish a democratic constitution that adheres to the needs of all people, including the indigenous, would be contradictory and ironic, given the end result of this ‘undemocratic power grab’ was a more cross sectorial and all-encompassing democratic structure than what has previously existed in Bolivia.

In addition to the new constitution, one of the biggest elements of the Bolivian civil society was the presence of the numerous social movements that existed within it. The effectiveness of the relationship between the Morales government and these movements reflects the social aspect of Morales’ government project. Before elaborating further, it must be clarified here that not all social movements were in favor of Morales during the first election, despite the misconception that they were. Morales did have a solid base that consisted of members from various social movements, which gave him and MAS, the ability “to mobilize its social bases so as to circumvent advances by the far right.”14 This influence over and support of many social movements was a direct reflection of MAS’ support by the people, which was evident in the referendum calling the Morales government into question, where MAS increased their “nationwide lead by 14%.”15 While MAS and Morales remained extremely popular amongst the majority, surprisingly due to its “predominantly rural base in a country that has recently become majority urban,”16 the government has often experienced tension with social movements when the topic of resource nationalization arises. The disappointment and dissatisfaction by the social movements is understandable given that many supported Morales expecting more progress under his governance; resource and mine nationalization was one of Morales’ campaign pledges to the people. However, it is also important to identify and acknowledge the limitations, particularly socio-political, he faced once he gained power.

As Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing state in Political Geography, the Bolivian social movements supported Morales with the expectation he would “use natural resource wealth to transform the country socially and economically” via the guidance of four key areas: “Poverty reduction, education and healthcare, transportation and productive infrastructure, job creation and industrialization.”17 The fundamental expectation by the social movements was that the wealth from resources and resource rents would empower the government with the fiscal ability to fulfill these hopes; however in reality, this was not possible. A lot of the social movements’ frustration stems from the economic policies of MAS and Morales, which were intended to take a dramatic leftward shift, yet remains a “balancing act [by MAS]; convincing supporters that it is fulfilling a resource nationalist agenda while continuing and even expanding reliance on transnational capital”, a “double discourse” of sorts.18 While criticizing MAS for not moving more towards nationalization, one must also pay attention to the rebellious nature of its opposition from the right; “MAS’ efforts to increase mining royalties and revenues”, a watered down alternative to nationalization, have been “thwarted by the powerful cooperative miners federation”, whose vast numbers, militant origins and ability to mobilize effectively provide them with the ability to oppose the government.”19 This opposition, combined with the structural and economic limitations on the government, is one of the main factors hindered the administration from carrying out the tasks it intended to upon election, forcing it to retreat from previous far leftist positions towards a more moderate one.

When focusing on the ‘contradictions’ of the Morales administration, all factors boil down to one main issue: economics. The economic strength of Bolivia is the biggest obstacle the Morales administration faces. Prior to gaining power, Morales spoke out vehemently against capitalism, foreign influence and corporate control within Bolivia, however, after his election the Bolivian economy’s economic constraints forced him to readjust his views. Through this readjustment, and the influence of Vice President Garcia Linera, MAS has heralded and championed a “reconstituted neoliberalism,”20 also named “Andean-Amazonian Capitalism:”21 a readjusted form of capitalism that is more suited and focused on the Bolivian people.

Even following his second election, Evo Morales spoke “frequently in international forums from an anticapitalist perspective” by presenting capitalism “as a system based on the exploitation of people, particularly the poor”. However, as Jeffery Webber points out, Morales’ Vice President, Garcia Linera, embodies a different perspective that starkly contrasts Morales’ anti-capitalist stance; Linera speaks about the “impossibility of socialism in the current context in that country [Bolivia]”, and instead promotes the idea of “Andean-Amazonian Capitalism.” In short, this form of capitalism is meant to represent a “capitalism with a human face,”22 which, to the surprise of many, gained the praise of officials at the IMF. This economic focus is highlighted in the “Plan de Desarollo Nacional (National Development Plan);”23 essentially, this plan is predicated on the successful exportation of primary resource commodities like hydrocarbons and minerals via the financial help of, what Webber dubs, “imperialist capital”, but with more royalties and tax revenue going to the state.24 The revenue gained from these royalties and taxes are then utilized in funding social programs and other areas like education, intended to help the poor, particularly the indigenous. Webber himself highlights that the goals of this state were to drive the “petty bourgeoisie into a future national bourgeoisie of a size and significance unprecedented in Bolivian history. This new national bourgeoisie would be of indigenous heritage—Andean Amazonian.”25 The goal of the Morales government was to lift up the groups of people who were historically plagued by poverty into a new and structurally stable society.

Critics like Jeffery Webber accuse the Morales government of merely tweaking neoliberalism by altering a few areas. He states that the plan merely replaces “comparative advantage with systemic competitiveness,26 essentially stating that entire social community systems would compete in the global system against one another, as opposed to competing only with a few commodities. While insightful, this particular criticism, in my opinion, is flawed because it fails to reflect the tactics of the Morales administration. Instead of this tweaked neoliberal approach, the plan offered by the government is one that has been altered to fit the mold of what is required by Bolivia at this time, a plan that is sensitive to the requirements of the Bolivian economy but also aware and complementing a gradual shift towards a socialist society. Vice President Linera’s statement regarding the gradual shift towards socialism is a valid one because it is realistic. Had the Morales administration implemented radical leftist policies upon its election, Bolivia would have been devastated economically because, as Kohl and Farthing state, “new administrations depend on the revenues derived from extractive enterprises as much as their neoliberal predecessors.”27 The expectations by many was that Bolivia’s natural resources alone could push Bolivia out of its dependency on Foreign Direct Investment and into a self-sufficient nation, where the government “could make US $75 billion per year (3/4 of GDP) if the country were to fully nationalize and industrialize hydrocarbons.”28 The reality, however, is that this is impossible in the present situation, primarily due to the structural restrictions facing Bolivia. As has been in many other European colonies, the profits from the extraction of natural resources have “historically benefited primarily foreigners and their local partners” while excluding the indigenous due to the failure to “absorb large amounts of unskilled labor [indigenous].”29

This is precisely why the PND is so important, for if the previous plan had been left in place, a majority of the profits from Bolivian resource extraction would have ended up outside the country, with very little coming back. If the Morales administration had swung completely leftward and followed suit with mass nationalization, then the industries would have been crippled with no capital, no funding, no investment and, most significantly, no profit. By establishing a system that increases the royalties and taxes on foreign corporations, the Bolivian government now has the ability to collect this money and use it towards programs focused on building Bolivian society, particularly the indigenous, via education, technical training and job preparation. This course of action, gives all Bolivians the ability to gradually gain the required knowledge to take over the industries in the future; this is the gradual progression towards socialism that Linera was speaking about.

It is extremely convenient to be an outsider critiquing the Morales administration and the job it has done thus far, while maintaining a safe distance. However, it cannot be denied that this administration has made progress when compared to many of the others in the past. Despite facing a mounting opposition from members of the rightwing, the Morales government has pushed the country to demonstrate a “record growth rate of 6% in 2008”, from a rate of 4% in 2005.30 In addition to this, the poverty rates of Bolivia dropped from 63.1% in 2003 to 59.9% in 2006; a significant decline in 3 years given the direction Bolivia was heading in. The administration has also attempted to break away from its American and Global North dependence by trying to establish strong relationships with its neighbors, particularly Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina via multiple trade agreements like ALBA, CAN and Mercosur. These particular relationships are beneficial to Bolivia, supported by the fact that, Mercosur in particular, “accounted for 63.95% of Bolivia’s trade surplus in 2007, (while CAN accounted for 6.55% and ALBA for 14.12 %).”31

It is evident therefore that while the Morales administration did not take the much expected radical leftward swing towards revolution and mass nationalization, its current path, while gradual and slow paced, attempts to bring a wave of stability and structure to a country that has been plagued by political instability for decades. While the political stability of Bolivia is still in question, given the massive opposition faced by Morales, one cannot simply dismiss the progress that has been made in the past 7 years. From recognizing the rights of the indigenous in the most important document of the country, to making corporations more fiscally accountable, to helping build better relationship with its neighbors, Bolivia under Evo Morales has moved into a phase where all members of society are now participating and being heard. This gradual process may not achieve all its goals in Morales’ term(s) as president, it may even take decades, but for a country that has lacked stability and equal representation for decades, perhaps gradual stability is the right way to go.

1 Jeffery Webber, Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), 153.
2 Ibid, 109.
3 Ibid, 124.
4 Webber, Class Struggle, 124.
5 Nancy Postero, “The Struggle to Create a Radical Democracy in Bolivia,” Latin American Review 45 (2010): 72.
6 Ibid, 66
7 Postero, “The Struggle to Create a Radical Democracy in Bolivia,” 67.
8 Webber, Class Struggle, 133.
9 Postero,” The Struggle to Create a Radical Democracy in Bolivia,” 66.
10 Ibid, 66.
11 Ibid, 73.
12 Ibid, 73.
13 Postero, “The Struggle to Create a Radical Democracy in Bolivia,” 72.
14 Webber, Class Struggle, 124.
15 Ibid, 127.
16 Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing, “Material Constraints to Popular Imaginaries: The Extractive Economy and Resource Nationalism in Bolivia,” Political Geography 31.4 (2012), 232.
17 Kohl and Farthing, “Material Constraints to Popular Imaginaries,” 233.
18 Ibid, 233.
19 bid, 233.
20 Webber, Class Struggle, 177.
21 Ibid, 168.
22 Ibid, 169.
23 Ibid, 192.
24 Ibid, 192.
25 Webber, Class Struggle, 189.
26 Ibid, 184.
27 Kohl and Farthing, “Material Constraints to Popular Imaginaries,” 225.
28 Ibid, 226.
29 Kohl and Farthing, “Material Constraints to Popular Imaginaries,” 225.
30 Manuel Mejido Costoya, “Politics of Trade in Post-neoliberal Latin America: The Case of Bolivia.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 30 (2011), 88.
31 Costoya, “Politics of Trade in Post-neoliberal Latin America,” 85.

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