On its face, the election of Evo Morales to the presidency of Bolivia would seem like an enormous victory for the left–another domino in the line of Latin American nations turning away from Washington Consensus-style economics to forge a path of its own. But the question remains whether the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s history will be allowed–by the Bolivian Congress or by the larger international financial and legal system–to live up to his promises and fulfill the enormous expectations of his supporters. If not, Bolivia could face an even more unstable future.
The symbolic value of a Morales victory cannot be overstated, in a country where symbols represent the passions of a people mobilized to change what they see as 500 years of state oppression. Thus the wiphala–the checkered rainbow flag of indigenous resistance–flew from every Morales campaign vehicle; technocratic economic policy proposals about how the nation should manage its natural gas industry became symbols of Bolivian “independence” and “self-governance”; and politicians called for the defense of Pachamama (Mother Earth) as they pressed their home-grown solutions for this cash-poor but resource-rich country, urging the rejection of the North American capitalistas.
Massive support for that rejection fueled widespread protests last summer, when hundreds of thousands of Bolivians filled the streets of El Alto and La Paz, blocking roads, burning tires and throwing dynamite until then-President Carlos Mesa finally resigned–the second president forced out of office in as many years. So for the popular former coca growers’ union president to have won the presidency by an overwhelming and closely monitored vote suggests the vitality of Bolivian democracy and development of a new Latin American consensus.
But will Evo Morales be able to live up to his promises?
Evo’s campaign slogans promised “nationalization” of oil and gas reserves, “recuperation” of natural resources for Bolivians and a renewed respect for campesinos and workers around the country. “We will nationalize all of Bolivia’s natural resources,” the charismatic candidate told hundreds of Quechua farmers who crowded into the main square in the town of Cliza, showering him with confetti and draping wreaths of locally grown produce and flowers around his neck. “We cannot give away what was given to us by Pachamama.”
Those sorts of promises went over well in the small farming pueblos, where women in their colorful eighteenth-century-style peasant skirts and shawls literally danced in the streets and waved their broad-brimmed straw hats as Morales rode by in his campaign caravan, the villagers eagerly reaching for the campaign flyers he left in his path. After all, Evo’s supporters–poor indigenous farmers and laborers, who sell their goods for a pittance in local markets and make up the 40 percent of the country the World Bank labels “extremely poor”–have little other faith left to hold on to.
Years of Washington Consensus-style economic policies, first adopted in the mid-1980s under the label “shock therapy” and expanded in the mid-1990s when the country privatized its oil, gas, electric and other major industries, have done little to help Bolivia’s people, more than 65 percent of whom are still stuck below the poverty line. In fact, despite being the testing ground for much of neoliberal economic policy in the past twenty years, the average Bolivian is now poorer than his grandparents were fifty years ago. The privatization schemes, rather than bringing prosperity as promised, have provoked a wave of anger against international financial institutions and the United States, which was on display all over Bolivia in this presidential election.