Letter From Bolivia: Morales Moves
A frazzled Joseph Stiglitz has just swept through town as a guest of the Foreign Ministry. His speeches were only tepidly Keynesian, but it was enough to allow many La Paz intellectuals and businesspeople to look favorably on regulation, mild redistribution and state planning. Among those wooed was Cifabol's Dr. Victoria de Urioste Blanco. "The government wants to expand healthcare. We want to expand the internal markets," she explains with a dramatic pause so this dialectical connection between production and consumption can sink in.
Cifabol members have looked into the intellectual property details of various US free-trade proposals and they see that the deck is stacked against them, so they've switched sides and are now backing MAS's economic nationalism.
"Did you know that today the average Bolivian takes only two pills every year? Maybe one aspirin and one Viagra," says Urioste with a sly grin. The Bolivian drug market is only $120 million a year, so any growth could help Cifabol's firms.
Thus, some local elites have started to see beyond Evo's dark skin (that is to say, their own racism) and look at the logic of his policies. And some have even weaned themselves from their sycophantic intellectual habits of believing whatever comes out of Washington. Ranchers, however, are still hostile--there is simply no version of land reform that they favor.
If there are dark clouds on the horizon for MAS, they come from two directions: a discontented far left and a bellicose, possibly US-backed lowland-rancher-based right wing. But the two threats are almost mutually exclusive. If the right moves against MAS, the left will likely unite. If the right sits by and tolerates a few defeats, then the left could make Morales's term hell with demands for accelerated social change and economic redistribution.
Most frightening so far seems to be the Santa Cruz-based far right. Rumors abound of Colombian mercenaries training on big Bolivian ranches. And several Cruzano political figures, like Ruben Costas, prefect of Santa Cruz province, have intimated that they will "resist domination" from the central government. Branko Marinkovic is one of the Cruzano heavies. He is president of the Federation of Private Industries in Santa Cruz, a big rancher and like many elites in Bolivia's east a descendant of Croatian immigrants. He tells me he's made his peace with the gas nationalization, but he sounds ominous, if conflicted, on other issues. "Land reform could lead to civil war," says Marinkovic in Texan-flavored English, the product of six years studying at the University of Texas, Houston. When I ask if he is building a private militia, as is rumored, he is dismissive. "That's BS. Just BS. I am running a huge business here. I am not involved in anything like that." What else could he say?
Then, sounding less menacing, Marinkovic tells me he's even "OK with" the government's plans to tax land sales. "If that stops speculation, fine," he says. The Cruzanos were also relieved when García Linera said the government would not limit the size of ranches. The point seems to be that big, even huge, ranches are acceptable as long as the owners are investing their capital to employ people and produce food. The government's threat of confiscation might even cause some Cruzano speculators to take money out of distant financial markets and invest in real economic activity in Bolivia. For the time being, that's all MAS can ask for--a less parasitic, less volatile, fairer version of market economics.