Bolivia’s Home-Grown President

Bolivia’s Home-Grown President

The election of former coca farmer Evo Morales as Bolivia’s first indigenous president appears to be an enormous victory for the left, as yet another Latin American nation turns away from Washington-driven economics. But will Morales be able to live up to his promise of home-grown solutions for this cash-poor yet resource-rich nation?


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.

And while the US government has expressed deep fears about a Morales presidency, in many ways it’s the United States that has put Morales in the position he is in today. In Bolivia the United States is not only a symbol of foreign capital but of the bitter “war on drugs” that strong-armed Bolivia into accepting a US-financed coca eradication campaign that even the World Bank has admitted bears responsibility for Bolivia’s continued poverty. Like everything else in Bolivia, the coca leaf is a symbol–of a locally grown crop, of sacred rituals, of a way of life that allowed Bolivia’s peasants, by chewing on the bitter leaves that give energy and stave off hunger, to endure the harsh conditions of the silver and tin mines where they worked as slaves to the Spanish for some 300 years and where many still labor under perilous conditions today.

As indigenous culture increasingly becomes a point of pride rather than a mark of shame in Bolivia, and across South America the symbolism of the coca leaf has gained even more importance–and the ongoing US war against it has stoked Morales’s popularity. But the most potent symbol in this election for most Bolivians was natural gas, an ever-more coveted resource as the international price of oil skyrockets. And the foreign oil companies that produce it–the transnacionales, as they call them here, almost spitting out the word–represent to many just the latest form of foreign exploitation of Bolivia and its people. Thus every candidate in this election had to promise to “nationalize” the natural gas industry–a word that suggests expropriation of private company property and sets off alarm bells with foreign investors, but which actually means a range of different things in this ideologically charged political culture.

For the right-wing candidate, Jorge Quiroga, it meant respecting existing oil and gas contracts but “nationalizing the benefits” of the industry–that is, spending more of its revenue to pacify the population. But for Morales, it has meant forcing a conversion of existing gas contracts into ones where the state gets 50 percent of the profits and retains control over how, to whom and at what price Bolivian gas is sold. Although that’s not what’s usually meant by expropriation, his plan still has foreign energy companies panicking. Under their current contracts and the 1996 hydrocarbons law that privatized the industry, private companies had virtually complete control over the production and sale of oil and gas, and paid only 18 percent royalties and no taxes–a deal that even government and industry insiders who helped write the law and negotiate the contracts now privately admit is a bad deal for Bolivia.

Still, almost every major oil company–including Spain’s Repsol, British Gas, ExxonMobil and Texas-based Vintage Oil–has already threatened to bring a claim in international arbitration against Bolivia. And if Morales nationalizes the industry, under the terms of the bilateral investment treaties between Bolivia and the companies’ home countries, they could sue–in private, closed-door arbitration, without the safeguards normally provided by publicly appointed judges in an international court–for not only the approximately $3.5 billion private companies have already invested in the natural gas industry here but also for the loss of expected profits, which could total tens of billions of dollars. For a country like Bolivia, whose annual revenues are only a little more than $2 billion a year, that’s no small threat. It’s for that reason–and a host of other ways in which the United States, the World Bank, the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank can threaten to pull the noose tight around Bolivia’s highly indebted neck–that an Evo Morales presidency may well remain largely a symbolic victory.

The threat of lawsuits by up to thirty major oil companies will thwart any new government’s ability to significantly change the current system. Nor can Morales do much to address the plight of coca farmers: Although he has said he’ll campaign to decriminalize the coca leaf on an international level, he knows he can do little to change the system at home. A refusal to continue the coca eradication campaign would require the United States, under US law, to vote against any Bolivian application for loans or grants from the World Bank, IMF or Inter-American Development Bank–all critical to Bolivia’s ability to finance its debt and fuel its economy. In effect, any attempt by the newly elected president to do exactly what Bolivians just elected him to do would marshal the forces of the international financial community against the Bolivian government and doom the country’s already-precarious financial stability.

“It’s OK, there are plenty of other countries, like China, that will be willing to help us,” Morales told me on a rare break from campaigning shortly before the election. Countries like China and Venezuela may be exactly where he turns. But many on the left in Bolivia think he’s not likely to buck the American and international business pressure and will stick with a modestly reformed version of the status quo. That won’t satisfy many of the more radical Aymara activists, who are intent on breathing real life into the powerful symbols of the indigenous movement.

“The identity of people and of communities has become a very important issue in the country,” Pablo Mamani, a sociologist who teaches at the public universities in El Alto and La Paz, said. “The Aymara will all vote for Evo, because we want to see an Aymara in the presidency. But if he is not really allowed to govern, the militant social organizations can create a scenario of very severe conflict between the people and the state.”

The nation’s right-wing movements, particularly those concentrated in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s wealthiest province where the energy and agricultural export businesses are based, may well encourage that. “Bolivia is facing a big problem,” Carlos Rojas, the burly president of an association of agriculture producers, told me from his Santa Cruz office. “We don’t accept Mr. Morales’s policy about land,” he said, referring to Morales’s support for redistribution of large idle estates, most of which are concentrated in Santa Cruz. “We will have a conflict with him…. The only way for the country to move up and get out of poverty is by working, every day and all the time. If the social movements go and block the roads, we cannot work. We believe it’s important to give Mr. Morales the opportunity to work for this country. But if he’s not effective, he’s going to be out–probably before the end of his term.”

In fact, some Bolivians are already planning on that. “We believe MAS (The Movement Towards Socialism, Morales’s party) won’t change anything,” said Abraham Delgado Mancilla, a soft-spoken and serious 28-year-old law student and Aymara Indian who helped organize the massive protests that ultimately brought down the last two Bolivian presidents. “The state doesn’t serve us with this system,” he told me as we walked through the packed streets of El Alto, an impoverished, makeshift city of home-made brick buildings built high into the Andes that rise above La Paz, where Mancilla lives and continues to organize students and neighbors. “So we must move forward. What happens in Bolivia is twenty years of reforms, and nothing changes. We’re still poor. The only road to solving poverty is by nationalization and radical redistribution of land,” he said, growing more animated. “Evo will not be able to do what he says. His programs will change nothing. We’re waiting for him to fail. And if he does, the people will come out with even more force,” he said. I asked him what that would mean. “I think what’s going to happen is there will be a civil war.”

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