Bolivia’s Next Steps

Bolivia’s Next Steps

Following an overwhelming re-election victory, President Evo Morales intends to “accelerate the process of change.”


A rainbow of campaign posters covered the stairways and tinted glass walls in the Bolivian Congress building. After arriving in the crowded office lobby of leftist Congressman Gustavo Torrico, I sat for hours next to union leaders and other rank-and-file constituents, waiting to speak with the politician.

Torrico was meeting with members of the Bolivian Workers Center, one of the largest unions in the country. When I finally sat down on the couch in his dimly lit office, the smiling Congressman explained one of the key reasons for the success of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), the party he and indigenous President Evo Morales helped construct.

“We choose political ideas from below and move those politics upward,” he said. “Social organizations are important to us because they are our essence. Without social organizations, we would not exist.”

It was largely this dynamic relationship with the country’s powerful unions, social organizations and movements that led to the December 6 re-election of Morales with 63 percent of the vote, according to exit polls; his closest rival, conservative former governor Manfred Reyes Villa, won just 23 percent of the vote. Voters also gave MAS more than two-thirds control of both houses of Congress, a broad mandate to meet the needs and demands of the party’s national base. The coming months will say a lot about the administration’s goals and obstacles as it begins, in the words of Morales after his re-election, to “accelerate the process of change.”

During Morales’s first four years in office, various indigenous, farmer and workers movements were pivotal in defeating right-wing destabilization efforts, passing land reform legislation, radicalizing government policy and ushering in a new progressive Constitution. At the same time, defending the MAS against the oligarchy and right wing often took precedence over self-criticism and internal debate; those who seriously questioned the MAS were sometimes labeled allies of the right and sidelined.

Now, with opposition parties extremely weak and divided, this internal censorship will, hopefully, be swept aside to allow for more vigorous analysis of the MAS from the inside out. As Bolivian sociologist Oscar Vega wrote in a recent column for the state-run newspaper Cambio (Change), “It’s no longer a matter of supporting and defending the [MAS] vision of change, but democratically constructing the change through participation, debate and consultation.”

If such an internal debate comes to the fore, prominent demands from party members are likely to include calls to radicalize economic measures, make the management of ministries more participatory and delegate power away from Morales and toward a less centralized system of decision-making.

Perhaps more significant, the landslide victory and two-thirds majority in Congress will allow the MAS to pass new legislation that had regularly been blocked by the right during Morales’s first term. The MAS has promised to pass 100 new laws in order to apply a broad spectrum of changes in the new Constitution–a document rewritten in a constituent assembly and passed in a national referendum in January.

It’s difficult to say what of the many plans will be prioritized in the coming months, but land reform, expansion of indigenous rights and participation in government, and the fight against corruption are key areas. Other policy initiatives include securing more state control over natural resource development and exploitation and directly redistributing the wealth from nationalized gas reserves to impoverished sectors of the population through such programs as stipends to students, mothers and the elderly. New revenue from state-run industries will also enable the MAS to continue improving roads and expanding access to basic services, education and healthcare.

As one indicator of the road ahead, three days after election day, the government seized a forty-eight-square-mile ranch from right-wing political opponent Branko Marinkovic. The National Agrarian Tribunal asserted that the land had been fraudulently obtained from the Guarayo indigenous communities and announced that it will be returned to the Guarayo.

The Constitution mandates that Congress pass five key initiatives within the first nine months of its operation, Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, explained in an interview. “These include regulation of the electoral court and policy, a framework to implement autonomy and decentralization measures, and defining the role of the Judiciary and Constitutional Tribunal.” Decentralizing and granting autonomy to right-wing-led departments will likely remain controversial, even considering the weakness of the right.

Despite its election victory, Ledebur said, “The Morales government will face significant obstacles in its efforts to apply its ambitious agenda. As an umbrella for social movements, unions and other interest groups with diverse and often conflicting demands, the MAS government will be under considerable pressure from its supporters to make key concessions denied for decades, and sometimes even centuries. There is no guarantee that these groups will give blanket support to MAS legal proposals.”

The typical distance between rhetoric and reality will offer challenges to the MAS as the party enacts constitutional reforms. According to Ledebur, Congress will have difficulty grappling with some of the more complex issues–for example, a “law to reconcile indigenous ‘community’ justice systems and the traditional legal system and determine jurisdiction.” Indeed, the enormous process of decolonization–reversing 500 years of exploitation and marginalization of indigenous people and culture–could take decades of work.

But the implications of Morales’s re-election can’t be understated, particularly given the current political climate in Latin America and the cooling of US-Latin American relations under the Obama administration. With the October 30 signing of a deal to establish seven new US military bases in Colombia and Washington’s devastating role in the coup and electoral farce in Honduras, the re-election of Morales is a signal that the leftward shift that has characterized the past decade in Latin America is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. Morales’s re-election bolsters the left alliance in South America–a group that includes Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and the more moderate leaders in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay–which, in turn, strengthens the pushback against the Washington Consensus and US military aims in the region.

“The historic landslide election in Bolivia has to be seen in relation to the coup in Honduras,” Greg Grandin, NYU history professor and author, most recently, of Fordlandia, pointed out in an interview. “The right tried nearly the same exact destabilization campaign against Morales in 2008 that they then executed against Manuel Zelaya in 2009–with exact opposite results.” Morales denounced a violent right-wing civic coup attempt against his government in 2008, and Zelaya was overthrown in a military coup on June 28 of this year. “The fact that Morales not only withstood the onslaught but recovered with a resounding win at the polls–leaving the opposition shattered–has to serve as a warning to those who see Honduras as the first step in a larger push to use undemocratic means to roll back the democratic left.”

The election results also suggest that the MAS will be in power for some time to come. During an interview in La Paz, economic analyst Carlos Arce of the Center for the Study of Labor and Agrarian Development, told me that the MAS is turning itself into the new Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, a political party that came to power during the transformative revolution of 1952 and, though it shifted to the right, maintained political hegemony in the country for twenty years.

Though the politics of the MAS aren’t the same, its electoral base is similarly secure. “This 60 percent support in the elections is mathematically the same number of people who identify with the MAS in the national census,” Arce said, referring to the roughly 60 percent of the population that identifies as indigenous and around the same percentage that lives under the poverty line. “The MAS could stay in power as long as the population doesn’t change.”

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