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The Decline of United States Influence and the Rise of Evo Morales

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By Ronn Pineo, Senior Analyst with the Council Of Hemispheric Affairs and Chair of the Department of History, Townson University.

“I’m convincedf that capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity and the environment, enemy of the entire planet.” ~ Evo Morales1

After winning six nationwide elections since his first presidential victory in 2005, on October 12th Bolivian President Evo Morales made it seven, taking over 60 percent of the vote. His party, the Movimiento a Socialismo (MAS or Movement Toward Socialism) also swept to victory in the legislature, winning 86 of the 130 positions in lower chamber and 25 of the 36 senate seats. There was no serious contender to Morales. The leading opposition candidate, conservative businessman Samuel Doria Media of the center-right Unidad Nacional (UN or Democratic Union) trailed badly, limping in at 24 percent. Other candidates were even further behind, including former president (2002-2003) Jorge Quiroga of the centrist Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC or Christian Democratic Party); center-left urban La Paz party, Moviemiento Sin Miedo (MSM or Movement Without Fear) candidate Juan del Granado, a former La Paz mayor; and Partido Verde (PVB or Green Party) standard-bearer Fernando Vargas, head of an indigenous opposition movement.2 To win in the first round of voting Morales needed either 50 percent of the vote, or failing that, 40 percent with at least a 10 percent lead over the nearest competitor. He did both easily, finishing nearly 37 percentage points ahead of Doria Media.3 A fifty person team from the Organization of American States was on hand to certify the election.

Morales was not supposed to be a candidate this time. Under the new constitution, no immediate reelection for a third term in the presidency was to be permitted. However, in 2013 the Supreme Court, a body highly sympathetic to the MAS, ruled unanimously that Morales could run in the 2014 election, reasoning that his first term came before the new constitution in 2009 and therefore should not count against the two-term limit. There is talk now about changing the constitution, now that the October balloting is over, to allow for unlimited presidential reelection.

This essay seeks to examine the causes of the large and really stunning changes that have come to recent Bolivia. How was it possible for a relatively small and impoverished nation like Bolivia to move out from under the shadow of United States influence? What can explain the nation’s shift from the historical domination by a handful of élite to the present popularly-based left-wing governance? This essay then considers how successful has Morales been in delivering social benefits to the poor of Bolivia, before looking at the new vision of democracy that is coming into focus in the nation.

The Past as Prelude

Democracy is strong in Bolivia today, but it certainly has not always been so. With over 190 coups in the nation’s troubled history–a hemispheric record–Bolivia had long been the butt of endless jokes about quintessential Latin American instability. Government was often brutally repressive, with the generals holding power from 1964 until 1982, sometimes directly and sometimes deploying pliant civilian figureheads.

Change began to come in the 1980s, a time of two significant transitions for nearly all Latin America. The region moved from military governments toward democracy, albeit a form of western-style liberal democracy that could offer free elections, but too often ones with narrowly limited choices. At the same time Latin America transitioned away from state-led economic development policies to embrace the Milton Friedman vision of unbridled free market policies, or neoliberalism.

The 1980s were a “lost decade” for economic progress in Latin America and Bolivia. Bolivia fell into an extreme economic crisis, with a mounting foreign debt and out of control inflation, reaching over 11,000 percent in 1985. That year the incoming president, Víctor Paz Estenssoro (president 1952-1956, 1960-1964, and 1985-1989), looked to Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs to help design Bolivia’s conversion to free market policies. “Bolivia is dying on us,” Paz Estenssoro declared as justification for the launch of his neoliberal shock therapy program, dubbed the “New Economic Policy” (Executive Decree 21060) on August 29, 1985.4 Paz Estenssoro pressed the economic reset button with across the board deregulation and tax increases. Paz Estenssoro eliminated price controls on basic necessities, froze wages, and eliminated rights and protections for union workers. Advisor Sachs helped make the necessary arrangements with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, accepting their recommendations for implementing a socially punishing structural adjustment program while maintaining a tight focus on the goal of paying the interest due on the nation’s foreign debt. These neoliberal economic policies extracted an immediate and severe human cost, but Paz Estenssoro dealt with the mass protests and strikes by imposing a three-month state of siege. The economy suffered massive job losses, in the state oil company, in industry, in mining, while the number of those seeking to scrape out a living in the informal sector exploded. For all this pain, Paz Estenssoro could point to only one economic victory: inflation in 1987 fell to 11 percent for the year.5

Paz Estenssoro depended on U.S. financial aid and its leverage and support with the World Bank and IMF, but Washington wanted something back from Bolivia in return: compliance with U.S. directives to carry out an assault on coca production. Responding to U.S. pressure, Paz Estenssoro adopted Law 1008 in 1988, moving hard to crack down on local coca growers, cooperating in the U.S.-led Operation Blast Furnace.6 Under Paz Estenssoro the U.S. war on illegal drugs moved to the coca fields of the Chapare.

Under the next two presidents, Jaime Paz Zamora (1989-1993) and Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada (1993-1997), Bolivia deepened its free market impulse. Sánchez de Lozada, a multi-millionaire mine owner, University of Chicago trained free market disciple, and intellectual author of the New Economic Policy decree 21060, pushed through the Capitalization Law of 1994, bringing a rash of new privatizations. President Sánchez de Lozada’s Bolivia peddled off the national electrical company, state-run railroad, and the oil and gas company, all at fire sale prices.7

Believing that the less government there was the better all things would be, Sánchez de Lozada moved to downsize government. He decentralized political power with the enactment of the Law of Popular Participation in 1994 and the Law of Decentralization in 1995. These measures promoted the formation of new municipal governing authorities and re-directed a fifth of national revenues down to the local level. While Sánchez de Lozada’s actions were an effort to pass off national government responsibilities and sidestep paying for social needs, this initiative had an unexpected result. Sánchez de Lozada’s laws actually served to invigorate local government. New social movements formed to pressure the expanding municipal authorities, and local governments came to be the political focus point for anti-neoliberal agitation. With the union movement crushed, social movements and municipal governments stepped in to fill the political void, and together they began to pressure for addressing the needs of ordinary people harmed by neoliberal economics.8 In 1994 Sánchez de Lozada hardened the anti-coca push as well after the United States again threatened to withdraw aid. The first coca growers protest march followed that August. The new coca growers union organized the protest. At the head of the movement was Evo Morales.

Hugo Bánzer followed in the presidency, taking office in 1997 and serving until 2001. Trained in the infamous School of the Americas, Bánzer had previously been the nation’s military dictator, 1971 to 1978. As president Bánzer’s signature initiative, Plan Dignidad, sought to root out remaining coca production, and by 2001 Bolivia’s coca production had fallen to less than a third of what it had been just six years earlier, a real “Andean success story,” the U.S. State Department cheerily announced.9 

The Tipping Point: Bolivia’s Water and Gas Wars

Image By: Douglas. Taken from:
Map of Bolivia.

One critical aspect of neoliberalism in Bolivia was the privatization of potable water service, a step mandated by the World Bank as a loan condition in 1997. Bánzer, acting in November 1999, moved to sell all public potable water service in the nation to private companies, Law 2029. Bánzer sold off water rights in the city of Cochabamba to Agua del Tunari, a consortium owned by Italian interests and the U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation. The company soon raised potable water rates an average of 35 percent and began charging people for collecting rainwater or for drawing water from their own wells. As the chorus of objections began to rise, the World Bank recommended taking a hardline stance, advising that “no subsidies should be given to ameliorate the increase in water tariffs.”10

Vast protests, the “water wars,” erupted from November 1999 to April 2000, initially centered in Cochabamba but by September spreading to the capital of La Paz as well. In April, Bánzer ordered a state of siege, but was met by continuing, massive, and determined opposition in the streets. In the end Bánzer was forced to back down. He could not impose by force a measure so universally unpopular and manifestly unfair. Aguas del Tunari was asked to leave Bolivia. Shortly thereafter the 75-year-old Bánzer resigned for health reasons–cancer of the liver and lungs–and Vice President Jorge Quiroga finished what was left of the presidential term.

The 2002 general election brought the return of Sánchez de Lozada, running against a wide array of candidates including coca growers union leader Evo Morales. Just four days before the balloting the United States Ambassador Manuel Rocha made the decision to weigh in. “I want to remind the Bolivian electorate that if you choose the candidate who wants Bolivia to go back to being a cocaine exporter, that will put the United States aid at risk,” Rocha announced. Comparing coca growers to members of the Taliban, Rocha warned that “a Bolivia led by the people who have benefited from drug trafficking cannot expect the United States markets to remain open for traditional textile exports.”11

Photo by: PresidenciaRD  Taken from:
Manuel Rocha

The ambassador’s comments did not have the desired effect, instead launching a groundswell of support for Morales, who enjoyed a sudden surge in the polls. (Teasingly, Morales publically thanked Rocha and began to refer to him as his “campaign manager.”) Thanks to Rocha, Morales nearly rallied to win the 2002 election, in the event taking 20.9 percent of the votes cast to 22.5 percent for Goni. The election was thrown into congress which selected the leading vote getter, Goni, to serve as Bolivia’s next president.

In 2003 the IMF mandated more austerity measures, and Goni, ever a neoliberal true believer, readily agreed to their implementation. Fresh rounds of mass opposition emerged in the presence of sharp tax increases, privatizations, the sale of Bolivian natural gas to foreign firms, and the announcement of the construction of a gas pipeline to Chile. The outpouring of popular resistance came to be known as Bolivia’s “gas wars,” centered in the highland city of El Alto and spilling out into adjacent La Paz, September through October of 2003. Determined to show strength, President Sánchez de Lozada ordered that the protest movement be smashed. The ensuing police and military repression left some 67 to 97 peaceful protestors dead, some killed in the raking gunfire from helicopters passing overhead. A nationwide torrent of anger and grief followed, finally resulting in Goni’s resignation on October 17, 2003. He fled to Miami as Bolivians celebrated in the streets. He had lasted in office just 15 months.12

The water and then the natural gas protest movements had not merely forced a stop to neoliberal excesses and toppled the second Sánchez de Lozada government. The change was larger than just this, for activists had begun to articulate a reform plan, what came to be called the “October Agenda,” calling for a rollback of neoliberal water and gas measures, the end to the flat tax, and, most importantly, the convening of a constitutional convention. As Bolivia observer and author Kepa Artaraz has correctly noted, what Bolivia was experiencing was a “double crisis of legitimacy,” a widespread belief that neoliberalism had failed and that liberal democracy was not responsive to the popular will. But, as Artaraz adds, “the political questions and the proposed alternatives did not come from traditional forces and actors from the left, such as trade unions, as they had been decimated by the neoliberal attack.”13Rather, the fresh solutions being offered were emerging from Bolivia’s budding social movements growing up at the local level around the newly formed municipalidades. The dual transition to a U.S.-style liberal, representative democracy, and the U.S.-inspired and mandated free market policies, had, in the end, come to dual failures. Bolivia was beginning to find its own way.

Vice President Carlos Mesa Gisbert assumed the presidency from Goni, calling for a July 2004 national referendum on the re-nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas. The measure passed overwhelmingly. Still, social conditions remained a matter of widespread concern, with circumstances the worst in the countryside. Under neoliberalism the proportion of rural people living in extreme poverty had risen from under two-thirds in 1997 to over three-quarters by 2002. In 2005 Bolivia’s per capita GDP was lower than it had been in 1998.14 As protest mounted against Mesa—his brief administration faced over 800 mass demonstrations—he gave in to popular pressure. Mesa resigned on June 6, 2005, leaving Supreme Court Chief Justice Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé as caretaker president.

Politically the Bolivians had shown their complete disaffection with the country’s three dominant political parties: the chameleon-like Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR or Revolutionary Nationalist Movement), initially left, then centrist, and finally neoliberal; the center-left Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR or Revolutionary Left Movement); and the right-wing Acción Democrática Nacionalista of Hugo Bánzer (ADN or Nationalist Democratic Action). The three parties had ruled Bolivia by forming governing pacts since the restitution of democracy in 1982. In the 2005 presidential vote they took a combined total of less than a third of the vote.15

Bolivian voters plainly had arrived at the view that the existing political system was without legitimacy. To the wide majority, Bolivia under the old pacted political system had been a sham democracy, one dominated by the moneyed interests, snaked through with corruption, and presenting voters no authentic choices, forcing them to try to pick between near identical elites who did the bidding of foreign capital. To most Bolivians, voting seemed only to grant legitimacy to what was a rigged game. As analyst Raúl Madrid sums up, “the rise of the MAS [was] driven by … growing disenchantment with market-oriented policies and the parties that implemented them.”16 Madrid is right, but there is more to it.

Diminishing U.S. Influence in Bolivia

Bolivia’s economy is less than one-thousandth the size of that of the United States, and given the considerable asymmetry between the two nations, the United States has long used its considerable power advantages to compel Bolivia to bend to its wishes. Beginning in 1985 the U.S. demanded that Bolivia press forward on two fundamental policies: the adoption of free market economic policies and an aggressive assault on coca leaf production. For Bolivia the problem was that these two policies could not be pursued at the same time.

Neoliberal policies brought fiscal austerity, the elimination of virtually all programs that aimed at reducing poverty, coupled with sharp reductions in employment, especially as a result of the end to government support for the lagging tin mining industry. Due to these measures, tens of thousands of miners were thrown out of work, dumped into an economy that was not creating jobs, while the government did nothing to help them or their families. The one growth area that the Bolivian economy could offer was in coca production, responding actively to booming U.S. demand for cocaine. As a direct result, former miners, well-schooled in labor militancy, poured into the Chapare region and took up coca farming. There they met the determined military opposition of the United States and Bolivian government. And this was the paradox at the heart of U.S. policy. Compelling Bolivia to launch neoliberal policies while aggressively pursuing a war on coca growers led to a time of extraordinary crisis. The contradictions of the U.S.-imposed policy agenda were so severe that the U.S.-backed regime suffered a complete collapse.

It is possible that Bolivia could have moved to neoliberal policies on its own, but the unbending nature of the implementation of these measures was a result of U.S. pressure, either directly or through the World Bank and the IMF. The new free market philosophy was not a Bolivian creation, it was made in America, especially at the University of Chicago, and the depth of its adoption in Bolivia was in large measure a result of U.S. demands. On the other hand, it is not possible that Bolivia would ever have launched the coca eradication programs on its own. Coca is part of daily life for most Bolivians, from the city people who drink it as tea for breakfast to the rural indigenous who chew it throughout the day. The spike in new demand for coca for making cocaine, and then the war on cocaine, were entirely U.S. creations. Bolivia would never have grown more coca if not for U.S. consumer demand, and Bolivia would never had undertaken a war on coca production if not for considerable and sustained U.S. pressure. U.S. pressure demanded that Bolivia launch an unflinching implementation of neoliberalism and a military assault on coca both at the same time, and it was doing both of these things at once that led to the collapse of the old regime in Bolivia. Neoliberalism created the severe social pressure of mounting poverty and widespread unemployment, while the war on illegal drugs killed off the best available option for gainful employment. Therefore it is fair to conclude that it was U.S. power and U.S. overreach that led to emergence of the Movement Toward Socialism’s Evo Morales in Bolivia, elected to the presidency in 2005.

Evo Morales to Power

On December 18, 2005 Evo Morales won the presidency with 53.7 percent of the vote, the highest percentage for a winning candidate in the nation’s history. “¡Causachun coca! ¡Wañuchun yanquis! (Long live coca! Death to the Yankees!),” he exalted in his native Aymara language, giving the protest cry of the cocaleros.17 Taking office in January 2006 Morales immediately embraced the street protestors’ “October Agenda,” moving to gain a larger share of natural gas export profits and to rewrite the constitution. Change had come.

In May 1, 2006 Morales declared the partial nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas industry, with the state company, Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), gaining majority control from the Spanish and Brazilian corporations that held the natural gas fields, pipelines, and refineries. Morales increased Bolivia’s share of the profits to 82 percent. Before 2005 Bolivia had taken but 18 percent of the profits, a rate that had risen to 50 percent under President Mesa.18

YPFB: Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos
YPFB: Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos

Gaining control of this key resource was vital; Bolivia enjoys the second largest natural gas reserves in Latin America, after Venezuela. Since Morales has taken office Bolivian natural gas production has more than doubled, while proceeds from sales increased from 5.6 percent of GDP in 2004 to 25.7 percent by 2008. Today natural gas makes up nearly half of Bolivia’s exports by value, with over half flowing to neighboring Brazil. Gas sales are also the key component of government revenues: whereas in 2002 natural gas income made up just 7 percent of government earnings, they now constitute over half of the national government’s earnings.19

In gaining control of Bolivia’s key export Morales had achieved a minor miracle, standing up to foreign firms and opening a significant source of financial resources for his government and nation. Still, one complaint from the impacted companies did seem fair. Under neoliberalism Bolivia had opened its natural gas fields to foreign firms, offering generous terms if they would bear the costs of searching for, locating, and ramping up production. After they did this, Bolivia changed the terms of the deal, demanding more money. It was bait and switch, and the foreign firms have a right to be angry. But it is also a done deal. By the end of 2013 the state-owned portion of the economy had reached 35 percent, up from the low of 17 percent under the prior neoliberal governments.20 Beyond natural gas, the telecommunications industry, Empresa Nacional de Telecomunicaciones (Entel), which used to be Italian owned, is now also run by the state, as too is electricity generation. In 2012 Morales moved to nationalize tin and zinc production. There will be more moves in this direction. Bolivia’s economy today has been reoriented, its leading trade partners shifting. South Korea, which purchases much of Bolivia’s booming soy production, and Argentina, a key buyer of natural gas, are now the leading markets. The United States has fallen to fourth place as a destination for Bolivian exports.21

Change and Conflict: The Drafting of a New Constitution and the Media Luna Revolt

In the summer of 2006 voters selected members for a Constitutional Assembly, and on August 6 delegates convened in the city of Sucre. In December 2007 the Constitutional Assembly approved a draft, but the charter remained unratified, the nation locked in political turmoil between Morales and his supporting social movements that sought fundamental reform, and those who wanted to turn back to the past.22

The élite, especially those from Santa Cruz and the surrounding lowland media luna, or half-moon district, were outraged at what they regarded as Aymara Indian Morales’ usurpation of their birthright, their self-arrogated entitlement to rule over the lives of the indigenous majority. In May 2008 the media luna departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija, and Pando moved toward session, holding an unauthorized autonomy vote. Both the Organization of American States and the European Union refused to send election monitors, citing the illegality of the referendum. MAS voters boycotted the unsanctioned election and so, predictably, those who voted in this extra-legal ballot favored severing ties with the rest of the nation.23

Bending to the demands of the anti-MAS movement, on August 10, 2008 Bolivia held a recall election on the Morales presidency. Amidst a heavy turnout, Morales won a resounding victory, taking two-thirds of the vote. The separatists, incredulous over their stunning and lopsided defeat, organized into the Consejo Nacional de Defensa de la Democracía (CONALDE or National Council for the Defense of Democracy), and recruited paid thugs to attack government buildings and prey upon pro-Morales activists. The separatist movement seemed to be gaining in support when, on September 11, 2008, at least thirteen pro-MAS protestors were murdered in the far eastern Pando department. Ordered by the opposition governor Leonel Fernández, this ugly episode served to deeply discredit the separatists. The anti-Morales movement proceeded into sharp decline.

Manifestation for the Pando Massacre
Manifestation for the Pando Massacre

The day of the attack Bolivia expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, accusing him of assisting in organizing the violent opposition to Morales. The U.S. ambassador had met openly with the separatist movement. Said Morales, “we do not want people here who conspire against democracy.”24 In retaliation, U.S. President George W. Bush expelled the Bolivian ambassador, Gustavo Guzmán, and placed Bolivia on a list of nations not cooperating with the war on illegal drugs. The United States also put trade restrictions in place, canceling Bolivian participation in the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA). Morales responded by kicking out the remaining U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agents later that year, and subsequently expelled USAID workers as well.25 Normal diplomatic relations, broken in 2008, have still not been restored between the two nations.

In October 2008 two-thirds of the constitutional assembly agreed upon an additional series of revisions to the constitution, what some Bolivians regard as the “third draft,” a watered-down compromise version of the stronger document initially proposed by indigenous and left-wing groups. In a referendum in January 2009 Bolivian voters approved the new constitution, with an amazing 90 percent turnout and more than 60 percent backing the new national charter. At the celebration parties in the street, Morales joined the revelers, and he wept.

The constitution formalized a broad agenda of progressive social and economic reforms, with several new poverty reduction programs, especially conditional cash transfer initiatives; the extension of educational services; infrastructure development; assurances of indigenous rights; and a series of re-nationalizations of utilities and public services. The constitution enshrined the indigenous community (or ayllu) values of ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhella (don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t be lazy). The constitution denounced neoliberalism, called for an active role for the state in guiding the economy, and explicitly forbade the privatization of water.26 The document reflected much of the October 2003 Agenda. It was what people had voted for. Democracy was working.

Leopoldo Fernández
Leopoldo Fernández

Morales called for general elections under the new constitution, and in December 2009 won reelection with 64 percent of the vote. Conservative opposition candidate Manfred Reyes Villa, hampered by a fraud indictment, and running mate Leopoldo Fernández, campaigning from his jail cell where he waited to face murder charges, took just 38 percent of the vote. The media luna secessionist movement was effectively over. The MAS was emerging as the ruling party in a single party state.

Explaining Morales’ Success

Bolivia’s recent economic growth under Morales is, as Tulane’s Martín Mendoza-Botelho has observed, “one of most prosperous periods in the nation’s history.”27 Bolivia’s per capita GDP has doubled since Morales came to office, rising from $1,182 USD in 2006 to $2,238 USD in 2012. Under Morales GDP growth has averaged 5 percent a year, and the 2014 estimate is projected at 5.5 to 5.7 percent. Bolivia’s GDP growth rate is second in Latin America only to Panama (estimated 6.7 percent for the year).28 Much of this solid economic performance can be attributed to strong natural gas prices.

Morales should probably not try to take credit for Bolivia’s winnings in the “commodity lottery,” the inevitable boom-bust cycle in raw material prices. Still, he can take credit for the building up of Bolivia’s financial reserves. In fact, Bolivia presently boasts the highest proportional rate of financial reserves of any nation in the world, with Bolivia’s rainy day fund totaling some $14 billion USD, or nearly two-thirds of total annual GDP. Even the IMF is impressed by this accomplishment, lavishing praise on Morales’ fiscal prudence. It is not clear that Morales really welcomes the IMF’s avuncular head patting given that he has long refused any new IMF accords. Indeed the IMF stamp of approval has triggered some second thoughts among Bolivian government economists, pondering whether maybe they have been overly cautious.29

Vastly more important than economic growth is poverty reduction, for it is absolutely possible to have the former but not the latter. In the years from 1990 to 2002 about two-thirds of the population of Bolivia lived in poverty, according to United Nations estimates. In 2005 still over half of the population lived in poverty. Today it is less than a third. Income inequality has also come down under Morales and the MAS. In 2002 the richest 20 percent took 58 percent of the income while the poorest 20 percent received 2.2 percent. In 2011 the share of the poorest fifth had doubled to 4.4 percent while the portion going to the richest fifth had dropped to 43 percent. Put another way, the ratio of the share of income of the top 10 percent to the poorest 10 percent had dropped from 128 to 1 in 2005 to 60 to 1 in 2012. Inflation has also slowed, falling from 11.8 percent in 2008 to 4.7 percent in 2012, one of the lowest rates in Latin America.30

Social Programs

What most distinguished the Morales administration is its commitment to provide government programs to assist those in the nation’s 11.5 million population most in need. The Bono Juana Azurduy de Padilla or Bono Madre Niño Niña Program extends small cash payments for expectant mothers when they see a doctor, with $7.25 USD paid to mothers for each of up to four doctor visits; $17 USD if they have the birth in a medical facility; and $18 USD to return for follow-ups for both mother and child after delivery. This program spent $15.6 million USD in 2012, helping 133,00 mothers and half a million children.31

Kids at school
Kids at school

The Bono Juancito Pinto Program (named after a twelve year old drummer boy from the nineteenth century War of the Pacific) actually started under President Bánzer back in 2000 but now has been greatly expanded by Morales. This program involves cash payments to mothers who keep their children in school (public schools only, not private) up through the eighth grade. Families receive $14 USD twice a year, once when school starts and again at the end of the school year. Bono Juancito Pinto cost $55.8 million USD in 2012, and helps nearly 2 million people.32

The Bonos Renta Dignidad Program provides retirement benefits to Bolivians over 60 years old. This program is a significant expansion of the previous 1997 Bonosol initiative begun under Sánchez de Lozada. Dignidad is the most expensive of the three social support initiatives, costing a third of a billion dollars annually. The program helps nearly a million elderly Bolivians, providing $344 to $432 USD a year in retirement support. Together, these three initiatives reach about a third of all Bolivians, roughly 3.3 million people, and helps three of every four families in the nation.33 The benefits have become so socially institutionalized as a common expectation that even the opposition candidates in the October election pledged to continue these popular social programs.

There are other initiatives. Some 900,000 impoverished Bolivians have access to price-controlled electricity. Morales also launched a feeding program, desnutrición cero, providing free school lunches. At the same time Morales has quadrupled the number of land titles transferred to small holders, positively impacting nearly one million Bolivians. The literacy campaign Morales launched has likewise been a great success, and in 2010 Unesco declared that Bolivia had eradicated illiteracy. Meanwhile, highway building has doubled under Morales and a rush of government spending has helped stimulate a construction boom. Bolivia’s economy is at nearly full employment.34

The Economic Plan

Morales’ economic development strategy, announced in June 2006, is called the Bolivia digna, soberana, productiva y democrática para vivir bien, or the Bolivian dignity, sovereignty, productivity, and democracy plan to “live well” or “live correctly.” The phrase “vivir bien” is hard to translate into English. Derived from the Quechua concept of “sumak kawsay,” and the Aymara “suma qamaña,” the idea is to live in harmony with nature, placing spiritual well-being over acquisition of material goods, and emphasizing “collaboration over competition, sharing over accumulation, solidarity over disagreement, cohesion over discord,” “ñandereko (harmonious life), teko kavi (good life), … and qhapaj ñan (noble life).”35 These notions, solemnly enshrined in the new constitution, are ignored in practice.

Instead, Morales has followed an extractive, raw material dependent, economic policy. This pattern of “narrow-based economic development … that depends on primary natural resource exports,” researcher George Gray Molina explains, leaves Bolivia “highly vulnerable to changes in world commodity prices.“36 It is this decision to aggressively exploit Bolivia’s natural resources, above all natural gas, that has done the most to drive some erstwhile Morales supporters into open opposition, especially indigenous and environmental groups. Morales has decided to take advantage of high natural gas prices to fund poverty reduction, and hope that the impact on sacred Pachamama, mother earth, will not prove too severe.

The Run Up to the October Election

Morales took a number of steps to buttress his popular support in the October 2014 balloting. One key move was to ramp up his small-scale infrastructure program, “Bolivia cambia, Evo cumple,” (“Bolivia is changing, Evo delivers”). Since coming to office he has spent roughly half a billion dollars on this local infrastructure initiative, much of it funded by Venezuela. Needless to say, the schools, clinics, potable water projects and the like are quite popular, and the president tries never to miss a ribbon cutting, especially as the election approached.37

In November 2013 Morales declared a special double holiday bonus instead of the usual one month additional pay benefit at Christmas time, the aguinaldo. Then on August 27, 2014 the administration announced a 10 percent pay bump for workers in nine key state-run enterprises, with the increase back-dated to the first of the year. Workers in the oil industry, electrical workers, TV employees, and mining companies, among others, all got the raise. The Morales administration also added on an extra month’s bonus to seniors, recipients of the Renta Dignidad, with monthly payments rising to $36 USD to those with no pension and $29 USD for those who receive some additional form of pension. Meanwhile, the government’s price controls on gasoline, electricity, potable water, flour, sugar, rice, bread, milk, and chicken remain in place. The government also ended all fees for obtaining copies of official documents, including birth certificates, high school diplomas, and the like.38

The Opposition

As in much of Latin America, one continuing problem in Bolivia has been that, as researcher Benjamin Kohl notes, “the right-wing-controlled media feed[s] … the … fears [of voters] through deliberate misinformation.“39 Only one of the top twelve communications companies in Bolivia supports Morales.40 All the others are in the right-wing opposition camp. Yet despite the fact that Bolivians have, on average, far less education than do U.S. voters, they have proven themselves to be less easy to manipulate. This stems in large measure from the historic desperateness of their socio-economic circumstances. They cannot afford to be deceived. Another potential threat, a military coup, seems at this time to be minimal. As Kohl notes, “military support for Morales can be explained by significant salary increases and grants of military hardware.”41 For Morales the most important opposition groups are no longer on his right flank.

Instead, the most serious opposition Morales faces is from groups and causes on the left, often coming from indigenous people. In Bolivia today some 41 percent of Bolivians self-identify as indigenous; some 2.5 million Bolivians speak Quecha and another 2.1 million speak Aymara. The flashpoint issue in this regard involves a 182 mile road project to cut a road through the 3,860-square mile Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, or TIPNIS.

The TIPNIS area had been designated a national park in 1965, and then an indigenous reserve in 1990, homeland to the Moxeño-Trinitario, Yuracaré, and the Chimáne indigenous peoples. Together these groupings comprise about 10 percent of the population in the region, a total of about 8,000 to 12,500 people.42

The proposed highway would open up important new commercial links for area farmers and ranchers. There is really no other practical route for this road, designed to connect the Cochabamba region to Trinidad, Beni in the far northeast of the nation. The road will cut travel time from two to three days to just four hours. But one leading concern of the TIPNIS indigenous people is that building the road through would open up the area to yet more colono squatters from the sierra. Over 20,000 colonos live in the reserve already.43

Morales signed a construction contract with a Brazilian firm in 2008, but the 2009 constitution called for a process of prior consultation with impacted indigenous groups. Despite this new mandate, Morales did not reach out to the indigenous communities until they began to protest in March of 2011. In August 2011 Morales announced that he was standing firm, declaring that the road was going forward, “like it or not.”44

Accepting the challenge, over a thousand protestors staged a 360-mile march to the capital. When police sought to break up their approach to La Paz, seventy protesters were injured. Who is to blame remains an open question, and while President Morales accepted no direct responsibility for the violence, he did nonetheless ask for forgiveness. Then, on October 24, 2011, Morales canceled the road project (Law 180) and ruled the park “untouchable” for further development.45

Morales interpreted the law to mean the halting of virtually any sort of economic activity in TIPNIS, even that favored by the indigenous living in the region. This was enough to forge a coalition of developers, colonos, and some indigenous groups in the region to push to allow the road after all. These groups staged their own march to La Paz, demanding that the road construction go forward.

In February 2012 Morales implemented Law 222, calling for a vote, or consulta, on the road. The plebiscite showed that eight of ten voters backed the road construction, evidently holding to the view that the highway would provide greater access to employment opportunities, health care, and education. Morales revoked the earlier Law 180, but the road project was placed on hold until after the election.46 It is not clear what will happen next, but most think that construction will soon resume.

Other opposition movements have likewise pushed their agendas, demanding action from Morales and the MAS. In August 2010 the central highland city of Potosí went through nineteen days of marches, punctuated with rioting, with protesters charging that the MAS was not delivering on promised government infrastructure development in the city and region.47 Demonstrators also said that they wanted an international airport for the city. The movement died down, however, without winning a clear commitment from the government to provide more money.

In December 2010 widespread protests erupted in response to a proposed end to government gasoline subsidies; the measure would have triggered a 73 percent price hike at the pump. Morales backed down on this initiative in the wake of the gasolinazo protests. In January 2012 other demonstrations emerged after Morales signed Presidential Decree 1126 establishing workplace rules for health care workers. Hospital workers went out on strike, halting delivery of medical services throughout much of Bolivia. After 52 days on strike, Morales reached a compromise accord with the health care workers, repealing Decree 1126 and restoring lost wages from the walkout. During 2014 there have been strikes by transport workers, students, farmers, and junior ranking members of the military.48 It is a restive democracy that Bolivia now has.


Democracy in Bolivia will not fit into U.S.-centric models of political parties, elections, and liberal representative government. As Kohl and Bresnahan have noted, there is a strong “difference between Western-liberal-individualist and communitarian indigenous (Andean) democracies.”49 Kohl and Bresnahan write that:

Whereas Western[ers] … have been socialized in a one-person, one-vote ideal of democracy, in many Andean communities democratic deliberations take place at the level of the community itself. Communal decision making of this type is commonly seen, for example, in decisions on land use. The ‘community’—which is defined in different ways according to the setting—decides on how to rotate land, guarantee access to pastures, assign land in colonization zones, etc., through a consensual process. Thus it is not surprising for a similar community consensus to be reflected in voting behavior, especially among indigenous groups that see that the MAS will represent their interests.50

The MAS is, as researcher Santiago Anria correctly notes, “a hybrid organization … participating in representative institutions without abandoning nonelectoral street politics.”51 Bolivians like it this way. Latinobarómetro polling shows that popular satisfaction with democracy in Bolivia has risen from under a quarter of those surveyed in 2005 to more than half in 2009. President Morales has not given up his involvement in Bolivia’s social movements, and even now remains head of the coca growers union. He is often seen crossing over and joining the people protesting in the streets.52

Democratic governance in Bolivia is more activist, inclusionary, direct, and participatory than that in the United States and the West. But above all politics in Bolivia are not so much about elections these days. At polling time the left sets aside its differences and votes for Morales and the MAS. But as we are seeing, it is between the elections that normal politics begin. The left fractures, and communities and various associations begin to clamor for attention to their needs.

In Bolivia, as in Ecuador and Venezuela as well, the right is in retreat. Indeed, the right is becoming, or has become, all but irrelevant as a political force. In Bolivia the violent overreach of the right in 2008 severely reduced its national political influence. The parties of the right have been reduced to rump voting clubs, the remnants of prior political configurations. Instead, democracy in Bolivia is the contestations, the testing of relative strength, of President Morales and the MAS, and social groups expressing their politics directly, on the streets, in protests, marches, in highway blockages. Between elections politics begin in earnest, as the cycle of left-wing pressure begins anew. This is what democracy looks like in Bolivia.

In 2009, at her confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Bolivia under Morales was pursing “policies which do not serve the interests of the … [Bolivian] people or the region.”53 U.S. political observers like former Secretary Clinton don’t know what to make of Bolivia and Morales, don’t have language to talk about it, and may not like it, but Bolivians do not care anymore. But for those in the United States and the West who are disillusioned with politics, the new Bolivian democracy should provide considerable inspiration, demonstrating vividly the parameters of the possible.54

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1. Morales, quoted in, William Powers, Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization (New York: Bloomsbury, 2006), 133.

2. Robert Kozak, “Bolivia President Evo Morales Leading in Election Poll: Socialist Leader Boosted by Strong Economic Growth, but Nationalization Moves Remain a Concern,” Wall Street Journal August 5, 2014,; “Opposition Electoral Alliance Unlikely,” Latin American Weekly Report 12 June 2014, 5-6; and Jeffery R. Webber, “Managing Bolivian Capitalism,”, 2014.

3. “Morales Leaves Nothing to Chance in Bolivia,” Latin News Daily Report 28 August 2014.

4. Paz Estenssoro, quoted in Martín Sivak, Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 41; and see Eduardo Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism in Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 107, 110.

5. Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism,109; Kepa Artaraz, Bolivia: Refounding the Nation (London: Pluto Press, 2012), 22, 23, 29; Herbert S. Klein, “The Historical Background to the Rise of the MAS, 1952-2005,” chapter in, Adrian J. Pearce, Evo Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia: The First Term in Context, 2006-2010 (London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, nd.), 50; Roger Burbach, Michael Fox, and Federico Fuentes, “Bolivia’s Communitarian Socialism,” chapter in, Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism (London: Zed Books, 2013), 81; Jeffery R. Webber, “Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia. Part I: Domestic Class Structure, Latin-American Trends, and Capitalist Imperialism,” Historical Materialism 16 (2008), 37; Raúl Madrid, “Bolivia: Origins and Policies of the Movimiento al Socialismo,” chapter in, Steven Levitsky and Kenneth M. Roberts, The Resurgence of the Latin America Left (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 243.

6. Martín Sivak, “The Bolivianisation of Washington-La Paz Relations: Evo Morales’ Foreign Policy Agenda in Historical Context,” chapter in Pearce, Evo Morales,155; Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism, 114.

7. Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism, 115; Artaraz, Bolivia, 245.

8. Klein, “Historical Background,” in Pearce, Evo Morales, 57; and Artaraz, Bolivia, 47-48.

9. The U.S. Department of State, quoted in, Powers, Whispering in the Giant’s Ear, 207; and see Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism, 116.

10. The World Bank, quoted in, Degol Hailu, Rafael Guerreiro Osorio, and Raquel Tsukada, “Privatization and Renationalization: What Went Wrong in Bolivia’s Water Sector?” World Development 40:12 (2012), 2565; and Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing, “’Less Than Fully Satisfactory Development Outcomes’: International Financial Institutions and Social Unrest in Bolivia,” Latin American Perspectives 36:3 (May 2009), 69.

11. United States Ambassador Rocha, quoted in Sivak, Morales, 87; and Sivak, “Bolivianisation of Washington-La Paz Relations,” in Pearce, Evo Morales,144, 159.

12. Powers, Whispering in the Giant’s Ear, 240; Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism,134; Kohl and Farthing, “’Less Than Fully Satisfactory,’” 70; Benjamin Kohl and Rosalind Bresnahan, “Introduction: Bolivia Under Morales, Consolidating Power, Initiating Decolonization,” Latin American Perspectives 37:3 (May 2010), 5-17; and

Benjamin Kohl and Rosalind Bresnahan, “Introduction: Bolivia Under Morales, National Agenda, Regional Challenges, and the Struggle for Hegemony,” Latin American Perspectives 37:4 (July 2010), 5-20.

13. Artaraz, Bolivia, 8.

14. Madrid, “Bolivia,” in Levitsky and Roberts, Resurgence, 243.

15. Germán Darío Valencia Agudelo, “Bolivia, 2003-2008: un período de profundas transformaciones políticas y económicas,” Perfil de coyuntura económica (Antioquia, Colombia) 12 (December 2008), 180; and George Gray Molina, “The Challenges of Progressive Change under Evo Morales,” chapter in, Kurt Wyland, Raúl Madrid, and Wendy Hunter, editors, Leftist Governments in Latin America: Successes and Shortcomings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 58.

16. Madrid, “Bolivia,” in Levitsky and Roberts, Resurgence, 239; Valencia Agudelo, “Bolivia,”184; and Artaraz, Bolivia, 42.

17. Morales quoted in, Sivak, Morales, 42; and Sivak, “Bolivianisation of Washington-La Paz Relations,” in Pearce, Morales, 161.

18. Gray Molina, “Challenges,” in Wyland, Madrid, and Hunter, Leftist Governments, 65.

19. “Bolivia Earns $16 Billion Since Nationalizing Energy,” green left Weekly May 20, 2013; Benjamin Kohl, “Bolivia Under Morales: A Work in Progress,” Latin American Perspectives 37:3 (May 2010), 116; Mark Weisbrot, Rebecca Ray, and Jake Johnston, “Bolivia: The Economy During the Morales Administration,” Center for Economic Policy Research, December 2009, 12; Emily Achtenberg, “Contested Development: The Geopolitics of Bolivia’s TIPNIS Conflict,” Nacla: Report on the Americas 46:2 (2013),9; “Bolivia’s Rentier Republic: Evo Morales is Popular but not Invulnerable,” The Economist May 3, 2014,; and Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing, “Material Constraints to Popular Imaginaries: The Extractive Economy and Resource Nationalism in Bolivia, Political Geography 31 (2012), 230.

20. “Participación del Estado en la economía permitió cambiar la imagen financiera del país,” Agencia Boliviana de Información 26 December 2013.

21. Weisbrot, Ray, and Johnston, “Bolivia,” 25; and Manuel Mejido Costoya, “Politics of Trade in Post-Neoliberal Latin America: The Case of Bolivia,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 30:1 (2011), 87.

22. Madrid, “Bolivia,” in Levitsky and Roberts, Resurgence, 253.

23. Kohl, “Bolivia Under Morales,” 110.

24. Morales, quoted in, Madrid, “Bolivia,” in Levitsky and Roberts, Resurgence, 247.

25. Mejido Costoya, “Politics,” 86.

26. John Crabtree and Ann Chaplin, Bolivia: Processes of Change (London: Zed Books, 2013), 24; Artaraz, Bolivia, 60, 73-75.

27. Martín Mendoza-Botelho, “Bolivia 2012: Entre Buenos y Malas Noticias,” Revista de ciencia política (Santiago, Chile) 33:1 (2013), 36.

28. Hedelberto López Blanch, “La bonanza económica y social de Bolivia,” Rebelión 7 December 2013; Katu Arkonada, “Bolivia: A Balance Sheet for the ‘Process of Change,’” green left Weekly February 4, 2013; Kozak, “Bolivia,” Wall Street Journal August 5, 2014; “Morales Leaves Nothing to Chance,” Latin News Daily Report 28 August 2014; “Labour Unions,” Latin American Weekly Report 5 December 2013, 7.

29. Mendoza-Botelho, “Bolivia,” 36; “Bolivian Political and Social Landscape: Primer for Pending Presidential Elections,” Andean Information Network, August 1, 2014,; Fernando Molina, “Why is Evo Morales Still Popular: The Strengths of the MAS in the Construction of a New Order,” translation and introduction by Richard Fidler, Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, July 14, 2013, originally published in the May-June issue of Nueva Sociedad.

30. Valencia Agudelo, “Bolivia,” 181; “Bolivia’s Rentier Republic,” The Economist May 3, 2014,; United Nations. ECLAC. Social Panorama of Latin America, 2013, 16; Frederico Fuentes, “Bolivia: Nationalisation Puts Wealth in Hands of the People,” green left Weekly May 28, 2013; and Mendoza-Botelho, “Bolivia,” 36.

31. Mendoza-Betelho, “Bolivia,” 39; and Weisbrot, Ray, and Johnston, “Bolivia,” 15.

32. Mendoza-Betelho, “Bolivia,” 39; and Weisbrot, Ray, and Johnston, “Bolivia,” 15.

33. Mendoza-Betelho, “Bolivia,” 38-39; and Weisbrot, Ray, and Johnston, “Bolivia,” 15.

34. Molina, “Why is Evo Morales Still Popular,” Links July 14, 2013.

35. Artaraz, Bolivia, 109, 209.

36. Gray Molina “Challenges,” in Wyland, Madrid, and Hunter, Leftist Governments, 70.

37. Molina, “Why is Evo Morales Still Popular,” Links July 14, 2013.

38. “Morales Leaves Nothing to Chance,” Latin News Daily Report 28 August 2014; and Molina, “Why is Evo Morales Still Popular,” Links, July 14, 2013.

39. Kohl, “Bolivia,” 114.

40. Valencia Agudelo, “Bolivia,”194.

41. Kohl, “Bolivia,” 111.

42. Achtenberg, “Contested Development,” 6, 8; and Kohl and Farthing, “Material Constraints,” 230.

43. Achtenberg, “Contested Development,” 6, 9; and Crabtree and Chaplin, Bolivia, 16, 17, 30-31.

44. Morales, quoted in Achtenberg, “Contested Development,” 6.

45. Achtenberg, “Contested Development,” 7; and Kohl and Farthing, “Material Constraints,” 230.

46. Achtenberg, “Contested Development,” 7-8, 10; Mendoza-Betelho, “Bolivia,” 41; and Arkonada, “Bolivia,” green left Weekly February 4, 2013.

47. Kohl and Farthing, “Material Constraints,” 233.

48. Kohl and Farthing, “Material Constraints,” 233; Mendoza-Betelho, “Bolivia,” 42-43; and “Bolivia’s Rentier Republic,” The Economist May 3, 2014,

49. Kohl and Bresnahan, “Initiating Decolonization,” 12.,

50. Kohl and Bresnahan, “Initiating Decolonization,” 12.

51. Santiago Anria, “Bolivia’s MAS: Between Party and Movement,” chapter in, Maxwell A. Cameron & Eric Hershberg, editors, Latin America’s Left Turns: Politics, Policies & Trajectories of Change (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2010), 103.

52. Madrid, “Bolivia,” in Levitsky and Roberts, Resurgence, 254; and Artaraz, Bolivia, 5.

53. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, quoted in Artaraz, Bolivia, 152.

54. Artaraz, Bolivia, 6.

Image sources:

Map of Bolivia. Image by: Douglas. Taken from:

Manuel Rocha. Photo by: PresidenciaRD Taken from:

YPFB: Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos. Taken from:

Manifestation for the Pando Massacre. Taken from:

Leopoldo. Taken from:

Kids at School. Picture by: Szymon Kochański. Taken from: