Morales Re-Election Shows Failure of U.S. Policies

Teo Ballvé

The re-election of Bolivian President Evo Morales to a third term is a stark reminder of Washington’s self-inflicted irrelevance south of the border.

In 2006, Morales became the first indigenous president of Bolivia, a country where native peoples make up nearly two-thirds of the population.

His life history is itself a story about U.S. policy blunders in Latin America.

Fresh out of high school, he was conscripted into the army of Gen. Hugo Banzer, one of the many brutal military dictators that Washington propped up across South America during the 1970s.

After his military service, Morales settled in Bolivia’s tropical lowlands, the only place his family could afford land. At the time, the country became a laboratory for the package of radical free-market reforms that were eventually adopted throughout Latin America at Washington’s insistence. As elsewhere, the results in Bolivia were disastrous.

Morales watched as a mass exodus of laid-off workers flooded into the lowlands looking for opportunities, as these so-called reforms brought on an economic crisis.

Like Morales, these homesteaders began growing the only viable crop in the area: coca. Used for millennia by local indigenous groups for a number of household purposes, the coca plant is also the raw material of cocaine.

As coca cultivation spread, Bolivia’s lowlands became ground zero for the U.S. war on drugs.
Protesting against the resulting human rights abuses, Morales became well known as an outspoken community organizer. After several failed runs, he finally won the presidency in 2006.

Morales vowed to assert state control over the country’s newfound resource wealth and redirect its riches to improve the lives of its impoverished indigenous majority. He also promised to overturn the most harmful aspects of the U.S. war on drugs.

Despite U.S. resistance on both fronts, he kept these promises.

After nationalizing the oil and gas industries, the Morales administration invested in social programs and a number of job-creating infrastructure projects. Poverty has been reduced by 25 percent since he took office, and extreme poverty has been reduced by 43 percent, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Rather than following the militarized U.S. approach of trying to completely eradicate coca, Morales moved to regulate its production, recognizing the many local cultural uses that have nothing to do with cocaine.

According to the United Nations, by including local communities in the regulation of the crop, the government has reduced the amount of land cultivated with coca by more than 25 percent.

Despite these evident gains, the Obama White House claims Bolivia has “failed demonstrably” in combating the drug trade. The move effectively blocks U.S. aid to the country, South America’s poorest.

But U.S. hostility has not crippled Bolivia, as Morales has found allies outside of Washington’s orbit.
The days of Washington bullying its southern neighbors with impunity are over — in no small part thanks to leaders like Morales.

Republished from Teo Ballvé's website

Bolivia’s Transformation: The Victory of Evo Morales

Binoy Kampmark

It is a sometimes overly rich recipe, starched with violence and populism, but Latin American politics is something to behold. In the Americas, experiments have been run and tried with brutal consequences. Revolutions and counter-revolutions have been plotted and enacted. The good have tended to be a short time in office, while the coup d’état has had something of a long history.

Evo Morales’ victory in the Bolivian elections for a third term with just over 60 per cent of the vote is no minor achievement. Cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina received a paltry 25 per cent, something he blamed on the late entry of ex-president Jorge Quiroga, a move that potentially split the anti-Morales vote. Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism romped in, winning eight of the nine regions, including the affluent area of Santa Cruz. A remarkable achievement, given Morales’ own background as the son of peasant Altiplano farmers.

Victory for Morales in Santa Cruz also proved particularly sweet given its base for opposition to the MAS in 2008. Then, it was the aspiring Rubén Costas, co-founder of the right leaning Unidad Demócrata (UD), who attempted to fan the flames of secession. This, it was said, was also being facilitated by US money, be it through USAID or the National Endowment for Democracy. The latest victory has prompted Morales to quash claims that the country was one of half-moons “but a full moon”.

This victory is much more than a polling matter. The conflict between wealthy settlers and the indigenous populations has been the scar that never leaves, and a Morales victory did much to stare it down. (He, himself, is a native Aymara.) In 2009, he introduced a new constitution with a focus on indigenous rights and grants of greater autonomy. Then came the fiscal redistributions – income gathered from natural gas has been used in targeted programs. While the corruption stain lingers in its accusing tone, the country has not become the victim of dedicated kleptocrats. As long as the natural resource boom continues, Morales is on a purple patch. He knows, however, that such patches do turn colour in time. (This might be a literal statement, given the environmental costs of the Morales program.)

In the main, Morales has provided a copy book on the redistribution of natural wealth via the state pocket. Infrastructure projects connected with gymnasiums, schools and medical clinics have received funding through the Bolivia Cambia Evo Cumple program. Growth rates of 5.5 per cent this year, and 5 per cent for next, have been predicted by the IMF.

Measures of inequality have fallen even as inflation is being kept in check, and while Bolivia remains impoverished, it is barely recognisable as the once noted basket case run by a small ruling class hungry for coups. Half a million people have been pulled out of poverty. As if to prove a point, the country made a return to global credit markets in 2012, making its first bond issue since the 1920s, while issuing another in 2013.

Pragmatic socialism, as it has been termed, has not assumed that all sectors of the economy require nationalisation. The hydrocarbon reserves in May 2006 came in for special treatment, and the government coffers were promptly filled by increased state revenues of 285 per cent. But the banking sector is being left to its own devices – in the main. “We have never thought of nationalising the banking sector. As they are earning well, let them pay taxes.”

Such pragmatism would have surprised the late conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. of the National Review, who found the very notion, “in A.D. 2006, of aiming at reform by movement towards socialism” as “at best quaint.” Buckley did, however, provide Morales with something of a backhanded compliment. Even if the then newly elected leader was keen on socialising industries, he was also, when required, going to mount the soap box for free trade. This was particularly so over US policies to stamp out coca production. “Whose problem is it that many Americans use cocaine?”

Buckley’s own question – and he was at least good enough to suggest so – was whether the United States government did, in fact, have a right “to convert its own concern for weak-minded Americans into a veto power on Bolivian agriculture”. The only way was to “straighten up our disorderly theoretical house” and do business with Morales on the subject of protecting Americans.

In September 2006, Morales made a point before the United Nations General Assembly to hector Washington over its policies to criminalise coca production. With colourful defiance, Morales brandished the otherwise banned coca leaf during his speech.

The Morales victory cannot be seen in splendid isolation. As the Bolivian leader has himself conceded, such a polling result is not one that can be confined. It is, truly, a continental one that was already gathering pace when he was elected in December 2005. “There is a deep feeling, not just in Bolivia, but in the Americas, of freedom, of a triumph of the anti-imperialists.” Through the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, Morales has proven a busy presence.

The argument on indigenous rights is very much a broader argument of Latin American sovereignty in the face of meddling policies hatched in and implemented by Washington’s overly curious representatives. To those who see Latin America as both backwater and backyard, Morales had only one response: “Homeland yes, colonialism no.”

Morales did wish to dedicate the election victory to a few luminaries – those of “Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.” And the defiant rejection of Washington’s veto over Latin American regimes, be it through stealth or standard confrontation, continues.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

This article first appeared in Dissident Voice.

Evo Morales’ Victory Demonstrates How Much Bolivia Has Changed

Federico Fuentes, TeleSUR in English

Predictions by pollsters and commentators that Evo Morales would easily win Bolivia’s October 12 presidential elections were confirmed when the incumbent obtained over 60% of the vote.

Most however differ over why, after almost a decade in power, Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) continues to command such a huge level of support.

Their explanations tend to focus on specific economic or political factors, such as booming raw material prices or the MAS’s ability to control and co-opt the country’s social movements.

However, to understand why Morales will soon become the longest serving head of state in a country renowned for its history of coups and rebellions, it is necessary to start with an acknowledgement of the profound changes that Bolivia has undergone during his presidency.

Economic transformation

For some, the old saying “it’s the economy, stupid” neatly summed up the reasons for Evo’s victory.

They argue Morales simply rode the wave of high commodity prices, or promoted the ongoing expansion of lucrative extractivist industries, irrespective of social or environment costs, in order to use these funds to boost his popularity.

Yet, these views ignore (or purposely conceal) a basic truth, namely that Bolivia’s economic success is a direct result of the MAS government’s program for economic transformation.

This program has focused on weakening transnational control over the local economy and diversifying the economy away from its position of dependency on raw material exports.

A key plank of this program was Morales’ 2006 decree nationalizing the all-important gas sector.

Without this move, any increased windfall from higher commodity prices would have inevitably flowed out of the country, as it had under previous governments.

Instead, the capture and dramatic internal redistribution of Bolivia’s gas wealth helped fuel a huge surge in domestic demand, as ordinary people were lifted out of poverty and finally able to attend to their basic needs.

In fact, Bolivia’s record growth rates had more to do with a booming internal market than with external demand, which actually had a negative affect on growth during the global economic crisis.

Increased revenue derived from nationalization also enabled the Morales government to take steps towards making the local economy less dependent on raw material exports.

The government launched its industrialization program, which will soon see Bolivia go from a position of importing processed gas to exporting liquefied petroleum gas and other derivatives (for much higher returns).

Furthermore, the redistribution of gas revenue to other productive sectors has facilitated growth in non-extractive based industries.

This is particularly true for those sectors that provide livelihoods for a majority of the MAS’s social base, which is largely comprised of small-scale farmers, cooperative miners, street vendors and those employed in family businesses or micro-enterprises.

Economic diversification has also meant that growth in manufacturing outpaced both the mining and gas sectors last year.

The idea that Morales’ success is the result of external or internal economic factors such as high commodity prices or dependence on existing extractive industries is as simple as it is wrong.

The truth is that support for Morales is actually a result of the economic transformation that has taken place in Bolivia.

Political revolution

Many analyses also ignore the critical role that Bolivia’s indigenous and social movements have played in revolutionizing the country’s political set-up.

While the nationalization of Bolivia’s gas was officially decreed by the Morales government, it was in fact the direct result of years of struggle by the Bolivian people.

At the heart of these struggles was the demand to nationalize the gas in order to redirect this wealth towards meeting peoples’ needs.

Unsurprisingly, opinions differ as to what exactly should be done with this wealth.

Given the highly organized and mobilized nature of Bolivia’s popular classes, these differences have often been contested in the streets. As a result, the second Morales government (2009-2014) witnessed the highest rate of protests for any government in Bolivian history.

Only a tiny minority of these protests focused on issues to do with resource extraction.

The overwhelming bulk revolved around disputes over resource redistribution. This includes protests over access to basic services through to the redistribution of electoral boundaries and concurrent changes in funding allocation, and mobilizations against particular economic measures (for example, attempts to clamp down on contraband or impose taxes on cooperative miners).

The record number of protests would seem to go against the idea that the MAS has successfully co-opted Bolivia’s social movements. Yet, it also begs the question: if the Bolivian population is staging more protests than ever, why does Morales continue to maintain his popularity?

The explanation lies in the fact that Morales’ election heralded much more than the arrival of the first indigenous person to the presidential palace. It marked the onset of a political revolution that has gradually seen Bolivia’s old political elites dislodged from power and replaced by representatives from the country’s indigenous peoples and popular classes.

For this majority, the MAS government represents a safeguard against a return to the Bolivia of yesteryear, run by corrupt, white elites. More than that, for most indigenous people and social movements, the MAS government is “their” government.

This does not mean that the people have handed the MAS a blank check. Already on several occasions the MAS government has been forced to back down on certain policies due to popular pressure.

However, none of these protests have posed a fundamental challenge to the MAS’s overall vision for Bolivia, precisely because this vision is largely informed by the struggles and demands of the people themselves.

Instead, these conflicts have primarily been disputes over how best to make this vision a reality.

The MAS’s response to date has been to follow an approach of seeking dialogue and consensus, retreating where necessary but always attempting to continue to drive the process forward towards its goal.

Morales constantly sums up this approach using the Zapatista slogan “to govern by obeying”.

It was this approach that enabled the MAS to come into the elections with the backing of all of the country’s main indigenous, campesino, worker and urban poor organizations and to ensure its thumping victory.

The failure of opposition forces and critics to recognize or accept the fact that a political revolution has taken place and important economic transformations are underway explains why they are so far out of touch with the majority of Bolivian society.

Bolivia’s process of change is far from complete, and it may yet falter. It may also be dramatically impacted by events in the region, for example a change of government in neighboring Brazil.

For now, however, Bolivians have once again overwhelmingly chosen to push forward with their process of change.