November 16, 2014

Bolivia: Morales wins Big

Yohannan Chemarapally

“I am convinced that capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity and the environment; enemy of the entire planet” – Evo Morales. WHAT Morales profoundly believes in, is anathema to the ruling classes in India and the West. But in Latin America, the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist ideology has struck firm roots. The thumping victory of Evo Morales in the presidential elections in Bolivia held in the second week of October is a graphic illustration. Morales won a third term in office in a landslide victory. In a victory speech, Morales dedicated his victory to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, who have been his role models. “There was a debate on two models: nationalisation or privatisation. Nationalisation won with more than 60 percent”, Morales said in his victory speech. Felicitations came in from fellow socialist leaders in the region, including the presidents of Cuba, Venezuela and Argentina. “In your name, this triumph of the Bolivian people is dedicated to all the peoples in Latin America and in the world who struggle against capitalism and against imperialism”, the 54 year old Morales said. A majority of the South American countries continue to retain an egalitarian and socialist form of government. The trend had started at the end of the last century when Hugo Chavez was elected as president of Venezuela. In the last decade, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia were among the countries that elected Left wing leaders. Latin America till the nineties was treated by the US as its backyard. Any country choosing an alternative model of development was considered an enemy by the “colossus of the North” – the US. Since the 1950’s, Left wing governments in Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua and Grenada were violently overthrown with the active involvement of Washington. Authoritarian plutocrats and right wing military strongmen were installed in office by the US. The Duvalier family in Haiti and Gen Augusto Pinochet in Chile are only two examples. In the October 12 elections, President Evo Morales won a resounding victory in the first round itself. A run-off was only necessary if the winning candidate polled less than 50 percent of the votes. The ruling party led by Morales – The Movement towards Socialism (MAS) won a comfortable two thirds majority in both the houses of parliament, winning 24 out of the 36 Senate seats and 80 of the 130 seats in the house of deputies. CREATING HISTORY Ever since he appeared on the political scene, Morales has been creating history. A fiery trade union leader without a college education, he first came to prominence as the leader of the coca growers union. He played a prominent role in the overthrow of two corrupt and compromised presidents. Before Morales took over the presidency, Bolivia was plagued by chronic instability. The average life expectancy of a government was around a year or two. Military interventions till the eighties and violent street protests after that saw many Bolivian presidents deposed or forced to flee. The civilian governments which took over in the eighties had imposed free market neo-liberal policies that led to the elimination of price control and the dilution of workers rights. It was the privatisation of water resources in the late nineties that triggered a social and political upheaval. Protests erupted all over Bolivia as the government was unrelenting in its collection of the “water tax”. Even the collection of rain water and water from private wells was not exempted. Evo Morales had played an important role in organising the protests which had forced the government of Hugo Banzer to rescind its decision on privatisation of water resources in 2000. Morales stood for elections in the 2002 presidential elections for the first time. Despite explicit warnings from the American ambassador to Bolivia that voting for Morales would jeopardise American aid to the country, he came a close second in the race. The fiery socialist rhetoric of Morales and his championing of the coca growers cause, had infuriated Washington. The US has been demanding a complete ban on coca cultivation. The indigenous people in the region have been cultivating the plant from time immemorial and using it for making tea as well as for medicinal and cultural purposes. Bolivia again erupted in 2003, this time over the decision by the government to introduce more privatisation, increase taxes and sell Bolivian gas to private companies. The violent crushing of the protest movement that resulted in the deaths of around 100 protestors in the capital La Paz and the satellite city of El Alto, led to the resignation of President Sanchez de Lozada, who had succeeded Banzer. He could last only 15 months in office. In a referendum in 2004, Bolivians overwhelmingly voted to renationalise their natural gas resources. Decades of neo-liberal policies had left the vast majority of the populace in dire poverty. In 2005, Bolivia’s GDP was lower than what it was in 1998. The trade unions and social movements decided to take things in their own hands and radically change the political structure of their country. Till then power had alternated between three parties, two of which claimed to be left of centre, but while in power all of them bowed to diktats from Washington and the IMF. All the three parties had become deeply discredited among the masses. The Left wing MAS led by Morales stepped into the vacuum. In December 2005, Morales won the presidential election for the first time with around 54 percent of the vote. It was the highest ever victory margin reached in the country’s history. The leader of the coca growers union, now the president, loyal as always to his roots wasted no time in brandishing his radical credentials. “Long live coca. Death to the Yankees”, he said in his native Aymara language. One of the first things he did after taking over the presidency was to re-establish majority State control over the gas sector, increasing Bolivia’s share of the profits to 82 percent. Before the coming of Morales, Bolivia had to be satisfied with a mere 18 percent share of the profits. Bolivia has the second largest gas reserves in Latin America after Venezuela. Morales’s decision to boldly go ahead and nationalise the gas sector laid the foundation for the future well being of the country’s economy. Earnings from natural gas exports constitute almost half of the government’s revenue. Before 2005, gas accounted for only 7 percent of the government’s earnings. President Morales also pledged to rewrite the Constitution, one of the major demands of the protestors, trade unions and social organisations. In 2006 a Constituent Assembly elected for the purpose of rewriting the Constitution met in the city of Sucre. A new constitution was approved by the delegates but met with stiff opposition from the old white and mixed race elite concentrated in the provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija and Pando. In a last ditch effort to stop the new Constitution from being adopted, the opposition tried the gambit of secession. A referendum of sorts was held in the aforementioned four states but only a minority of voters participated and the entire exercise had no legal or constitutional sanction. Morales however acceded to the opposition’s demand for a recall vote. In the recall election held in August, 2008, Morales again scored a resounding victory, getting two thirds of the vote. Meanwhile the secessionist movement lost all steam after the brutal killings of thirteen MAS supporters and the torching of government buildings and schools in the East of the country in September 2008. EXPULSION OF THE AMERICAN AMBASSADOR The Bolivian government ordered the expulsion of the American ambassador, Phillip Goldberg, after the violent incidents. Goldberg was openly consorting with the separatist leaders and indulging in acts that the government considered to be subversive in nature. While ordering the ambassador out, Morales said that “We don’t want people who conspire against democracy” to remain in the country. Washington retaliated by expelling the Bolivian envoy to the US, imposing economic sanctions on Bolivia and banning the country’s participation in the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. Bolivia responded by sending all US Drug Enforcement Agents in the country along with USAID workers, packing. Full diplomatic relations between the two countries are still to be restored. Bolivia, along with Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua are among the staunchest members of an alliance against the West in the region. Morales had stood for election for a second time after the adoption of the new Constitution in 2009 and had won with 64 percent of the vote. Since then, the country has witnessed steady growth. A commodity boom came in handy for the government. Extreme poverty fell from 35 percent in 2005 to 18 percent in 2013. The number of Bolivians living in extreme poverty has fallen to one in five from more than a third in a population of 10 million. Minimum wages more than tripled. The unemployment rate is the lowest in Latin America. Thanks to a successful literacy program, UNESCO has declared the country free of illiteracy. Morales after his re-election once again emphasised his goal of turning Bolivia into “an energy center for the region”. The government has been successful in ensuring that coca cultivation has not led to the production of cocaine. The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime has lauded the Bolivian government’s efforts at curtailing the production of cocaine without the use of strong arms methods. Washington has used its “War on Drugs” policy in the region as a camouflage to attack Left wing groups. Morales told the media that he will not be seeking another term after his current term ends in 2019. He said that he would prefer to retire and stay in his rural farm where he once tended llamas along with his father as a boy. Washington has been alleging that Morales is becoming increasingly authoritarian and was seeking to change the Constitution so as to perpetuate his hold on power. Morales will have another five years in which to groom a successor. As of now, he towers over all other politicians in the country.