Less than a decade ago, few people outside of Bolivia could name its president. Today, Evo Morales is not only a global figure; he is an icon for critics of globalization. During the peak of neoliberalism at the end of the 20th century, the Zapatistas in Mexico advocated “changing the world without seizing power.” Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, embodies the desire to change the world while in power—borrowing Subcomandante Marcos’ concept, “to rule by obeying the people” (mandar obedeciendo), a phrase prominently displayed on billboards with the president’s image throughout Bolivia.
Evo Morales took office on December 18, 2005, with an astounding 54% of the vote. He immediately set into motion a nationalist project with two main agendas: the nationalization of oil and gas and a Constitutional Convention. With the first measure Morales proposed to do away with the “plunder of natural resources,” in the words of his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS); the second sought to do away with “internal colonialism.” Bolivian indigenous movements often use this term to characterize the domestic persistence of the exclusion of the native peoples—the majority of Bolivians—and the covert violence that continued to smolder under the liberal-democratic principles of citizens’ equality. Morales thus appears like the David who confronts the “imperialistic” Goliath, an image that greatly explains his popularity both within Bolivia and abroad.
These developments have transformed Bolivia into a beacon for those who are searching for alternative models to capitalistic modernity and to the present economic crisis. The presence of native peoples as the principal actors in the actual process of change activates a series of imaginaries about an “other” who is capable of providing fresh perspectives, cosmovisions and alternative political, economic and social practices in the face of “Western decadence.” But when one looks at the situation more closely, it becomes much more complicated. Although it is certain that the majority of Bolivians are indigenous (62%, according to the 2001 census), it is just as true that a fierce desire for inclusive modernization emerges forcefully from deep within the Bolivian population. Evo Morales reactivates developmental imaginaries in which “living well” in terms of material welfare is more powerful than any spiritual or non-materialist guidelines allegedly inscribed in indigenous cosmovisions.
For many ReVista readers, Evo Morales is seen as one of a group of emerging “populist” leaders in South America, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, his Ecuadoran colleague Rafael Correa, the late Néstor Kirchner and his widow, current Argentine president Cristina Fernández, and the Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. But this “meateating” left—as Peruvian writer Alvaro Vargas Llosa called it to distinguish it from the “vegetarian” (and good) left—is not homogenous. Morales’ leadership contains a heavy dose of popular selfrepresentation rather than messianic direction (in the countryside, peasants often comment, “he is one of us”). The International Monetary Fund itself has praised his macroeconomic policy for its prudence, and his social policies can be compared without any difficulty to those of the “moderate” Lula da Silva or his successor Dilma Rousseff in Brazil.
In the last five-plus years, Morales has consolidated his power in the midst of a violent dispute with the agro-industrial elite in the country’s eastern region, encouraging the mobilization of peasants and the popular urban sectors. The support he found on the streets also translated into votes: in August 2008, he was ratified in a “recall referendum” with 67% of the votes, and in December 2009, he was reelected with an unprecedented 64%.
Nevertheless, the celebrations of the government’s fifth-year anniversary in January 2011 were tainted. The aborted “gasolinazo,” a fuel hike of up to 83%, had been announced on December 26, 2010, by Vice President Álvaro García Linera while Evo Morales was in Caracas offering help for the floods. The surprise timing and tone of the announcement that gas and diesel subsidies would be eliminated—stirring memories of the neoliberal economic corrections of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s—sparked popular discontent against the government unprecedented in the era of Evo. Until that moment, protest had come from the conservative right; this time, it emanated from the strongholds of “Evoism”—Evo supporters themselves. As a result, a week later, before the discontent grew any stronger, Morales hastened to strike down his own decree. The Bolivian president repeated that the government was “obeying the people” and that although the measure was a necessary one, the social movements had made him realize that the moment was not right for its implementation. Nevertheless, price increases and the uncertainty created by the measure spawned a series of protests about the high cost of food.
Moreover, the mini-crisis made apparent the disconnect between the often eloquent grandstanding that referenced such concepts as communitarian socialism, and changes that had actually taken place—many of them modest—in the daily lives of Bolivians. Moderate successes in the fight against poverty, the implementation of social subsidy bonds and the construction of rural electrification and highways are undeniable accomplishments, but far from being an “anti-capitalist policy.” At the same time, the Bolivian state remains chronically weak, especially because it lacks qualified technocrats and institutional density. This deficit creates many obstacles to the government’s statist projects such as setting up state-owned factories. Official negotiations with small and large producers this year to seek production increases to bring down food prices and do away with scarcity of products such as sugar, along with the announcement of subsidies to oil companies, demonstrate that overcoming market mechanisms is a lot more complicated than what the government and the so-called “social movements” ever imagined.
Evo Morales is suffering from the effects of a “crisis of narrative.” Creativity appears to be declining in terms of thinking about measures with the same—or similar—political-symbolic impact as those taken in the first moments of the Morales administration. The last educational reform law passed with little public debate except among those directly affected (primarily teachers); the same holds for a universal health insurance bill that is being drawn up, and other necessary reforms to guarantee free health care to the majority of Bolivians who today must pay for care in low-quality hospitals—let alone what happens when a Bolivian needs specialized health care. Though these efforts are real, they have not produced a compelling narrative about the social effects of the Morales government.
The transformation is most profoundly noted in the change of elites, the massive inclusion of indigenous, peasant and common citizens in the state apparatus, in the changing self-perception of Bolivians and in the realm of international politics in which Bolivia has allied itself with countries such as Venezuela, Cuba and Iran after decades of uncritical submission to Washington’s dictates.
The purchase of a satellite from China, the bet on megaprojects such as petrochemicals, hydroelectric projects, mining and highways (including in the Amazon region) or the president’s close links with the Armed Forces attest to the different imaginaries in play that—because of the lack of debate among them—at times appear like an ideological mess that muddles together indigenism and hardcore development policies. Among these we may trace two general and schematic lines that could produce several possible combinations. One vision—the hegemonic one, in which Vice-President García Linera participates—proposes a strong state accompanied by “prudent” macroeconomic policies. Another tendency, more philosophical than practical in terms of public policy, is expressed in venues such as climate change summits and anti-summits, social movement forums and courses on political formation. This tendency projects a communitarian perspective, based on political, economic, and even judicial pluralism sanctioned by the new Constitution. The main advocate of this trend is Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, who is highly regarded by the Aymaras of the Altiplano. The tensions between these two tendencies are particularly noticeable in the realm of the environment. While Bolivia has sought to play an international leadership and moral role in the climate summits, domestic policies regarding environmental defense or the struggle against climate change are inconsistent; the environmental costs of becoming a mining power once again—given the boom with its high prices—are not subject to public debate or even of fundamental concern to the government.
In this context, for the first time since arriving in office, Morales not only faces opposition from the knee-jerk right, but from the center-left Movement Without Fear, led by former La Paz Mayor Juan del Granado, a Morales ally until the beginning of 2010. With support from the urban middle class, especially in La Paz, members “without fear” have sought to cast themselves as a more democratic and institutional variation of the present process of change, “criticizing its errors and supporting its achievements.” To garner support, the movement seeks to capitalize on del Granado’s accomplishments as mayor, one of the best administrations in the country in the past decades.
The government reacted to the movement by pressing charges against del Granado and current La Paz mayor Luis Revilla, a mechanism that in the past had allowed it to get rid of its principal conservative rivals. This year, the governor of Tarija (in the south of the country and the principal reservoir of Bolivian gas) was deposed and obtained political asylum in Paraguay; Leopoldo Fernández, the former governor of Pando, is still in jail waiting to be sentenced for the socalled Porvenir massacre in 2008, when pro-Evo peasants were allegedly ambushed by Fernández’ thugs in the isolated Bolivian Amazon region. And several former strong opposition leaders fled to the United States, among them Branko Marinkovic, the former pro-autonomy leader of Santa Cruz region, and former presidential candidate Manfred Reyes Villa. It is not clear, however, whether the government can get the same results with members of the moderate left, even if their movement is weak.
Morales faces a certain ideological stagnation. His second term has been marked with all the wear and tear that a second term implies. From this perspective, Morales’ future—he is planning to run again in 2014—will depend on his capacity to take charge of the process of change and to recover some of the mystique of his first term. Without a doubt, “change” has entered into its most prosaic moment, without great enemies in sight—which is an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. The struggle against the “separatists” had managed to solidify the Morales ranks until 2008. Now Bolivians are expecting Morales’ sweeping discourse to be translated into better concrete conditions in their daily lives. They are expecting a revolution in their pocketbooks.
Pablo Stefanoni, journalist and economist, is the editor of Nueva Sociedad. Until February 2011, he was editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique Bolivia. He is the author of “Qué hacer con los indios...” Y otros traumas de la colonialidad.
Republished from ReVista