BOLIVIA: Evo Morales, the Best Ally of the Middle Class

Franz Chávez, La Paz, Jan 8 , 2010 (IPS) - Just five years ago, an alliance between an indigenous leader and Bolivia's small but influential middle class seemed virtually impossible.

But left-wing President Evo Morales was re-elected last month with an even more impressive landslide victory than his already unprecedented triumph in 2005, clearly reflecting growing support among the middle class.

In upper middle-class circles in Bolivia, it is fashionable to be vehemently anti-Morales. Nevertheless, the president took 64 percent of the vote in the Dec. 6 elections, compared to just under 54 percent in December 2005 - in a country where leaders are often elected with less than half that level of support.

Nearly three million of a total 4.85 million voters expressed their support at the ballot box for Morales, the leader of the Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, while 1.9 million distributed their votes among seven different opposition candidates.

In Bolivia, where over 60 percent of the population of 9.7 million are Amerindians, the lighter-skinned middle class, made up of business families, doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals, have often played a key political role in the country's history.

That was the case, for example, during the so-called "gas war" of October 2003 - a month of protests against the government of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada's (1993-1997 and 2002-2003) plans for foreign oil companies to export huge quantities of Bolivia's natural gas to the United States and Mexico.

It was not just the strikes and roadblocks by indigenous and labour groups in El Alto, a vast working-class suburb of La Paz, but the presence of middle-class demonstrators on the streets of upscale neighbourhoods in the capital as well, that finally toppled Sánchez de Lozada - but not until some 60 people had been killed when the army was called out to squelch the protests.

There are no statistics showing the proportion of families that would be considered middle class in Bolivia, but this segment of the population has had a heavy presence in and influence on both dictatorial and democratic governments throughout Bolivian history.

The same holds true today. While Morales' support base is made up of the urban working class and poor coca farmers and other peasants, his cabinet is comprised of a large portion of ministers from the middle class.

In his reelection campaign, the president - whose second term starts on Jan. 22 - focused this time around on wooing middle-class voters, by incorporating personalities like Ana María Romero on his party's list of candidates for Congress.

Romero, a former ombudsperson with a middle-class - as opposed to rural or labour - background, is first senator for La Paz and will possibly become Senate president.

In 2003, Romero headed peaceful demonstrations in residential neighbourhoods against the Sánchez de Lozada administration's bloody repression of protests.

Just three of Morales' 20 ministers are indigenous people: Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, Justice Minister Celima Torrico, and Minister of Rural Development and Land Julia Ramos, all of whom come from poor peasant families.

Trade unionists hold two positions in the cabinet: Public Works Minister Walter Delgadillo and Labour Minister Calixto Chipana.

The rest of the cabinet posts are held by professionals and technocrats.

Vice President Álvaro García Linera himself is a middle-class intellectual, and a firm believer that it was time for Bolivia to finally have an indigenous president.

Besides García Linera, MAS leaders include intellectuals with a background in the Communist Party, whose influence waned when it flirted with the insurgent movement led by legendary Cuban-Argentine guerrilla leader Ernesto Ché Guevara - before he was captured and killed in Bolivia in 1967 - and after its brief interlude in government as part of the centre-left Popular and Democratic Unity (UDP) coalition, which governed from October 1982 to August 1985.

In last month's elections, the governing MAS won 114 of 166 seats in Congress - a large enough majority to enable the Morales administration to push through far-reaching reforms needed to fully implement the new constitution, which was approved by voters in a January 2009 referendum and went into effect a month later.

The new constitution empowers the impoverished indigenous majority, historically discriminated against in Bolivia, South America's poorest country. Native people were not even allowed to vote until 1952.

Morales' main rival in the Dec. 6 elections was right-wing candidate Manfred Reyes Villa, who garnered 1.2 million votes, 26.4 percent of the total.

Cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina, Bolivia's richest man, a centre-right politician who has sought to portray himself as a moderate, came in a distant third, with 5.6 percent (less than 300,000 votes).

Morales not only took 10.5 percent more votes than he did four years ago, but the actual number of votes nearly doubled: from 1.54 to 2.9 million, out of a total number of registered voters that increased from 3.6 to 4.85 million over the last four years.

That leap was due to the government's successful nationwide voter registration drive, carried out with a transparent system that includes fingerprints and a photograph identifying each voter.

Many of the 1.5 million new voters who backed Morales had abandoned rightwing positions, at least partly because the economic results achieved over the last four years have been so much more outstanding than anything accomplished by the rightwing administrations that have governed since 1985.

Besides the continued solid support Morales reaped from the urban and rural poor and working-class sectors, he earned the backing this time around of a considerable number of middle-class voters, as indicated by the figures provided by the electoral authorities.

For example, in the department or province of La Paz, a bastion of Morales support, he not only won a majority of votes in poor areas like El Alto, but also in traditional rightwing districts. In the province, eight out of 10 voters supported MAS.

Despite the global crisis, Bolivia boasted one of the highest growth rates in Latin America in 2009, with GDP growth of three percent, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), and 2.8 percent according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which praised the Morales administration's balanced management of public finances.

According to a study by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a Washington-based think tank, Bolivia’s economic growth in the last four years has been higher than at any time in the last three decades, averaging 5.2 percent a year since Morales took office in January 2006.

The report also points to Morales' reversal of the privatisation of the country's natural gas reserves - the second-largest in the region, after Venezuela's - by an earlier administration, a move that boosted government revenues from hydrocarbons from 5.6 percent of GDP in 2004 to 25.7 percent in late 2008.

In addition, Bolivia's foreign reserves climbed from less than two billion dollars in 2005 to more than eight billion in 2008, the CEPR study underlines.

The global recession has not hit Bolivia as hard as many other countries. Unemployment, for instance, has only risen slightly, from 10.2 percent in 2008 to 11 percent in 2009, according to the Centre for Research on Labour and Agrarian Development (CEDLA), a La Paz-based think tank.

Savings, meanwhile, increased by 581 million dollars in the first half of 2009, 10.2 percent more than in the first six months of 2008, with deposits rising to nearly 6.3 billion dollars, the private banking association, Asoban, reported.

By July 2009, Bolivia's banks had earned a record 148 million dollars, according to the Central Bank, outstripping forecasts.

Although other sectors of the economy have complained about a lack of incentives for their economic activities, the country's banks, based in the relatively prosperous eastern province of Santa Cruz, with interests in industry and large-scale production of soy, cotton and other commodities for which international demand is high, have particularly prospered under the Morales administration.

And while some analysts say drug production and trafficking have grown substantially, with an estimated 100 million dollars in purchases of coca leaves and services, that figure pales in comparison to the country's 19 billion dollars in GDP for 2009 or the total bank deposits.

The influx of contraband goods, informal trade and the activities of small businesses and craftmakers helped offset the low level of job creation by large investments.

Another sign of growth is the 23 percent increase in tax revenues, which rose from 1.86 billion dollars in 2008 to 2.28 billion in 2009, as Bolivia's national tax service reported in December.

Despite continued heavy resistance and opposition from big business and the elites, and with the painful memories of the economic disasters of the 1980s, the quiet confidence in Morales is apparently growing, and 4.5 percent GDP growth is projected for 2010.

Conditional cash transfers to poor families, a universal minimum pension, and payments to pregnant women and nursing mothers who follow a strict schedule of doctors' visits, along the lines of programmes carried out in Brazil and Chile, as well as a moderate, patient governing style similar to those of Chile's socialist President Michelle Bachelet and Brazil's leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, seem to be another key to the undeclared social pacts and alliances that brought Morales back for a second term

Republished from IPS News


outsider said...

God bless you, Bolivia and Evo Morales (and not the 'god's' of the NWO (Lucifer, Moloch, Yah-Bul-On, Mammon etc).
Christian or not, Evo, you are doing God's work, supporting your people; oddly enough, though it may be news to Bliar, Bush, Obomba et al, God did not endow the planet with commodities and agricultural potential for the benefits of Monsanto, ITT, Chiquitta, Dole etc.
Bravo! And may an enlightened Middle Class support your efforts.
As for the Vatican, I will happily debate them re the true meaning of Christ's message; but I won't hold my breath for their acceptance of this thrown down gauntlet.
!A Luta Continua! (as our Portuguese brethran would say).

neil said...

Hoorah for Evo and MAS..your work has brought light into a despondent world.
Would you folks consider applying for the title of..
'official model of development for the world'.
You have no idea how you have given myself and I am sure millions of others hope in these dreadful times.
I am terrified of the powerful forces that would love to see you destroyed. Please be vigilant, La derecha conspirando. Neil

Bolivia Rising