Bolivia's Dance With Evo Morales
Bolivia's Dance With Evo Morales
George W. Bush and
"We want to keep the fighting in the assembly and out of the streets," Willy Padilla told us in September 2006 in
Protest movements paved the way to the December 2005 election of Morales as
The conflict in the streets, like the conflict in the assembly, was born out of diametrically opposed views on how best to run the country and its natural resources. On the one side is the socialist vision of Morales; on the other that of the business elites, landowners and right-wing politicians struggling to keep their power. More than a year after Morales's landslide electoral victory, his administration has given the state more control over natural gas and mines, convoked an assembly to rewrite the Constitution, redistributed land and defended coca growers' rights. At the same time, regional and class divisions have exploded on many levels.
The constitutional assembly is the formal version of the fight over the nation's political and economic direction. Approximately 60 percent of the country's population is indigenous, and the same percentage lives below the poverty line. Many of these disenfranchised citizens see the assembly and their new president as an opportunity to create a country that will include them in its idea of progress.
Elections were set for the new assembly before Morales took office, but conservative sectors demanded that they include a referendum on autonomy for
When the assembly election results came in last July 2, new conflicts arose. The representatives of Morales's Movement Toward Socialism Party, or MAS, did not win the two-thirds of the seats they needed to control the assembly. While original legislation stipulated that the new Constitution would be approved by a two-thirds majority of the assembly, the MAS proposed that a simple majority be used in the assembly, to be followed by a two-thirds majority in a national referendum. This national referendum will approve or reject the entire Constitution, including articles on autonomy. Conservative sectors--mostly the loud, right-wing Social Democratic Power (PODEMOS) party--were outraged by the proposal, as their 33 percent minority is enough to block the MAS.
After a nearly six-month standoff over voting regulations, assembly members reached a multiparty agreement on February 14. As a result, the twenty-one thematic commissions can now begin to negotiate the content of the new constitution. The decision-making regulations require each constitutional article to be approved in the entire body of the assembly by a two-thirds majority.
The MAS administration has had to meet challenges on all fronts. The goals that seemed simple when chanted through a loudspeaker in street marches appear more complicated when negotiated from the government palace. MAS politicians seeking to reverse 500 years of oppression and racism have tripped over their desire for revenge, and administrators with the best intentions to redistribute wealth and resources have stumbled over their own inexperience. As MAS assemblyman Raul Prada admitted, "The opposition has grown, not so much for what they have done, but as a result of our mistakes."
However, recent polls show that Morales's popularity is even higher than at the time of his election. While constitutional assembly members remain unable to resolve key issues, including nationalization of gas and mining sectors, coca production and agrarian reform, the traditional legislative bodies have made drastic changes.
In 2003 and 2005 popular revolts demanding gas nationalization ousted presidents and reversed corporate policies. Morales came into office on the wave of these protests, pledging to formalize victories gained in the streets. In May 2006, he donned a helmet from the state gas company and announced the nationalization of
Before the change, approximately 18 percent of Bolivian energy project revenues went to the state and 82 percent were kept by foreign companies. The new plan reverses these percentages, and Morales has said that in four years the renegotiated contracts will generate $4 billion in yearly government revenue. Increased revenue from the gas industry has already aided new government programs initiated by Morales in healthcare for women, seniors, youth and rural communities. Tractors have been distributed to rural areas, and funding has been made available for financial aid to young school children.
In reality, Morales's "nationalization" is more like a renegotiation, and not all social sectors have been happy with state management of the industry so far. In early February protesters in the town of
Talk of nationalization in the gas sector can't help but have repercussions in
Morales has since courted both mining groups with few results. Efforts to reincorporate cooperative miners into the state company in an attempt to end the divide have met with very limited success. A proposal in February to tax private mining brought dynamite-tossing cooperative miners marching into the legislative and administrative capital of
The Coca Question
Another contentious Bolivian issue that brought Morales into the presidential palace is coca production. The small, eye-shaped leaf has been at the center of Andean religion, medicine and culture for millennia. Chewed or brewed as tea, the leaf is nutritious, energizing and a hunger suppressant. It also is the source of the alkaloids used to make cocaine. Though the cocaine-making process is long and complicated, the United Nations has declared that the coca leaf itself is a dangerous and addictive drug. The futile US "war on drugs" has tried to end production by militarizing the region, forcefully eradicating coca crops and terrorizing coca farmers.
As a former and current president of the largest coca-growers union, Morales has retained the support of his base by ending forced eradication of coca crops in the Chapare region. Instead, he has expanded a program of voluntary eradication that limits coca production per family to one cato (about one-third of a football field). The collaborative eradication efforts in the Chapare are based on the Morales administration's own ties with this region and the coca union's pre-established infrastructure. This has meant standing up to
While peace has returned to the Chapare, Morales has continued forced eradication of coca in the Yungas region and elsewhere. The government's coca policy went awry last September when two coca growers were killed near the Chapare during clashes with police and military. The use of military forces and the administration's subsequent claims that farmers were linked to narco-traffickers was a contradictory move coming from a government led by a former coca grower.
Creating social justice in
In addition to political impasses and historic inequality, the Morales administration has been hit by natural disasters. After recent floods in eastern lowland departments killed thirty-five people and affected 350,000, people in the
It remains to be seen if Morales can take advantage of the disaster as, in his words, "an opportunity to convoke the unity of the country." Bolivians were ready to do so, and as the typically exploitative Bolivian press filled TV screens with sobbing families, many joined the internal "Solidarity
More than a year into Morales's first term,
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, March 2007), and edits TowardFreedom.com. Visit www.boliviabook.com for book reading tour information.
April Howard is a teacher and journalist. Both are editors at Upside Down World, a website uncovering activism and politics in