The Speed of Change: Bolivian President Morales Empowered by Re-Election
Bolivian President Evo Morales was re-elected on Sunday, December 6th in a landslide victory. After the polls closed, fireworks, music and celebrations filled the Plaza Murillo in downtown La Paz where MAS supporters chanted "Evo Again! Evo Again!" Addressing the crowd from the presidential palace balcony, Morales said, "The people, with their participation, showed once again that it's possible to change Bolivia… We have the responsibility to deepen and accelerate this process of change."
Though the official results are not yet known, exit polls show that Morales won roughly 63% of the vote, with his closest rival, former conservative governor Manfred Reyes Villa, winning around 23% of the vote.
The Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Morales' political party, also won over two thirds of the seats in the lower house and the senate, meaning the MAS administration will have an easier time passing laws without right wing opposition.
Many of Bolivia's indigenous and impoverished majority identify with Morales, an indigenous man who grew up poor and was a grassroots leader before his election as president in 2005. Many also voted for Morales because of new government programs aimed at empowering the country's marginalized people.
"Brother Evo Morales is working for the poorest people, for the people that are fighting for their survival," El Alto street vendor Julio Fernandez told Bloomberg reporter Jonathan Levin on election day.
"He's changing things. He's helping the poor and building highways and schools," Veronica Canizaya, a 49-year old housewife, told Reuters before voting near Lake Titicaca.
During his first four years in office Morales partially nationalized Bolivia's vast gas reserves, ushered in a new constitution written in a constituent assembly, granted more rights to indigenous people and exerted more state-control over natural resources and the economy. Much of the wealth generated from new state-run industries has been directed to various social and development programs to benefit impoverished sectors of society.
For example, Inez Mamani receives a government stipend to help her care for her newborn baby. The funding is thanks to the state-run gas company. Mamani, who also has five other children, spoke with Annie Murphy of National Public Radio about the program. "With my other children, there wasn't a program like this. It was sad the way we raised them. Now they have milk, clothing, diapers, and it's great that the government helps us. Before, natural resources were privately owned and there wasn't this sort of support."
In addition to the support for mothers, the government also gives stipends to young students and the elderly; the stipends reached some 2 million people in 2009. "I'm a teacher and I see that the kids go to school with hope, because they get breakfast there and the subsidies ... I ask them how they spend the hand-outs and some of them say they buy shoes. Some didn't have shoes before," Irene Paz told Reuters after voting in El Alto.
Thanks to such far-reaching government programs and socialistic policies, Bolivia's economic growth has been higher during the four years under Morales than at any other period during the last three decades, according to the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.
"None of this would have been possible without the government's regaining control of the country's natural resources," said CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot. "Bolivia's fiscal stimulus over the past year was vastly larger than ours in the United States, relative to their economy."
During Morales' new term in office, with over two thirds control in both houses of congress, the MAS government should be able to further apply the changes established in the new constitution, a document passed in a national vote this past January. The MAS base is eager for land reform, broader access to public services, development projects and more say in how their government is run. The mandate and demands for massive changes are now greater than ever.
As Bolivian political analyst Franklin Pareja told IPS News, "In the past four years, the change was an illusion, and now it should be real."
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press) and the forthcoming book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail.com