Evo Morales: The extraordinary rise of the first indigenous president of Bolivia, by Martín Sivak, 256 pp, £17.99, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN: 978-0230623057
In October 2003, as Bolivia’s ancien régime tottered on the brink of the abyss, the US ambassador went to meet the country’s vice-president at his home in La Paz. Nestled in a dusty canyon 3,600 metres above sea level, the capital was cut off from the outside world. Roadblocks had been erected by residents in the neighbouring slum-city of El Alto, perched above La Paz on the edge of Bolivia’s high Andean plain – the Altiplano. The overwhelmingly indigenous protestors were the vanguard of a broad popular uprising in which centuries of bitter resentment at the misrule of a privileged, largely white, few had exploded in fury following the announcement of plans to export natural gas at a steep discount to the United States via traditional enemy Chile.
A loyal client of Washington – even his Spanish carried the taint of a gringo accent ‑ President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada had sought to break the blockade of his capital with military force. Fifty-nine deaths ensued but the protests only intensified. Though the country’s political class now realised that only a wider bloodbath could keep “Goni” in power ambassador David Greenlee was still desperately seeking to shore up his support.
His conversation with Carlos Mesa was tense. The vice-president, having seen where events were leading, had already distanced himself from his boss and refused to be brow-beaten into joining the State Department’s doomed effort to save him. As the two men traded insults Greenlee, perhaps frustrated at the looming ruin of US policy in what had been one of its loyalist Latin satellites, let fly at Mesa:
The elite has governed very poorly. I’ve never known a country as racist as this one. You all, the elite, made a democracy of exclusion. You aren’t self-critical, you’re incapable of establishing institutionalism, and you live in corruption.
While the blunt truth of this assessment raises the question as to why Greenlee was trying to save such a group, its anger hints at his knowledge that the project was beyond hope. The eventual implosion of the previous ruling caste has ushered in what can claim to be the most radical of the leftist governments to have come to power in South America in the last decade.
That implosion happened in slow motion. Goni resigned and fled, first to Miami, then to Washington, where he warned that Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the Americas, risked turning into “a cocaine-exporting version of Afghanistan”. Mesa inherited the presidency but no power. He manoeuvred desperately in an effort to delay the inevitable, but the forces which brought down Goni had him cornered within two years and he too resigned. The line of succession passed through the heads of the senate and the lower house in congress, but under pressure from protesters in the street both men declined the post. It was left to the head of the supreme court to supervise new elections and on December 18th, 2005 Bolivia’s old order was definitively swept away when a coca-growing peasant union leader drubbed its representative, a former IBM engineer with a Texan wife, to become the first member of the indigenous majority to lead the country since the arrival of the conquistadores in the sixteenth century.
As an Aymara Indian instinctively hostile to both capitalism and US policy in his country, and a man whose ascent to the presidency owed nothing to traditional political structures, Evo Morales’s victory marks a decisive break in Bolivian history. The irony for Washington – one probably not lost on Greenlee, whose own wife is Bolivian – is that the 2005 election result represented a classic case of policy blowback. It was US support, bordering on management, of the elite excoriated by its own ambassador and their joint implementation of policies horribly unsuited to local conditions that prepared the ground for Morales’s rise.
His victory, at the head of a party called Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement To Socialism, or MAS), brought to a definitive end the twenty-year experiment with neo-liberal economic reforms inaugurated in 1985 under US guidance. This early introduction of deregulated, free-market “shock therapy” into Latin America had itself been made possible by the collapse of a previous economic experiment ‑ the protectionist model of import substitution in place since Bolivia’s National Revolution of 1952. Taking its inspiration from such diverse populist-nationalist regimes in Latin America as the left-leaning Partido Revolucionario Institucional in Mexico and the government of Mussolini admirer Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, or MNR) had sought to use intensive state management of the economy to promote industrialisation and the creation of a domestic bourgeoisie. But by the early 1980s, in the wake of the oil shock and the subsequent Latin American debt crisis, with inflation above 20,000 per cent and behind on loan repayments to the International Monetary Fund, the heirs of the 1952 revolution were led under pressure by the US-dominated multilateral agency to contract economist Jeffrey Sachs to advise them as they sought a way out of the economic morass.
Sachs ordered orthodoxy in fiscal and monetary management and an autonomous central bank. Inflation came down from its stratospheric highs to ten per cent and public spending was cut drastically to balance the budget. State enterprises were closed or privatised. Foreign investment was encouraged, particularly in the energy sector, and by the 1990s oil companies were investigating Bolivia’s huge gas reserves, the second biggest on the continent after Venezuela’s. The New Economic Policy was hailed a success and Sachs would go on to advise Poland and Russia following the collapse of communism in Europe.
But the promised prosperity never materialised. Instead “shock therapy” saw a surge in unemployment following the closure of state mines and companies which had provided at least a minimum of job security. The far more precarious informal sector experienced rapid growth. Foreign companies did bring investment to the energy sector but only after the state offered them contracts that represented a surrender of sovereignty. The development of the gas economy did not produce anywhere near enough jobs to replace those lost in closed and privatised state enterprises and did not stimulate the creation of a native energy services sector.
The weight of taxation was switched from income and corporations to consumption, which had the effect of shifting the burden of paying for a diminished state to the less well off. Poverty and inequality both increased, with economic growth neither strong enough nor sufficiently well distributed to compensate. Defenders of Latin America’s neo-liberal experiment today argue that the results were underwhelming because governments were not brave enough in their reforming zeal and lacked the institutional strength to overcome corruption and defeat monopolistic local special interests while imposing sound regulatory regimes on the newly privatised sectors of the economy. But such excuses are the equivalent of wishing Bolivia was more like Denmark instead of a remote land twice the size of France with forbidding terrain and populated by just eight million poorly-educated people ruled over by a corrupt and often racist elite. This failure to take into account the history and geography of the country, or to assume that such forces could be overcome by free-market ideology, doomed the reforms, but only after reshaping the left wing that would eject those who had implemented them from power.
At first the reforms represented a strategic defeat for Bolivia’s left. The highly unionised state sector was decimated, resulting in a huge loss of influence for the Bolivian Workers Centre (or COB, after its initials in Spanish), the country’s confrontational trade union federation. Worst hit were miners, long one of the most organised and militant workers’ groups on the continent and the COB’s shock troops.
But as the reforms failed to tackle the underlying problems of Bolivian poverty and inequality the country’s class struggle merely shifted to the expanded informal sector where the new slimmed down state had far fewer mechanisms of control. Urban centres such as El Alto experienced rapid growth, but with accompanying deindustrialisation instead of industrialisation. According to the World Bank, over three-quarters of the population works in the informal sector, with almost a third earning no salary. Many eke out a living in the countless street markets that characterise Bolivian cities and towns. Often these market traders survive by selling produce from small plots but large numbers are also involved in contraband, which has the impact of strangling the country’s legitimate commercial sector. Much of the urban transport network is also informal, creating the chaos of mini-vans that choke city streets as they compete for business. Most companies are small family workshops, involved in keeping the country’s decrepit transport fleet on the road or in small scale manufacturing with growth prospects limited by the desire of owners to avoid taxes and the slow, capricious legal system. Outside of the cities, cooperatives of miners sprang up to work mines abandoned during privatisation while the cocaine trade has created a new class of rural smallholder which grows the coca plant, not for traditional uses but for sale to drug traffickers.
These various sectors of the informal economy all produced new social movements to represent a class of worker who felt a deep alienation from the political class. This organising followed in a long tradition of self-reliance, filling the gaps left by an absent, indifferent state and drawing on the communal traditions of the country’s indigenous peoples, which date back to the early colonial period, when the regime left them to run their own communities so long as they met their mita obligation of forced labour to work in the royal mines.
These new political actors, with negligible representation in the national congress, first came to international attention during the “Water War” in the city of Cochabamba in 2000 when residents resisted the privatisation of the city’s decrepit publicly run water system demanded by the World Bank. A foreign-led consortium was brought in, given a forty-year concession and a healthy guaranteed annual return on a promise to impose professional management and double the network’s reach. But there was local resistance to the government’s decision to give the consortium a monopoly over all of Cochabamba’s water resources, with peasant market farmers worried that foreigners would show up and attach a meter to communal water systems they had built themselves to irrigate their fields.
When the consortium announced a steep hike in rates to pay for investment the city rose up in protest. To the foreign engineers who ran the consortium a $20-a-month water bill might not have seemed onerous but for many Cochabambinos it was more than they spent on food – in a country as desperately poor as Bolivia it was as much as a third of some residents’ income. A general strike was called by an ad hoc coalition of peasant organisations and local trade unions acting with environmentalists and strongly backed by the city’s poor, whom the World Bank had said would benefit most from the extension of the water network. They succeeded in closing down the country’s third largest urban centre, which sat right on the country’s main east-west axis. When the police went to lift roadblocks there were riots and demonstrations in support of Cochabamba’s residents which spread to other regions, forcing the government to declare a ninety-day state of siege.
Protest leaders were arrested but the riots escalated into more serious confrontations involving the military, with deaths on both sides. Several months after the start of Cochabamba’s protest the Water War had paralysed much of the country. When a television camera caught an army sniper in civilian clothing shooting dead a seventeen-year old Cochabamba student protester, the government, fearing a complete breakdown of its authority, bowed to the city’s demands, rescinded the contract with the consortium and handed over the management of the city’s water supply to protesters themselves.
It was the first major defeat for the economic reformers and it came from outside the traditional political system. The protesters had shown how to make effective use of the roadblock is in a country with so few highways. This tactic would be adopted to devastating effect by the residents of El Alto, which is especially well placed as the site of the neighbouring capital’s airport, with the only main road linking La Paz with the rest of the country passing through it.
Self-organising community groups had existed in El Alto since the 1950s but only rose to prominence after the city experienced explosive growth in the 1980s following droughts on the surrounding Altiplano and the dislocation caused by the economic reforms. This new population was characterised by its overwhelmingly indigenous profile, its sense of exclusion, reliance on the informal sector and, as time passed, its militancy. Laid-off miners brought their concept of class warfare with them and helped radicalise El Alto’s largest community organisation, the Federation of Neighbourhood Organisations (or FEJUVE, after its initials in Spanish).
It was this FEJUVE that organised the roadblocks that strangled La Paz and toppled Goni. It could do so because it was responding to a widespread perception among the near three-quarters of a million residents that the neo-liberal reforms had worsened the lot of the country’s poor and indigenous majority while benefiting foreign multinationals and the local ‑ mainly white – elite. The indigenous communities’ long memories saw the plan to export cheap gas to the US as a repeat of the country’s silver and tin booms which had seen them toil to extract the country’s mineral wealth but receive none of its benefits.
As the leader of Bolivia’s biggest coca-growers trade union, Evo Morales took part in both the Water and Gas Wars but only played a secondary role during both, lending his movement’s support to other lead organisations, all of whom had come to see each other as members of a broad movement opposing the country’s pro-US, neo-liberal direction.
Morales’s anti-Americanism was born of bitter personal experience. A cocalero – the local term for a cultivator of the coca plant, the main ingredient for cocaine – he had risen through the cocalero union movement in the tropical El Chapare region during the 1980s. As cocaine increasingly became the Class A drug of choice in the United States and Western Europe after the 1970s the amount of Bolivian land devoted to growing the coca plant far exceeded the needs of the local population, who chewed the leaves as a mild stimulant and to ward off the effects of altitude. For peasant farmers it was a miracle crop – you could harvest it several times a year, it earned far more than fruit crops and, perhaps most importantly in a country as isolated and lacking in infrastructure as Bolivia, buyers would come to you. Instead of having to get bulky produce to distant markets over appalling roads, customers – Bolivians, Brazilians, Colombians – would fly into remote regions and pay dollars for the green leaves. Bolivia became the world’s third biggest producer of coca – and cocaine – after Peru and Colombia, and the drugs trade percolated through to all levels of society from poor cocaleros in El Chapare to the presidential palace – most notoriously following the “cocaine coup” of 1980, when General Luis García Meza’s seizure of power was funded by the country’s cocaine mafia, who then sat in his inner cabinet.
This booming trade led to Bolivia becoming a target in the US’s “War on Drugs”. As this concentrated on confronting the problem at source rather than stemming demand at home, Washington imposed a coca eradication policy on the country as a prerequisite to friendly relations and its considerable aid, on which the economy was dependent. Agents from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) designed and managed Bolivia’s coca eradication programme, directing special police units. In 1987 this programme declared coca production in El Chapare surplus to traditional needs and marked it for eradication.
The cocalero unions resisted and as protests turned to confrontation and then to violence El Chapare was militarised. In 1988 eleven cocaleros were killed in the Vila Tunari massacre. As the most prominent cocalero leader, Morales was at various times harassed, arrested and threatened with deportation to the US on trumped up drug trafficking charges. Colleagues were tortured in an effort to have them implicate him with the drug-trafficking Colombian guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc. On the anniversary of the Vila Tunari massacre he was severely beaten and left for dead by police. Even after reaching the presidency he still had dreams in which he was being pursued by DEA agents. So bitter was the conflict that Morales argued in favour of armed struggle against the authorities. In 1995 he warned in an interview that the situation in El Chapare resembled that in Chiapas in Mexico and did not rule out an uprising similar to the Zapatista rebellion launched by Subcomandante Marcos the year before.
The militancy of the cocaleros was driven in part by their poverty and the absence of a viable legal cash crop that could provide an income close to that which could be earned from coca. Most of El Chapare’s cocaleros were, like Morales himself, peasant refugees who had fled drought on the harsh Altiplano to the west. But they were joined by thousands of former miners who lost their jobs as a result of shock therapy. Destitute, they too came to El Chapare’s coca fields, where they spread their concept of radical syndicalism within the cocalero trade union movement, which grew to seven hundred rural syndicates organised into six federations. By 1988 Morales was elected head of the coordinating committee of the Six Federations of the Tropics. His mentor as he rose through the ranks was Filemón Escobar, a former miner and Trotskyite who held hundreds of seminars to train the cocaleros on how to defend their livelihoods.
It was this radical, highly organised movement of coca growers, hardened by years of struggle in El Chapare against US-trained police units, that supported the urban protesters in the Water and Gas Wars. That it was the cocaleros and not one of the myriad of other anti-government groups that led the street protesters to power is due to a complex combination of factors of which two merit special mention – the cocaleros’ early decision to contest elections and Evo Morales and his racial identity.
For many of Bolivia’s emerging radical groups politics was what they were fighting against. The system was seen as utterly corrupt, because, as the US ambassador noted, it was. Following the return of democracy in 1982 no presidential candidate managed to secure more than 50 per cent of the vote. Instead of the run-off round common in other South American republics when this occurs, it was left to Bolivia’s congress to hold its own vote to decide which of the candidates would become head of state. This was always the occasion for political bartering, in which the spoils of power were hawked around by presidential candidates in their efforts to build the coalition that would elevate one of them to the presidential palace. It was a shameless political auction that resulted in coalitions whose members would, exacting their pound of flesh, spend the subsequent administration pillaging the state.
This political barter-system both alienated people and excluded them. It explains the allure of the armed struggle that Morales considered and other radicals sought to ignite in the early 1990s, as well as the popularity in some indigenous regions of the idea of complete autonomy from the “colonial” state and a return to some sort of pre-Colombian idyll.
The congressional ‘mega-coalitions’ that elected presidents were ideologically incoherent – supposed leftists allied with the military dictator who exiled them during the eighteen-year period of military rule – but were numerically strong. The result was to deny civil society a means of addressing grievances, multiplying after the reforms of the 1980s, through political channels. This sense of exclusion was reinforced by the fact that political leaders, wherever they located themselves on the political spectrum, were white and well-off in a country that was largely indigenous and poor. It was against this political background that Bolivia witnessed a dramatic intensification of street politics.
It was not just the indigenous poor that resented the political class in La Paz. In the east of the country, in Santa Cruz, the richest of Bolivia’s nine departments, there were demands for greater autonomy by the largely mestizo population, led by the captains of the region’s successful agri-business industry, one of the only productive sectors in the country’s economy. Cruceños resented paying what they saw as an outsized share of the national tax take only to watch it disappear into the sinkhole of corruption in La Paz. This battle for autonomy was a regional dispute that dated back to the nineteenth century and was between two elites, both white. Autonomy looked set to be granted in the early 1990s. But just as the deal was to be signed, fearing for their tax income, the politicians in La Paz reneged and opted instead to devolve greater autonomy to the country’s municipalities, which they calculated would be easier to control than the powerful burghers in the Santa Cruz department.
The genesis of Morales’s victory in 2005 was his cocaleros’ movement’s decision to contest the 1995 elections to the newly devolved municipalities. They realised early on that a political component would be useful in their protest movement, even though Morales admitted that their electoral programme read like a list of union grievances rather than a programme of government. Nevertheless, 1995 was the start of a decade’s political gains. The cocaleros took control of Vila Tunari and much of the rest of El Chapare and Morales was subsequently elected to congress, which duly tried to expel him.
By the 2002 presidential election he was politically the best placed of the street agitators but still only polling around ten per cent. Enter Manuel Rocha, Greenlee’s predecessor as US ambassador, who warned Bolivians that a vote for the cocalero would threaten US aid. The MAS immediately recognised the propaganda coup such a declaration represented in a country where anti-American sentiment was on the rise. Morales joked that he would not be able to pay Rocha for his efforts on behalf of his campaign which quickly adopted the slogan: “Let’s vote for ourselves”. Morales won a fifth of the vote, just 2.5 per cent behind Goni, who was subsequently elected president by the congress. The MAS was now his main political opposition, ideally poised to capitalise once he blundered into the Gas War.
In Morales the MAS had a leader with a powerful appeal. He was a radical anti-capitalist, but also a nationalist who blasted the “colonial” state for pillaging the country on behalf of foreigners. He was poor, and even after rising up the cocaleros’ union ranks and entering politics showed a complete lack of interest in personal enrichment. He was a novelty – a clean politician, enough to win him respect among many middle class voters who otherwise were dubious of his capacity to run the country.
He is also from the indigenous majority, but not one of the indigenist politicians who view Bolivian politics through strictly racial lenses. The 2001 census revealed that 62 per cent of Bolivians were indigenous, mainly drawn from the Aymara, Quechua and Guaraní peoples. But the census found that while 74 per cent of the population of El Alto was Aymara only 48 per cent of respondents there could speak the language. In the whole country only 11 per cent identified themselves as monolingual in an indigenous language.
The danger in Bolivia is in using ethnic identification to assume political affiliation. A 2006 survey by the Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity at Oxford University (that is during the first year of Morales’s presidency) found that 45 per cent of respondents would prefer a label other than ethnic with which to identify themselves, with another 13 per cent preferring the two options together. While Bolivians might value ethnic identification they often let other considerations guide their political choices, helping explain why despite the large indigenous majority indigenist groups command only a minority of political support.
Morales well represents this indigenous but not necessarily indigenist majority. He is Aymara but speaks it poorly (as indigenist rivals never tire of pointing out) saying that at a young age he opted for Spanish in order to “centralise communications”. While his stump speeches will often open with an analysis of Bolivian history starting with the arrival of the conquistadores and talk of the need to hand more power to the Aymara, Quechua and Guaraní, Morales will frequently use the generic and more inclusive term campesino ‑ peasant – when talking of Bolivia’s poor majority.
It was the white middle class intellectuals of the 1952 National Revolution who sought to resolve Bolivia’s “indigenous question” by bringing universal suffrage and land reform to the countryside, one they insisted on defining as populated not by Indians, but campesinos. Their revolution’s failure to bring sustained prosperity led generations of young radicals in the 1970s and 1980s to reject the campesino label and view their struggle with the state through a racial prism. That Morales has not done the same helps explain why he and not the indigenist radicals won power in a country where competing identities are more fluid than the categories on a census form are able to capture. For Morales the label indígena carries a strong class sentiment to go with its obvious ethnic connotations. His looser understanding of what it means to be indigenous has huge appeal to the Spanish-speaking Aymara youth in El Alto as well as those migrant peasants organised into new rural syndicates in El Chapare far from the traditional ayllu community structures of the Altiplano.
In Evo Morales: The extraordinary rise of the first indigenous president of Bolivia, Argentine journalist Martín Sivak succinctly explains his appeal to a majority of the country’s population: “The story of his life is the story of the pain and scarcity in the country”. This broadly sympathetic but not wholly uncritical portrait leans heavily on extraordinary access to its subject (Morales has the author sit in on cabinet meetings) but skips rather too lightly past the broader political context and avoids any useful analysis of his chances of carrying through his reform programme. But it nonetheless provides an intimate portrait of a South American leader coming to grips with his transformation from street agitator into head of state.
Evo Morales was born in 1959 into an impoverished family of llama herders on the Altiplano. With no doctor for families like his he almost died in childbirth. Four of his seven siblings would die young – infant mortality rates for such Bolivian children reached levels typical of sub-Saharan Africa. He experienced hunger in the winter and had to start work as a young boy, walking for days with his father to bring llamas to market. To support his studies he did stints as a baker and bricklayer and for a time was a trumpet player for the Oruro Imperial Band. The family spent time as migrant workers on a sugar cane plantation in northern Argentina before drought finally forced it off the Altiplano and to El Chapare, coca and, for Morales, his start in politics.
Sivak captures well the down-to-earth – very blokeish ‑ charisma that explains Morales’s broad appeal and made him in 2005 the first politician since the return of democracy to win over 50 per cent of the vote in a presidential election. As he tells Sivak: “I know what it is like not to have money or a home.” In Morales a majority of Bolivians finally had a president with whom they could identify, a leader who had suffered their daily hardships.
Since becoming head of state he has worked tirelessly to lessen those hardships. He is, in Sivak’s portrait a micro-managing workaholic who sleeps little, spending most nights talking with colleagues on one of two mobile phones. He is consumed by politics, with little else to distract him other than his passion for football, though he is also an incorrigible flirt who likes to boast about his reputation as a rogue – the author is vague on how much of his old bachelor ways he continues as president. Despite limited formal education – he admits he did not understand that printing money caused inflation until after he became president ‑ Morales is also tough, smart and gifted with a memory like a sponge; he drives his team relentlessly and rages against a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy. “Many measures are initiated, but few are consolidated,” he admits ruefully.
His government has often been less radical than it sought to be on going into office or claimed to be since as Morales has grappled with the realities of leading a motley coalition of protest groups and social movements into power. Gathering them together in a broad front to bring down a common enemy was far easier than forging them into a united and disciplined ruling coalition. He quickly completed the one policy that more than any other united his electoral base by nationalising the country’s gas industry in 2006. But the showy military takeover of foreign-owned installations that May Day belied the fact that this “nationalisation” was synthetic – no foreign company was kicked out of the country. Instead they would just have to pay greater taxes and royalties to the state, which they agreed to after some grumbling.
The resulting boost in income was dramatic. Bolivia’s foreign reserves are at record levels and the state now has a budget surplus, which it failed to do when the economy was run according to the advice of US economists. But the government has given little indication about how it plans to turn this new wealth into jobs and prosperity for the wider population. Morales talks of industrialisation but has not laid out a vision as to how this would succeed any better than the failed effort of the 1952 revolution. This goal of somehow “industrialising” the country’s mineral wealth also seems to place Morales at odds with his other stated proposition that capitalism is poisoning the earth. He seems caught between his commitment to protecting Pachamama – Mother Earth ‑ and trying to leverage the wealth that can be realised from “dirty” extractive industries such as mining and hydrocarbons. He has already fallen out with former indigenist allies who want an end to such industries altogether in traditional communities, exposing the internal contradiction of a government claiming to represent leftists seeking a greater state role in industrialisation and groups opposed to the whole idea of industrial society.
There has been a broader retreat from the original MAS goal of transforming Bolivia into “a state of the social movements” in the phrase of Morales’s vice-president and chief ideologue Álvaro García Linera. The MAS short-circuited the dream of many of these social movements to have an assembly called to draw up a new constitution which would be free of political parties and be drawn directly from civil society. Fearing a loss of control, Morales did a deal with the rump of the traditional political class to gerrymander the assembly between their two parties and in doing so excluded many who had struggled in the broader campaign against the old ruling elite from deliberations on the new charter.
Nonetheless dissidence on the left grows. Street protests are on the rise as radical groups impatient with the pace of change once again seek to pressurise the government in pursuit of local and sectional interests. Several prominent components of the movement that swept Morales to power are now critics of his government. El Alto’s FEJUVE has broken with the MAS saying it “has merely used the indigenous peoples and members of popular sectors for their political campaigns, but they continue to be excluded from political decisions and are only used by the government to legitimise itself and as step ladders to their seats of power”. It also criticises it for not expelling foreign companies from the country and burying the “capitalist system”, signalling out the white García Linera for particular criticism and defining him as one of the “enemies of the peasant and indigenous class”. Anger at García Linera’s influence and the promotion of political carpetbaggers within government, with embarrassing cases of corruption as a consequence, has seen a splinter group recently emerge from the MAS itself. Though small, it counts several senior founder members once close to Morales, including his former mentor Filemón Escobar.
Even in the area of coca cultivation Morales is encountering the realities that come with power. On the night of his election he ended his victory speech with the traditional cocalero cry: “Love live coca! Death to the Yanquis!” and would later expel the DEA from the country. But as president he has grown concerned with the growth of drug-related organised crime in Bolivia, even telling supporters that drug traffickers were now so powerful they outgunned the police. He has launched a voluntary eradication programme which though small is symbolic. Previously Morales insisted that coca was a legitimate crop, a gift from Pachamama, and that cocaine was a problem for the Americans. “We produce our coca, we bring it to the main markets, we sell it and that’s where our responsibility ends,” he told a journalist in 1991. But as president he cannot afford to take such a myopic stance. Not only Washington is concerned with Bolivia’s resurgent traffickers. Brazil, not the US, is the main market for Bolivian cocaine, where it produces far more violence and social mayhem than in any North American city. Morales’s readjustment to the wider implications of the coca trade has led the cocalero unions in the lowlands around La Paz, a coca-growing region distinct from the MAS’s birthplace in El Chapare, to break with the cocalero president and run against, and beat, his party in local elections.
Morales and García Linera have taken to denouncing these former allies who disagree with them as either being under the influence of foreign enemies or else suffering from a political “infantile disorder”, García Linera’s reference to Lenin’s criticism of his left-wing opponents during the Bolshevik revolution. In the “state of social movements” it appears the political centre will decide which groups are legitimate and stigmatise the rest.
But there is an important difference between a government failing to live up to its original principles and failing as a government. Despite the problems and critics, Morales and the MAS have won four national elections since 2005, in each one taking close to two-thirds of the vote. In part this is because of the disarray following the loss of power that has hollowed out the traditional political parties. These have essentially been reduced to an eastern regional rump centred on Santa Cruz. If this department resented rule by the old La Paz elite, it was absolutely aghast at its overthrow by a radical leftist and redoubled its campaign for autonomy. This culminated in a series of protests in 2008 that resulted in another round of civil anarchy and left observers worrying about Bolivia’s integrity.
But the autonomy campaign was dealt a major blow when its leaders were implicated in the Rózsa-Flores affair. This broke when police shot dead three men, including Irishman Michael Dwyer, in Santa Cruz in April 2009. García Linera quickly claimed they were mercenaries in the country to assassinate Morales and lead an armed secessionist campaign in Santa Cruz. The details surrounding the incident remain mired in controversy, with the government’s version of events containing inconsistencies and the investigation undermined by irregularities. Eduardo Rózsa-Flores left a video saying he had indeed been invited to Santa Cruz to defend it from the government. But by whom remains a major source of speculation and accusation. What is clear is that the opposition in Santa Cruz was placed on the defensive by a government that quickly used the incident to delegitimise it.
But in an August speech in Santa Cruz commemorating one hundred and eighty-five years since the founding of the state, Morales switched from confrontation to an offer of reconciliation with it and other anti-government departments in the east. He does so from a position of political strength, but his offer came with the acknowledgement that his government has struggled with its industrialisation policy. He admitted that the country remained dependent on exporting commodities and asked for local business partners to help the government achieve its goal of transforming such resources into an industrial base.
Such talk will disappoint radicals, whether those indigenists who favour a return to the pre-industrial past or more traditional leftists who want an end to capitalism with the state taking command of the economy. Moderates have expressed the hope that Morales has decided to tack to the centre rather than attempt the sort of radical transformation that many Bolivians may crave but which has never provided lasting prosperity or freedom to those who have tried it on the continent and which a state as traditionally weak and as divided – by race, class and region – as Bolivia is particularly ill-equipped to undertake.
As the country’s first indigenous president, Morales signifies a momentous shift in Bolivian history. It is of the order of the coming to power of Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 1994. But the broader efforts of the MAS to transform – refound – the state belong to a long Bolivian tradition. The hated neo-liberal policies of the 1980s and 1990s were a response to a failed previous attempt at national industrialisation. There were thirteen constitutions before the latest MAS document emerged from the most recent constituent assembly. Morales’s gas nationalisation was the third of the energy sector in less than a century and has no more guarantee of bringing long-lasting prosperity than its predecessors. While it has provided an immediate boost to national income it has also provoked a drop in foreign investment in the sector. The strategic importance of Bolivia’s reserves is also threatened by huge new energy finds off Brazil which not only lessen Brazilian dependence on Bolivian gas but whose development will absorb most available Brazilian capital, which previous to the 2006 nationalisation had been the main source of investment in Bolivia’s gas fields.
There can be no going back to the old politics – Morales marks a definitive rupture with the past. But he is still to figure out how to overcome the problems that have dogged Bolivian leaders for decades. How do you bring prosperity to a country on the periphery of the international economy, one whose small, poor internal market is hampered by appalling infrastructure and whose mineral wealth is of value but not necessarily of the quality or quantity to overcome such obstacles in anything but the long term, and then only after the planning and administrative execution that Bolivia manages so poorly? Recent election results indicate that the poor and indigenous majority are ready to give one of their own time while he seeks solutions to these old problems. But in a country as politically volatile as Bolivia, he would be unwise to test that patience too far.
Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent of The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.