Bolivia: Has Evo Morales proven his critics wrong?

Bolivia: Has Evo Morales proven his critics wrong?

By Ben Dangl

October 12, 2014

Source: Al Jazeera English

Evo Morales will most likely be re-elected today because he is a better alternative than his neoliberal predecessors and their contemporary counterparts.

Morales’ presidency is historic for a number of reasons. Consider the fact that before the 1952 National Revolution, indigenous people weren’t even allowed to enter the Plaza Murillo in front of the presidential palace because they were believed to be too dirty and unsanitary. Now an indigenous president and poor farmer without a college education sits in the presidential palace itself, and is likely to be re-elected to a third term in office today with a huge wave of support.

Morales’ presidency is also notable when considering his predecessors. For much of the past 30 years, Bolivian heads of state simply massacred workers when they didn’t comply, sold off mineral wealth to foreign corporations while Bolivians remained bound in poverty, and worked closely with Washington to undermine the country’s sovereignty and militarise coca producing regions.

As Bolivians head to the polls, this history will be present as voters reflect on this racist past and Morales’ neoliberal predecessors (and their contemporary counterparts) who, rather than attempting to empower the indigenous and poor majority, typically repressed and exploited them.

In spite of critics from the right and upper classes, Morales’ background has contributed to his popularity, as Bolivia’s poor and indigenous majority identify with him. Indeed, his rise to the presidency is a story of humble beginnings, radical politics and grassroots activism, pointing to some of the reasons he’ll be re-elected today.

Humble beginnings

Evo Morales was born in 1959 into a poor llama-herding family in Isallavi, near Oruro, at an altitude of around 12,000 feet above sea level. This isolated area lacked access to electricity, drinking water, and healthcare, leading to the young deaths of three of Morales’ seven siblings due to a lack of medical attention.

As a child, Morales once walked for a month with his father and their herd of llamas from Oruro to Cochabamba. His most vivid memories of this trip were “the large buses that travelled on the highway, full of people who threw out the peels of oranges and plantains. I picked up these peels to eat. Since then, one of my biggest dreams was to travel in one of those buses.”

The family migrated to the Chapare region of Cochabamba in hopes of a better life. Here his life was marked by the US-led war on drugs, which in Bolivia meant a war on the leftist and anti-imperialist coca farmers who grew the leaf to survive and sold it to a legal market. (Though it is a key ingredient in cocaine, the coca leaf is used legally for medicinal and cultural purposes in the country.)

One event vividly stuck out for Morales after moving to the coca-growing region: In Chipiriri, a cocalero (coca farmer) was killed by the military for refusing to plead guilty to trafficking drugs.

“Without any contemplation, [the military] covered his body in gasoline and, in front of many people, burned him alive,” Morales said. The gory scene pushed him to become involved in coca unions to fight against the repression under the war on drugs. Morales was later jailed and tortured on various occasions for this activism.

When drug-war related violence galvanised the cocalero movement for change, Morales quickly became their spokesman. He was a cocalero leader before he became a congressman and later a president. For cocaleros in the streets, Morales was a crucial ally in the government.

Grassroots uprisings

Morales was also a participant in various uprisings in the 2000s which paved the way for his election in 2005. He and other cocaleros were involved in Cochabamba’s Water War in 2000 against a plan to privatise the city’s water, and a 2003 movement advocating the nationalisation of Bolivian gas. Such struggles rejected the standard neoliberal policies that dominated Bolivian politics since the 1980s, when a string of presidents came to power undermining worker and indigenous power, and sold off much of Bolivia’s natural resources to foreign corporations. Morales rode this discontent into the presidential palace when he was elected in 2005, promising to institutionalise many of the victories already won in the streets.

When Morales came into office in 2006, many doubted that an indigenous farmer without a college education could bring the country out of a cycle of economic and social crises.

The upper and middle classes in the country were afraid of his radical rhetoric, and criticised his fiery condemnation of US imperialism and capitalism. These wealthier sectors of society wanted one of their own to run the country – but they had already had their chance, for decades, and the results were disastrous.

Yet Morales’ rhetoric against Washington and the economic model which had ruined the country resonated with the millions of poor Bolivians who had seen enough of business as usual and wanted an alternative, an alternative Morales promised to deliver. In addition, the impoverished and indigenous majority of Bolivia identified with Morales’ humble beginnings; unlike the standard racist and elite presidents of the past, Morales was seen as one of their own.

For many Bolivians, Morales’ presidency meant a window of opportunity for historic change. Morales’ popularity was born and buoyed by neoliberalism’s harmful effects on the country. Shortly after taking office, he put sectors of the country’s gas industry under state control, convened an assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution, and made good on many of his promises to focus on alleviating poverty in the country and empowering marginalised sectors of society. And Morales wasn’t alone, he was joining a wave of presidents across the region who championed progressive and anti-imperialist policies, from Argentina toVenezuela.

Popular alternative

At the time of this writing, the policies of Morales government have had a positive impact on much of the population. The GDP has steadily grown from 2009 to 2013, and the UN reports that Bolivia has thehighest rate of poverty reduction in Latin America, with a 32.2 percent drop from 2000 to 2012. Employment rates and wages have also gone up, with a notable 20 percent minimum wage raise last year.

The Morales approach of putting various industries under state control, from mines to telecommunications companies, has generated enormous funds for the government, which it is using for infrastructure – only 10 percent of the country’s roads are paved – and social programmes to lift children, mothers and the elderly out of poverty. Thanks to a successful literacy programme, UNESCO has declared the country free of illiteracy.

Such success indicates that socialist-style policies do indeed work better than those of the Morales’ administration’s neoliberal predecessors. This kind of progressive change is likely to lead his re-election today.

This isn’t to say that his time in office hasn’t been without its contradictions and pitfalls. The extractive nature of the economy has put more of the mining and gas wealth into government hands through nationalised industries, providing much-needed funds for social programmes and infrastructure. However, such industries have also displaced rural communities and polluted rivers and the land. Recently, the Morales government passed a law which criminalises protest against mining operations, and grants more water rights to miners than to local agricultural communities.

Many of the country’s vibrant social movements have also been coopted under the hegemonic power of Evo Morales and his political party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). Such cooptation has led to lost autonomy among social movements and a lack of critical spaces for dissent and open critique from the left.

Such critiques aside, Morales and a significant number of other politicians in his party are likely to win today because of their break with a neoliberal past and what they have done to positively impact the lives of many Bolivians.

Benjamin Dangl is currently a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at McGill University, and edits, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and, a progressive perspective on world events.