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September 26, 2014
Progress In Evo Morales’ Bolivia -- From Joke To Role Model
By Ronn Pineo
Source: Council on Hemispheric Affairs
“I’m convinced that capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity and the environment,
enemy of the entire planet.” — Evo Morales1
Bolivian President Evo Morales has won six nationwide elections since his presidential
victory in 2005, and on October 12th he will make it seven. His party, the Movimiento
a Socialismo (MAS or Movement Toward Socialism) will also sweep to victory in the
130 seat lower chamber of congress. There is no serious contender to Morales. The
leading opposition candidate, conservative businessman Samuel Doria Media of the
center-right Unidad Nacional (UN or Democratic Union) is trailing badly, limping in the
polls at around 16 percent. Other candidates are even further behind, including
center-left urban La Paz party, Moviemiento Sin Miedo (MSM or Movement Without
Fear) candidate Juan del Granado, a former La Paz mayor; Partido Verde (PVB or
Green Party) standard-bearer Fernando Vargas, head of an indigenous opposition
movement; and former president (2002-2003) Jorge Quiroga of the centrist Partido
Demócrata Cristiano (PDC or Christian Democratic Party).2
To win in the first round of voting Morales will need at least 50 percent of the vote, or
failing that, 40 percent with at least a 10 percent lead over the nearest competitor. He
will do both easily; polls show Morales now at 56 percent, 39 percentage points ahead
of Doria Media.3 A fifty person team from the Organization of American States will be
on hand to certify the election.
Morales was not supposed to be a candidate this time. Under the new constitution, no
immediate reelection for a third term in the presidency was to be permitted. However,
in 2013 the Supreme Court, a body highly sympathetic to the MAS, ruled unanimously
that Morales could run in the 2014 election, reasoning that his first term came before
the new constitution in 2009 and therefore should not count against the two-term limit.
There is talk now about changing the constitution, after the October balloting, to allow
for unlimited presidential reelection.
The Past as Prelude
Democracy is strong in Bolivia today, but it certainly has not always been so. With
over 190 coups in the nation’s troubled history–a hemispheric record–Bolivia had long
been the butt of endless jokes about quintessential Latin American instability. Far
from democratic, the government was often brutally repressive, with the generals
governing from 1964 until 1982, sometimes directly and sometimes deploying pliant
The 1980s brought a time of two significant transitions for nearly all Latin America.
The region moved from military governments toward democracy, albeit a form of
western-style liberal democracy that could offer free elections, but too often ones with
narrowly limited choices. At the same time Latin America transitioned away from state-
led economic development policies to the embrace the Milton Friedman vision of
unbridled free market policies, or neoliberalism.
The 1980s were a “lost decade” for economic progress in Latin America and Bolivia.
The nation fell into an extreme economic crisis, with a mounting foreign debt and out
of control inflation, reaching over 11,000 percent in 1985. In response the incoming
president Víctor Paz Estenssoro (president 1952-1956, 1960-1964, and 1985-1989)
looked to Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs to help design Bolivia’s conversion to free
market policies. “Bolivia is dying on us,” Paz Estenssoro declared as he announced
his program of neoliberal shock therapy, the New Economic Policy (Executive Decree
21060) on August 29, 1985.4 Pressing the economic reset button, Paz Estenssoro
raised taxes, eliminated price controls on basic necessities, froze wages, eliminated
rights and protections for union workers, and generally deregulated the economy.
Advisor Sachs helped make the necessary arrangements with the World Bank and the
International Monetary Fund, accepting their recommendations for implementing a
punishing structural adjustment program and maintaining tight focus on the goal of
paying the interest due on the nation’s foreign debt. These neoliberal economic
policies extracted an immediate and severe human cost, but Paz Estenssoro dealt
with the mass protests and strikes by imposing a three-month state of siege. The
economy suffered massive job losses, in the state oil company, in industry, in mining,
while the number of those seeking to scrape out a living in the informal sector
exploded. Paz Estenssoro could point to only one economic victory: inflation in 1987
fell to 11 percent for the year.5
Paz Estenssoro needed U.S. financial aid and U.S. support with the World Bank and
IMF, but Washington wanted something in exchange: compliance with U.S. directives
to carry out an assault on coca production. Responding to U.S. pressure, Paz
Estensorro adopted Law 1008 in 1988, moving hard to crack down on local coca
growers, cooperating in the U.S.-led Operation Blast Furnace.6
Presidents Jaime Paz Zamora (1989-1993) and Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada
(1993-1997) deepened Bolivia’s free market impulse. Sánchez de Lozada, a multi-
millionaire mine owner, University of Chicago trained free market disciple, and
intellectual author of the New Economic Policy decree 21060, pushed through the
Capitalization Law of 1994, bringing a rash of privatizations, peddling off at fire sale
prices the national electrical company, state-run railroad, and the national oil and gas
Believing that the less government there was the better all things would be, Sánchez
de Lozada moved to downsize government, decentralizing political power with the
enactment of the Law of Popular Participation in 1994 and the Law of Decentralization
in 1995.These measures promoted the formation of new municipal governing
authorities and re-directed a fifth of national revenues down to the local level. While
Sánchez de Lozada’s actions were an effort to pass off national government
responsibilities and sidestep paying for social needs, this initiative had an unexpected
result. The laws actually served to invigorate local government. Social movements
formed to pressure municipal authorities, and local governments came to be the
political focus point for anti-neoliberal agitation. With the union movement crushed,
social movements and municipal governments stepped in to fill the political void and
pressure for addressing the needs of ordinary people.8
When in 1994 the United States again threatened to withdraw aid, Sánchez de Lozada
hardened the anti-coca push as well. The first coca growers protest march followed
that August. The coca growers union, which organized the protest, had emerged as a
direct result of the U.S. decision to bring its war on illegal drugs into the coca fields of
Bolivia. At the head of the movement was Evo Morales.
In 1997 Hugo Bánzer followed in the presidency, serving until 2001. Trained in the
infamous School of the Americas, Bánzer had previously been the nation’s military
dictator, 1971 to 1978. As president Bánzer’s signature initiative, Plan Dignidad,
sought to root out remaining coca production. By 2001 Bolivia’s coca production had
fallen to less than a third of what it had been just six years earlier, a real “Andean
success story,” the U.S. State Department cheerily announced.9
The Tipping Point: Bolivia’s Water and Gas Wars
One critical aspect of neoliberalism in Bolivia was the privatization of potable water
service, a step mandated by the World Bank as a loan condition in 1997. Acting in
November 1999, Bánzer moved to privatize all potable water in the nation, Law 2029.
Bánzer sold off water rights in the city of Cochabamba to Agua del Tunari, a
consortium owned by Italian interests and the U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation. The
company soon raised potable water rates an average of 35 percent and began
charging people for collecting rainwater or for drawing water from their own wells. As
the chorus of objections began to rise, the World Bank recommended taking a hard-
line stance, advising that “no subsidies should be given to ameliorate the increase in
Vast protests, the “water wars,” erupted from November 1999 to April 2000, initially
centered in Cochabamba but by September spreading to the capital of La Paz as well.
In April, Bánzer ordered a state of siege, but was met by continuing, massive, and
determined opposition on the streets. In the end Bánzer was forced to back down. He
could not impose by force a measure so universally unpopular and manifestly unfair.
Aguas del Tunari was asked to leave Bolivia. Shortly thereafter the 75-year-old
Bánzer resigned for health reasons–cancer of the liver and lungs–and Vice President
Jorge Quiroga finished what was left of the presidential term.
The 2002 general election brought the return of Sánchez de Lozada, running against
a wide array of candidates, including the leader of the coca growers union, Evo
Morales. Just four days before the balloting the United States Ambassador Manuel
Rocha decided to weigh in. “I want to remind the Bolivian electorate that if you choose
the candidate who wants Bolivia to go back to being a cocaine exporter, that will put
the United States aid at risk,” he announced. Comparing coca growers to members of
the Taliban, Rocha warned that “a Bolivia led by the people who have benefited from
drug trafficking cannot expect the United States markets to remain open for traditional
textile exports.” 11
The ambassador’s comments did not have the desired effect, instead launching a
groundswell for Morales who enjoyed a sudden surge in the polls. (Teasingly, Morales
publically thanked Rocha and began to refer to him as his “campaign manager.”)
Thanks to Rocha, Morales nearly rallied to win the 2002 election. Morales took 20.9
percent of the votes cast to 22.5 percent for Goni. The election was thrown into
congress which selected the leading vote getter, Goni, to serve as Bolivia’s next
In 2003 the IMF mandated more austerity measures, and Goni, ever a neoliberal true
believer, readily agreed to their implementation. Fresh rounds of mass opposition
emerged in the presence of sharp tax increases, privatizations, the sale of Bolivian
natural gas to foreign firms, and the announcement of the construction of a gas
pipeline to Chile. The outpouring of popular resistance came to be known as Bolivia’s
“gas wars,” centered in the highland city of El Alto and spilling out into adjacent La
Paz, September through October of 2003. Determined to show strength, President
Sánchez de Lozada ordered the smashing of the protest movement. The ensuing
police and military repression left some 67 to 97 peaceful protestors dead, some
raked by gunfire from helicopters passing over. A nationwide torrent of anger and
grief followed, finally resulting in Goni’s resignation on October 17, 2003. He fled to
Miami as Bolivians celebrated in the streets. He had lasted in office just 15 months.12
But the water and then the natural gas protest movements had not merely forced a
stop to neoliberal excesses and toppled the second Sánchez de Lozada government.
Coming together, activists had begun to articulate a reform plan, what came to be
called the “October Agenda,” calling for a rollback of neoliberal water and gas
measures, the end to the flat tax, and, most importantly, the convening of a
constitutional convention. As Bolivia observer and author Kepa Artaraz has correctly
noted, what Bolivia was experiencing was a “double crisis of legitimacy,” a widespread
belief that neoliberalism had failed and that liberal democracy was not responsive to
the popular will. But, as Artaraz adds, “the political questions and the proposed
alternatives did not come from traditional forces and actors from the left, such as
trade unions, as they had been decimated by the neoliberal attack.”13Rather, it came
from Bolivia’s budding social movements growing up at the local level around the
newly formed municipalidades. The dual transition to a U.S.-style liberal,
representative democracy, and the U.S. inspired and mandated free market policies,
had, in the end, come to dual failures.
Vice President Carlos Mesa Gisbert assumed the presidency from Goni, calling a July
2004 national referendum on the re-nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas. The
measure passed overwhelmingly. Still, social conditions remained a matter of
widespread concern. Circumstances were worst in the countryside, where under
neoliberalism the proportion of people living in extreme poverty had risen from under
two-thirds in 1997 to over three-quarters by 2002. In 2005 Bolivia’s per capita GDP
was lower than it had been in 1998.14 As protest mounted against Mesa—his brief
administration faced over 800 mass demonstrations—he gave in to popular pressure.
Mesa resigned on June 6, 2005, leaving Supreme Court Chief Justice Eduardo
Rodríguez Veltzé as caretaker president.
Bolivians were evidencing their complete disaffection with the country’s three
dominant political parties: the chameleon-like Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario
(MNR or Revolutionary Nationalist Movement), initially left, then centrist, and finally
neoliberal; the center-left Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR or Revolutionary
Left Movement); and the right-wing Acción Democrática Nacionalista of Hugo Bánzer
(ADN or Nationalist Democratic Action). Since the restitution of democracy in 1982 the
three parties had ruled Bolivia by forming governing pacts. But in the 2005
presidential vote they took a combined total of less than a third of the vote.15
Bolivian voters plainly had arrived at the view that the existing political system was
without legitimacy. To the wide majority, Bolivia under the old pacted political system
had been a sham democracy, one dominated by the moneyed interests, snaked
through with corruption, and presenting voters no authentic choices, forcing them to
try to pick between near identical elites who did the bidding of foreign capital. Voting
only granted legitimacy to what was a rigged game. As analyst Raúl Madrid sums up,
“the rise of the MAS [was] driven by … growing disenchantment with market-oriented
policies and the parties that implemented them.”16 Madrid is right, but there is more
Diminishing U.S. Influence in Bolivia
Bolivia’s economy is less than one-thousandth the size of that of the United States.
Given the considerable asymmetry between the two nations, the United States has
long used its considerable power advantages to compel Bolivia to bend to its wishes.
Beginning in 1985 the U.S. demanded that Bolivia press forward on two fundamental
policies: the adoption of free market economic policies and an aggressive assault on
coca leaf production. For Bolivia the problem was that these two policies could not be
pursued at the same time.
Neoliberal policies brought fiscal austerity, the elimination of virtually all programs that
aimed at reducing poverty, coupled with sharp reductions in employment, especially
as a result of the end to government support for the lagging tin mining industry. Due
to these measures, tens of thousands of miners were thrown out of work, dumped into
an economy that was not creating jobs, while the government did nothing to help them
or their families. The one growth area that the Bolivian economy could offer was in
coca production, responding actively to booming U.S. demand for cocaine. As a direct
result, former miners, well-schooled in labor militancy, poured into the Chapare region
and took up coca farming. There they met the determined military opposition of the
United States and Bolivian government. And this was the paradox at the heart of U.S.
policy. Compelling Bolivia to launch neoliberal policies while aggressively pursuing a
war on coca growers led to a time of extraordinary crisis. The contradictions of the U.S.
-imposed policy agenda were so severe that the U.S.-backed regime suffered a
It is possible that Bolivia could have moved to neoliberal policies on its own, but the
unbending nature of the implementation of these measures was a result of U.S.
pressure, either directly or through the World Bank and the IMF. The new free market
philosophy was not a Bolivian creation, it was made in America, especially at the
University of Chicago, and the depth of its adoption in Bolivia was in large measure a
result of U.S. demands. On the other hand, it is not possible that Bolivia would ever
have launched the coca eradication programs on its own. Coca is part of daily life for
most Bolivians, from the city people who drink it as tea for breakfast to the rural
indigenous who chew it throughout the day. The spike in new demand for coca for
making cocaine, and then the war on cocaine, were entirely U.S. creations. Bolivia
would never have grown more coca if not for U.S. consumer demand, and Bolivia
would never had undertaken a war on coca production if not for considerable and
sustained U.S. pressure. U.S. pressure demanded that Bolivia launch an unflinching
implementation of neoliberalism and a military assault on coca both at the same time,
and it was doing both of these things at once that led to the collapse of the old regime
in Bolivia. Therefore it is fair to conclude that it was U.S. power and U.S. overreach
that led to emergence of the Movement Toward Socialism’s Evo Morales in Bolivia,
elected to the presidency in 2005.
Evo Morales to Power
On December 18, 2005 Evo Morales won the presidency with 53.7 percent of the
vote, the highest percentage for a winning candidate in the nation’s history.
“¡Causachun coca! ¡Wañuchun yanquis! (Long live coca! Death to the Yankees!),” he
exalted in his native Aymara language, giving the protest cry of the cocaleros.17
When he took office in January 2006 Morales immediately embraced the street
protestors’ “October Agenda,” moving to gain a larger share of natural gas export
profits and to rewrite the constitution.
In May 1, 2006 Morales declared the partial nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas
industry, with Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) gaining majority
control from the Spanish and Brazilian corporations that held the natural gas fields,
pipelines, and refineries. Morales increased Bolivia’s share of the profits to 82
percent. Before 2005 Bolivia had taken but 18 percent of the profits, a rate that had
risen to 50 percent under President Mesa.18
Gaining control of this resource was pivotal. Bolivia enjoys the second largest natural
gas reserves in Latin America, after Venezuela. Since Morales has taken office
Bolivian natural gas production has more than doubled, and proceeds from sales
have increased from 5.6 percent of GDP in 2004 to 25.7 percent by 2008. Today
natural gas makes up nearly half of Bolivia’s exports by value, with over half flowing to
neighboring Brazil. Gas sales are also the key component of government revenues:
whereas in 2002 natural gas income made up just 7 percent of government earnings,
they now constitute over half of the national government’s earnings.19
In gaining control of Bolivia’s key export Morales had achieved a minor miracle,
standing up to foreign firms and opening a significant source of financial resources for
his government and nation. Still, one complaint from the impacted companies did
seem fair. Under neoliberalism Bolivia had opened its natural gas fields to foreign
firms, offering generous terms if they would bear the costs of searching for, locating,
and ramping up production. After they did this, Bolivia changed the terms of the deal,
demanding more money. It was bait and switch, and the foreign firms have a right to
be angry. But it is also a done deal. By the end of 2013 the state-owned portion of the
economy had reached 35 percent, up from the low of 17 percent under the prior
neoliberal governments. 20 Telecommunications, under the Empresa Nacional de
Telecomunicaciones (Entel) which used to be Italian owned, is now also run by the
state, as too is electricity generation. In 2012 Morales moved to nationalize tin and
zinc production. There will be more moves in this direction.
Bolivia’s economy today has been reoriented, its leading trade partners shifting.
South Korea, which purchases much of Bolivia’s booming soy production, and
Argentina, a key buyer of natural gas, are now the leading markets. The United States
has fallen to fourth place as a destination for Bolivian exports.21
The Drafting of a New Constitution and the Media Luna Conflict
In the summer of 2006 voters selected members for a Constitutional Assembly, and
on August 6 delegates convened in the city of Sucre. In December 2007 the
Constitutional Assembly approved a draft, but the charter remained unratified, the
nation locked in political turmoil between Morales and the supporting social
movements that sought fundamental reform, and those who wanted to turn back to
The élite, especially those from Santa Cruz and the surrounding lowland media luna,
or half-moon district, were outraged at what they regarded as Aymara Indian Morales’
usurpation of their birthright, their self-arrogated entitlement to rule over the lives of
the indigenous majority. In May 2008 the media luna departments of Santa Cruz, Beni,
Tarija, and Pando moved toward session, holding an unauthorized autonomy vote.
Both the Organization of American States and the European Union refused to send
election monitors, citing the illegality of the referendum. MAS voters boycotted the
unsanctioned election and so, predictably, those who voted in this extra-legal ballot
favored severing ties with the rest of the nation.23
Bending to the demands of the anti-MAS movement, on August 10, 2008 Bolivia held
a recall election on the Morales presidency. Morales won a resounding victory, taking
two-thirds of the vote. The separatists, incredulous over their stunning and lopsided
defeat, organized into the Consejo Nacional de Defensa de la Democracía (CONALDE
or National Council for the Defense of Democracy), and recruited paid thugs to attack
government buildings and prey upon pro-Morales activists. The separatist movement
seemed to be gaining in support when, on September 11, 2008, at least thirteen pro-
MAS protestors were murdered in the far eastern Pando department. Ordered by the
opposition governor Leonel Fernández, this ugly episode served to deeply discredit
the separatists. The movement proceeded into sharp decline.
The day of the attack Bolivia expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, accusing him
of assisting in organizing the violent opposition to Morales. The U.S. ambassador had
met openly with the separatist movement. Said Morales, “we do not want people here
who conspire against democracy.”24 In retaliation, U.S. President George W. Bush
expelled the Bolivian ambassador Gustavo Guzmán and placed Bolivia on a list of
nations not cooperating with the war on illegal drugs. The United States also put trade
restrictions in place, canceling Bolivian participation in the Andean Trade Promotion
and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) program. Morales responded by kicking out the
remaining U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agents later that year, and subsequently
expelled USAID workers.25 Normal diplomatic relations, broken in 2008, have still not
been restored between the two nations.
In October 2008 two-thirds of the constitutional assembly agreed upon an additional
series of revisions to the constitution, what some Bolivians regard as the “third draft,”
a watered-down compromise version of the stronger document initially proposed by
indigenous and left-wing groups. In a referendum in January 2009 Bolivian voters
approved the new constitution, with an amazing 90 percent turnout and more than 60
percent backing the new national charter. At the celebration parties in the street,
Morales joined the revelers, and he wept.
The constitution formalized a broad agenda of progressive social and economic
reforms, with several new poverty reduction programs, especially conditional cash
transfer initiatives; the extension of educational services; infrastructure development;
assurances of indigenous rights; and a series of re-nationalizations of utilities and
public services. The constitution enshrined the indigenous community (or ayllu)
values of ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhella (don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t be lazy).
The constitution denounced neoliberalism, called for an active role for the state in
guiding the economy, and explicitly forbade the privatization of water.26 The
document reflected much of the October 2003 Agenda. It was what people had voted
for. Democracy was working.
Morales called for general elections under the new constitution, and in December
2009 won reelection with 64 percent of the vote. Conservative opposition candidate
Manfred Reyes Villa, hampered by a fraud indictment, and running mate Leopoldo
Fernández, campaigning from his jail cell where he waited to face murder charges,
took just 38 percent of the vote. The media luna secessionist movement was
effectively over. The MAS was emerging as the ruling party in a single party state.
Explaining Morales’ Success
Bolivia’s recent economic growth under Morales is, as Tulane’s Martín Mendoza-
Botelho has observed, “one of most prosperous periods in the nation’s history.”27
Bolivia’s per capita GDP has doubled since he came to office, rising from $1,182 USD
in 2006 to $2,238 USD in 2012. Under Morales GDP growth has averaged 5 percent a
year, and the 2014 estimate is projected at 5.5 to 5.7 percent. Bolivia’s GDP growth
rate is second in Latin America only to Panama (estimated 6.7 percent for the year).
28 Much of this solid economic performance can be attributed to strong natural gas
Morales should probably not try to take credit for Bolivia’s winnings in the “commodity
lottery,” the inevitable boom-bust cycle in raw material prices. Still, he can take credit
for the building up of Bolivia’s financial reserves. In fact, Bolivia presently boasts the
highest proportional rate of financial reserves of any nation in the world, with Bolivia’s
rainy day fund totaling some $14 billion USD, or nearly two-thirds of total annual GDP.
Even the IMF is impressed by this accomplishment, lavishing praise on Morales’ fiscal
prudence. It is not clear that Morales really welcomes the IMF’s avuncular head
patting given that he has long refused any new IMF accords. Indeed the IMF stamp of
approval has triggered some second thoughts among Bolivian government
economists, pondering whether maybe they have been overly cautious.29
Vastly more important than economic growth is poverty reduction, for it is absolutely
possible to have the former but not the latter. In the years from 1990 to 2002 about
two-thirds of the population of Bolivia lived in poverty, according to United Nations
estimates. In 2005 still over half of the population lived in poverty. Today it is less than
a third. Income inequality has also come down under Morales and the MAS. In 2002
the richest 20 percent took 58 percent of the income while the poorest 20 percent
received 2.2 percent. In 2011 the share of the poorest fifth had doubled to 4.4
percent while the portion going to the richest fifth had dropped to 43 percent. Put
another way, the ratio of the share of income of the top 10 percent to the poorest 10
percent had dropped from 128 to 1 in 2005 to 60 to 1 in 2012. Inflation has also been
tamed, falling from 11.8 percent in 2008 to 4.7 percent in 2012, one of the lowest
rates in Latin America.30
What most distinguished the Morales administration is its commitment to provide
government programs to assist those in the nation’s 11.5 million population most in
need. The Bono Juana Azurduy de Padilla or Bono Madre Niño Niña Program extends
small cash payments for expectant mothers when they see a doctor, with $7.25 USD
paid to mothers for each of up to four doctor visits; $17 USD if they have the birth in a
medical facility; and $18 USD to return for follow-ups for both mother and child after
delivery. This program spent $15.6 million USD in 2012, helping 133,00 mothers and
half a million children.31
The Bono Juancito Pinto Program (named after a twelve year old drummer boy from
the nineteenth century War of the Pacific) actually started under President Bánzer
back in 2000 but now has been greatly expanded by Morales. This program involves
cash payments to mothers who keep their children in school (public schools only, not
private) up through the eighth grade. Families receive $14 USD twice a year, once
when school starts and again at the end of the school year. Bono Juancito Pinto cost
$55.8 million USD in 2012, and helps nearly 2 million people.32
The Bonos Renta Dignidad Program provides retirement benefits to Bolivians over 60
years old. This program is a significant expansion of the previous 1997 Bonosol
initiative begun under Sánchez de Lozada. Dignidad is the most expensive of the
three social support initiatives, costing a third of a billion dollars annually. The
program helps nearly a million elderly Bolivians, providing $344 to $432 USD a year in
retirement support. Together, these three initiatives reach about a third of all
Bolivians, roughly 3.3 million people, and help three of every four families in the
nation.33 The benefits have become socially institutionalized as a common
expectation. Even the opposition candidates in the forthcoming election are pledging
to continue these popular social programs.
There are other initiatives. Some 900,000 impoverished Bolivians have access to
price-controlled electricity. Morales also launched a feeding program, desnutrición
cero, providing free school lunches. At the same time Morales has quadrupled the
number of land titles transferred to small holders, positively impacting nearly one
million Bolivians. The literacy campaign Morales launched has likewise been a great
success, and in 2010 Unesco declared that Bolivia had eradicated illiteracy.
Meanwhile, highway building has doubled under Morales and a rush of government
spending has helped stimulate a construction boom. Bolivia’s economy is at nearly full
The Economic Plan
Morales’ economic development strategy, announced in June 2006, is called the
Bolivia digna, soberana, productiva y democrática para vivir bien, or the Bolivian
dignity, sovereignty, productivity, and democracy plan to “live well” or “live correctly.”
The phrase “vivir bien” is hard to translate into English. Derived from the Quechua
concept of “sumak kawsay,” and the Aymara “suma qamaña,” the idea is to live in
harmony with nature, placing spiritual well-being over acquisition of material goods,
and emphasizing “collaboration over competition, sharing over accumulation,
solidarity over disagreement, cohesion over discord,” “ñandereko (harmonious life),
teko kavi (good life), … and qhapaj ñan (noble life).”35These notions, solemnly
enshrined in the new constitution, are ignored in practice.
Instead, Morales has followed an extractive, raw material dependent, economic policy.
This pattern of “narrow-based economic development … that depends on primary
natural resource exports,” researcher George Gray Molina explains, leaves Bolivia
“highly vulnerable to changes in world commodity prices.“36 It is this decision to
aggressively exploit Bolivia’s natural resources, above all natural gas, that has done
the most to drive some erstwhile Morales supporters into open opposition, especially
indigenous and environmental groups. Morales has decided to take advantage of
high natural gas prices to fund poverty reduction, and hope the impact on sacred
Pachamama, mother earth, is not too severe.
The Run Up to the October Election
Morales has taken a number of steps to buttress his popular support in the upcoming
balloting. One key move is to ramp up his small-scale infrastructure program, “Bolivia
cambia, Evo cumple,” (“Bolivia is changing, Evo delivers”). Since coming to office he
has spent roughly half a billion dollars on this local infrastructure initiative, much of it
funded by Venezuela. Needless to say, the schools, clinics, potable water projects
and the like are quite popular, and the president tries never to miss a ribbon cutting,
especially with the election approaching.37
In November 2013 Morales declared a special double holiday bonus instead of the
usual one month additional pay benefit at Christmas time, the aguinaldo. Then on
August 27 this year the administration announced a 10 percent pay bump for workers
in nine key state-run enterprises, with the increase back-dated to the first of the year.
Workers in the oil industry, electrical workers, TV employees, and mining companies,
among others, all got the raise. The Morales administration also added on an extra
month’s bonus to seniors, recipients of the Renta Dignidad, with monthly payments
rising to $36 USD to those with no pension and $29 USD for those who receive some
additional form of pension. Meanwhile, the government’s price controls on gasoline,
electricity, potable water, flour, sugar, rice, bread, milk, and chicken remain in place.
The government also ended all fees for obtaining copies of official documents,
including birth certificates, high school diplomas, and the like.38
As in much of Latin America, one continuing problem in Bolivia has been that, as
researcher Benjamin Kohl notes, “the right-wing-controlled media feed[s] … the …
fears [of voters] through deliberate misinformation.“39 Only one of the top twelve
communications companies in Bolivia supports Morales.40 All the others are in the
right-wing opposition camp. Yet despite the fact that Bolivians have, on average, far
less education than do U.S. voters, they have proven themselves to be less easy to
manipulate. This stems in large measure from the historic desperateness of their
socio-economic circumstances. They cannot afford to be deceived. Another potential
threat, a military coup, seems at this time to be minimal. As Kohl notes, “military
support for Morales can be explained by significant salary increases and grants of
military hardware.”41 For Morales the most important opposition groups are no longer
on his right flank.
Instead, the most serious opposition Morales faces is from groups and causes on the
left, often coming from indigenous people. In Bolivia today some 41 percent of
Bolivians self-identify as indigenous; some 2.5 million Bolivians speak Quecha and
another 2.1 million speak Aymara. The flashpoint issue in this regard involves a 182
mile road project to cut a road through the 3,860-square mile Isiboro-Sécure National
Park and Indigenous Territory, or TIPNIS.
The TIPNIS area had been designated a national park in 1965, and then an
indigenous reserve in 1990, homeland to the Moxeño-Trinitario, Yuracaré, and the
Chimáne indigenous peoples. Together these groupings comprise about 10 percent
of the population in the region, a total of about 8,000 to 12,500 people.42
The proposed highway would open up important new commercial links for area
farmers and ranchers. There is really no other practical route for this road, designed
to connect the Cochabamaba region to Trinidad, Beni in the far northeast of the
nation. The road will cut travel time from two to three days to just four hours. One
leading concern of the TIPNIS indigenous people is that building the road through
would open up the area to yet more colono squatters from the sierra. Over 20,000
colonos live in the reserve already.43
Morales signed a construction contract with a Brazilian firm in 2008, but the 2009
constitution called for a process of prior consultation with impacted indigenous
groups. Despite this new mandate, Morales did not reach out to the indigenous
communities until they began to protest in March of 2011. In August 2011 Morales
announced that he was standing firm, declaring that the road was going forward, “like
it or not.”44
Accepting the challenge, over a thousand protestors staged a 360-mile march to the
capital. When police sought to break up their approach to La Paz, seventy protesters
were injured. Who is to blame remains an open question. President Morales accepted
no direct responsibility for the violence, but he did ask for forgiveness. Then, on
October 24, 2011, Morales canceled the road project (Law 180) and ruled the park
“untouchable” for further development.45
Morales interpreted the law to mean the halting of virtually any sort of economic
activity in TIPNIS, even that favored by the indigenous living in the region. This was
enough to forge a coalition of developers, colonos, and some indigenous groups in
the region to push to allow the road after all. These groups staged their own march to
La Paz, demanding that the road construction go forward.
In February 2012 Morales implemented Law 222, calling for a vote, or consulta, on
the road. The plebiscite showed that eight of ten voters backed the road construction,
evidently holding to the view that the highway would provide greater access to
employment opportunities, health care, and education. Morales revoked the earlier
Law 180, but the road project is on hold until after the election.46
Other opposition movements have pushed their agendas. In August 2010 the central
highland city of Potosí went through nineteen days of marches, punctuated with
rioting, with protesters charging that the MAS was not delivering on promised
government infrastructure development in the city and region.47 Demonstrators also
said that they wanted an international airport for the city. The movement died down,
however, without winning a clear commitment from the government to provide more
In December 2010 widespread protests erupted in response to a proposed end to
government gasoline subsidies; the measure would have triggered a 73 percent price
hike at the pump. Morales backed down on this initiative in the wake of the gasolinazo
protests. In January 2012 other demonstrations emerged after Morales signed
Presidential Decree 1126 establishing workplace rules for health care workers.
Hospital workers went out on strike, halting delivery of medical services throughout
much of Bolivia. After 52 days on strike, Morales reached a compromise accord with
the health care workers, repealing Decree 1126 and restoring lost wages from the
walkout. This year there have been strikes by transport workers, students, farmers,
and junior ranking members of the military.48 It is a restive democracy that Bolivia
Democracy in Bolivia will not fit into U.S.-centric models of political parties, elections,
and liberal representative government. As Kohl and Bresnahan have noted, there is a
strong “difference between Western-liberal-individualist and communitarian
indigenous (Andean) democracies.49 Kohl and Bresnahan write that:
Whereas Western[ers] … have been socialized in a one-person, one-vote ideal of
democracy, in many Andean communities democratic deliberations take place at the
level of the community itself. Communal decision making of this type is commonly
seen, for example, in decisions on land use. The ‘community’—which is defined in
different ways according to the setting—decides on how to rotate land, guarantee
access to pastures, assign land in colonization zones, etc., through a consensual
process. Thus it is not surprising for a similar community consensus to be reflected in
voting behavior, especially among indigenous groups that see that the MAS will
represent their interests.50
The MAS is, as researcher Santiago Anria correctly notes, “a hybrid organization …
participating in representative institutions without abandoning nonelectoral street
politics.”51 Bolivians like it this way. Latinobarómetro polling shows that popular
satisfaction with democracy in Bolivia has risen from under a quarter of those
surveyed in 2005 to more than half in 2009. President Morales has not given up his
involvement in Bolivia’s social movements, and even now remains head of the coca
growers union. He is often seen crossing over and joining the people protesting in the
Democratic governance in Bolivia in more activist, inclusionary, direct, and
participatory than that in the United States and the West. Politics in Bolivia are not so
much about elections these days. At polling time the left sets aside its differences and
votes for Morales and the MAS. But as we are seeing, it is between the elections that
normal politics begin. The left fractures, and communities and various associations
begin to clamor for attention to their needs.
In Bolivia, as in Ecuador and Venezuela as well, the right is in retreat. Indeed, the right
is becoming, or has become, all but irrelevant as a political force. In Bolivia the violent
overreach of the right in 2008 severely reduced its national political influence. The
parties of the right have been reduced to rump voting clubs, the remnants of prior
political configurations. Instead, democracy in Bolivia is the contestations, the testing
of relative strength, of President Morales and the MAS, and social groups expressing
their politics directly, on the streets, in protests, marches, in highway blockages.
Between elections politics begin in earnest, as the cycle of left-wing pressure begins
anew. This is what democracy looks like in Bolivia.
In 2009, at her confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign
Relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Bolivia under Morales was
pursing “policies which do not serve the interests of the … [Bolivian] people or the
region.”53 U.S. political observers like former Secretary Clinton don’t know what to
make of Bolivia and Morales, don’t have language to talk about it, and may not like it,
but Bolivians do not care anymore. But for those in the United States and the West
who are disillusioned with politics, the new Bolivian democracy should provide
considerable inspiration, demonstrating vividly the parameters of the possible.54
Ronn Pineo, Senior Analyst with the Council Of Hemispheric Affairs and Chair of the
Department of History, Townson University.
1. Morales, quoted in, William Powers, Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline
Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization (New York: Bloomsbury, 2006), 133.
2. Robert Kozak, “Bolivia President Evo Morales Leading in Election Poll: Socialist
Leader Boosted by Strong Economic Growth, but Nationalization Moves Remain a
Concern,” Wall Street Journal August 5, 2014, online.wsj.com; “Opposition Electoral
Alliance Unlikely,” Latin American Weekly Report 12 June 2014, 5-6; and Jeffery R.
Webber, “Managing Bolivian Capitalism,” www.jacobinmag.com, 2014.
3. “Morales Leaves Nothing to Chance in Bolivia,” Latin News Daily Report 28 August
4. Paz Estenssoro, quoted in Martín Sivak, Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the
First Indigenous President of Bolivia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 41; and
see Eduardo Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism in Latin America (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2009), 107, 110.
5. Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism,109; Kepa Artaraz, Bolivia: Refounding the Nation
(London: Pluto Press, 2012), 22, 23, 29; Herbert S. Klein, “The Historical Background
to the Rise of the MAS, 1952-2005,” chapter in, Adrian J. Pearce, Evo Morales and
the Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia: The First Term in Context, 2006-2010
(London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, nd.), 50; Roger Burbach, Michael
Fox, and Federico Fuentes, “Bolivia’s Communitarian Socialism,” chapter in, Latin
America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism
(London: Zed Books, 2013), 81; Jeffery R. Webber, “Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia.
Part I: Domestic Class Structure, Latin-American Trends, and Capitalist Imperialism,”
Historical Materialism 16 (2008), 37; Raúl Madrid, “Bolivia: Origins and Policies of the
Movimiento al Socialismo,” chapter in, Steven Levitsky and Kenneth M. Roberts, The
Resurgence of the Latin America Left (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press,
6. Martín Sivak, “The Bolivianisation of Washington-La Paz Relations: Evo Morales’
Foreign Policy Agenda in Historical Context,” chapter in Pearce, Evo Morales,155;
Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism, 114.
7. Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism, 115; Artaraz, Bolivia, 245.
8. Klein, “Historical Background,” in Pearce, Evo Morales, 57; and Artaraz, Bolivia, 47-
9. The U.S. Department of State, quoted in, Powers, Whispering in the Giant’s Ear,
207; and see Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism, 116.
10. The World Bank, quoted in, Degol Hailu, Rafael Guerreiro Osorio, and Raquel
Tsukada, “Privatization and Renationalization: What Went Wrong in Bolivia’s Water
Sector?” World Development 40:12 (2012), 2565; and Benjamin Kohl and Linda
Farthing, “’Less Than Fully Satisfactory Development Outcomes’: International
Financial Institutions and Social Unrest in Bolivia,” Latin American Perspectives 36:3
(May 2009), 69.
11. United States Ambassador Rocha, quoted in Sivak, Morales, 87; and Sivak,
“Bolivianisation of Washington-La Paz Relations,” in Pearce, Evo Morales,144, 159.
12. Powers, Whispering in the Giant’s Ear, 240; Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism,134;
Kohl and Farthing, “’Less Than Fully Satisfactory,’” 70; Benjamin Kohl and Rosalind
Bresnahan, “Introduction: Bolivia Under Morales, Consolidating Power, Initiating
Decolonization,” Latin American Perspectives 37:3 (May 2010), 5-17; and Benjamin
Kohl and Rosalind Bresnahan, “Introduction: Bolivia Under Morales, National Agenda,
Regional Challenges, and the Struggle for Hegemony,” Latin American Perspectives
37:4 (July 2010), 5-20.
13. Artaraz, Bolivia, 8.
14. Madrid, “Bolivia,” in Levitsky and Roberts, Resurgence, 243.
15. Germán Darío Valencia Agudelo, “Bolivia, 2003-2008: un período de profundas
transformaciones políticas y económicas,” Perfil de coyuntura económica (Antioquia,
Colombia) 12 (December 2008), 180; and George Gray Molina, “The Challenges of
Progressive Change under Evo Morales,” chapter in, Kurt Wyland, Raúl Madrid, and
Wendy Hunter, editors, Leftist Governments in Latin America: Successes and
Shortcomings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 58.
16.Madrid, “Bolivia,” in Levitsky and Roberts, Resurgence, 239; Valencia Agudelo,
“Bolivia,”184; and Artaraz, Bolivia, 42.
17. Morales quoted in, Sivak, Morales, 42; and Sivak, “Bolivianisation of Washington-
La Paz Relations,” in Pearce, Morales, 161.
18. Gray Molina, “Challenges,” in Wyland, Madrid, and Hunter, Leftist Governments,
19. “Bolivia Earns $16 Billion Since Nationalizing Energy,” green left Weekly May 20,
2013; Benjamin Kohl, “Bolivia Under Morales: A Work in Progress,” Latin American
Perspectives 37:3 (May 2010), 116; Mark Weisbrot, Rebecca Ray, and Jake
Johnston, “Bolivia: The Economy During the Morales Administration,” Center for
Economic Policy Research, December 2009, 12; Emily Achtenberg, “Contested
Development: The Geopolitics of Bolivia’s TIPNIS Conflict,” Nacla: Report on the
Americas 46:2 (2013),9; “Bolivia’s Rentier Republic: Evo Morales is Popular but not
Invulnerable,” The Economist May 3, 2014, www.economist.com; and Benjamin Kohl
and Linda Farthing, “Material Constraints to Popular Imaginaries: The Extractive
Economy and Resource Nationalism in Bolivia, Political Geography 31 (2012), 230.
20. “Participación del Estado en la economía permitió cambiar la imagen financiera
del país,” Agencia Boliviana de Información 26 December 2013.
21. Weisbrot, Ray, and Johnston, “Bolivia,” 25; and Manuel Mejido Costoya, “Politics
of Trade in Post-Neoliberal Latin America: The Case of Bolivia,” Bulletin of Latin
American Research 30:1 (2011), 87.
22. Madrid, “Bolivia,” in Levitsky and Roberts, Resurgence, 253.
23. Kohl, “Bolivia Under Morales,” 110.
24. Morales, quoted in, Madrid, “Bolivia,” in Levitsky and Roberts, Resurgence, 247.
25. Mejido Costoya, “Politics,” 86.
26. John Crabtree and Ann Chaplin, Bolivia: Processes of Change (London: Zed
Books, 2013), 24; Artaraz, Bolivia, 60, 73-75.
27. Martín Mendoza-Botelho, “Bolivia 2012: Entre Buenos y Malas Noticias,” Revista
de ciencia política (Santiago, Chile) 33:1 (2013), 36.
28. Hedelberto López Blanch, “La bonanza económica y social de Bolivia,” Rebelión 7
December 2013; Katu Arkonada, “Bolivia: A Balance Sheet for the ‘Process of
Change,’” green left Weekly February 4, 2013; Kozak, “Bolivia,” Wall Street Journal
August 5, 2014; “Morales Leaves Nothing to Chance,” Latin News Daily Report 28
August 2014; “Labour Unions,” Latin American Weekly Report 5 December 2013, 7.
29. Mendoza-Botelho, “Bolivia,” 36; “Bolivian Political and Social Landscape: Primer
for Pending Presidential Elections,” Andean Information Network, August 1, 2014, ain-
bolivia.org; Fernando Molina, “Why is Evo Morales Still Popular: The Strengths of the
MAS in the Construction of a New Order,” translation and introduction by Richard
Fidler, Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, July 14, 2013, originally
published in the May-June issue of Nueva Sociedad.
30. Valencia Agudelo, “Bolivia,” 181; “Bolivia’s Rentier Republic,” The Economist May
3, 2014, www.economist.com; United Nations. ECLAC. Social Panorama of Latin
America, 2013, 16; Frederico Fuentes, “Bolivia: Nationalisation Puts Wealth in Hands
of the People,” green left Weekly May 28, 2013; and Mendoza-Botelho, “Bolivia,” 36.
31. Mendoza-Betelho, “Bolivia,” 39; and Weisbrot, Ray, and Johnston, “Bolivia,” 15.
32. Mendoza-Betelho, “Bolivia,” 39; and Weisbrot, Ray, and Johnston, “Bolivia,” 15.
33. Mendoza-Betelho, “Bolivia,” 38-39; and Weisbrot, Ray, and Johnston, “Bolivia,” 15.
34. Molina, “Why is Evo Morales Still Popular,” Links July 14, 2013.
35. Artaraz, Bolivia, 109, 209.
36. Gray Molina “Challenges,” in Wyland, Madrid, and Hunter, Leftist Governments,
37. Molina, “Why is Evo Morales Still Popular,” Links July 14, 2013.
38. “Morales Leaves Nothing to Chance,” Latin News Daily Report 28 August 2014;
and Molina, “Why is Evo Morales Still Popular,” Links, July 14, 2013.
39. Kohl, “Bolivia,” 114.
40. Valencia Agudelo, “Bolivia,”194.
41. Kohl, “Bolivia,” 111.
42. Achtenberg, “Contested Development,” 6, 8; and Kohl and Farthing, “Material
43. Achtenberg, “Contested Development,” 6, 9; and Crabtree and Chaplin, Bolivia,
16, 17, 30-31.
44. Morales, quoted in Achtenberg, “Contested Development,” 6.
45. Achtenberg, “Contested Development,” 7; and Kohl and Farthing, “Material
46. Achtenberg, “Contested Development,” 7-8, 10; Mendoza-Betelho, “Bolivia,” 41;
and Arkonada, “Bolivia,” green left Weekly February 4, 2013.
47. Kohl and Farthing, “Material Constraints,” 233.
48. Kohl and Farthing, “Material Constraints,” 233; Mendoza-Betelho, “Bolivia,” 42-43;
and “Bolivia’s Rentier Republic,” The Economist May 3, 2014, www.economist.com.
49. Kohl and Bresnahan, “Initiating Decolonization,” 12.,
50. Kohl and Bresnahan, “Initiating Decolonization,” 12.
51. Santiago Anria, “Bolivia’s MAS: Between Party and Movement,” chapter in,
Maxwell A. Cameron & Eric Hershberg, editors, Latin America’s Left Turns: Politics,
Policies & Trajectories of Change (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2010), 103.
52. Madrid, “Bolivia,” in Levitsky and Roberts, Resurgence, 254; and Artaraz, Bolivia,
53. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, quoted in Artaraz, Bolivia, 152.
54. Artaraz, Bolivia, 6.
Dr. Ronn Pineo is a Senior Research Fellow at COHA the Council on Hemispheric
Affairs based in Wwshington, DC