Evo Morales’ First Year

Justice and equality must prevail, and must do so in the context of growing national prosperity. That is the underlying motive and force behind the what is called the left-leaning surge in Latin America.  Naturally there is powerful opposition to this movement, an opposition that one sees most clearly in the virulent opposition to Castro in Cuba, to Ortega in Nicaragua, and to Chavez in Venezuela. A particularly worrisome variety of this resistance to change flared when General Augusto Pinochet died in Chile and tens of thousands lined the streets to view his casket and honor the man who suspended democracy in 1973 and terrorized the country for decades.  Not surprisingly, this resistance to change has turned vicious in Bolivia as well.

Evo Morales was elected President of Bolivia in December, 2005, an avowed socialist and the first fully indigenous president ever in South America. January 18 marks the anniversary of his first full year in office. His election was the first in recent Bolivian history to be achieved by popular vote rather than referred to the legislature for deciding among top candidates, and thereby Morales completely by-passed the old elite.  In office, therefore, he was not bound by commitments to other parties, and he announced determination to go ahead with his platform promises of capturing far greater profits from oil and gas, of land appropriation and redistribution in the eastern departments, of constitutional reform, of increased GNP, and of improved amenities and opportunities (especially health and education) for the indigenous peoples of Bolivia. An ambitious program indeed.

The opposition initially remained subdued.  Part of the reason may have been that the program was fraught with so many inherent obstacles that practical consequences seemed too remote to fear.  Furthermore, Morales’s flair for unconventional publicity, as evident in his famous striped alpaca sweater and his waving a coca leaf at the UN, probably made him look a bit flaky. The elite relaxed again on May 1, 2006, when Morales announced a six-month deadline by which oil companies must renegotiate their contracts with Bolivia or face forfeiture of their infrastructure, new contracts that would award the lion’s share of profits to Bolivia rather than to the companies. The pundits and industry analysts agreed that Bolivia had bitten off more than it could chew and that in the long run the companies must prevail.  It would teach Morales a lesson. No doubt the lesson it would teach was more or less the lesson the NY Times had in mind when it editorialized that the peasants in Bolivia needed to overcome their economic ignorance.

At the end of October, however, the companies capitulated, handing Morales not only billions in much needed revenue but also substantial political capital. With the revenue he announced an increase of 10% in teachers’ salaries, and with the political capital he stepped up the campaign of land reform. Now the elite really does feel threatened, and the counterrevolution has become more vociferous and more adamant — and more violent. The violence began in late November when Morales’s limousine was stoned as he attempted to attend a meeting of business leaders in Santa Cruz (Bolpress 11/25/06), two days after a pro-business group announced it was mobilizing against the “dictatorship” of Morales and his party. In mid-January, the week before the anniversary of his inauguration, Morales returned from the inauguration of Daniel Ortega to face the aftermath of a violent clash in Cochabamba that left two dead and dozens hospitalized.

With respect to land reform, the legislature has passed a revision of the Land Reform Act of 1952, a component of the first Bolivian revolution under the leadership of Victor Paz Estenssoro in 1952.  The revision allows confiscation of latifundios, large tracts of land —we are talking about hundreds of square miles, not hundreds of acres — that are unused, potentially productive, and with dubious titles.  These lands are all located in the two largest departments, Santa Cruz and Beni, where some 80% of the land (more than 12,000 square miles, or nearly 8,000,000 acres) is held by 14 families, many not resident in Bolivia.  Apart from the provisions of the new law, the government also challenges the validity of many of the titles to the land, contending they were conferred as favors by previous presidents who had no right to do so. The government has also said that it will not confiscate any land being used productively, because one of its aims is to increase GDP.

Naturally the right-wing elite does not trust the left-wing government, so there are fears that all the best productive land will be confiscated. Such fears were publicized by the NY Times in a story (12/21/06) about a successful Mennonite farming community in Santa Cruz Department. The community fled persecution in Europe and has been comfortable as well as successful in Bolivia, contributing to the export of soybeans while retaining their distinctive customs and their German language. They are, of course, far from panic or violence and they hold clear title to their land, but their fear may well be real, however ill-founded. The story in the Times said nothing about the government’s intention to limit confiscation to large unproductive holdings to which there is dubious title. It is absurd to put the productive Mennonite farms in the same category as the huge latifundios. The story is slick anti-Morales propaganda, with the fears of the Mennonites no doubt fanned by the elite to try to nudge the Mennonites into becoming part of their confrontation against Morales.

A second contentious issue is regional autonomy. Four departments that form a kind of half moon from north to east to south — Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz, and Tarija — are campaigning for autonomy that will prevent them from having to share their wealth with the rest of the nation.  They are the departments that contain not only the huge latifundios but also most of the mineral and hydrocarbon deposits. The government has nationalized the hydrocarbon deposits and intends to nationalize mineral deposits as well, so those with claims hope that the regional autonomy will make it easier to retain their claims. In Santa Cruz there is considerable industrial production, whose owners favor the sort of neocon globalization that Morales resists, and the elite there also fears that the land reform could tip the population mix away from right-wing industry-friendly policies. Tarija has the principal deposits of oil and natural gas, Beni has large latifundios, and both Pando and Beni have significant mineral deposits. The government believes that the wealth of these departments is important to increasing the national GDP and intends to use royalties and tax revenues for national projects.

Another matter of contention is the Constitutional Convention. The idea for it goes back several years, but the members were not chosen until after the election of Evo Morales as President. The goal of the convention is to give more formal power to the indigenous majority, which means less power for the wealthy elite. As in the legislature, Morales’s party, MAS (acronym of “Movement Toward Socialism”), enjoys a comfortable majority but lacks the two-thirds needed to force its provisions into the Constitution. The basic rule governing the convention is that its text needs to be ratified by two-thirds of the representatives before going to a referendum. The right-wing has insisted that this means that each provision must separately attain a two-thirds majority, and the left that that special majority applies only to the full text. The dispute over this procedural point has for six months and prevented the Convention from considering any matter of substance. Morales’s Vice-President, Alvaro García Linera, broke the deadlock last week by announcing that MAS will agree to the two-thirds rule for each provision, with the reservation of taking other steps if nothing of substance is achieved in the coming six months.

Like La Paz and Santa Cruz, Cochabamba is the name of both a city and a department. The city is the third largest urban center in Bolivia and one of the most vibrant. Its elevation is about 8,000 feet above sea level, and its people give strong support to the government. They are now confronting Manfred Reyes Villa, the governor of the department, one of the traditional political elite, and a rival candidate in the last presidential election, who retains lively ambitions for the next election. Thousands of peasants, who naturally support President Morales, gathered around the Governor’s mansion in Cochabamba demanding that Reyes Villa resign. The issue was the governor’s support of the call of the “half-moon” departments for autonomy. The Department of Cochabamba lacks the economic interests that band the other four departments together in their call for autonomy, and it has a greater concentration of Indians (mostly Quechua). The support of Reyes Villa for autonomy is therefore mostly political, and perhaps partly ethnic or social. As one of the powerful up-coming leaders of the right and of the old elite, he no doubt felt that his rightful place in this debate is in opposition to Evo Morales and to the determination of Indians to achieve a greater measure of equality in Bolivia.

The initial demonstrations in Cochabamba were not altogether peaceful. Streets were blockaded and windows were broken, but the damage was confined to property. After several days, however, things changed. What were described as “shock troops” in support of Reyes Villa entered the fray with bricks and baseball bats. Blood was shed, killing two of the demonstrators (a union member and a student) and sending dozens of people to the hospital. Reyes Villa was in La Paz meeting with the “half-moon” governors and did not return to take charge. So Morales returned from Nicaragua, sent federal troops to restore order, and asked his supporters to suspend the demonstrations for a time. Nonetheless, the deaths and injuries raised not only the stakes but also the indignation of the indigenous people of Cochabamba. Evo Morales is urging the legislature to pass a law allowing for recall referenda for governors and judges, so that the protesters in Cochabamba have an alternative and more democratic way of venting their anger.

The events in Cochabamba again show Morales as striving to avoid confrontations, especially bloody ones, and as moving toward democracy together with law and order.
The events also show how significant regional autonomy is, and how sharp and volatile the divisions are within the country, sharpened on the one side by increasingly realistic hopes and on the other by increasing awareness of the competence and flexibility of the President. The autonomy being proposed would allow continuation or even increase of the disparity between the rich and the poor, wealth being retained in the provinces and controlled by the elite. The indigenous peoples are not, as the NY Times supposes, ignorant of basic economics. On the contrary, they realize full well that the whole point of autonomy, in the context of Bolivia today, is to keep them from sharing in the increasing GDP of the country.

Thus the events in Cochabamba in mid-January are a continuation of the drama that inaugurated a brand new act of the Bolivian drama at the end of October. When Evo Morales achieved the terms he had demanded from the oil and gas producers, and from Argentina as a long-term purchaser, everyone saw that he is a more powerful, more pragmatic, and more successful figure than they had hoped or feared. Not formidable internationally, Bolivia being so poor, but formidable indeed on the national scene, and far more formidable than anyone in Bolivia since Victor Paz Estenssoro.

In writing about these affairs, I speak of drama rather than confrontation. Violent confrontation would suit the rich elite, for they are rich enough to win a show of force. Violent confrontations also stall the economy, and if there is to be greater equality in Bolivia it must come from greater wealth, not through dividing existing wealth. It is vital for the overall program of Evo Morales and MAS that the Bolivian GDP increase dramatically. It is therefore important to avoid confrontations that impede productivity. Providing alternatives to violent confrontations is one of the challenges before the Constitutional Convention, as well as the legislature, and constitutes one of the quieter scenes of the drama — important despite its lack of glamor.  The drama is complex as well as intense.  One scene in the drama that receives comment in the Bolivian press nearly every week is conversations with Chile over trading natural gas (Chile has no internal energy supply other than water power) for access to the sea — a matter that the elite have no way to hinder and whose success would vastly increase Morales’s standing.  Though this whole drama lacks significance on the world stage, its outcome will mean a great deal to this small country.

NEWTON GARVER is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at University at Buffalo. His most recent book is Limits of Power: Some Friendly Reminders (Center Working Papers 2005)