Evo Morales: All Growl, No Claws?

A realistic assessment of the electoral victory of Evo Morales requires knowledge of his recent role in Bolivia’s popular struggles, his program and ideology as well as the first measures adopted by his regime. In the recent past innumerable leftist intellectuals, academics, journalists and NGOers have jumped on the bandwagon of a series of newly elected “popular” presidents(Lula in Brazil, Gutierrez in Ecuador, Vazquez in Uruguay and Kirchner in Argentina) who maintained all privatized firms, punctually paid the foreign debt, applied IMF fiscal policies and sent military forces to Haiti to uphold a US-imposed puppet regime and repress the poor struggling to restore the democratically elected Aristide government.

Once again in Bolivia we have a popular leader elected to power. Once again we have an army of uncritical left cheerleaders, ignorant of significant facts and policy changes over the last 5 years.

Evo Morales’ margin of victory, 54 per cent against 29 per cent for his closest opponent exceeded that of any prior president in half a century. His party, the MAS (Movement to Socialism) gained a majority in the lower house, and a near majority in the Senate, and won 3 tof 9 governorships, despite the fact that the Electoral Council eliminated nearly one million registered voters (mostly peasant-Indian voters for Morales) on technicalitiesMorales won all the major cities (except Santa Cruz, bulwark of the extreme right) and exceeded 65 per cent in many rural and urban impoverished regions. Morales and the MAS won despite the opposition of all the major electronic and print media, the business and mine owners associations and the heavy-handed intervention and threats of the US embassy. In this case US business opposition to Evo added to his popular support and resulted in a record turnout.

Contrary to the “media critics”, most people were not influenced by the 24 hour barrage of dirty propaganda by all the mass media. , Evo was presented by the mass media and his publicists as the first Indian president of the Americas, which was technically correct. However, it should be noted that President Chavez of Venezuela is part Indian, a former Vice president of Bolivia was a (neo-liberal) Indian, Peruvian President Toledo claimed Indian origins and wore a poncho during his campaigns, and Indians in Ecuador occupied key ministerial posts during the regime of the ousted President Gutierrez in Ecuador (including Agriculture and Foreign Affairs). With the exception of Chavez, the presence of Indians in high places did not lead to the passage of any progressive measures in basically neo-liberal regimes.

The general response from left, center and right wing regimes to Morales’ victory was positive. Congratulatory greetings were sent by Fidel, Chavez, Zapatero (Spain), Chirac (France) and Wolfowitz (of the World Bank). The US took an ambiguous position. Rice’s guarded praise of electoral politics was accompanied by the predictable warning to rule by “democratic methods” (i.e. to follow US directives). Meantime shortly after the election, the US Special Forces based in Paraguay began military exercises on the frontier with Bolivia. The major oil companies (Repsol, Petrobras etc) expressed their willingness to work with the new president (if he would abide by the rules of their game). In the meantime, they announced that new investments were being held up.

The leaders of the major labor confederations, the Bolivian Workers Confederation (COB), the Mineworkers Confederation, the barrio confederations of El Alto (a proletarian city of 800,000 near La Paz) took a cautious “wait and see” attitude, demanding that his first measures include the nationalization of the petroleum and gas companies and the convocation of a constitutional convention. Despite the reticence of these leaders, even in supporting Evo’s election, the great mass of their followers voted overwhelmingly for Morales.

In summary, except for the US, there was a broad spectrum of support for Evo’s victory from Big Business to the unemployed, from the World Bank to the barefoot Indians of the Andes, each with their own reading and expectations of what policies an Evo Morales presidency and a MAS dominated congress would pursue.

There are at least two views on what to expect from an Evo Morales Presidency, which cross ideological boundaries.

The exuberant left and sectors of the far right (especially in the US and Bolivia) evoke a scenario in which a radical leftist Indian President, responding to the great majority of poor Bolivians will transform Bolivia from a white oligarchic-imperialist dominated country based on a neo-liberal economy, to an Indian-peasant-workers’ state pursuing an independent foreign policy, the nationalization of the petroleum industry, a profound agrarian reform and the defense of the coca farmers. This is the view of 95 per cent of the Left and the view of the extreme-right including the Bush Administration.

An alternative scenario, the one I hold, sees Morales as a moderate social liberal politician who has over the past five years moved to the center. He will not nationalize petrol or gas MNCs, but will probably renegotiate a moderate increase on their taxes, and “nationalize” the subsoil minerals, leaving the companies free to extract, transport and market the minerals. He will promote three variants of capitalism: Protection of small and medium size businesses, invitations to foreign investors and financing of state petroleum and mining firms as junior partners of the MNCs. To compensate and stabilize his regime he will appoint a number of popular leaders to government posts dealing with labor and social welfare with limited budgets who will be subject to the economic and financial ministries run by liberal economists. Morales will promote and fund Indian cultural celebrations. He will promote Indian language use in Andean schools and at public functions. “Land reform” will not involve any expropriations of plantations but will involve colonization projects in unsettled or uncultivated lands. Coca farming will be legalized but reduced to less than half an acre per family. Drug trafficking will be outlawed. Morales will propose to work with the US DEA against trafficking and money laundering

A wealth of data ­ facts pertinent to evaluating the two scenarios ­ is abundantly available to anyone interested in making an informed judgment in which direction Evo Morales will take:

Even before taking office Morales gave the green light to the privatization of MUTUN, one of the biggest iron mining fields in the world (Econoticias 25/12/2005). In late 2005, private bidding, under very questionable circumstances, was underway among several competing MNCs. The outgoing President, Rodriguez, consulted two leading congressmen of the MAS and agreed to suspend the bidding, in deference to the incoming Morales government. Morales and his neo-liberal vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, over-ruled and reprimanded the Congressional leaders and their parliamentarian advisers and told President Rodriguez to proceed with the private bidding of MUTUN. The mine has 40 billion tons in iron reserves and 10 billion tons of magnesium reserves (70 per cent of the world total). In the lead up to his unilateral decision to continue, Morales bent to pressure from right-wing pro-imperialist business interests of Santa Cruz and ignored ecologists, trade unionists and nationalists who opposed corrupt bidding. He also ignored ecological, workers’ nationalist interests.

While the ill-informed leftists boosters of Evo picture him as the revolutionary leader of the Bolivian masses, they ignore the fact that he played no role in the insurrections of October, 2003, and May-June, 2005. During the general strikes and street battles of October, Evo was in Europe at an inter-parliamentary meeting in Geneva discussing the virtues of parliamentary politics. Meanwhile, scores of Bolivians were being massacred by the electoral regime of Sanchez de Losada for opposing his policies on foreign ownership of petro-gas interests. Morales returned in time to celebrate the overthrow of Sanchez de Losada and to convince a half-million protesters to accept neo-liberal Vice President Carlos Mesa as the new president. Less than two years later, another wave of strikes and barricades led to the overthrow of Mesa for continuing Sanchez de Losada’s oil policy. Once again Morales stepped in to direct the uprising into institutional channels, proposing a Supreme Court Judge to serve as interim president while new presidential elections were convoked. Morales succeeded in taking the peoples’ struggle out of the street and dismantling the nascent popular councils and channeling them into established bourgeois institutions. In both crises, Evo favored a neo-liberal replacement in opposition to the peoples’ demands for a new popularly controlled national assembly.

During the Presidency of Mesa, Evo supported the latter’s referendum (2004) which left the foreign MNCs in control of the oil and gas subject to a small increase in royalty payments. Though parts of the referendum passed, it was later repudiated by the mass insurrectionary movement.

In the run-up to the presidential elections, Morales-Garcia Linera’s (Vice-President) slate spoke a “triple discourse”: to the urban and trade union crowds they spoke of “Andean Socialism”, to the Indians in the highlands they spoke of “Andean Capitalism”, to the business leaders they said socialism was not on the agenda for at least 50 to 100 years. In private meetings with the US Ambassador, Bolivian oligarchs and bankers and the MNCs, Morales/Garcia Linera eschewed all intentions to nationalize ­ on the contrary they welcomed foreign investment as long as it was “transparent”. By that they meant that the MNC’s paid their taxes, and didn’t bribe regulators. The message to the masses lacked specifics; the speeches to the business elites were backed by concrete agreements.

Evo and his Vice-President Linera have promised to retain the tight fiscal and macro economic policies of their predecessors and to maintain all the illegally privatized companies. Evo’s economic spokesperson, Carlos Villegas, stated that President Morales will “derogate in a symbolic fashion the decree which privatized enterprises” ­ but added it will “not have any retroactive effects”. Symbolic gestures of a purely rhetorical nature, devoid of nationalist substance, seem to be the path chosen by Morales and Linera.

The incoming President/Vice-President have categorically stated the new government will not expropriate any large private monopolies or large landholdings, nor foreign investments. On January 13, 2006 Evo travels to Brazil to discuss with big Brazilian corporations new investments in gas, petrochemicals, oil and other raw materials. According to the Brazilian financial daily Valor (Dec. 26, 2005), Lula will offer state loans and insist that Evo creates a “climate of stability for investments”. The giant Brazilian corporation PETROBRAS pays less than 15 per cent in taxes on the daily extraction of 25 million cubic meters of natural gas, at prices far below international levels. Lula hopes to use “aid” to deepen and extend Brazil’s MNC low cost exploitation of valuable energy sources. Meanwhile gas sold in La Paz is three times more expensive than in Sao Paolo.

Evo promises to “tax the rich” knowing full well that any new taxes on low income groups would provoke a major uprising as took place in 2004. However the tax proposed on property valued at $300,000 or $400,000 will exclude the vast majority of the upper middle class and all but one percent of the very rich. As a source of revenue it will make a negligible impact, but the “symbolic” propaganda value will be immense.

Regarding peasant demands, Evo’s agrarian commission has not come up with any specific targets for agrarian reform, (neither the number of acres to be distributed nor any lists of landless family beneficiaries).

While his local and international supporters emphasize his “popular” and Indian origins (the “face of Indo-America”), there is no discussion of his support for big business, his agreements, with the pro-imperialist Civic Committee for Santa Cruz, PETROBRAS and the other petro-gas MNCs. What is crucial is not Evo’s militancy during the 1980s and 1990s but his alliances, deals and program on his way to the Presidency.

All the data on Evo Morales’ politics, especially since 2002, point to a decided right turn, from mass struggle to electoral politics, a shift toward operating inside Congress and with institutional elites. Evo has turned from supporting popular uprisings to backing one or another neo-liberal President. His style is populist, his dress informal. He speaks the language of the people. He is photogenic, personable and charismatic. He mixes well with street venders and visits the homes of the poor. But what political purpose do all these populist gestures and symbols serve? His anti-neo-liberal rhetoric will not have any meaning if he invites more foreign investors to plunder iron, gas, oil, magnesium and other prime materials. Systemic transformations do not follow from upholding illegal privatizations, the maintenance of the financial and business elites of La Paz and Cochabamba and the agro-business oligarchy of Santa Cruz.

At best, Evo will promote some marginal increases in property and royalty taxes, and perhaps increase some social spending on welfare services (but always limited by a tight fiscal budget). Political power will be shared between the new upwardly mobile petit bourgeois of the MAS office holders and the old economic oligarchs. No doubt diplomatic relations will greatly improve with Cuba and Venezuela. Relations with the World Bank and the IMF will remain unchanged ­ unless the Cuban-American mafia in Washington push their extremist agenda. While any aggression is possible with the fascist-thinking policy makers in command in Washington, it is also possible, given Morales’ de facto liberal policies, that the State Department may opt for pressuring Evo to move further to the right and to make further concessions to big business and coca cultivation reduction. Unfortunately, the Left will continue to respond to symbols, mythical histories, political rhetoric and gestures and not to programmatic substance, historical experiences and concrete socio-economic policies.

JAMES PETRAS, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50 year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in brazil and argentina and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed). His new book with Henry Veltmeyer, Social Movements and the State: Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, will be published in October 2005. He can be reached at: jpetras@binghamton.edu