Upcoming Elections Represent Testing Time for Bolivia’s Socialist Government

Bolivian President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera are presently campaigning for their fourth terms in office. In elections set for October 20, Morales, candidate of the Movement to Socialism Party (MAS), is polling 15 points ahead of ex-President Carlos Mesa of the Citizen Community Party. Seven other presidential candidates are competing. The odds favor a first round victory for Morales. The voting will also determine the make-up of Bolivia’s Congress.

Elected in 2005, Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Indigenous people make up some 50 percent of Bolivia’s population, according to varying estimates.

Bolivia’s socialist government has scored successes: improved lives for the previously marginalized, a stable and growing economy, and President Morales’s leadership role in defending the planetary environment. With U.S. assistance, right -wing opposition forces have battled the socialist government since its inception in 2006.

Between 2005 and 2018, according to analyst Javier Tocachier, extreme poverty dropped from 39 percent to15.2 percent, the minimum monthly salary rose from $54 to $305, mortality rates during the first five years of life fell 61 percent, the infant mortality rate fell 56 percent, and life expectancy at birth increased by nine years, The Gini index, which measures income inequalities, demonstrates the greatest equalization trend in Latin America. One hundred percent of older citizens receive pensions (the regional average is 59 percent). The government provides direct payments to all pregnant women, to all families with infants, and to families with school-age children – for the sake of school supplies and transportation.

Land reform has enabled small farmers to own 80 percent of tillable land, of which 45 percent is held by women. The government is implementing a universal health care system; 3000 health centers have been constructed.

According to one report, internal savings have increased fivefold since 2005. The ratio foreign debt to GDP decreased from 51.6 percent in 2005 to 23.1 percent currently. Private sector earnings have increased almost 500 percent since 2005. Economic stability is predicated on newly discovered hydrocarbon reserves worth $70 billion, zinc and lithium exports (Bolivia claims 50 percent of the world’s lithium reserves), ethanol production, a rejuvenated agricultural sector, and the development of wind, solar, and geothermal energy-producing capabilities.

Tocachier again: Bolivia’s economic growth is tops in South America, with annual growth averaging 4.9 percent between 2006 and 2018. It’s a time frame during which per capita GDP jumped from $1000 to $3580 and currency reserves, from $1.2 billion to $8 billion. Investment in public projects amounts to 11 percent of the GDP, tops in South America. Almost all debt and savings are held in national currency. The inflation rate is presently one percent.

No other political leader in the world has been as outspoken in responding to climate change as President Morales. Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, he remarked that: “Our house, Mother Earth, is our only home … Each year is hotter than the previous one … The consequences of climate change will condemn … millions of people to poverty, hunger, no potable water, losing their homes, forced displacement, more refugee crises and new armed conflicts.”

Morales further explained that, “The world is being controlled by a global oligarchy, only a handful of billionaires define the political and economic destiny of humanity … The underlying problem lies in the model of production and consumerism, in the ownership of natural resources and in the unequal distribution of wealth. Let’s say it very clearly: the root of the problem is in the capitalist system.”

Morales is arguing, in essence and with many others, that for the capitalist mode of production to exist, production must always expand and sales must increase. The process depends on unendingly available energy sources, currently hydrocarbon fuels. Credit goes to Bolivian voters for having installed a chief of state who, alone among his counterparts, articulates a strong anti-capitalist message on the world stage.

By no means has the Morales government gained a free ride. Accusations of authoritarianism, nepotism, and corruption have been constant. The right wing opposition, based primarily in Bolivia’s four eastern departments, has spearheaded agitation for Morales’s removal. Big farming operations and a network of oil and natural gas production facilities constitute the region’s economic base. Political heavyweights there have toyed with separatist maneuvering and in 2008 their agents tried to assassinate Morales, with U.S. complicity.

The Morales government that year expelled the U.S. ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Agency and in 2013, the USAID. (Cocaine production plummeted after the DEA’s departure.) There’s been no U.S. ambassador at the U.S. Embassy and so this year opposition presidential candidates have had to do their plotting with the chargé d’affaires.

The current phase of anti-Morales opposition began with a 2016 referendum vote that narrowly backed the Bolivian Constitution’s two-term limit for presidents. Subsequently Bolivia’s Constitutional Court and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal – each dominated by justices associated with the MAS – joined in disallowing that vote. Their decisions, relying on the doctrine that national constitutions must give way to international legal norms, opened the door for a fourth term for Morales. Since then protesters and demonstrations have hammered away at the president.

Right wing Bolivarian parliamentarians in April wrote to President Trump asking him to request the Organization of American States to block Morales from running for election. That same month the U.S. Senate resolved in favor of presidential term limits in Bolivia.

Thugs working for opposition politicians recently attacked MAS election workers. Once more the opposition charges the government with violating the rights of indigenous peoples by inserting infrastructure, mining, oil, and natural gas projects into their areas. Now street demonstrations are giving rise to government and protester accusations, from one to the other, of having started fires in Chiquitanía, close to the Amazon region.

According to Hugo Moldiz, academician and former government minister under Morales, “This strong attack by the Bolivian right is backed from outside the country by the United States and Bolivian politicians who are fugitives from justice and is part of a new strategy of destabilization.” Another local observer sees the likelihood of “rebellion and disobedience in response to possible electoral fraud.” She notes “the presence in Santa Cruz department of a team of civil and military experts headed by George Eli Birnbaun.”

Birnbaum has managed political campaigns for right-wingers in Israel, the United States, and across the Balkans, Europe, and the Middle East. He assisted in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rise to power and programmed the “demonization” of George Soros.

Contradictory aspects of the socialist government’s record are worth noting. First, financial resources for social development derive from the sale of commodities – agricultural products, metals, oil, and natural gas. But prices on these may fall and so social programming is on precarious footing – as evidenced in Venezuela. Secondly, environmental activists say hydrocarbon resources ought to remain underground for the sake of the climate. President Morales, whose government (like Venezuela’s) relies on oil sales, is an environmental activist.

Three, the rates of Bolivian women being killed or physically abused because of their gender are among the highest in the region. In July President Morales announced corrective measures. And yet the United Nations, taking into consideration the high participation of women in the Bolivian government, recognized Bolivia as “one of the two counties in the world that has achieved [gender] equality.”

It seems ultimately that the upcoming elections represent a testing of the staying power of this socialist government. Socialist governments that remain took root in underdeveloped and previously colonized countries. Maybe that’s how things are meant to be.

Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, interviewed in August, stated that, “Revolution in the late twentieth century was mainly a phenomenon of the periphery. In the twenty-first century, objective forces are, however, pointing to a planetary movement toward socialism, emanating primarily from the periphery, but flaring up out of necessity in the center as well.”


W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.