What will Evo Morales learn from leftist governments in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela?
Published in the March 2006 issue of Z Magazine.
On January 21, on a hill outside of La Paz, a traditional ceremony marked both a major shift in Bolivian politics and a milestone for the growing New Left in Latin America. At Tiwanaku, a site of pre-Incan ruins significant to the country’s indigenous populations, a barefoot Evo Morales, dressed in a red tunic, received a silver and gold staff from leaders of the Aymara people. It was the first time in 500 years that this ritual transfer of leadership had been performed in Bolivia, and it came just a day before Morales, former president of the coca-growers’ union and the leader of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, was officially inaugurated as his country’s president.
In December, Morales, who had campaigned on a platform championing indigenous rights and denouncing economic neoliberalism, won a landslide victory at the polls. He bested rivals including Jorge Quiroga, a Washington favorite who had served as president of Bolivia from 2001 to 2002, finishing the term of past dictator Hugo Banzer. With a surprising 54% of the vote in a multi-party race, Morales not only secured the margin needed to avoid a run-off voting process in Congress, he obtained the largest mandate ever given to a president in Bolivian history.
Yet Morales’ hardest work may have just begun. He takes power as the first indigenous president in a country where nearly two-thirds of the population identifies with the Aymara, Quechua, or other indigenous group. The same fraction of the country lives in poverty, and the divide between rich and poor closely follows racial lines. Morales has announced plans to nationalize the country’s gas reserves, rewrite the constitution in a popular assembly, redistribute land to poor farmers, and change the rules of the U.S.-led war on drugs in Bolivia. If he helps spur on the radical change that his social movement base demands, he will face pressure from corporate investors and from the White House. If he chooses a more moderate path, Bolivia’s social movements have pledged to organize the same type of strikes and protests that have ousted two previous presidents in the past two years.
As Morales faces these trials in the coming months, he will do so in the context of a South America that has moved increasingly leftward. His administration joins left-of-center governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. These countries offer diverse suggestions for what progressive governments can accomplish, and how social movements and financial elites might respond.
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The Bolivian Moment
Morales begins his presidency following several years of social upheaval in Bolivia, fueled by a rejection of two decades of corporate globalization that deepened poverty and exacerbated inequality in the country. In April 2000 the residents of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city, organized dense street protests and blockades against water privatization pushed by the World Bank and carried out by the Bechtel Corporation. In February 2003, thirty-four Bolivians were killed during protests against an income tax hike imposed at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). And, in part of what became known as Bolivia’s “gas war,” over 60 people were killed in protests in October 2003 against further privatization of the country’s natural gas and a plan to export the resource through Chile.
At that time, Bolivia’s indigenous majority widely referred to the sitting president, multi-millionaire Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, as “el gringo” because he was raised in the United States and spoke Spanish with an accent. As president, Sanchez de Lozada, a leader of one of Bolivia’s leading right wing parties—the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement—stood as a long-time proponent of trade liberalization and IMF-recommended structural adjustment.
After gas war demonstrators were killed, street protests began calling for Sanchez de Lozada’s resignation. He was ultimately ousted on October 19, 2003. Vice President Carlos Mesa took his place, as stipulated in the country’s constitution. Under Mesa, a referendum on Bolivia’s gas resources was held in July 2004. The measure did not include the option of nationalizing the country’s natural gas reserves, the demand of the social movements. As a result, protests continued. In March 2005, amid further mass demonstrations, Mesa left office, claiming he was incapable of governing such a tumultuous country. At that time, Morales’ MAS party was hoping Mesa would remain until elections in 2007 so that it could build a stronger base of support for a future government.
Among the presidential candidates that ran in the December 2005 election, Morales has the broadest ties to the country’s social movements, having built Bolivia’s coca growers’ union into one of the most prominent social movements in the country and led the MAS. Yet despite his history as an organizer, Morales played limited roles in the popular uprisings of recent years. During the height of the gas war in 2003, for example, when mobilizations took the streets to demand the nationalization of the country’s gas reserves, Morales attended meetings in Geneva on parliamentary politics. Morales’ actions were aimed at generating broad support among diverse sectors of society, including the middle class and those who did not fully support the tactics of protest groups. This strategy, combined with directing the momentum of social movements into the electoral realm, helped contribute to his victory on December 18.
For their part, social movements supported Morales as the best option in the electoral contest. However, their allegiance to the state remains limited. Many leaders contend that they are willing to uproot another government if it stands in the way of social reorganization centered on participatory civil society. As Oscar Olivera, a key leader in the revolt against the privatization of Cochabamba’s water in 2000, explained in a recent interview with Uruguayan political scientist Raúl Zibechi, “We are creating a movement, a nonpartisan social-political front that addresses the most vital needs of the people through a profound change in power relations, social relations, and the management of water, electricity, and garbage.”
“The [54%] isn’t a blank check, it’s a loan,” said political analyst Helena Argirakis to Los Tiempos, Cochabamba’s daily newspaper. Her colleague Fernando García added, “The social movements’ support of Morales will always be conditional.”
At the same time, Morales faces severe external pressure if he antagonizes foreign creditors. Conservatives in the United States have been horrified by the success of Morales, whom they regularly slander as a narco-terrorist because of his support of coca growers. (Although coca can be used to produce cocaine, the natural plant leaves are used to make tea, have traditional importance for the country’s indigenous people, and are almost impossible to abuse in their natural form.) Bolivia owes large debts to international financial institutions including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). This gives the U.S. an effective veto over future loans to the country, and thus the ability to potentially plunge Bolivia’s shaky economy into economic crisis. Domestic right-wing factions, centered in the wealthy province of Santa Cruz—the heartland of Bolivia’s energy industry—are threatening to secede if resource extraction is nationalized. These conservatives are ready to side with the U.S. and the IDB against Morales should an international showdown take place.
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What Has Latin America’s “New Left” Accomplished?
In looking for a model for managing these tensions, Morales can examine the record of other progressive administrations that have taken power in Latin America. In recent years, the White House has been chagrinned to see the spread of progressive governments in South America. Meanwhile, opponents of corporate globalization have invested considerable hope in these administrations and have cheered Morales’ arrival.
In general, progressive governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile have increased social spending and devoted greater attention to the needs of the poor. Rarely, however, have they lived up to the expectations of the social movements that have helped put them in office. These movements have often maintained an adversarial role with the government.
Likewise, the electoral success of progressives in South America has signaled a backlash to two decades of unfettered economic neoliberalism. Yet the extent to which each country has rejected the policies of the “Washington Consensus” varies greatly.
The most recent electoral victory for the left in Latin America took place in Chile. There, a coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists, known as Concertación, has governed since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990. On January 15, Chileans elected Socialist Michelle Bachelet as their new president. Bachelet is the first woman to govern the country and only the third female directly elected a head of state in Latin American history. Her family was imprisoned and her father killed by the Pinochet regime in the 1970s. While Bachelet’s victory marks an exciting cultural shift, the president-elect has vowed to “walk the same road” as the sitting Socialist president, Ricardo Lagos. Lagos supported neoliberal initiatives such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), maintained close ties with Washington, and distanced himself from more radical governments in the region. Although optimistic international observers hope that Bachelet might break with the moderation of the Lagos administration to more aggressively address the sharp inequality in the country, her statements thus far stress continuity.
More relevant to the Bolivian situation are the examples of Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. Each represents a dominant economy in the region and each has fared differently since progressives took power, offering unique lessons for MAS leaders.
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Bucking the IMF in Argentina
In 2003 the left-leaning Néstor Kirchner took office in Argentina—in the aftermath of the 2001 collapse of the country’s economy and the popular uprisings that forced several successive governments from power. The neoliberal policies supported by the IMF and implemented by President Carlos Menem in the1990s were widely seen as responsible for the collapse. Since then, Argentina has set an important example by breaking with the IMF and playing hardball with international creditors.
In 2003, the country made a credible threat of defaulting on its payments to the IMF—something previously unheard of for middle-income countries. In response, the Fund backed away from demands for austerity and higher interest rates. It did so for fear that other countries would follow Argentina in defaulting. The exchange shook the international standing of the IMF and allowed Argentina to finalize a renegotiation of over $100 billion in foreign debt in 2005. The renegotiation drastically reduced the value of the country’s outstanding obligations to private creditors. Moreover, Argentina’s stance against the IMF has allowed the country to base its economic recovery on policies that, while not venturing far to the left of the standard Keynesian playbook, run contrary to those preferred by Washington. Beyond economic policy, Kirchner has supported the repeal of amnesty laws protecting military officers. This action has helped open a large number of legal cases against human rights abusers from Argentina’s past military government.
Still, tensions remain between Kirchner’s government and forces like the piqueteros, or unemployed workers’ movement. Such movements accuse the president of using radical or nationalistic posturing to cover more conservative policy decisions. One illustration of this conflict came with Kirchner’s announcement in December that the government (following a similar move by Brazil) would “un-indebt” Argentina by paying off $9.8 billion to the IMF. Citing the pain that the financial institution has caused to the country’s people, Kirchner framed the move as a decision to be rid of the IMF and its odious policy recommendations for good. However, as the Darío Santillán Popular Front, a piquetero organization, pointed out, the move amounted to a full debt repayment, rather than a renunciation. “Despite the progressive rhetoric, the debt is paid off with the hunger of the people,” the group said in a statement cited by the Inter-Press Service. Ultimately, the relevance of the decision as a model for other progressive governments will depend on the Kirchner government’s ability to use its newfound freedom from the IMF to chart an increasingly independent economic course.
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Lost Innocence in Brazil
The Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) has stayed on a more conservative path since taking the presidency, to the disappointment of many who were enthusiastic to see Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva gain office in 2003. Early on, Lula, a former metalworker and union leader, pursued a “pragmatic” economic policy. His cautious decisions were designed to reassure foreign investors and avoid precipitous capital flight—a genuine concern for any country wishing to avoid the economic collapse that Argentina had already experienced. Over time, Lula’s course has become virtually indistinguishable from the policy direction the PT once criticized harshly. Lula has opted to follow IMF prescriptions and continue making payments on Brazil’s huge foreign debt, which the World Bank valued in 2002 as 49.6 percent of Brazil’s GDP (or some $230 billion). For twenty years, the PT had campaigned against paying the debt, arguing that it took too much money from social programs and productive economic investment. The president’s current position is a far cry from even the most moderate of his party’s past denunciations.
Lula’s administration has been more aggressive in pursuing some neoliberal measures than even the IMF has demanded. IMF dictates call on the Brazilian government to maintain a primary budget surplus of 3.75 percent of the country’s GDP. Meanwhile, Lula has voluntarily elected to maintain an even greater primary surplus of 4.25 percent, leaving money for only modest increases in government spending on social programs. Several of these programs—such as Fome Zero, the government’s flagship anti-hunger initiative—have been stunted by lackluster implementation and administration.
Moreover, while strong economic growth was used in the past to justify the government’s cautious approach, this year’s figures for growth hover at a lowly 2.5 percent. This has caused even some centrist economists to criticize the government’s preoccupation with controlling inflation with high interest rates, which lead to high unemployment.
Lula’s actions on the international scene also show a disappointing trajectory. In 2003, PT leadership of South Americas’ largest economy promised to open a space of possibility in international negotiations. Lula spoke often about crafting a “new geography” of trade and politics, where poor countries would be respected as equals. Brazil emerged as one of the most outspoken countries condemning U.S. invasion of Iraq. And Lula was an instrumental force behind the formation of the G20+, a group of developing countries that stood up to U.S. and European demands at the 2003 WTO ministerial in Cancún. Their stance led to the collapse of the Cancún talks.
However, Brazil’s commitment to solidarity with the rest of the developing world has more recently been called into question. In the summer of 2004, Brazilian negotiators bullied poorer countries into signing on to the “July framework” for agriculture at WTO negotiations in Geneva—likely because Lula thought that a deal could benefit Brazilian agribusiness. This move gave new life to the languishing institution. Along with India, Brazil continued its pursuit of nationalist objectives over G20+ solidarity at the WTO talks in Hong Kong in December 2005. There it used its weight to ensure that the developing world did not block an agreement on the continuation of “Doha Round” negotiations. Interest in growing Brazil’s agribusiness exports has also caused friction between Lula’s government and the once-friendly Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), which has criticized the slow pace of land reform under the PT.
In a final discouraging development, several important PT officials have been implicated in a corruption scandal in the past year. This has marred the party’s reputation of holding itself to a higher ethical standard than its competitors; it has positioned the PT unfavorably within a context of politics-as-usual, rife with patronage and bribery.
Between corruption and policy failures, some observers have aptly dubbed 2005 a “Year of Innocence Lost in Brazil.” At the 2005 World Social Forum, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez counseled critics of Lula to be patient and allow the PT government more time to assert its independence from the Washington Consensus. A year later, with Lula’s popularity sagging and elections in the fall drawing nearer, time may be running out.
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Venezuela as Protagonist
Much of the progressive leadership expected from Lula when he was first elected has ended up coming from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who has established himself as the White House’s key adversary in the region. Unlike other countries in which popular upheavals and established social movement organizations have helped to put new governments in power, Chávez has largely used the state as the starting point for directing a “Bolivarian Revolution,” which has subsequently developed popular dimensions. In the past two years, the shape of this revolution has come into focus, as the Venezuelan economy has recovered from several rounds of oil strikes and the instability of a U.S.-supported coup in 2002.
While Chávez is often cast in the mold of Fidel Castro, several observers have noted that the redistributionist programs that are the hallmark of his social policy owe more to the New Deal than to Cuban state socialism. Among the many government programs that have been funded in recent years by proceeds from oil sales include an ambitious literacy program, free public education through the university level, job training, an anti-hunger program that provides subsidized food for over a third of the country, and an extensive system of free public health clinics. Chávez’s decidedly un-neoliberal economic policy has created the most robust growth in the hemisphere, with the country’s GDP surging 18 percent in 2004 and approximately nine percent in 2005.
On the international scene, Chávez has been the most outgoing of Latin American leaders in proposing a unified front for the New Left. He has presented the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) as a model for regional cooperation distinct from the FTAA. He has loaned Argentina almost a billion dollars and has sold discounted oil to many countries in order to benefit impoverished populations (including residents of low-income housing in Boston and the Bronx). In another such oil deal, Cuba sent some 20,000 doctors to bolster the public health care system in Venezuela in exchange for infusions of oil. At the WTO talks in Hong Kong in December, Venezuela provided a critical voice. In one dramatic gesture (albeit one that came too late and amounted to too little to affect the proceedings) Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Mari Pili Hernandez insisted at the closing ceremony on denouncing the WTO agreement that had been rubber-stamped by the assembly.
That Venezuela is the leading oil exporter in the hemisphere is a central fact in the country’s recent transformation. High oil prices—which produced $25 billion in profits for the Venezuelan government in 2004, and even more in 2005—have given Chávez both abundant funds and political leeway to carry out his policies. Of course, high export prices do not necessarily translate into human development. Previous oil booms have done nothing to boost the incomes of the poor or decrease inequality. Likewise, Chávez deserves credit for his efforts to build solidarity among Latin American nations, something other relatively affluent countries have often neglected.
However, the Venezuelan model is not without problems. The good fortune of the country’s natural resource wealth raises questions about whether the Bolivarian revolution is an exportable one. Indebted countries with less freedom to antagonize the international financial community cannot afford to replicate Chávez’s social programs and public bluster. Moreover, a number of state initiatives have drawn fire from environmentalists. In one example, the PDVSA—the Venezuelan state energy company—has teamed up with ChevronTexaco and Phillips Petroleum in the multi-million dollar Hamaca project, which will develop an oil field in the Orinoco river basin. Activists argue that the project will have a devastating impact on the surrounding ecosystem.
The centrality of Venezuela’s president as a charismatic leader of reform efforts also raises concerns about whether the “revolution” can survive beyond Chávez. Having no lack of self-regard, Chávez regularly portrays himself as a key historical actor and has often worked to consolidate his own power. It remains to be seen how well local groups such as the “Bolivarian circles,” which act as forums for democratic participation in new social initiatives, will be able to mature so as to outlive Chávez’s tenure and ensure a model distinct from the centralized state power held by Castro in Cuba.
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How Does Bolivia Compare?
Domestic circumstances, foreign pressures, and the Morales government’s own political inclinations will determine whether Bolivia will travel down one of the paths blazed in Argentina, Brazil, or Venezuela, or set an entirely different course. In terms of political conditions, Bolivia is an amalgam of its South American neighbors. Like Argentina, Bolivia has experienced a crisis of governance, with rapid turnover in the presidency. Strong social movement pressure has created a mandate for standing up to the international financial institutions. Yet like Brazil, Bolivia must still worry about capital flight and foreign creditors, which can potentially cripple its economy and limit the government’s ability to act. (Ironically, Petrobras, an energy company partially owned by the Brazilian state, is one of the largest foreign interests in Bolivia’s gas industry.) That said, Bolivia’s ample natural resources could potentially translate into leverage for Morales, just as oil has proven a boon to Chávez. Bolivia has the some of the largest natural gas reserves in the hemisphere, and large oil deposits as well. However, at least in the near future, the country is dependent on foreign investment to develop these resources.
The independence of civil society marks a critical difference between Bolivia and Venezuela. Leaders in the new Morales government and in the country’s social movements have been quick to assert that Bolivian political landscape under a MAS administration will be very distinct from that seen in Caracas. In an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE, incoming Vice President Álvaro García Linera argued that while in Cuba and Venezuela “the civil society has been constructed by the state,” Bolivian civil society is almost entirely grassroots. Linera described the country’s recent political experience as a “construction of multiple social movements with a far-reaching trajectory, and an organizational and autonomous capacity, that little by little has been pressuring the state and eventually occupying it.”
When we spoke with Oscar Olivera, the social movement leader in Cochabamba, about the incoming administration, he explained, “We aren’t fighting to govern, we’re fighting to make the government disappear and self-govern ourselves.” When asked if he is interested in helping transform Bolivia into another Venezuela, he said: “I don’t believe in military leaders, or ex-military leaders [such as Chávez]. Every country is different, and has its own culture and history. Many people in the media treat Chávez as though he were the best thing possible. But the leader is one thing and the people are another.”
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Nationalizing Oil and Gas
Two issues will preoccupy the Morales administration in coming months, and may well determine the fate of the government: reclaiming profits and ownership of Bolivian oil and gas resources; and rewriting the constitution in a popular assembly. While these same two issues powered the political process in Venezuela in the years after Chávez took power, Morales will face serious challenges in each arena.
No matter what the MAS leaders do with Bolivia’s gas and oil reserves, they are likely to upset corporate investors, social movements, or both. The social movements are demanding full nationalization. As Olivera explains, “We won’t accept partial nationalization. All of the contracts are with neoliberal companies. All they want to do is take our gas. People didn’t die [in recent social struggles] to give the gas to the companies. The people have to say what we need to do with the gas. Pachamama [Mother Earth] is for the people, not for the transnational corporations.”
While also using the language of “nationalization,” Morales has signaled a more moderate approach, distinguishing between the natural resources underground and the assets of the extraction industry. Ultimately, MAS is likely to deal with each individual energy company differently, attempting to negotiate concessions from each. “We will nationalize the natural resources, gas and hydrocarbons,” Morales said in early January. “We are not going to nationalize the assets of the multinationals. Any state has the right to use its natural resources. We must establish new contracts with the oil companies based on equilibrium. We are going to guarantee the returns on their investment and their profits, but not looting and stealing.”
Such reassurances have been popular with groups such as the Comité Civico Pro Santa Cruz, a pro-privatization lobby in the Santa Cruz region, with which Morales met following his electoral victory. Morales also traveled to Brazil to meet with Lula on January 13. There he vowed not to expropriate the property of energy companies, and he guaranteed the security of Brazil’s investments. Instead, he outlined a plan to organize a multinational commission among Bolivia’s gas investors to revise contracts and agreements between different countries. Dealing with individual companies may be an effective way to gain concessions from the energy industry without risking corporate lawsuits and pressure from the U.S. However, it would leave the Morales administration open to charges of having sold out to the corporations if the concessions it gains are inadequate. This dilemma adds importance to the second main issue confronting the government: the need for a popular assembly to rewrite the constitution. Such an assembly would create an opportunity for diverse political parties, business leaders, and social movements to agree on the terms for gas exportation.
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A Constituent Assembly
Morales’ campaign promise to call an assembly between diverse social sectors to rewrite the constitution contributed significantly his landslide victory. The re-writing of Venezuela’s constitution in 2000 served as the launching pad for that country’s new political process. There, a referendum and nationwide assemblies were held to create and approve the new constitution. The new document mandated that profits from the oil industry be redirected into the state for social programs in education, health care, and community media initiatives. Today, a common saying in Venezuela holds that the new constitution is the country’s strongest weapon against corporate globalization and imperialism.
The re-writing of Bolivia’s constitution may prove to be similarly powerful. The election of delegates for a constituent assembly is now scheduled to take place in June 2006, and the actual assembly will convene in August. Three delegates will be elected from each of the country’s municipalities, and delegations must include a minimum of one woman and one indigenous person. At present, social movements are putting forth proposals for what they want to see in a new constitution. Some of the main issues on the table include gas nationalization, land reform, free trade agreements with the U.S., and a referendum on autonomy for the Santa Cruz region. Because the majority of the delegates are likely to represent social movements, the new constitution is expected to favor popular forces over corporations and foreign interests.
The constituent assembly may well redraw Bolivia’s electoral map to allow for adequate representation of indigenous peoples. This could result in new elections, which might challenge Morales’ power. However, his enormous electoral victory indicates that any elections resulting from changes to the constitution will favor MAS. Nonetheless, well-funded lobbyists from Santa Cruz may be successful in pushing for autonomy in their gas-rich region. Moreover, it is unclear how the changes in a new constitution would be enforced. In Venezuela the country’s constitution declares that all housewives are entitled to a pension for their work. However, this has not been made into a law nor put into effect.
Some social movement groups, such as the Workers and Campesinos Federation of La Paz, have given Morales a two-month window to make immense changes in the country. Such radicals are in the minority. Most social movement organizations have pledged to wait for the results of the constituent assembly before seriously pressing the administration. If the assembly fails to meet such demands as gas nationalization, protests and road blockades are expected to occur.
Such protest campaigns could paralyze the country and exacerbate political divisions. However, they could also give Morales leverage to pursue some of his more radical campaign promises if elites decide they would rather keep the government in place than risk upheaval. There is probably no other country in Latin American where social movements are so well organized and have such a great capacity to threaten the presidency. This balance of political muscle between the street and state makes it unlikely that Morales could replicate Lula’s “pragmatic” concessions to neoliberalism, even if he wanted to.
Outside of their role in pressuring the government, established grassroots networks could provide a base for the reorganization of political power and representation. Just before the December elections, a meeting called the Congress of the National Front for the Defense of Water and Basic Human Services convened to forge alliances between the country’s social movement groups. The Congress includes the Water Coordinating Committee of Cochabamba, the Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto, the Water and Drainage Cooperatives of Santa Cruz, as well as other neighborhood organizations, cooperatives, irrigation farmers, and committees on electricity and other services. In many cases, these autonomous groups have organized methods of providing citizens with basic services that the state fails to offer. Such a coalition of grassroots forces will serve as a powerful lobbying instrument for the constituent assembly. And, depending on the results of the assembly, it could either provide an infrastructure for participation in new state programs or represent an alternative structure for governance.
Like many other Bolivians who voted for Morales, Anselmo Martinez Tola, an organizer of indigenous groups in Potosi, Bolivia, believed the MAS candidate was the most likely among presidential contenders to convoke a constituent assembly. “We are a majority and through the assembly we hope to rescue what belongs to us,” he said referring to the nationalization of the gas and the redistribution of land. His organization has been choosing delegates for their municipality and developing proposals for the assembly. Among them is a suggestion that the government be restructured along the lines of traditional ayllus, which are small groups of families that have long guided decision-making in indigenous communities across the country. “We have to have a new constitution that refers to our culture, our history, and not foreign countries or companies. It has to reflect the varied movement of indigenous groups in Bolivia,” Tola explained.
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Critics such as James Petras, a long-time analyst of Latin America and former Professor of Sociology at SUNY-Binghamton, have denounced the “army of uncritical left cheerleaders” that has celebrated Evo Morales’ victory and expressed hope for significant change in Bolivia. Just as he has been disappointed by Lula and Kirchner, Petras predicts that the Morales administration will undertake only “symbolic gestures of a purely rhetorical nature, devoid of nationalist substance,” rather than truly redistributive initiatives.
There is reason to believe otherwise. Morales may have presented himself as a moderate during the presidential campaign in order to gain broader support. However, his decisive victory has created space for bolder action. In the eyes of many MAS supporters, policies regarding gas nationalization, land reform, indigenous rights are not in the hands of Morales, but rather in the hands of the constituent assembly. A rewritten constitution brings with it promise for significant change. Cognizant of the assembly’s will and closely monitored by one of Latin America’s most powerful social movements, the Morales administration will have the mandate and the motivation to drive a hard bargain with international creditors and create its own model for progressive governance.
Until then, Bolivia will stand on the brink of a new post-colonial period, for the first time governed by an indigenous leader who looks like the majority of its people, and resting in a continent that has moved yet another step away from neoliberalism. If the victory put on display at the ruins of Tiwanaku is thus far only a symbol, it is no doubt a potent one.
Research assistance for this article provided by Kate Griffiths. Photo credit: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / Agência Brasil.