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Indigenous Election Victory Against All Odds in Bolivia

David Brooks of the NY Times states today that “surely the Bolivian election was the most important thing that happened this week.” Forced into another election, Evo Morales won 51% of the vote. But is the battle won yet as the neoliberal assault on Latin American resources continues?

From Jim Schultz, of the Democracy Center, who lives in Bolivia:


On Sunday, Dec 18, 2005, by a whopping and historic margin, Evo Morales was elected President of Bolivia. It looks like he will win with a 51% majority, the first modern Bolivian president to ever do so, or even come close.

Headline writers in the foreign press have had a field day trying to pin a label on Moralesí surprise victory. The New York Times announced the victory of a ìcoca farmerî. The Chicago Sun-Times abbreviated Morales as a ìleftistî. CNN picked up a campaign rally declaration in which Morales called himself, the US governmentís ìnightmareî. But what does the election of Morales to the presidency here really mean?

A Clear Rejection of Economic Policies Imposed from Washington

First and foremost it means that the Bolivian people, across class lines and regions, are demanding a reversal of twenty years of market-crazed economic policies pressed on the country from abroad, and by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in particular. Growing coca leaves was not the issue in these elections. Recovering national control over gas and oil, privatized away at bargain prices in the 1990s, that was the issue.

Nearly six years after the people of Cochabamba took to the streets to take back their water from the Bechtel Corporation of San Francisco (a privatization done under pressure from the World Bank), the nationwide voices of protest for economic change found their voice on the ballot through Evo Morales. Last night he told cheering supporters, ìWe will change the economic models that have blocked development for the people.î That change begins with Moralesí plans to take back control of the nationís vast gas and oil reserves and renegotiate all the nationís contracts with foreign oil companies.

Economic foolishness? Joseph Stiglitz, the economic Nobel laureate and former chief economist at the World Bank didnít think so when he spoke with the New York Times Magazine last month, “They could do it,î he said, noting that other oil companies would gladly negotiate new deals on better terms.

The Rise of Boliviaís Indigenous Majority

Second, Moralesí victory represents the rising of the countryís Indian majority into power. Last night, speaking to the nationís Quechua and Aymara people he said, with clear pride, ìFor the first time we are the president.î

I saw that indigenous identification with Morales up close in October when I spent five days in a small Quechua Indian village three hours off into the mountains. On a sunny afternoon I sat with the village leader, Lucio, a man I have known for almost a decade. I asked him if the coming elections were big on peopleís minds. ìNo, we are really more worried about whether it will rain soon.î I asked him if people were excited about Evo Morales and the prospect of electing an Indian as president. ìWell, he is really just a politician.î Then I asked him whether the people of the village would vote. ìOh yes, we will vote. All 400 of us will walk together 45 minutes to the place where we vote and we will all vote for Evo.î

And so on Sunday, Bolivians by the millions marched distances short and far to give Morales the biggest mandate of any president here in half a century.

The Risks Ahead

There are risks to be sure. The people who I have worked with here as activists for many years are suddenly Senators and Congress members. They are good people but, like Morales, they are likely to underestimate how hard it is to actually govern. The dance with foreign donors, including the US, will be difficult but essential, with Bolivia dependent on foreign aid for a huge portion of its annual budget. The economic plans that Morales and his backers have in mind, important as they are, will also prove difficult. Putting twenty years of economic toothpaste back in the tube is no easy task.

In addition, any political victory, especially a big one, is a recipe for disaster in itself. It makes people think that their public support will endure. It invites recklessness. One need only look to Arnold Schwarzeneggerís recent ego-driven rise and fall in California to see the process on display. And in Bolivia, public discontent doesnít just mean people turn against you at the polls (as they so clearly did last month in my home state). In Bolivia it means they block the streets. It means they chant for your downfall and sometimes win it.

Morales takes office with far fewer options than he may think and with public expectations that will be virtually impossible to meet. Already some social movement leaders have given him just three months to take strong action on retaking the nationís gas and oil and in convening the long-awaited constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

Again, an Example for All of Us

But for now, Morales and his backers, and the Bolivian people along with them, have won a victory that is both sweet and historic. When I first moved back to Bolivia in 1998 the country was governed by Hugo Banzer, a former dictator. World Bank and IMF economics was the rule of the day. In a month Bolivia will be governed by a man who earned his political stripes confronting Banzer and others in the streets and the market fundamentalism forced on Bolivian from abroad will begin to be dismantled piece by piece.

Bolivians have succeeded remarkably in declaring what kind of country they donít want. Now the challenge is to build, in a practical and sustainable way, the country that they do want. I think there is a decent chance that theyíll pull it off. If they do they will set, once again, an example for all of us ñ that whatís possible in the world is often more than what we think.

posted by The Democracy Center at 11:15 AM on Dec 19, 2005 by Jim Schultz

Here is the background story, written before the December 18th election by Mr. Schultz. Think about the western monoculture model of capitalism growing and growing, swallowing more and more natural resources, wanting oil for war machines and internal combustion engines, while indigenous societies exist in the hundreds and thousands over centuries, in tune with their environment, not bound to destroy, pollute and toxify this shrinking planet. Also, energy services are valued at 2 trillion dollars US$ per year, and Latin America has 13% of the Earth’s oil at this point, second only to the Middle East (66%). . .

Dear Readers:

Bolivia is in the world news once again, as we head toward important elections for President in two weeks. Our days have been filled with visits and interviews with foreign media. These elections come at the end of a year of great conflict in which, at times, it seemed Bolivia was headed for the political abyss. In this issue we offer an analysis of how Bolivia got to this place, of the radically different candidates seeking to lead the country, and what all this might mean for Bolivia’s future.

For ongoing analysis and updates please see our Blog from Bolivia at:

Jim Shultz
The Democracy Center


On December 18th the people of Bolivia will go to the polls. It is an election that no one planned and that few asked for and in which the nation will elect its sixth President in as many years. To the casual observer abroad, Bolivia looks like a nation in a state of democratic meltdown. Some analysts have warned that Bolivia is on its way to becoming the Afghanistan of Latin America.

On the ground, however, what is going on now in Bolivia is the latest act in a long struggle for social justice by people who rank as the poorest in all of South America. At the center is the demand by Bolivia’s indigenous majority for a fair share of political and economic power, in a country where they have had little of either. At the forefront as well is the widespread popular rejection of a draconian economic model largely imposed on the country by powers from abroad.


Landlocked and poor, for two decades Bolivia has been the unwilling test lab for a set of economic policies known as the “Washington Consensus”. Topping the list has been the privatization of the nation’s natural resources into the hands of foreign corporations, along with economic belt-tightening that falls heavily on the nation’s poor. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have made these policies a key condition of giving Bolivia crucial international aid.

Five years ago Bolivians started taking to the streets to battle those policies from abroad and they have won one major victory after another.

In 2000, the citizens of Bolivia’s third largest city, Cochabamba, stood down government troops and a declaration of martial law to win back control of their public water system. Under pressure from the World Bank, the water had been privatized into the hands of the US corporate giant, Bechtel.

In February 2003 in La Paz, mass protests led by a unit of the national police forced the government to drop plans for a tax increase on the poor, a program initiated under IMF pressure. Thirty-four people lost their lives. That October protests against a proposed gas export deal to California were repressed under fire, by troops sent out by then-President, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a close US ally. After more than fifty deaths in the streets, broad public opposition sent Mr. Sanchez de Lozada into US exile (where he still remains).

In 2005 these protests have continued. In January the people of El Alto followed in Cochabamba’s footsteps and forced out a private water company owned jointly by the French water conglomerate Suez and an arm of the World Bank.

Last May and June Bolivia erupted in national protest once again over the gas issue. Masses of people took to the streets to demand that Bolivia take back control of its vast gas and oil reserves (the second largest on the continent, after Venezuela). Those reserves were privatized in the 1990s to some of the largest oil corporations in the world, under windfall terms for the companies.

The June protests spun the country to the political brink. President Carlos Mesa (Sanchez de Lozada’s reluctant successor) offered his resignation, triggering a succession to the Supreme Court President and the unplanned elections this month, two years ahead of the Constitutional schedule.

Two Candidates ñ Two Bolivias

The two leading rivals in this month’s presidential elections could not be more different, in both their personal histories and in their visions for the nation’s future.

Running first in the polls is Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and leader of the nation’s Movement Toward Socialism party. Morales first rose to political prominence here as leader of the nation’s coca grower unions. Known popularly as just Evo, he has pledged to cancel and renegotiate the country’s contracts with foreign oil companies and to immediately convene a Constituent Assembly to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution, a key demand of the country’s indigenous groups. Morales is also a long time thorn in the side of the US Government, having led opposition to the US war on drugs here. For months US officials have been claiming that Morales and his movement are really stand-ins for two other US antagonists, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro. The US has also declined to offer any evidence to back up the claim.

The other leading candidate is Jorge ìTutoî Quiroga. Quiroga served as President previously for a year (in 2001-2002) when he served out the last twelve months of his dying predecessor’s term, Hugo Banzer, a former dictator. Quiroga is a former IBM executive, educated in Texas and married to Texas blonde named Ginger. His speeches are laced with the language of foreign investment and stable economic environments. Heís a man of business. He also presided over more than a dozen government killings in his brief tenure in office. Heís a man of business that also feels comfortable with sending out troops as a way to combat protest, a real concern here.

Do New Elections Matter?

From the outside it would appear that Bolivia’s elections are a dramatic fork in the road, a choice between to very different paths forward. This applies especially to the foreign view of Morales. Outside of Bolivia he has been lifted up as an icon, good and bad. He is alternatively either a Latin American hero or a new authoritarian Fidel in the making. In a recent profile, The New York Times dubbed him as the second coming of Che Guevara. More than one hundred foreign journalists have asked permission to follow him around in the campaign’s closing days.

Within Bolivia, however, most people you speak with see the elections as just one more round of advertising and politicking that will translate into very little change either way.

“The elections aren’t something that we asked for, ever,” notes Oscar Olivera, the Cochabamba union leader who was at the head of that city’s anti-Bechtel water revolt. “What the social movements need to do now is to continue accumulating popular forces, as we have been doing since 2000, to build up our ability to pressure whatever government that comes. A Morales government would be less difficult to move, but it will still be difficult.”

Whomever wins will govern under enormous pressure from corporate investors and international financial institutions to stay the IMF/World Bank course. Social movement leaders here point to the steady moderation of their once fiery Brazilian neighbor, President Lula de Silva, as an example. In the view of Bolivia’s social movements Bolivia future will be decided, not by who wins the vote, but by the ability of the public to articulate concrete demands and to mount pressure for them with whoever wins.

Political Predictions

As Yogi Berra once famously said, “I never make predictions, especially about the future.” Political predictions, and especially in Bolivia, may be the most risky predictions of all.

If the polls are correct, Evo Morales and his MAS party are likely to come in a strong first place on December 18th, with perhaps as much as 35% of the vote. That would be a substantial increase over his close 22% second place finish in 2002. It is not enough, however, to win him the Presidency. The popular vote sets up a vote in Bolivia’s Congress in January in which a new President must muster 51%. Translated, this means that Bolivia’s next President will be selected through a complicated set of negotiations and deal making behind closed doors.

All of Bolivia’s recent governments have been led by Presidents elected with votes of 22-25%, backed by deal-laden coalitions. The most likely coalition prospect is that Quiroga will ally with the certain third-place finisher, Samuel Doria Medina, owner of Bolivia’s Burger Kings. The two are ideologically close and the influential US Embassy, eager to freeze Morales out of the presidency, is almost certain to mount heavy pressure on both to reach a deal.

Another possibility, a far slimmer one, is that Morales seeks his own deal with Medina, a possibility amplified by Medina’s recent campaign rhetoric against foreign corporations (BK not among them). Making such a deal to win the presidency is the subject of real debate among Morales backers. Some will argue in favor, anxious to finally get their turn at governing. Other backers believe that it would be a recipe for failure to enter government completely compromised from the start, with heavy opposition in Congress, and a mountain of impossible expectations from the public.

In the end, Morales may not even try to convert a first place win into the presidency. Instead he may use the power of his victory at the polls to demand the immediate convening of the citizen assembly to rewrite the constitution. That demand, backed by heavy street pressure around the country is very likely to be the first major flash point for Bolivia’s new government. This months elections, in the end are more of a pause than a solution to the social conflicts that have erupted here for the past five years. 2006 may well bring the fiercest conflicts of them all.

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