Bolivia's Socialist King: The Beginning of the End

Bolivia's Socialist King: The Beginning of the End

Bolivian President Evo Morales greets the people at a traditional ceremony celebrating his 10 years in office.

SourceAizar Raldes / Getty

Why you should care

Because it’s easy to critique socialism under a Castro or a Chavez. Evo Morales forces you to confront it.

Many Americans may consider Barack Obama a socialist, but to one dyed-in-the-wool socialist in the Americas, the U.S. president is nothing less than a ruthless capitalist, imperialist and war criminal. In fact, Obama’s alleged (and rather unsuccessful) “hidden agenda,” according to some — wealth redistribution, nationalization of industry, higher taxes and greater government control — reads like President Evo Morales’ list of accomplishments in Bolivia.

The list has been crescendoing since the former coca farmer came to power in 2006: He’s defied World Bank economic recommendations, ignored Western labor laws and thumbed his nose at America’s war on drugs. The public mandate seemed to support him; he reached a third term in 2014, and just in August, according to a poll from Ipsos Bolivia, Morales’ approval rating stood at 70 percent. And then, last week, he stretched too far, holding a referendum to change national laws that would let him run for re-election for a fourth term … in 2019.

It didn’t go Morales’ way. With three years left, then, the question is: What will he do? “It’s certainly a blow to him,” says Raúl Madrid, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. “This is the first time he’s ever lost.” But, Madrid adds, “he’s still quite strong,” and with his next three years, Madrid writes us later, Morales is sure to keep up his combination of “aggressive redistributivist social policies with relatively conservative economic policies.” He has a chance to keep driving home his legacy thus far: Under Morales, extreme poverty has plummeted by 43 percent, the real minimum wage has increased by almost 90 percent and the economy has grown by 5 percent on average since he stepped into office and renationalized the natural gas industry. As Swiss-made gondolas drift over the capital of La Paz — part of Morales’ new aerial transport system — it’s not hard to see why most Bolivians approve of their president.

Instead of heeding to human rights interests over child labor in Bolivia, he kept it legal.

It wasn’t obvious that Morales, today the leader of the landlocked nation of more than 10 million, would bring Bolivia economic stability. Flash back to the early 1990s: Bolivia, with its colonial history and stark inequality, is a laboratory for neoliberalism — its mineral wealth sold off to foreign investors; its unemployed miners growing illicit coca, a native plant whose leaves are used to make cocaine. As their crop growth is threatened, thanks to the cocaine association, the growers organize behind an indigenous Aymara man known for yelling into crowds of farmers high up in the Andes, “Let’s go, coca! Death to the gringos!”

Born in 1959, in a rural village in mountainous western Bolivia, Morales grew up in a small adobe ramshackle with a straw roof, 12,500 feet above sea level. In school, Evo learned four maxims in his native Aymara tongue: Don’t steal, don’t be weak, don’t lie and the last, don’t be servile. By 13, Evo was taking the fourth commandment seriously, selling llama wool to buy soccer equipment to form his own team. A few years later, when conscription sent him into the Bolivian army, Morales was forced to put down a coca growers’ strike. Soon enough, he swapped sides: When he and his family left the Andean high plains for Bolivia’s subtropical El Chapare region, they started cultivating coca.

Being on both sides of Bolivia’s coca conflict sowed in the young man disgust for Bolivia’s U.S.-backed anti-drug policy. In 1992, when a union of coca growers suggested he’d make a good presidential candidate, Morales declined. “They would see me as a criminal, a bum, a thief,” he protested, writes Martin Sivak in his biography of Morales. Instead, Morales became an organizer, creating the political party MAS (Movement for Socialism). In 1998, he was elected its leader — wherein he “learned how to negotiate, give and take, how to win allies and consolidate your power,” Michael Shifter, president of Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue, tells OZY.

Take Morales’ handling of the 2008 referendum in which the country’s natural gas-rich region Santa Cruz sought autonomy. Losing control of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves would cost Morales’ new Bolivia. Instead of stoking the crisis, he negotiated, and has since enjoyed strong support from Santa Cruz. Morales’ inclination to bargain has also yielded more radical results. Instead of heeding to human rights interests over child labor in Bolivia, he listened to child laborers protesting against illegalization — and he kept it legal, insisting in a 2014 interview with Al-Jazeera that legalizing child labor encourages “the ethics of hard work at a young age.” What else? He’s kicked out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and USAID — and exerted some “control of the justice system and persecution of political opponents … Bolivia is not a fully democratic context,” says Shifter.

So the division has crept. “Lots of people have become disillusioned with Evo and his original constituency,” says Shifter. Like coca farmers watching his government eradicate crops in areas once designated legal zones, as well as indigenous groups, who have successfully pushed back against his plans for a major rain-forest motorway. “Accommodating business interests — it was smart politically, but there was a trade-off,” Shifter says. But this latest vote? Madrid tells OZY it wasn’t an anti-Evo vote so much as a vote in favor of a certain kind of electoral system. And even as Latin America’s left shifts — as Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet strike up against walls — Morales has three years to go, and plenty of popularity still left in his purse.

Leslie Nguyen-Okwu contributed reporting.

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