Morales May Want to Follow This Bolivian Leader’s Path

Víctor Paz Estenssoro promised protections to indigenous communities and redistributed lands in favor of the dispossessed, rolling back hundreds of years of colonial precedence.

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Why you should care

Víctor Paz Estenssoro fought for indigenous rights (and made many comebacks) long before Morales.

When Evo Morales, who until just days ago was the president of Bolivia, took office, he was a trailblazer. The first indigenous leader in Bolivia’s history, Morales — along with his party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) — had a goal of decolonizing Bolivia’s land. In 14 years at the helm, he made considerable progress: Indigenous rights were expanded, natural resources nationalized and environmental protection decrees passed. 

But Morales is not the first groundbreaking leader in Bolivia’s recent history — in fact, the country has long been the vanguard of radical political, economic, environmental and demographic reform. 

Nearly 40 years before Venezuela nationalized its oil, Bolivia had taken its natural resources into its own hands, wrenching them from the grip of the U.S.-based Standard Oil. And long before Morales’ push for indigenous representation, Bolivia’s 1952 Revolution — under the “Lands to the Indian, Mines to the State” slogan and the leadership of Víctor Paz Estenssoro — promised protections to indigenous communities and redistributed lands in favor of the dispossessed, rolling back hundreds of years of colonial precedence. Passing through Bolivia in the 1950s, Che Guevara was so impressed with Bolivia’s revolutionary experiments he declared that the country “had given an example to the American continent.”

Perhaps the most infamous act associated with Bolivia’s junta leadership was the 1967 killing of Che Guevara, aided by the CIA.

Estenssoro’s reforms came before Latin America was swept up in the revolutionary fervor that brought Fidel Castro to power. Using Revolutionary Mexico as his example, Estenssoro broke the power of the landholders who had been exploiting Bolivia’s poor, strengthened the labor unions that helped bring him into power, and continued to nationalize Bolivia’s resources that had been so important to its economy and the source of foreign exploitation. Aware of the importance of indigenous support, Estenssoro had his decrees read out in the Aymara and Quechua languages — languages that indigenous Bolivians had never heard coming from the mouthpiece of the state before.

But keeping up such reforms has been a difficult undertaking in Bolivia, which stems both from the compromises of its leaders and from outside interference. 

According to Kate Centellas, a professor of anthropology and a scholar of Bolivia at the University of Mississippi, the 1952 Revolution and its many reforms were walked back on by the end of the 1950s. Indeed, by 1955, Estenssoro, in desperate need of more revenue, passed a new petroleum decree that heavily favored U.S. companies and effectively defanged the 1937 oil nationalization, a move that lost him a great deal of support from leftists and indigenous peoples. 

Western industrial interest in Bolivia has at times been much less willing to cooperate with Bolivia’s leaders — from 1964 to 1982, the country was caught up in a wave of violence as a dizzying succession of CIA-backed junta leaders jockeyed for power. Perhaps the most infamous act associated with Bolivia’s junta leadership was the 1967 killing of Che Guevara, aided by the CIA.

Victor Paz Estenssoro Taking Oath

Víctor Paz Estenssoro, who was a political exile in Argentina for six years, takes the oath of office as president of Bolivia, in a ceremony in La Paz. He returned to Bolivia as head of the newly formed government, after his National Revolutionary Party was successful in a three-day bloody revolt.

Source Getty

While Morales proved to be far more capable than his predecessors — both at cultivating a virtuous image at home and abroad, and at actually leading — even his big achievements ran into this same entropy.

While Bolivia’s highly publicized 2010 Law of the Rights of Mother Earth garnered praise abroad, it’s another story at home. “Within recent years, Bolivian budget deficit projections have gotten worse, so Morales has had to engage in incentivizing the international community to invest in Bolivia’s resources,” says Carwil Bjork-James, a Bolivia expert and a professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University.  While Bolivia’s natural resources are ostensibly nationalized, its economic dealings with China and the West have been marked by a lack of transparency in recent years.

The results have been disastrous for Bolivia’s environment and harmful to many of the rural lower classes and indigenous people that had brought Morales and MAS to power, with indigenous and environmentally protected land placed on the menu for developers. In 2012, a road was constructed through indigenous land despite months of protest, in part of a wider trend of settling and developing uninhabited land in the eastern lowlands, which are part of the Amazon rainforest. Thanks to government incentives, farmers were awarded plots of lands, which they cleared for cultivation by setting fires that raged for months. While Brazil caught the lion’s share of the criticism for the Amazon fires that raged throughout the summer, Bolivia contributed more than its fair share. Morales refused to admit wrongdoing or even declare a national emergency over the fires — a move that Centellas says was the “final straw for many Morales supporters.”

While Morales’ ouster is still fresh, history tells us that we shouldn’t count him out completely. Banished Bolivian leaders sometimes find their way back into power: Estenssoro had four separate presidencies in Bolivia from the ’50s to the ’80s. He also beat exile twice — he even won the 1951 election while in exile in Argentina. 

Even if Morales does not return, his ideas and reforms, Centellas says, have become “so deeply ingrained in Bolivian society that they will be difficult for any proceeding government to roll back, should they try to do so.” 

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