Elected President on December 18th 2005, Evo Morales’ victory into power was a significant and meaningful event for Bolivia. Not only was he the first President of indigenous Aymara Indian descent, of which a majority (62% according to a 2001 consensus) of the country is populated, but also a leader of the coca-growers union and the Movimento al Socialismo (Movement for Socialism, MAS). After a long and bleak history of colonialism, natural resource exploitation, incomplete revolutions and neoliberal oppression in Bolivia, with a democratic government long occupied by elites who did not represent the interests of a vast majority of the Bolivian population, the victory of Morales heralded the potential for a new era for the poorest country in South America and a radical shift in the country’s history (Webber, 2011; gthomas2219, 2013).
Following two landslide electoral victories in 2005 (53% majority vote) and 2009 (64% majority vote) SAM gained a two-thirds majority in Bolivia’s two parliamentary bodies, and with that, arguably the stage was set for a revolutionary change “ending both the persistent exclusion of the (often poor) indigenous majority of the country, and undoing the neoliberal legacy of the three preceding decades, installing a local brand of socialism” (Salman, 2013: p625). However, soon thereafter critics from the left have begun to argue that the revolutionary promises made by Morales on the campaign trail and his strong socialist rhetoric that fostered the support of left indigenous movements (such as militant coca farmers) that largely contributed to his election victory have been foregone, broken, and replaced by relatively minor reforms (Webber, 2011). In this essay I will explore and assess the main interpretations of the Morales government’s performance since being elected, highlighting the debate around the issue, among scholars and social commentators alike, of the on-going struggle for national and social liberation and analyses of the steps Morales has taken in achieving this.
Firstly, it is necessary to briefly examine how Morales came to power and the context within which his eventual presidential campaign was won. In the 1980’s Bolivia underwent radical neoliberal restructuring, “undertaking market liberalisation at the same time as political democratisation” (Kohl, 2006: p305). The hegemonic neoliberalisation processes in Bolivia at this time resulted in the poor becoming poorer as they were continuously excluded from economic practices, with multinational corporations and elites emerging as the dominant force. The scholarly consensus acknowledges this tendency as a fundamental characteristic of neoliberal restructuring that can be seen empirically across countries that have experienced this also (Kohl, 2006).
Coupled with this, when the price of tin (one of the country’s most lucrative export industries) dropped, many Bolivian mines were closed making over 25,000 miners redundant (Howard and Dangl, 2006). Thousands of miners then proceeded to relocate to the coca growing region of Chapare as their only hope of making a living. From there, the miners used their militancy and organisational skills that had been honed by the revolution in 1952 (wherein the mining industry was heavily nationalised and unionised) to influence and help the coca growers who were facing crop eradication as a result of the boom in demand for cocaine and the subsequent war on drugs (Howard and Dangl, 2006; gthomas2219, 2013).
The miners began unionising the coca growers, helping them to organise and coordinate in their resistance against the eradication of coca crops and leaves which have long been a fundamental symbol of indigenous Andean culture, and against the US imperialism in the form of neoliberalism they were facing at the time (gthomas2219, 2013). It was this organisation and unionisation that led to Morales becoming a distinguished figure, coupled with his charisma and apparent leadership skills he eventually became the leader of the largest coca growers union. Eventually the coca growers and other social movements developed and organised into a political party (MAS) with Morales at the helm, so they could have their socialist views represented in government.
On top of his indigenous Aymara lineage, it has been argued that Morales’ best attribute was his ability to “galvanise and shape a vast array of indigenous and social protest movements into a unified political project” (gthomas2219, 2013) that has secured the MAS’ success. As a charismatic, likeable and relatable leader, Morales fostered support for his presidency by appealing to the air of discontent among the indigenous majority of the population. He pledged on the campaign trail to enshrine the rights of the indigenous people of Bolivia in a new constitution (ibid), and as the title of the party suggests, make cogent moves towards Socialism. Nevertheless, throughout the now-nine years of his tenure, critics from the harder left current have emerged claiming that Morales and the MAS have not kept the promises that were made on the campaign trail, and have forgone the opportunities for substantial change, settling for moderate reformism over revolution (Webber, 2011).
Of the esteemed critics such as Sven Harten and Luis Tapia, Jeffery Webber takes the most condemning standpoint in his interpretation of the MAS and Morales, insisting that since elected they have deserted their revolutionary gusto and have resolved to implement moderate reforms and preserve the capitalist foundations in Bolivia. He contends that many supporters of the Morales government are disillusioned as to what the MAS actually represent and the apparent contradictions that have emerged.
For Webber, who claims to hold a “responsible perspective, authentically in solidarity with the popular struggles for socialism and indigenous liberation” (Webber, 2011: p2), the period between 2000 and 2005 is described as a “revolutionary epoch in which mass mobilisation from below and state crisis from above opened up the opportunity for fundamental, transformative structural change to the state and society” (ibid). However, his extensive analysis suggests that the MAS proceeded to discard the potential for revolutionary structural change and instead settle for a modest push beyond neoliberal orthodoxies as ‘moderate reformism’. He bases these assertions on such things as the supposed failures of economic transformations, nationalisations, redistribution policies and attempts at sustainable development and industrialisation (Salman, 2012), citing examples to emphasize that the MAS did not represent the more radical popular rebellion such as the Huanuni mine affair wherein the MAS administration opted to oppose the miners who demanded nationalisation so not to warn off foreign investment, as well as many others (ibid).
Ultimately, these things, among many others, could be a result of the inherent contradiction that has led to the meagre attempts at reform, stemming from the institutional context and the shift towards electoral politics (Hines, 2011) which inevitably presents a clash of interests when an administration, supposedly bent on pushing towards socialism, operates within a neoliberal, democratised framework. It is this that Webber claims has played a substantial role in the MAS retaining “its core faith in the capitalist market as the principle engine of growth and industrialisation” (Webber, 2012: p232) and implementing ‘reconstituted neoliberalism’ having made no real attempt to remove or disassemble the capitalist economic and political basis, and limiting the potential for popular movements and significant social change.
Naturally, many other commentators hold opinions along similar lines. As a Bolivian who had once had intimate involvement with key ideological aspects of many currently implemented policies, Luis Tapia offers a political-philosophical reflection of how he believes the Morales administration have again, not delivered what was implied and promised (Salman, 2012). What appears to be a common thread and prevailing sentiment among Morales’ critics is that Bolivia’s prior revolutionary potential was wasted and has now subsided.
Esteemed and respectable analyses such as Webber’s warrant appreciative consideration, as most would certainly agree that Bolivia undoubtedly remains a capitalist nation which is exhibiting no considerable maturation into socialism. However, not all share such a pessimistic outlook. Some would argue that Webber and others along similar lines are “measuring the Bolivian government against an impossible standard, against the ideal program of a hypothetical mass socialist movement” (Riddell, 2011). For some, emphasis and support should instead be placed on the accumulative, tangible achievements of the MAS with moves that have been made towards “national sovereignty, social progress, and effective action on global warming” (ibid), as opposed to adamant criticism over the lack of implementation of an absolute socialist regime outright.
The ‘refounding’ of Bolivia as a plurinational state and rewriting the constitution to enshrine the rights of the indigenous majority who have historically been marginalised against formidable odds are regarded by many as a significant accomplishment in and of itself. Despite the lack of a socialist revolution, some would argue that a “political revolution” has taken place, in that the MAS coming into power simply represents a sufficiently profound change in the form of substituting political elites and “shifting the hegemonic balance of forces in Bolivia more to the side of the subaltern classes” (Fidler, 2013). This perspective embodies a much more positive, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ outlook than the harder leftist critics.
Many who fall into this category tend to examine Morales’ active policies and actions to reveal the more positive aspects of his regime. For example, cited by Riddell (2011) in response to Webber, Bolivia led the meeting of 50 governments in Cochabamba in 2010, a gathering that was distinctly anti-capitalist, in that it rejected the imperialist-imposed Copenhagen accord that produced no positive results. It promoted the ‘rights of mother earth’ against the effects of climate change, and encouraged action to be taken by ordinary people as opposed to the governments and corporations that have contributed the most to potentially cataclysmic climate change, creatively applying an indigenous perspective to this crisis. Even Webber acknowledges that this was “a genuine step forward for the construction of international, eco-socialist networks” (Riddell citing Webber, 2011).
This (the Cochabamba meeting) in itself is perceived as symbolic of Bolivia and the MAS’ goal for sovereignty (Riddell, 2011), and is but one example of steps taken by Morales and the MAS cited to warn off U.S. imperial intrusion, others include the refusal to accept any more loans from the IMF or World Bank, ending dependency on such institutions; rejecting U.S. drug policy to reinforce the indigenous importance of cultivating coca leaves; and the decision to leave the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA); as Riddell asserts, “Bolivia’s campaign to free itself from U.S. tutelage and assert national sovereignty is an outstanding achievement, which was spearheaded by the Morales government” (2011). Critics such as Webber would certainly claim that this perspective is naïve, and that the underlying capitalist roots remain strong which is indicated by the MAS’ policies, yet for others it is the small, tangible wins that have impacted the country in a positive way that really matter, and present hope for the possibility of more substantial change in the future. After all, since his initial election in 2005 Morales and the MAS have won 6 consecutive elections, two of which were presidential, seeing a 10% increase in poll majority; upon doing so Morales became the first leader in the history of Bolivia to secure two consecutive electoral victories and rule democratically and stably for an unrivalled period of 8 years (Petras, 2013). Based on the accounts from the harder left current that criticise Morales for abandoning the pursuit of socialism and settling for moderate reformism in spite of the views of those that encouraged his victory, questions arise as to why Morales is still so popular in Bolivia and how his presidency has been sustained.
One author for the Centre for Research on Globalisation, based on his interpretation the MAS’ policies, contends that “a brief survey of his ideological pronouncements, foreign policy declarations and economic policies highlights a very astute political regime which successfully manipulates radical rhetoric and applies orthodox economic policies with a populist style of politics which insures repeated electoral victories and an unprecedented degree of political stability and continuity” (Petras, 2013). According to him the key to Morales’ success has been his ability to implement orthodox economic policies while building a political and social coalition (ibid). What this implies is that Morales has made just enough of the right political and economic moves to ensure support from both the left and right, yet ultimately uphold the status quo of neoliberal capitalism in Bolivia, utilising his unique position as an indigenous Indian to essentially manipulate his huge base of support with near impeccable execution, making use of the remarkable leaderships skills that allowed him to come to prominence through the coca-growers union. Based on Petras’ analysis, that can be the only explanation as to why the MAS remain in power in what this author ironically calls ‘the most radical conservative regime’.
Unfortunately, the more positive outlook in this debate is seemingly scarce, with the negative interpretations coming from far and wide. As for some of the cocaleros themselves, in particular the Federation of Organic Coca Producers of Yundas Vandiola , the impact of the Morales administration has in fact been disproportionate generosity. Despite being promised by the former coca-growing President, support to the coca growing regions has proved to be discordant, with some areas and groups (Chapare in particular) being favoured and experiencing substantial development with others going unnoticed, often the ones who operate outside of the designated traditional regions yet have no other opportunities to make a living. With that, there is surprisingly little being done to help the poorest of the country, most of which continue to live below the poverty line (Oikonomakis, 2014), and as Morales continues to face vehement pressure from the international community to reduce coca cultivation, this issue is likely to worsen.
The poor coca growers who have spoken out about this issue serve to substantiate the claims of the critics and cynics who claim that despite the radical rhetoric and illusory agenda, Bolivia remains a neoliberal government like any other, favouring neoliberal economic and political strategies that often don’t consider a large percentage of the poorest people who represent the basis upon which Morales came to power.
Unquestionably, changes are happening in Bolivia under the Morales administration, perhaps not on the scale that might have been anticipated by some, but arguably positive changes nonetheless. But is this just part of a strategy to defend the status quo of neoliberalism in Bolivia? Many would contend that it is, as the critical and condemning outcries overshadow the more modest and seemingly naïve, positive voices. Many of the careful analyses and apparently authentic perspectives claim to see the MAS with Morales at the helm for what it is, a noticeably astute regime that has managed to justify and maintain orthodox neoliberal economic and political practices with radical socialist rhetoric. Or, in fact, the apparent majority of social commentators and scholars could be wrong and Morales could be biding his time, securing substantial economic development until the country is ripe for a socialist revolution, at which point he will initiate it. Theories like this certainly do exist, but only time will tell whether they are accurate or an idealistic miscalculation.
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