Bolivia: Why is Evo Morales still so popular?
President Evo Morales (right) and vice-president Álvaro García Linera.
Introduced and translated by Richard Fidler, article by Fernando Molina
July 14, 2013 -- Life on the Left, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Bolivia’s achievements in recent years have inspired interest and solidarity among many on the left outside that country, and not just in Latin America. Conversely, the government of Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) has produced corresponding hostility from Washington and its allies.
But some of the harshest criticism has also come from some left critics, including a few foreign academics and Bolivia-based NGO activists. Readers of their accounts might wonder how it is that the Morales government still gets the popular support it clearly does in Bolivia.
The following article by a leading Bolivian journalist sheds considerable light on the matter. He focuses on the domestic scene — more particularly, the government’s economic and social reforms — and astutely explains both the accomplishments of the administration and the reasons for discontent on both the left and the right within the country.
His account pays less attention to another reason for the government’s popularity: the “refounding” of Bolivia as a plurinational state that for the first time in its 200-year history constitutionally recognises the languages and cultures of the indigenous peoples, the majority of its population, as well as the self-governing autonomy of its leading ethnic communities. He does indicate, however, some of the ways in which this “political revolution” has resulted in a profound “substitution of political elites” that has shifted the hegemonic balance of forces in Bolivia more to the side of the subaltern classes.
I am inclined to think the government’s popularity is also reinforced by its international policy, especially in Morales’ campaign to get the major world powers to assume their responsibility in facing up to the challenge of global climate change. Most recently, as well, the government has been one of the few to uphold the right to asylum of Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency whistle blower, in retaliation for which Evo Morales was singled out by Washington earlier this month when it got no less than four European governments to refuse landing rights to Morales while he was returning home from Moscow, thus jeopardising the life of the Bolivian president.
At this point I am not convinced by the author’s claim that the revolutionary potential of Bolivia’s “process of change” has largely dissipated. However, we can leave it to future events to determine the accuracy of this observation. The article is a valuable summary of the government’s legacy to date.
This article appears in the May-June issue of Nueva Sociedad, a bimonthly journal published by the social-democratic Friedrich Ebert Foundation and now edited by Pablo Stefanoni, an Argentine journalist and former editor of the Bolivian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.
Once again, my thanks to Federico Fuentes and Cristina Rojas for reviewing my draft translation.
Why is Evo Morales still popular?
The strengths of the MAS in the construction of a new order
By Fernando Molina
May-June 2013 -- Nueva Sociedad, No. 245 -- Last January Evo Morales celebrated seven years in power, which already puts him on the short list of governments with the longest mandates in a history characterised by political and social instability. Notwithstanding the wear and tear of his administration, the Bolivian president maintains an approval rating of at least 50%. Why this strong standing, which shields him for the time being against any of his potential electoral rivals? This article, citing statistics and socio-political analysis, explains the economic, political and social strengths of the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism, MAS) in an economic context that was unimaginable a decade ago.
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Last March 28, while celebrating yet another anniversary since the founding of the government party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), Evo Morales and Álvaro García Linera launched the effort to be re-elected for a second time as president and vice-president of Bolivia in 2014. Given the legal restrictions that might preclude this hope, special authorisation allowing their candidacies had been granted by the Tribunal Constitucional. It is certain, however, not only that the MAS and its two candidates will be present in the elections but that they will be the axis around which all the election campaigns will turn.
After six [sic] years of government, the governing party lacks the exciting aura of novelty that surrounded it at the beginning of the so-called “process of change”. Broadly speaking, the change has already occurred and changing has ceased to be the driving force that it was between 2002 and 2009. The major contribution of the MAS to innovation in Bolivia has already been made: the future of this party now depends on its potential to represent the continuity of the laws, institutions and policies that it devised and applied during those years.
However, this statement is problematic. Today the ideological struggle in Bolivia continues to revolve around the question of change. Was it a promise fulfilled, and to what extent? What is the real nature of the transformation of the country, and how should it be defined — socialist, nationalist, state capitalist? That is what drives the political debate, because how these questions are answered depends on the position that each party occupies in relation to the government, whether an ally, a critical follower, an adversary or an enemy.
An indication that Bolivia is entering a new stage is that the discussion is now a projection not toward the future, as it was for so long, but toward the past. Since its revolutionary potential has largely dissipated, the Bolivian process has entered a “retrospective stage” focused on making a balance sheet and drawing on the “heroic years”.
What remains is the capital accumulated by the MAS during and thanks to its administration of government. This article will describe this legacy — on which the new MAS election campaign will be erected — in order to demonstrate that it is not a house of cards, as most of the opposition argues. Our hope is to make an objective evaluation of what has occurred from a very specific standpoint: the construction of a new order. That is why such measures as the creation of relatively unsustainable state enterprises, debatable decisions in terms of achieving national development, are praised for their ability to insert particular population groups in the state apparatus, avoid civil conflicts and secure the presence of the state in the territory and markets with the goal of promoting local producers. And so on ...
For those to the left and the right of the MAS, the transformations of these years have been more rhetorical than real, more symbolic than material, more a work of chance than of will, and have produced more errors than successes. The various oppositions coincide in this diagnosis, although they argue it differently.
For the left opposition, the achievements of this regime do not correspond to the initial dreams. It has fallen back on the extractivist developmentalism and populist nationalism of the 1950s. The progress that has been made in the fight against social inequality is much less than what could have been achieved in some other way. The means employed have ultimately converted the MAS into a “traditional” party, that is, vertical, demagogic, caudillista.
For the right opposition, on the other hand, the problem began with the dreams: statism is a means for changing the model of redistribution, to favour those sectors close to the government (the process hampering private activity), but not to confront the country’s structural problems. The empowerment of the indigenous has been symbolic, and has been restricted to groups close to the governing party, since the flesh-and-blood indigenous continue to confront a lack of economic opportunities, which are ultimately the ones that count. The economy is doing well as a result of the boom in international prices of petroleum and other minerals, which has boosted domestic consumption of imported goods and of those that can only be produced in the country (“non-tradables”), but Bolivia still gets most of its income from exports of two or three varieties of raw materials. And the government is squandering the extraordinary income it receives in projects devoid of economic rationality.
These criticisms have the same defect. They emphasise what the government is not doing or has not become, but they do not faithfully observe what it has done and what it represents. Hence the motive and the need to write these lines.
The Evo Morales government coincides with the best economic moment in Bolivian history. The existence of a causal relation between the two is doubtful, since the principal dynamo of the national bonanza is the high revenues from exports, which in a decade have increased from about $2 billion to around $10 billion. Those revenues, in turn, are due to the high international prices. However, the government must be credited with having prevented this income flow from being lost through a flight of capital, having nationalised the main export chain — gas, along with some mines and key foundries.
Also, owing to the policy of strengthening the national currency, and the fragility of international finances, investments in Bolivianos are the norm, as shown in the record holdings of deposits and credits (equivalent to $7.7 billion and $6.4 billion, respectively) with which the banking sector finished 2012. Bolivia has never before had such a high amount of international reserves, more than $14 billion, about 60% of its GDP.
With the flight of capital under control, capital has remained in the country and stimulated a strong growth in demand, which in some years largely (and in other years entirely) explains the growth in production, averaging 4.8% annually.
Demand has grown thanks to the expansion in public spending, from about $6 billion in 2005 to more than $20 billion. The state now has 50,000 more employees than it had in 2006 (an increase from 75,000 to 125,000). Public investment has increased six-fold in five years and now accounts for 11% of the GDP, while private foreign and national investments each account for 4%. This total investment of 19% of GDP is higher than what Bolivia has normally received (in the mid-1990s, at the height of the privatisations, the rate went to 16%).
Another major source of demand was the rise in domestic incomes as a result of the almost full employment enjoyed today by the population (above all owing to construction, which is expanding at a rate of 10% per year), the social policy budget and wage increases, which generally cover the official rate of inflation at about 5%. The minimum wage has risen 127%, a powerful boost to the most vulnerable sectors of the employed labour force: construction workers and maids.
Is this the actual inflation? People complain about the rise in the prices of food and transportation, which no doubt is higher than what is indicated by government figures. However, this discontent is counteracted by the increase in the number of employed persons in each family and the controls on prices of some products (flour, chicken, sugar, rice, bread and milk), which so far have been relatively successful. The government has allocated $395 million to stabilising the wholesale prices of flour, sugar, rice, hard yellow corn and wheat.
The “bonos” or conditional cash grants that the government gives to seniors, pregnant women and some groups of students cover 33% of the population, that is, 3.3 million people, with amounts from $28 to $340 per person per year. Up to now the MAS government has allocated $1.2 billion alone on the “Renta Dignidad”, the universal government pension granted to all those over the age of 60, about 900,000 persons.
The increase in the internal market has offered new opportunities to the informal market entrepreneurs, very numerous in a country with a very small formal economy. Many of them engage in smuggling, which is increasing along with the size of the economy notwithstanding the efforts of some bureaucratic (but so far known to be honest) customs officers. One study estimates that the merchandise that illegally crosses the border amounts to a fifth of the amount of legal imports. Applying this percentage to imports in 2012, the figure would be $1.85 billion or 7.4% of the GDP. As a result of this business, and of the drug trade (which is not discussed in the cited study), a lot of jobs have been established.
Other subsidies provided by the government to the population are:
- the freezing of electricity rates, which are set especially low for the poorer consumers (Tarifa Dignidad). The subsidy benefits 890,000 persons and costs more than $8.5 million in revenues to the electricity companies. These measures have kept Bolivian rates the lowest in Latin America, which they already were before the present government came into office.
- the application of the Tarifa Dignidad to the potable water service;
- the freezing of fuel prices at a cost of about $1 billion annually, or $100 per capita. This policy helps to control the level of transport fares, a major expenditure for the poorer population which spends 80% to 90% of its income on transportation and food purchases. At the end of 2011, in what many consider was its worst error, the government moved to suspend the fuel subsidy and the mass reaction was so overwhelming that it quickly had to retreat. Since that time a complex system of controls has operated to prevent the subsidy from stimulating gasoline smuggling across the borders and bleeding the public treasury.
- controlling the level of air travel fares and telecommunications rates through the presence in those markets of state-owned companies with decision-making powers (Boliviana de Aviación and Entel), which have performed this task among others.
- the elimination of the cost of documents citizens request from various state and private authorities such as birth certificates, high school completion certificates, occupational records, etc.
- a credit of $100 million to transport workers’ unions to import 2000 Chinese buses.
- the direct recruitment of 130,000 unemployed women (former beneficiaries of the Plan Nacional de Empleo de Emergencia – PLANE – the National emergency employment plan) to work on state projects such as reforestation in the Amazon jungle.
These measures and processes have managed to lower urban extreme poverty from 24% to 14%, and rural extreme poverty from 63% to 43%. At the same time, Bolivia has benefited from the phenomenon of an increase in the size of the Latin American middle class (those who receive incomes of more than $10 a day) by about 50 million in recent years.
Since this new middle class results not from an improvement in productivity but rather from a better distribution of income, it has a precarious existence and there is no assurance that it will not disappear later. However, its sudden appearance has changed the usual correspondence between class and ethnicity; in other words, there are increasingly more and more indigenous (and mestizos with a strongly indigenous physiognomy) who are experiencing a certain prosperity, altering the relationship of forces between the old “white” elite and the rest of the population, making unviable the racism of the elite and tending to psychologically empower all of the indigenous, including the poor.
The government has created a set of small state enterprises that do not appear to be very sustainable, such as a plant for manufacturing cardboard, or milk and fruit processors, etc. These initiatives have been criticised as inefficient and in some cases corrupt. However, these companies have the advantage of having been established in remote locations which gives them symbolic value, although it undermines their efficiency. With them, the state goes where it never went before and, in some cases, as in the companies that purchase gold, almonds, honey, etc. from small producers, tends to improve their situation. While these firms are not completely ruinous and the public treasury is in a position to sustain them, they support the idea that the government is winning the country’s economic sovereignty.
For the first time in history, Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB, the state hydrocarbons development company) is making extremely important investments with the national currency. Experts are sceptical about what will happen, for example, with the construction of a petrochemicals plant in Cochabamba that will cost $800 million and still has no secure market. However, until this negative prognosis has been verified in reality, this plant, and especially the domestic gas networks YPFB is installing in the major cities, satisfy the nationalist economic sentiment of the majority of the population (judging by opinion polls).
Other investments in infrastructure are also being made. Between 2001 and 2005, 887 kilometres of highways were built, but between 2006 and 2012 this figure doubled. Highway investment during this period rose to $2 billion, the highest level in the country’s history.
The Bolivian social substratum is a tightly woven set of indigenous and corporate organisations that express the demands of the population and, in part, substitute for the state institutions that are lacking in the rural areas and small towns.
This is a complex and diverse system that absorbs and channels most of the grassroots movements around public issues. Controlling it is fundamental in order to lead the country’s political mobilisation, including electorally, and for ensuring governability.
As is well known, the MAS is part of this structure. If we look at the rise of this party and the ideology it defends, it can be viewed as the return of corporativismo (that is, of a flexible type of collectivism [literally, the corporate spirit –Tr.]) to the political scene, after a decade — the 1990s — in which the liberal predominance purported to remove it in order to make way for a contractual model of society. For historical reasons, corporativismo is the “natural” form of Bolivian organisation, and that is why the principal strength of the MAS lies in its ideological and organisational coincidence with it.
The corporations serve to stimulate and channel disputes between groups with different interests. A political system based on them suffers from the factionalism and conflict that is intrinsic to them. However, the Bolivian corporations have encountered in the MAS a lasting and effective way of ensuring that their disputes do not compromise their strategic unity.
The success of the MAS in this sense is due to the historical and political dimension of what has been achieved up to now, to the ethnic solidarity that unites its ranks, to the practical need it has to align in opposition to the “enemy” etc. However, the most profound reason for this success is the general loyalty to Evo Morales, one of the most effective caudillos in Bolivian political history, which is full of eminent caudillos.
The MAS represents the simultaneous unity of corporativismo and of the Bolivian left behind an ideology and a leader. Thus, while there is constant conflict between its factions, it has not to this point gone beyond the framework constituted by the movement. Also, from its position in governmental office, the MAS carries on an active “management of unity” in various ways:
(a) The condemnation of disagreement, which can lead to the expulsion and isolation of dissidents in order to preclude their acting in an independent way. Early this year, vice-president García Linera deprived of their authority the members of the MAS who were criticising the party line, in particular the then chair of the Chamber of Deputies, Rebeca Delgado. The MASistas, he argued, are not freethinkers but revolutionaries and hence must adhere to the rules of “democratic centralism”. And if they don’t like this, they should leave.
Of course the MAS, as an organisation of social organisations, is far from applying “democratic centralism”… except against dissidents. So in the ceremony marking the anniversary of the MAS, referred to at the beginning of this article, Evo Morales said, “We must win back some compañeros who have gone astray. We must unite.”
(b) At the same time, the government gives different treatment to the social movements that confront it depending on whether they are considered allies or adversaries. If they are allies, the conflict is framed by the government as “creative tensions within the revolution” and it seeks to avoid an escalation of the protests by relying on the government’s relationship with the leaders, the popularity of government leaders among the potential mobilising forces, etc. And various concessions are made, provided that the government considers them acceptable.
When the conflict cannot be prevented in this way, the mobilised sector can become in the government’s perception an adversary, not an ally, and be treated differently. It will be publicly ridiculed, questions will be raised as to whether its intentions are simply to make demands or to raise a political challenge. And concessions will be made if and only when they are unavoidable. In many cases appeals are made to allied sectors to confront (and dissuade) the adversaries.
(c) As soon as it came to power, the MAS instituted the program “Bolivia cambia, Evo cumple” [Bolivia is changing, Evo delivers] that to date has spent $480 million (most of it funded by Venezuela) on 3900 small projects that are quickly executed with a visible result (e.g. construction) and accordingly a strong political impact in selected rural municipalities that meet a diversity of criteria: in some cases, because a mayor or social organisation makes a request and manages to persuade the president, in other cases because electoral support is sought in an adverse zone, or finally, because the distribution of projects is used to construct the political equilibrium that is needed precisely to guarantee unity.
This program is a direct tool of the “permanent campaign” in which Morales is engaged, visiting daily the most remote parts of the country to inaugurate football grounds with artificial grass, classrooms, union headquarters, markets, etc., to establish contact with the local leaders of the MAS, and to address the audience that has not yet been convinced. The program is clearly oriented to the maintenance and reproduction of power. It improves the image of the president, benefits allies, helps attract former opponents and coopt them and attract “clienteles” dazzled by the possibility of obtaining a tangible return in exchange for their political commitment.
At least $20 million of this program will be used in the construction of infrastructure and the purchase of assets for the unions, indigenous centrals and other corporate organisations. And although in some cases the projects were not finished or presented economic and technical irregularities, this has not necessarily affected the President’s reputation, since final responsibility lies in the hands of the local leaders who have in fact received the money for the projects.
No doubt, the Bolivian government does not belong “to the social movements”, as the official propaganda states. The major decisions are taken by the president, the cabinet and a small political leadership in which no more than two or three of the founders of the party participate. And there are few indigenous. However, the process has empowered the social movements, which have representatives in the three organs (powers) of the state, have a right of veto over some policies and certain appointments, provide state services (like entitlement to rights, processing of documents, etc.) in the rural areas, and have intimidated the old elites in the contention for land, which the indigenous and campesinos are beginning to win (as in the Chaco, for example).
The government’s role in producing this outcome has been considerable. If between 1996 and 2005 property titles were ratified and 9.3 million hectares registered, benefiting 174,000 persons, since 2005 this has been done on 55 million hectares to the benefit of 982,000 persons. The agrarian titles granted in 2012 alone are four times the total number granted in 1996-2005.
A fundamental mechanism in this empowerment is the coming into force of a law against racism, which has “denaturalised” racial discrimination, confining it to the private sphere.
During the last decade Bolivia has been going through what Marxists would characterise as a “political revolution”, that is, a substitution of political elites that has been quite thoroughgoing. Groups of different ethnic, class and political-ideological origins have replaced the dominant political strata of the past. It has been a peaceful substitution but aimed at the elimination and not the coexistence of the opposing side, and it has unfolded using both political and judicial methods. The members of the old political elite have lost the right to work in the public arena, in a sort of symbolic banishment. Businesspeople have been told “not to interfere in politics”. Some leaders have had to go into exile as a preventive measure, others have ended up in jail.
All of this, of course, has contributed to the transformation of the MAS into a sort of “state party” (outside of which political survival is very difficult), albeit lacking in the institutional density that this type of parties has had in other revolutionary experiences and while the opposition manages to retain local governments.
In addition to having the most powerful candidate, with an approval rating of over 50% (based on three things: awarding of projects, roads and cash; concern for the poorest; and socioeconomic transformation of the country), the governing party benefits from the new rules of political and election organising like the strict oversight by the Tribunal Electoral or the possibility of re-election, which in the last half-century was prohibited because — in a country without accountability — the government tended to become electorally unbeatable, which is what already happened in the 2009 elections. Or like the suspension of state funding to the parties, which ends up giving the lead over a competitor who relies on state assistance as opposed to others who hardly ever have to “pay out of their own pockets” the funds needed to conduct an election campaign.
However, the purpose of this article has been to show that the strength of the MAS does not derive solely from these political advantages, although the party has already taken advantage of them in the past and will surely do so again in 2014.
[Fernando Molina is a Bolivian journalist and writer. He received the King of Spain Prize for Iberian-American Journalism in 2012. He is the author of El pensamiento boliviano sobre los recursos naturales (Pulso, 2009) and other essays. His most recent book is La trayectoria teórica de Antonio Negri. De Marx al radicalismo posmoderno (Pazos Kanki, La Paz, 2012).
 The constitution of 2009 authorises only one re-election. One of its provisions states that Morales’ first term, prior to the approval of the new constitution, counts as such, and accordingly his triumph in 2009 should be considered as a re-election. However, the government’s interpretation is that since Evo Morales called early presidential elections in 2009, his first full term is the present one. The court also held that since the country had been “refounded” the first term is the present one (2010-2014).
 See, for example, Movimiento Sin Miedo, Tesis ideológicas, La Paz, 2012.
 Pedro Portugal, intervention in the international seminar “Los rostros de la democracía”, Tribunal Electoral Plurinacional/UNDP/Fundación Boliviana para la Democracía Multipartidaria, La Paz, 26 July 2011.
 Luis Arce, “Perspectivas de la economía boliviana”, paper presented at the Foro de Dirección en Banca y Microfinanzas: Nuevas Tendencias Regulatorias y Buen Gobierno Corporativo en el Sector Financiero, organised by the Asociación de Instituciones Especializadas en Microfinanzas, La Paz, 21 March 2013.
 The average residential rate in 2006 was 0.0614 dollars per kWh, while the weighted average in Latin America and the Caribbean was 0.115 dollars per kWh, according to the World Bank: “Benchmarking Data of the Electricity Distribution Sector in Latin America and Caribbean Region 1995-2005”. Six years later, the average Bolivian rate is 1.166 dollars. Source: Lidia Mamani, “Las tarifas eléctricas en tres regiones son las más costosas”, Página Siete, 25/3/2013.
 To gauge the political importance of prices in Bolivia, it must be kept in mind that the defeat of the left between 1985 and 2005, that is, for 20 years, was provoked by the hyperinflation that a “left” government proved unable to control in the early 1980s. Or that the political process that led the MAS to power began in 2000 with the famous “water war” in Cochabamba, which was triggered by a sharp rise in the rates charged for basic sanitary services.
 World Bank (WB), “Economic Mobility and the Rise of the Latin American Middle Class”, Washington, D.C., November 2012.
 Fundación Milenio, El estado de las empresas del Estado, Coloquio Económico No 23, Fundación Milenio, La Paz, November 2011.
 Proyecto de Análisis Político y Escenarios Prospectivos (Papep), 2010, cited in F. Molina, “El MAS en el centro de la política boliviana”, Mutaciones del campo político en Bolivia, UNDP, La Paz, 2010.
 Gobierno del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, Informe de gestión del Presidente Evo Morales, La Paz, 2012.
 According to the opposition leader Samuel Doria Medina, “the government entourage is constantly sending the message that businessmen are welcome if they don’t interfere in politics”. Interview in El Día, 24/9/2012.
 On September 9, 2012, an AFP dispatch reported that Yoriko Yakusawa, the United Nations representative in Bolivia, expressed his concern at the “accumulation of cases” involving critics of the government. “This is not a good message about democracy”, he stated. On September 18 of that year, according to a dispatch of the Agencia Nacional Fides, the Permanent Episcopal Council of the Catholic Church noted that “many people, inmates, exiles, political refugees are suffering because there is no guarantee of a fair trial, and because of delays in the hearing of cases. It is urgent that the exercise of justice not be subject to conditions of an economic, social or political type — not in the interest of impunity but in order to guarantee impartial trials that establish the truth of the facts.” The Episcopal Council called for amnesty for those accused or exiled on political grounds. We present those indicators because there is no study of Bolivian exile as a result of the political revolution. There are only records of the most notorious cases, that is, of politicians who have fled prosecutions of a distinct nature (who were tried for the repression in October 2003, or investigated for the formation of an armed militia in Santa Cruz in 2008, or tried for corruption and expelled from intermediate state institutions: the mayoralty in Potosí, the governorship in La Paz, Cochabamba and Tarija). On the other hand, there has been no systematic study of the hundreds of former officials and members of the old party system who have quietly left the country in a self-exile with economic undertones, to try to find a better life abroad.