A Year of Evo: The Challenges of Governing a Revolution

Source: Democracy Center

It really was a dramatic and hopeful beginning that cold January weekend a year ago when Bolivia got a new President.

It really was a dramatic and hopeful beginning that cold January weekend a year ago when Bolivia got a new President.

Atop thousand-year-old, pre-Inca ruins at Tiahuanaco, Evo Morales stood dressed in colorful indigenous vestiges that took museum curators to assemble. In a ceremony that hadn’t been held in 500 years, he received a blessing of his powers from leaders of the indigenous communities of Bolivia’s highlands. His formal inauguration before the Bolivian Congress the next day drew nearly a dozen heads of state, from Chile to Slovenia. Knock-off copies of the new president’s red and blue horizontal striped sweater sold briskly on the Internet. His picture graced page one of the Washington Post. "Evo Mania" took Bolivia and the world by storm.

In the year since, Bolivia has become a global travel destination for journalists, filmmakers, and political seekers who think they might find some kind of new democracy in the making here. If they look with open eyes they can see close-up some hard lessons about the challenge of converting people’s hopes into political reality.

Gas Wars and Rewriting The National Magna Carta

When Morales was elected in December 2006, with a historic majority that was twice that of any president in decades, he had a clear mandate from the Bolivian people to do two things. The first was to reverse, full-speed, twenty years of market-driven economic reforms that had privatized much of the nation’s resources – from water to gas – into foreign corporate hands. The second was to initiate a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the nation’s constitution and its most fundamental political rules.

Last May 1, on International Workers’ Day, Morales stepped out onto the balcony of the Presidential Palace in La Paz – just across from where a predecessor had been hung to death from a lamppost sixty years before – to deliver on promise number one. Before a massive crowd cheering from below, Morales announced a presidential decree "nationalizing" the vast oil and gas reserves that had been privatized into the hands of corporations like Enron a decade before. "For more than 500 years, our resources have been pillaged," Morales declared. "This has to end now." Then, in a grand gesture that was pure domestic political photo-op, Morales sent Bolivian troops to the nation’s gas fields to "protect" them.

Foreign media declared that Bolivia had "seized" the assets of foreign companies. Others declared that Morales had "been conned by Castro and Chavez". From afar it all looked pretty radical. But closer up the plan was mostly moderate stuff – buying back a majority stake in the pieces of the energy industry that Bolivia sold off far too cheap in the 1990s; upping taxes on foreign oil companies; and renegotiating contracts to get a fair prices for the nation’s wealth under the ground. Confiscation and seizure it wasn’t.

Nor has it proven easy. Morales has struggled, and stumbled, in his effort to put together the cash needed to get the government back into the energy business and to get a solid team of competent and honest people in place to manage it all. Negotiations with foreign firms have been difficult. He also faces fiery opposition from the country’s eastern states where the gas and oil resides and where residents want to keep a big share of the wealth that comes from it. Nevertheless, gas revenue to the public treasury is up and, albeit slowly, things are changing.

Morales’ efforts to deliver on promise number two, the Constituent Assembly, have been no less turbulent. Last July’s election to pick delegates to that Assembly was swept by Evo and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party with 55% of the vote, twice that of his nearest rival. But 55% is not two thirds, and two thirds is the number of votes that MAS agreed would be required for the Assembly to act, when it negotiated the deal last year with opponents to start the process.

When MAS and its opposition – the latter, none too keen on rewriting the constitution to begin with – started stalling out even on procedural issues, MAS declared that only the final proposal needed two thirds and set about to run things with its simple majority. MAS opponents, especially those same civic groups from the oil-rich east, cried power grab and began organizing the kinds of mass protests and general strikes that Morales used to help organize against his predecessors.

Gas and the Constituent Assembly dominated Bolivian politics during Evo’s first year in power and they are likely to dominate his second year as well.

Land, Mines, Coca and Rhetoric on Fire

But those issues were clearly not the only points of national combustion last year. A Morales land reform decree – aimed at giving titles and a bit of aid to some of the country’s millions of landless peasants – sparked fear among both big landowners, who could be affected, and small ones who will never be. In September, Bolivian police killed two coca growers during an eradication operation, even as Morales seeks to open up foreign markets for products made with the green leaf he held aloft during his speech before the UN General Assembly. In October, rival groups of miners at the country’s largest tin deposit went to war against each other with thrown sticks of dynamite, leaving 16 dead.

Watching all this and interpreting it is tricky work. Ex-military leaders talk of possible "civil war." Morales allies warn of a potential "coup." Journalists call to ask me if Bolivia will suffer a political meltdown.

Anyone who thought that the transformation of political power underway here would be quiet or easy was not paying attention. High expectations among people used to having low ones, combined with the determination by others to protect long-standing privilege, are an explosive mix.

And to be honest, sometimes Morales makes things harder than he needs to. When he sent his Vice President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, to Washington to lobby for a renewed trade pact on textiles, Evo undermined the trip with announcements at home that the US was launching a conspiracy against him. His passionate declarations about indigenous power "that will last 500 years" leaves those who don’t claim Aymara, Quechua, Uru and Guarani roots wondering what place they have in the new Bolivia. Morales strikes a good many of his fellow Bolivians as arrogant and arrogance married with political power makes people understandably nervous.

Bolivia spent 2006 at a crossroads and it heads into 2007 still there.

The Bolivian elite, which has held power for decades, sees the Morales presidency, not as a turn of history, but as someone else getting their turn, just as the old parties have swapped power for decades, always following the same basic economic and political course. Morales and his backers see things a lot differently. They see this moment in Bolivia as the equivalent of Nelson Mandela and the ANC taking over the reins in South Africa in 1994 – a new constitution, a new weave of power, a new nation.

After Evo’s first year in office his critics on the left, who want deeper change and want it faster, are more pessimistic than they were that January morning when Morales stood at Tiahuanaco. His conservative opposition is more openly hostile than it was a year ago and it is digging in for battle. The majority of Bolivians in the middle are getting more impatient for change and it shows in Morales’ declining poll numbers.

Yes, governing is harder than some of those doing it here thought it would be, and governing Bolivia is especially hard. But, this nation is clearly on a very different course than it was before Morales took power, enough to give real hope still to many who have waited for hope, stuck on the nation’s margins for a very long time.

This article was originally published in the Democracy Center’s Blog From Bolivia. 

The Democracy Center, based in Cochabamba Bolivia and San Francisco California, works globally to advance human rights through a combination of investigation and reporting, training citizens in the art of public advocacy, and organizing international citizen campaigns.