Bolivia: Morales Reaches Two-Year Milestone

Exalted by the success of his social programmes, but harassed by opponents who are threatening to declare de facto autonomy in four of Bolivia’s nine departments, indigenous President Evo Morales completes two years of his mandate on Tuesday, a milestone the country’s three previous presidents failed to reach. (IPS) – Exalted by the success of his social programmes, but harassed by opponents who are threatening to declare de facto autonomy in four of Bolivia’s nine departments (provinces), indigenous President Evo Morales completes two years of his mandate on Tuesday, a milestone the country’s three previous presidents failed to reach.

The model of democratic and cultural revolution set in motion by Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) appears to have the stamina and strength to last for a long time to come. It does face a multifaceted opposition movement in the east of the country, which is rich in fertile land, oil and gas, timber and other natural resources.

Morales — an ethnic Aymara who has the support of President Fidel Castro of Cuba and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — celebrates the end of the second of the five years of his term of office on Tuesday.

This marks his attainment of 10 more months in government than rightwing former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, overthrown on Oct. 17, 2003 by a social rebellion led by indigenous people and campesinos (small farmers).

Carlos Mesa (2003-2005) — who as vice president took over the presidential sash from Sánchez de Lozada — remained in office for one year and seven months.

Mesa’s successor — president of the Supreme Court of Justice — Eduardo Rodríguez (2005), only served seven months as president before transferring power to Morales, who won an absolute majority with 53 percent of the vote in the elections on Dec. 18, 2005 and was sworn in on Jan. 22, 2006.

How much has the country changed since then? This question is frequently asked by visitors to Bolivia — the poorest country in South America — who are interested in the changes instituted by the first president in 26 years of democracy to stand up to local and trans-national private capital.

As the central achievement of his two years as president, Morales can point to the country’s income in 2001 of 188 million dollars from sales of natural gas and oil, and the quantum leap of that income to two billion dollars in 2007.

Income from natural gas and oil now represents just under one-fifth of gross domestic product (GDP), estimated at 11 billion dollars a year. Brazil and Argentina are Bolivia’s main customers for gas, and their demand is growing.

Just as the price of crude was approaching 100 dollars a barrel, the Morales administration nationalised its energy resources and renegotiated contractual terms with 12 powerful trans-national companies — including Brazilian oil giant Petrobras and others originating in Spain, the U.K., the U.S. and Argentina.

In spite of the remarkable increase in state revenues, Morales has come under fire from some leftwing analysts who complain that he did not fulfil the original demand of the social movements for the oil and gas installations to be confiscated, and the companies expropriated without compensation.

The president has tempered the demands of the radical left by using improved gas revenues to start social programmes to help low income families.

For the second consecutive year, 1.4 million school-age children received an annual payment of 26 dollars as an incentive to stay in school, and from the end of January a universal old-age pension of 26 dollars a month will be paid to 676,000 people over 60.

Another of the social plans implemented by the MAS government is medical care. Since 2006, some 100,000 people have had free eye surgery performed by Cuban eye specialists.

In the educational field, a hundred advisers sent by Havana organised a campaign which taught 600,000 people to read and write, using the Cuban "Yes, I Can!" literacy programme. Illiteracy, which still prevails among 200,000 Bolivians, is expected to be eradicated by September.

For the second year, GDP grew by four percent, while the balance of payments showed a surplus of 2.2 percent, the first time in 40 years that government accounts have been in the black, according to Morales.

However, Morales is criticised for maintaining the economic policies of previous rightwing governments. The statistics fall short of being the harbinger of the expected economic policy reforms, and there are no concrete measures, the head of the Centre for Research on Labour and Agrarian Development (CEDLA), Javier Gómez Aguilar, told IPS.

Apart from the change in the tax regime imposed on trans-national gas companies, and the modification of the agrarian reform law to expropriate idle land, there has been no economic policy reform, he said. "There is continuity in economic policy but the government lacks a strategy of its own," said Gómez.

In December the Constituent Assembly that had been meeting for 16 months finished its work with the approval of a new draft Bolivian constitution, which will be submitted to a referendum in 2008. Opposition members of the Assembly boycotted its proceedings in the final months.

The text approved by the Constituent Assembly, backed by government authorities and with a MAS majority, creates a unified, plural and decentralised state.

However, at the same time, the departmental (provincial) governments and the civic committees in the eastern provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija created autonomous statutes of their own, claiming independent administration of their income, natural resources and form of government, disregarding the constitutional text.

In the midst of celebrating the second year of his leftwing government, Morales held talks with the governors of all nine provinces to seek a political solution to the differences between the government and the eastern provinces.

He has an ace card in reserve: he may call a separate national referendum if the talks fail.

This referendum would serve as a vote of confidence in Morales and the nine governors. Those who obtain a lower proportion of the vote than that which elected them to power would resign.

While Gómez demands an independent economic policy, the head of the Federation of Private Employers of La Paz, Enrique García, told IPS that his members are anxious to obtain government backing to attract local and foreign private investment.

"The government should provide legal guarantees for these investments, in order to create a climate of trust among investors. This would improve the competitiveness of products with added value in the exports markets," he said.

Gómez is hoping for a favourable response from the government at an "extraordinary time" for the Bolivian economy, characterised by GDP growth, a satisfactory level of exports, and a favourable balance of payments because of the reduction of the external debt and the rise in remittances from abroad.