The government of Bolivian President Evo Morales is seeking popular approval for a referendum that would, by modifying Bolivia’s constitution, enable Morales and Vice-President Álvaro García Linera to stand for re-election twice rather than once. The vote takes place on February 21st.
Over ten years, Morales and his supporters have molded a socialist and anti-imperialist government whose future will be affected by the outcome. Morales is Bolivia’s longest serving president and first indigenous one.
Defenders of the old order in Bolivia, U.S. officials among them, have mobilized to defeat the referendum. Success on their part would surely trigger concerns that Bolivia may be joining Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil as nations where formerly bold progressive political movements are now beleaguered.
Former Cuban National Assembly head Ricardo Alarcon testified recently to the achievements of Bolivia’s present government: “Never has so much been done, in such a short time, for the emancipation of a people subjugated for centuries.”
The government has reduced poverty by 25 percent, extreme poverty by 50 percent. The minimum wage has increased 87.7 percent. The state’s budget for healthcare rose from $195 to $600 million between 2005 and 2012. Death rates for babies and mothers giving birth are down. Nationalization of hydrocarbon extraction enabled funding for such changes.
The average annual economic growth rate over ten years has been 5.1 percent, the best in the region. Now internal economic demand is “the principal motor of economic growth.” Inflation in Bolivia is the second lowest in South America.
And, according to Argentinian journalist Juan Manuel Karg, 40 percent of the population receives social security benefits – retirees, students, and mothers of young children. The government has refashioned 700 education centers and enrolled 955,000 people in literacy programs. In 1992 owners of large land holdings controlled almost 40 percent of all land. By 2015, however, the state had charge of 24.6 percent of land, and indigenous peoples, 23.9 percent. Owners of small and mid-sized holdings controlled 18.2 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively.
Karg adds that “Bolivia has become an influential voice in Latin America,” especially in alliances dedicated to regional unity. Morales himself has gained worldwide attention as an advocate for sustainability and environmental protection. Additionally, most Bolivians are indigenous and the multi-national Bolivian state – as per Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution – ensures indigenous representation in parliament, judicial autonomy for indigenous peoples, and a measure of self-government.
But good news like this is hardly on the agenda of a right-wing opposition mobilized to defeat the upcoming referendum. Big landowners, manufacturers, and oil industry heads are backing the campaign. They are alleging governmental corruption and ties to narco-trafficking. Earlier during Morales’ tenure, many of those forces resorted to violence and racism as they propelled a separatist project aimed at regaining control of Bolivia’s productive eastern territories.
Buenos Aires academician Atilio Borón diagnoses a revived anti-Morales conspiracy. “Its epicenter is in Washington, D.C.,” he says. His claim is that the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, affiliates of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), are “financing opposition political activities.” These U.S. agencies arrange for the “arrival of agents and advisors ready to instruct youths, women, and indigenous people on themes relating to democracy.”
Borón reports that the U.S. embassy in La Paz released $200,000 toward turning back the referendum. Borón names U.S. agents and the right-wing Bolivian politicians they are involved with. In December 2015, the Bolivian government expelled U.S. Vice Consul Ari Avidar; as a CIA agent he allegedly was holding “clandestine meetings with leaders of social movements.” A report in 2015 described a recent sting operation carried out by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) resulting in indictments against Bolivian military and police officials.
President Morales in 2008 expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg and the DEA; he accused both of trying to undermine his government. According to Borón, “between 2003 and 2014 the NED dispensed $7.7 million to 20 institutions in Bolivia, always with political objectives.” The sum included a half million dollars paid to Bolivia’s National Press Association.
An International Committee of Latin American intellectuals, artists, and political writers recently announced its support for Morales in the upcoming referendum. In January the Congress of the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB), the country’s largest labor organization, backed the “struggle to build a new socialist society,” called for “an alliance of peasants and workers,” and expressed support for the “constitutional modification.”
The stakes are high. Ricardo Alarcón recalls Tupak Katari. Spanish colonialists tortured and killed the indigenous leader in 1781, but not before he proclaimed, “I will die but I will return and be millions.” Alarcón suggests that “Evo and his people have converted that prophecy into a reality.”