Bolivian President Evo Morales seeks fourth term, courts controversy
Bolivia President Evo Morales | AP

Bolivian President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera are preparing for a fourth six-year term at the head of Bolivia’s socialist government. Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) on December 4 authorized the participation of their Movement toward Socialism party in Bolivia’s first-time-ever primary elections set for January 27, 2019. The general elections take place in October 2019.

In an article Dec. 9, the New York Times blames Morales for undermining democracy and for alienating indigenous peoples affected by the building of dams and by oil and natural gas extraction. Seemingly the Times was reasserting Bolivia’s membership in the U.S – defined Latin American club of failed socialist states.

There was no mention of life expectancy extended, infant mortality reduced, per capita income tripled, or of extreme poverty reduced to 16.8 percent of Bolivians, down from 38 percent. Bolivia’s annual economic growth exceeds that of other South American nations. Bolivia once was the region’s poorest nation.

Morales is the indigenous president of a majority indigenous nation. Now indigenous peoples participate in governing at the national level and govern their own autonomous regions. No longer do European-descended ruling classes enjoy uncontested economic sway. Morales has enjoyed impressive support as evidenced by electoral majorities of 54 percent in 2005, 67 percent in 2009, and 63 percent in 2014.

Traditional economic elites – large-scale farmers, bankers, mine-owners, and oil and natural gas impresarios – are aggrieved, however.  As pointed out by Stansfield Smith writing for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs: “By the end of 2013 the state-owned portion of the economy reached 35%, double that of previous neoliberal governments. The state has become the main generator of wealth, and public investment amounted to over $5 billion in 2016, compared to a mere $629 million in 2006.” Nationalization extends to the gas and oil, telecommunications, water, electricity, and mining sectors.

Argentinean analyst Atilio Boron has detailed U.S. interventionist maneuvers on behalf of the privileged classes in Bolivia. The Morales government, responding to them, expelled the U.S. ambassador and Drug Enforcement Agency in 2008 and the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2013.

The TSE’s action triggered anti-Morales agitation. Protest demonstrations emerged in nine Bolivian cities. The Catholic Church claimed the Tribunal “had cast doubt on the foundations of democracy.” The seven opposition parties competing in upcoming elections each represent neo-liberal interests and are unlikely to unite. Former president Carlos Mesa, defeated by Morales in 2005, heads one of them.

President Morales is vulnerable to attacks on his plans for a fourth term. His government suffered defeat in a February 2016 national referendum seeking to overturn a constitutional term-limit provision. But with Bolivia’s Constitutional Court deciding in the president’s favor on November 27, 2017, he regained the opportunity to compete for a fourth term. The Court ruled that under international law – specifically the 1969 American Convention of Human Rights known as the “Pact of San José” – any limitations on the right to vote or be elected imposed by a national constitution give way to similar rights that are internationally recognized.

Judges sitting on the Constitutional Tribunal are elected. Most of them are allied to Morales’ political party. One critic sees a “long trail of opaque and hidden government interventions in a crisis-ridden Constitutional Court, which is part of the patronage system of a regime in crisis.”

The opposition’s propensity for relying on extreme methods to work its will showed up in connection with the February 2016 referendum. Days ahead of that vote the media trumpeted reports that Gabriela Zapata, an employee of a Chinese company, had enriched herself in the company’s dealings with the government. She was held up as a protégée of President Evo Morales. Supposedly she had given birth to his child. It was a scandal that, according to many, led to Morales’ defeat in the referendum.

Zapata is serving a ten-year prison term. After the vote it became clear that the story of Morales’ involvement was false. The plotters even “rented” a young boy from his parents to serve as a stand-in for a non-existent child.  Vice President García Linera claimed that former president Tuto Quiroga and impresario Samuel Doria Medina participated in the scheme. Bolivian journalist Carlos Valverde was the first to report that Morales and Zapata had produced a child. Previously Valverde had met with U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Peter Brennan.

Revealing commentary has emerged. One reporter refers to a “fragmented opposition with neoliberal policies looking to destabilize the government.”  Another cites “destabilizing plans aimed at generating a social convulsion.” The idea of destabilization is reminiscent of scenarios created in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and formerly in Chile to render those societies ungovernable. Destabilization and outlandish scheming replace regular politics.

So far Bolivia’s socialist government stays the course. A recent report projects “public investment for 2019 at $6.51 billion dollars. With growth in industry and agriculture – 17 percent and 12 percent of the GDP, respectively – Bolivia’s economy will have grown by 4.5 percent in 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF points to agricultural production and a second wage bonus as having fostered growth. Annual economic growth between 2004 and 2017 was 4.8 percent. Yet growth will soon moderate due to reduced currency reserves and a high external debt load. As 2018 ends, inflation remains at two percent.

In 2019 1,061, 287 adults over 60 years of age will collectively receive $567 million as a “dignity pension.” That’s 1.4 percent of the national budget. Those lacking a regular pension will receive $43 per month; pensioners will receive $36 per month. The Juancito Pinto program will gain funding worth $65 million to provide each primary and secondary school student up to $28 annually to facilitate school attendance. One program to prevent maternal and infant mortality and another to subsidize prenatal care will receive $27 million and $19 million, respectively. The 2019 national budget allocates 7.6 percent for education and 7.1 percent for health care. Only 5.5 percent of Bolivians between 18 and 25 years of age are unemployed. (Youth unemployment in Spain is presently 34 percent, in Greece 43 percent.)


CONTRIBUTOR

W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and now lives in rural Maine. He practiced and taught pediatrics for 35 years and long ago joined the Cuba solidarity movement, working with Let Cuba Live of Maine, Pastors for Peace, and the Venceremos Brigade. He writes on Latin America and health issues for the People's World.

 

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