Evo Morales remains popular despite corruption charges

Bolivia’s government entered 2013 on an optimistic note. Socialist-oriented projects, aimed at shoring up national independence and protecting indigenous rights, seemingly were on track. Yet the specter of governmental corruption had materialized.

Opinion surveys show that President Evo Morales, overwhelming victor in two presidential elections and one recall vote, enjoys a 64 percent approval rating. As of early 2012, poverty had fallen from 61 percent of Bolivians in 2007 to 49 percent early in 2012. Extreme poverty fell 20 percent during 2012. Bolivia’s five percent economic growth rate for 2012 will repeat in 2013, say observers. Exports are up, and Bolivia’s international monetary reserves reached a new $14 billion high.

Recognition of such achievements vies with acclaim Morales receives as an indigenous president heading an indigenous majority nation and from his advocacy for environmental integrity and for action against climate change. Morales’ presentation December 21, 2012, of a “Manifesto of the Island of the Sun” is a case in point.

Tens of thousands of indigenous people were waiting on an island in Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca as a facsimile of a traditional Indian sailing vessel approached carrying Morales in indigenous regalia. He began: “This Island is where time began and history began with the sons of the Sun. But then darkness fell with the arrival of foreign invaders. […] we proclaim the end of that age of darkness and ‘non-time’ and the beginning of the age of light […] Once again it is time for the peoples of the world, social movements, and all those who have been marginalized, discriminated against or humiliated to unite, organize, mobilize, become aware and rise up.”

Morales offered “ten ways to confront capitalism and start building a culture of life.” They were: rebuild democracy, transferring power to the poor; build human and social rights; “decolonize our peoples and cultures” to build a “communitarian socialism of living well;” and protect the environment.  He called for sovereignty over natural resources, food sovereignty, alliances against interventionism, and development of knowledge for all.  He seeks a “global institutional union of peoples” and “holistic economic development.” 

The backdrop to the event timed with the winter solstice, however, was less enticing. It turns out that prosecutors, judges, and the police have engaged in corruption throughout Morales’ presidency. High officials are in jail and now some of Morales’ own ministers are implicated.

The government announced last month that two “ministers of the presidency” and a former “minister of government” are being investigated. As of late November, a dozen judicial officials and prosecutors had been jailed, among them Fernando Rivera who was responsible for the 18 month jailing of U. S. citizen Jacob Ostreicher. The Brooklyn native apparently relied upon drug traffickers to fund large land holdings and rice-farming operations. His recent release came about though the intervention of actor Sean Penn and U.S. congresspersons.

Confiscation and selling off of Ostreicher’s properties epitomize one category of corruption. Wielding new powers, officials have confiscated contraband, properties financed through drug dealings, assets of foreign corporations, and land delivered to the state under agrarian reform. Truckers, managers, and other employees of those targeted were seen as complicit. 

Confiscated assets are ripe for profitable sell-offs once bosses and underlings are unable within 15 days to prove their activities are legal. Transnational corporations and even property-rich right-wingers, eager to accommodate a potentially confiscatory left-wing government, hand over assets in a spirit of cooperation.

According to Jorge Lora Cam, source of much of this information, official corruption is widespread. The “Minister of Transparency in August 2012 reported 8,000 ongoing judicial processes for corruption, but [so far] only 100 prisoners.” The same ministry revealed in December 2010 that, “between 2006 and 2010, 71 accusations of corruption were received involving 568 functionaries.” Cam suggests officials of former regimes serving local and international oligarchs were well versed in corruption and their influence persists.

Meanwhile, the government continues with its socialist agenda. On December 29, Morales announced nationalization of four companies controlled by Spain’s Iberdrola Corporation: two electricity distribution centers, one electrical services enterprise, and an investment company. Bolivia’s National Electricity Corporation will operate these companies plus another nationalized in May, 2012. Morales cited high fees charged rural customers as justifying the take-over. 

Nevertheless, international bankers in October spent $4.5 billion on Bolivian bonds sold at low interest rates to finance infrastructure projects. Foreign markets and foreign investment are envisioned too as Bolivia’s lithium industry takes shape. Morales was present January 4 at the Uyuni salt flats at opening ceremonies for the country’s first lithium production plant, state-owned. Bolivia possesses large deposits of lithium, essential in the manufacture of batteries used in electric cars, cell phones and laptop computers.

On the Island of the Sun, Morales denounced “this age of violence against human beings and nature.” He called for “a new age -an age where human beings and Mother Earth are one.” Going into specifics, Jorge Lora Cam wants “the exercise from below of practices marked by solidarity, participation, transparency, and social control. That’s the only way society can eradicate Mafioso groups and networks. [Otherwise] the fundamental rights of the indigenous and people in general will be ignored.”

Photo: Bolivian President Evo Morales (CC)


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

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.