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Bolivia's Home-Grown President

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  • Robert Sterling
    Please send as far and wide as possible. Thanks, Robert Sterling Editor, The Konformist http://www.konformist.com Bolivia s Home-Grown President By Daphne
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 15, 2006
      Please send as far and wide as possible.

      Robert Sterling
      Editor, The Konformist

      Bolivia's Home-Grown President
      By Daphne Eviatar, TheNation.com
      Posted on January 7, 2006

      On its face, the election of Evo Morales to the presidency of
      Bolivia would seem like an enormous victory for the left -- another
      domino in the line of Latin American nations turning away from
      Washington Consensus-style economics to forge a path of its own. But
      the question remains whether the first indigenous president in
      Bolivia's history will be allowed -- by the Bolivian Congress or by
      the larger international financial and legal system -- to live up to
      his promises and fulfill the enormous expectations of his
      supporters. If not, Bolivia could face an even more unstable future.

      The symbolic value of a Morales victory cannot be overstated in a
      country where symbols represent the passions of a people mobilized
      to change what they see as 500 years of state oppression. Thus the
      wiphala -- the checkered rainbow flag of indigenous resistance --
      flew from every Morales campaign vehicle; technocratic economic
      policy proposals about how the nation should manage its natural gas
      industry became symbols of Bolivian "independence" and "self-
      governance"; and politicians called for the defense of Pachamama
      (Mother Earth) as they pressed their home-grown solutions for this
      cash-poor but resource-rich country, urging the rejection of the
      North American capitalistas.

      Massive support for that rejection fueled widespread protests last
      summer, when hundreds of thousands of Bolivians filled the streets
      of El Alto and La Paz, blocking roads, burning tires and throwing
      dynamite until then-President Carlos Mesa finally resigned -- the
      second president forced out of office in as many years. So for the
      popular former coca growers' union president to have won the
      presidency by an overwhelming and closely monitored vote suggests
      the vitality of Bolivian democracy and development of a new Latin
      American consensus.

      But will Evo Morales be able to live up to his promises?

      Evo's campaign slogans promised "nationalization" of oil and gas
      reserves, "recuperation" of natural resources for Bolivians and a
      renewed respect for campesinos and workers around the country. "We
      will nationalize all of Bolivia's natural resources," the
      charismatic candidate told hundreds of Quechua farmers who crowded
      into the main square in the town of Cliza, showering him with
      confetti and draping wreaths of locally grown produce and flowers
      around his neck. "We cannot give away what was given to us by

      Those sorts of promises went over well in the small farming pueblos,
      where women in their colorful 18th-century-style peasant skirts and
      shawls literally danced in the streets and waved their broad-brimmed
      straw hats as Morales rode by in his campaign caravan, the villagers
      eagerly reaching for the campaign fliers he left in his path. After
      all, Evo's supporters -- poor indigenous farmers and laborers, who
      sell their goods for a pittance in local markets and make up the 40
      percent of the country the World Bank labels "extremely poor" --
      have little other faith left to hold on to.

      Years of Washington Consensus-style economic policies, first adopted
      in the mid-1980s under the label "shock therapy" and expanded in the
      mid-1990s, when the country privatized its oil, gas, electric and
      other major industries, have done little to help Bolivia's people,
      more than 65 percent of whom are still stuck below the poverty line.
      In fact, despite being the testing ground for much of neoliberal
      economic policy in the past 20 years, the average Bolivian is now
      poorer than his grandparents were 50 years ago. The privatization
      schemes, rather than bringing prosperity as promised, have provoked
      a wave of anger against international financial institutions and the
      United States, which was on display all over Bolivia in this
      presidential election.

      And while the U.S. government has expressed deep fears about a
      Morales presidency, in many ways it's the United States that has put
      Morales in the position he is in today. In Bolivia the United States
      is not only a symbol of foreign capital but of the bitter "war on
      drugs" that strong-armed Bolivia into accepting a U.S.-financed coca
      eradication campaign that even the World Bank has admitted bears
      responsibility for Bolivia's continued poverty.

      Like everything else in Bolivia, the coca leaf is a symbol -- of a
      locally grown crop, of sacred rituals, of a way of life that allowed
      Bolivia's peasants, by chewing on the bitter leaves that give energy
      and stave off hunger, to endure the harsh conditions of the silver
      and tin mines where they worked as slaves to the Spanish for some
      300 years and where many still labor under perilous conditions today.

      As indigenous culture increasingly becomes a point of pride rather
      than a mark of shame in Bolivia, and across South America the
      symbolism of the coca leaf has gained even more importance -- and
      the ongoing U.S. war against it has stoked Morales' popularity. But
      the most potent symbol in this election for most Bolivians was
      natural gas, an ever-more coveted resource as the international
      price of oil skyrockets. And the foreign oil companies that produce
      it -- the transnacionales, as they call them here, almost spitting
      out the word -- represent to many just the latest form of foreign
      exploitation of Bolivia and its people. Thus every candidate in this
      election had to promise to "nationalize" the natural gas industry --
      a word that suggests expropriation of private company property and
      sets off alarm bells with foreign investors, but which actually
      means a range of different things in this ideologically charged
      political culture.

      For the right-wing candidate, Jorge Quiroga, it meant respecting
      existing oil and gas contracts but "nationalizing the benefits" of
      the industry -- that is, spending more of its revenue to pacify the
      population. But for Morales, it has meant forcing a conversion of
      existing gas contracts into ones where the state gets 50 percent of
      the profits and retains control over how, to whom and at what price
      Bolivian gas is sold. Although that's not what's usually meant by
      expropriation, his plan still has foreign energy companies panicking.

      Under their current contracts and the 1996 hydrocarbons law that
      privatized the industry, private companies had virtually complete
      control over the production and sale of oil and gas, and paid only
      18 percent royalties and no taxes -- a deal that even government and
      industry insiders who helped write the law and negotiate the
      contracts now privately admit is a bad deal for Bolivia.

      Still, almost every major oil company -- including Spain's Repsol,
      British Gas, ExxonMobil and Texas-based Vintage Oil -- has already
      threatened to bring a claim in international arbitration against
      Bolivia. And if Morales nationalizes the industry, under the terms
      of the bilateral investment treaties between Bolivia and the
      companies' home countries, they could sue -- in private, closed-door
      arbitration, without the safeguards normally provided by publicly
      appointed judges in an international court -- for not only the
      approximately $3.5 billion private companies have already invested
      in the natural gas industry here but also for the loss of expected
      profits, which could total tens of billions of dollars.

      For a country like Bolivia, whose annual revenues are only a little
      more than $2 billion a year, that's no small threat. It's for that
      reason -- and a host of other ways in which the United States, the
      World Bank, the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank can
      threaten to pull the noose tight around Bolivia's highly indebted
      neck -- that an Evo Morales presidency may well remain largely a
      symbolic victory.

      The threat of lawsuits by up to 30 major oil companies will thwart
      any new government's ability to significantly change the current
      system. Nor can Morales do much to address the plight of coca
      farmers: Although he has said he'll campaign to decriminalize the
      coca leaf on an international level, he knows he can do little to
      change the system at home.

      A refusal to continue the coca eradication campaign would require
      the United States, under U.S. law, to vote against any Bolivian
      application for loans or grants from the World Bank, IMF or Inter-
      American Development Bank -- all critical to Bolivia's ability to
      finance its debt and fuel its economy. In effect, any attempt by the
      newly elected president to do exactly what Bolivians just elected
      him to do would marshal the forces of the international financial
      community against the Bolivian government and doom the country's
      already-precarious financial stability.

      "It's OK, there are plenty of other countries, like China, that will
      be willing to help us," Morales told me on a rare break from
      campaigning shortly before the election. Countries like China and
      Venezuela may be exactly where he turns. But many on the left in
      Bolivia think he's not likely to buck the American and international
      business pressure and will stick with a modestly reformed version of
      the status quo. That won't satisfy many of the more radical Aymara
      activists, who are intent on breathing real life into the powerful
      symbols of the indigenous movement.

      "The identity of people and of communities has become a very
      important issue in the country," Pablo Mamani, a sociologist who
      teaches at the public universities in El Alto and La Paz, said. "The
      Aymara will all vote for Evo, because we want to see an Aymara in
      the presidency. But if he is not really allowed to govern, the
      militant social organizations can create a scenario of very severe
      conflict between the people and the state."

      The nation's right-wing movements, particularly those concentrated
      in Santa Cruz, Bolivia's wealthiest province, where the energy and
      agricultural export businesses are based, may well encourage
      that. "Bolivia is facing a big problem," Carlos Rojas, the burly
      president of an association of agriculture producers, told me from
      his Santa Cruz office. "We don't accept Mr. Morales' policy about
      land," he said, referring to Morales' support for redistribution of
      large idle estates, most of which are concentrated in Santa
      Cruz. "We will have a conflict with him. The only way for the
      country to move up and get out of poverty is by working, every day
      and all the time. If the social movements go and block the roads, we
      cannot work. We believe it's important to give Mr. Morales the
      opportunity to work for this country. But if he's not effective,
      he's going to be out -- probably before the end of his term."

      In fact, some Bolivians are already planning on that. "We believe
      MAS (The Movement Towards Socialism, Morales' party) won't change
      anything," said Abraham Delgado Mancilla, a soft-spoken and serious
      28-year-old law student and Aymara Indian who helped organize the
      massive protests that ultimately brought down the last two Bolivian
      presidents. "The state doesn't serve us with this system," he told
      me as we walked through the packed streets of El Alto, an
      impoverished, makeshift city of homemade brick buildings built high
      into the Andes that rise above La Paz, where Mancilla lives and
      continues to organize students and neighbors. "So we must move
      forward. What happens in Bolivia is 20 years of reforms, and nothing
      changes. We're still poor. The only road to solving poverty is by
      nationalization and radical redistribution of land," he said,
      growing more animated. "Evo will not be able to do what he says. His
      programs will change nothing. We're waiting for him to fail. And if
      he does, the people will come out with even more force," he said. I
      asked him what that would mean. "I think what's going to happen is
      there will be a civil war."
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