The Left in Power

Evo Morales’s presidency made real gains for working people. But could it have charted a more radical course?

Portrait of Evo Morales

Illustration by Daniël Roozendaal

February 21, 2017, marked a year since Evo Morales’s narrow defeat in a referendum on whether he could run for a fourth term as Bolivian president. Morales is the glue that holds his party — the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) — together, which goes a long way to explaining its inability to identify a viable replacement candidate over the past year. This has led to party declarations that Morales will run again in 2019.

Massive demonstrations were held on the February 21 anniversary, both for and against another term. Their composition reflects the country’s ongoing divides — between rural and urban, indigenous and mestizo, poor and rich. Pro-MAS forces, which are more rural and indigenous, called February 21 “the day of the lie,” because they argue that a carefully timed scandal accounted for Evo’s loss. The gossip disguised as news was worthy of a telenovela, featuring a former girlfriend of Evo’s, a supposed bastard son who proved nonexistent, and as-yet-unproven accusations of influence trafficking involving the girlfriend, the government, and Chinese investors.

The opposition proclaimed February 21 “the day of democracy.” The crowd in downtown La Paz was dominated by the urban middle class, which has grown by 10 percent since Morales came to power in 2006. They have benefited from the 2000s commodity boom, coupled with the MAS’s advantageous 2006 renegotiation with multinational corporations of Bolivia’s natural-gas contracts, the chief source of government income. Ten years on, declining international commodity prices make the middle classes’ newfound status shaky, weakening their inclination to stay loyal to the government whose policies nurtured their ascent.

Nearby, coca growers, furious over a proposed new coca law that they argue undermines their existing rights, clashed with police. The demonstrations gave La Paz the feel it had in the days before Evo took office, when constant protest rocked the city. In contrast, the Morales era has brought relative peace, coupled with low inflation and a steady currency rate, critical for public confidence in a country where inflation topped 8,000 percent in 1985. Indeed, the MAS now touts this stability in its campaign slogans, overshadowing previous promises of significant transformation through a “process of change.”

But even though the opposition mounted an impressive show of force on February 21, they have proven unable to launch a viable alternative to Morales. On both the Left and the Right, they remain mired in infighting, with no national leadership nor coherent political alternatives. Morales still leads his closest rival by 17 percent.

Where the opposition has had significant influence, fanned by a still largely right-wing media, is in convincing Bolivians that corruption has skyrocketed. Though notoriously difficult to assess, Transparency International reports a slight but steady downturn of corruption in Bolivia with it worldwide ranking advancing from 117 in 2005 to 113 by 2016. The country’s first Ministry of Transparency, set up in 2006, has exposed several major scandals involving government officials. But combating corruption remains difficult in a country where clientelism and patronage are the way business is frequently conducted.

The Road to Power

Bolivia earned fame in the early 2000s for its militant social movements, led by left-wing trade unions and indigenous peasant organizations. These struggles had a rich history to build on — Bolivia had seen Latin America’s second revolution in 1952, led by a coalition of miners, indigenous peasants, and the urban middle class. The ’52 Revolution brought universal suffrage for women and indigenous people, agrarian reforms that broke up highland and valley agricultural estates where peasants worked as serfs, and the nationalization of the country’s principal mines, which had been in the hands of a tiny elite.

Though the basic gains of the revolution survived, the government that instituted them didn’t, overtaken in 1964 by the US-supported military. For almost twenty years Bolivia suffered dictatorships, until the early 1980s, when struggle by popular forces won the restoration of democracy. The resulting government was weak, however, and in 1985 it capitulated to a neoliberal program applied with US, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank backing.

The process gutted the Central Obrera Boliviana, the country’s powerful labor confederation, dissipating resistance until a decade later, when the US War on Drugs pushed coca growers’ unions to the forefront of social-justice struggles. By 2005, a countrywide coalition of working-class and indigenous people had thrust their leader, coca grower Evo Morales, and the loosely defined “political instrument of the social movements” that backed him into power.

From its rural origins, where most members were affiliated indirectly through their local organizations (which led the MAS to define itself as a “political instrument” rather than a political party), the MAS gradually shifted by the mid-2000s to a more urban party with direct membership affiliation. The change was significant, dividing the party between social movements and newly incorporated urban professionals, expanding clientelism, and solidifying Evo’s role as the bridge between the factions.

While Morales spoke of “ruling by obeying” and insisted that his government was subject to social-movement control, his leadership steadily shifted to focus on formal democratic state structures through absorbing, co-opting, or marginalizing grassroots leaders. In some cases internal divisions split movements, with those remaining loyal to the MAS receiving funding and support. Incessant demands for party and state patronage thwarted any serious debate about ideology within what steadily turned into a political party rather than a coalition of social movements.

The Morales government’s dealings with hostile opposition forces were equally questionable. The new government immediately faced fierce opposition from the eastern lowlands, whose economic elites, headquartered in the city of Santa Cruz, dominate the country. They control the country’s booming agribusiness, increasingly based in soy, and the lowland expansion of natural gas, until the beginning of this year when it was replaced by minerals, Bolivia’s chief export. They promoted a racist discourse trumpeting white superiority (in the Americas’ most indigenous country), but the generalized discontent they tapped into also reflected longstanding public frustration with a dysfunctional, highly centralized, and excessively bureaucratic state.

While a series of miscalculations by the Right left Morales firmly in control, Santa Cruz elites extracted concessions from the MAS government, most critically on land reform, which had never been applied in the eastern part of the country during the agrarian reforms of the 1950s. These compromises perpetuated the unequal land tenure that afflicts Bolivia as it does much of the rest of Latin America.

By 2009, Santa Cruz elites had divided into two factions: one tied to an extreme right-wing political agenda, the other consisting of pragmatic businesspeople riding the economic boom and willing to tolerate an indigenous president who maintained that intensifying natural resource extraction was the only way to pull South America’s poorest country out of centuries of hardship.

In a collusion of interests that would have been unthinkable before 2006, the MAS administration created a pact with a private sector keen to enlarge the eastern agricultural frontier. The result is that Bolivia — seventh in the world in tropical forest area — now has Latin America’s highest rate of deforestation. To make matters worse, in 2015, the government promulgated a law that permits hydrocarbon and mining companies to explore up to 20 million hectares, much of it in protected areas.

While the government’s stated goal has been to break the country’s five-hundred-year dependence on raw-materials extraction, to date these efforts have been largely unsuccessful, hindered by limited technical expertise in both production and negotiating with multinational investors and aggravated by Bolivia’s landlocked status. Instead, the steady expansion of extraction has had the opposite impact: foreign control over both hydrocarbons and mining has intensified under the MAS government.

The National Development Plan for 2025, known as the “Patriotic Agenda,” focuses on turning Bolivia into a regional energy hub by exporting electricity to its neighbors through massive investment in construction of a new hydroelectric dam. For example, the La Bala/El Chepete project, in the design stage for the tropics northeast of La Paz, threatens to displace about four thousand indigenous people and destroy much of the tourism the area depends on, according to local indigenous groups resisting the project. The government argues that the large-scale dams will generate vital income for state services.

There is another course the government could take: with the windswept highlands soaked in sun most of the year, investments in solar and wind power have real potential. Tentative steps have been taken in this direction in Oruro, where a 50-megawatt solar project is under construction, but it will only cover half the sparsely populated area’s current electricity needs.

The Fruits of Power

Crop of Evo Morales PortraitRenegotiated gas contracts and the commodity boom multiplied state coffers eightfold between 2005 and 2013. The government apparatus has tripled, as has GDP, with Bolivia leading the region in economic growth. In the first trimester of 2017, despite the drop in commodity prices, it still enjoys South America’s highest growth rate.

This flood of funds has allowed for unprecedented investments in infrastructure and services, particularly in rural areas, where poverty rates were among the world’s worst. From asphalt roads to new La Paz cable cars, modern hospitals to upgraded schools, new houses to sports stadiums, eleven years of MAS government investment have transformed almost every corner of Bolivia.

The government also shepherded through a new Constitution in 2009, one of the world’s most radical. Among its provisions are legislative parity for women, which was largely attained by the 2014 elections. Protections and opportunities for indigenous people also expanded significantly. In the heady early days of the MAS administration, women and indigenous people entered the government in positions of power and responsibility in unparalleled numbers, though this participation has steadily declined.

The conditional cash transfers applied elsewhere in Latin America enabled children to remain in school and improved the health of pregnant women and life for the elderly, leading to one of the region’s most dramatic reductions in poverty. Combined, these measures go a long way to explaining Morales’s continued support. Pro-labor policies have also played a significant role in poverty reduction, particularly the quadrupling of the minimum wage since 2005 — although, like most laws in Bolivia, it is difficult to enforce.

On the thorny issue of coca cultivation, which drove twenty years of US intervention in the country, an innovative community program, run through growers’ unions, guarantees that farmers grow no more than the small amount of coca permitted by law. While this intervention cannot prevent drug trafficking, it has led to sharp reductions in the size of Bolivia’s coca crop since 2010.

But the positive figures and highly visible infrastructure investments mask the structural challenges that the MAS has been unable to address. Few of the new jobs created are stable and provide benefits; most Bolivians still labor in the precarious informal sector, which economist Carlos Arze contends has grown larger under Morales. Bolivians remain the poorest people in South America.

The economic boom strengthened an incipient indigenous bourgeoisie, from truck owners to traders to small-scale miners. Ironically, as political scientist Helen Argirakis explains, Bolivia under a left government has greater social mobility and higher incomes, but has seen a drop in popular mass organizing. This comes while a new elite increasingly asserts its economic muscle but in no way replaces the traditional bourgeoisie — which may have lost political power, but certainly not its wealth.

The MAS government has settled into a populist administration centered on growth and extractivism. Bolivia researcher Emily Achtenberg argues that “nationalist themes, such as the recovery of Bolivia’s seacoast from Chile, along with high-profile mega-projects that evoke national pride, have superseded earlier transformative goals and discourses, such as plurinationalism, indigenism, and communitarian socialism.”

The Limits of Power

The metamorphosis promised by the MAS is hampered by Bolivia’s continued economic dependence on outside powers, which in recent years increasingly includes Brazil and China. But the MAS’s room to maneuver is also limited by its collusion with elites and its undercutting of social movements that were once unrivalled in any other Pink Tide country and provided a unique opportunity for grassroots democracy. “One of our gravest errors was weakening the social movements by incorporating many of their leaders into the state, which left them exposed to the temptations of power,” former UN ambassador Pablo Solón says regretfully. “Instead, we should have promoted their independence and capacity for self-determination so that they could have been a real counterweight to those of us who became bureaucrats.”

With no viable right-wing opposition since 2008, the MAS has squandered the opportunity for more radical change. The outcome is dependence on a charismatic leader at the helm of a weak party. Top-down structures inherited from past governments have persisted, with an emphasis always on immediate outcomes, rarely on the price inherent in the compromises required to achieve them.

Preserving power has become a central MAS goal. The dominant logic centers on proyectitis — an emphasis on public works disconnected from any overall development plan, but designed to garner more votes in the next election. The process facilitated the social mobility of MAS-connected leaders, reinforcing historic patterns of opportunist participation in politics. “The MAS weren’t aware that power would transform them just as thoroughly as it had previous governments on the Right,” says Solón.

While the MAS does not represent Bolivia’s traditional elites, the changes it has introduced are a far cry from what their social movement constituency demanded. Measures such as cash transfers are significant in reducing misery but do not address underlying inequalities or generate employment, even if keeping children in school and improving the health of infants and their mothers will have a positive long-term impact.

Why can’t the MAS government pull Bolivia out of extractivism? Transforming the path dependence generated by 500 years of mining and now natural gas is impossible in eleven years. But the MAS also bears responsibility for Bolivia’s expanding extractivist addiction, which has proven the easiest path to generate income for public projects.

Bolivia is more stable, but with political power concentrated in fewer hands and its social movements in tatters. It is less unequal, but with little change in the structure of work.

The contradictory outcomes and process have deeply fractured the country’s Left, which has been unable to coalesce into a progressive opposition to the MAS. This government makes me twice as angry as previous conservative ones,” says Oscar Olivera, coordinator of the 2000 Cochabamba Water War, “because it was brought to power through the sacrifice of the people. It has failed to live up to what we put it in power to do, which was to radically change our society.”

Others, like Jose Pimentel, the former leader of a mining union who now heads the state mining corporation, remain committed to the MAS. He told a public form in late March, “I’m certain that Che lives on through the cultural revolution we have created.”