Bolivia: Impressive Victory, Huge Challenges

By Valery Valdez Pinto*

Polling place in Quillacollo, Cochabamba.
Polling place in Quillacollo, Cochabamba./ Valery Valdez Pinto

The Movimiento al Socialismo’s (MAS) first-round electoral victory last weekend surprised even some masistas – and antimasista claims of fraud are not gaining traction – but President-elect Luis Arce Catacora will take office on November 8 amid daunting political, social, economic, and public health challenges.

  • Winning 55.1 percent of the vote, Arce and his running mate, former Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, surpassed what even the most optimistic polls predicted. Despite initial distrust in election-day exit polls – sole measure of the contests after the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) cancelled the official quick-counts out of fear they would destabilize the process – outgoing interim President Jeanine Áñez, who dropped out of the race in September, and Comunidad Ciudadana candidate Carlos Mesa congratulated Arce early in the process. Creemos candidate Luis Fernando Camacho made his tearful concession speech later. MAS supporters peacefully took to the streets and celebrated with firecrackers, indigenous music, wiphalas (flags celebrating Bolivian multiculturalism), and a boisterous rhetoric of a return to democracy.
  • Some in the antimasista camp (apparently without Mesa’s support) have alleged fraud but failed to present evidence. The defeat of Arce’s opponents at the polls, moreover, seems to have aggravated splits among them. The new President’s inauguration is expected to be a relatively calm transfer of power in, as many MAS supporters would say, a restoration of democratic continuity. Analysts credit the MAS’s efforts to clean up its image since the tumultuous elections of October 2019.

Opposition leaders’ statements promise continued challenges to the new government, but they have serious internal problems to overcome. Mesa and Camacho, running on centrist and rightist platforms respectively, offered little to undecided voters, including most importantly voters in rural areas – where they hardly campaigned – as well as voters disillusioned by the conduct of the MAS and former President Evo Morales in last year’s tumultuous elections. Camacho’s unwillingness to drop out of the race also split the anti-MAS ranks, depriving Mesa of valuable votes in the important Santa Cruz area.

  • Mesa (runner-up in the election) and Camacho (a distant third) both tried to persuade voters that they represented the voto útil – that a vote for them would not be wasted – but neither succeeded. Mesa’s campaign weakened as the election got closer, reviving long-standing criticism of his “tibio” personality, and Camacho was running on a regionalist platform that only resonated with the communities in Santa Cruz. Neither seemed to recognize the diversity of Bolivia’s 11.5 million people, leaving an important number of indigenous to again find a political home in the MAS.
  • Bolivian political analysts also assert that Mesa and Camacho were hurt by the Áñez’s government’s extensions in power and her widely criticized handling of the COVID 19 pandemic and its economic impact. Local observers say the pandemic turned a transitional government into one that felt like a complete term. The antimasistas were originally hopeful that her administration would pave the way for their victory, but allegations of corruption and widespread disillusionment due to her administration’s repression of Morales’s supporters and indigenous interests in general, the pandemic, and the economy all undermined the credibility of anti-MAS politicians.

Although antimasistas in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba are planning protests, most prominent oppositionists appear aware that challenging the elections is unlikely to be a winning strategy. Reports from media across the political spectrum indicate that Bolivians’ main focus is to navigate through the broken economy and the continuous threat posed by the pandemic. Moving forward with a return of MAS to power will nonetheless be difficult for some in the opposition. Hardliners are already condemning allegedly clandestine negotiations between some opposition leaders, including Áñez and Mesa, and Arce and his team. Suspicions that anti-MAS objectives will be sold out for personal advantage will aggravate divisions among rightists.

  • Even if political pressures subside, Arce faces massive challenges. He is Evo Morales’s hand-picked successor but has to keep him at a distance and make good on promises to continue reforming MAS, learning from mistakes made during the former President’s 14 years in power. Arce has pledged to “govern for all Bolivians” and “bring unity to our country” – monumental tasks in a nation unaccustomed to inclusion and compromise, especially during profound health and economic crises. As former Minister of Economy and Public Finance, he built a reputation for pragmatism – such as measures to strengthen the internal market and to industrialize natural resources – but fear and distrust at all levels of society are formidable obstacles. Arce has to rebuild and reform the MAS, and the opposition has to rebuild itself around a strategy that includes traditionally non-Bolivian values of positive engagement with a party and large segments of society that they, under Jeanine Áñez, tried hard to put in a box.

October 29, 2020

* Valery Valdez Pinto is a graduate student in Ethics, Peace, and Human Rights and a Graduate Assistant at CLALS.

The Difficult – if Not Impossible – Game of Bolivian Politics

By Santiago Anria and Kenneth Roberts*

Jeanine_Añez_Bolivia

Jeanine Añez, January 2020/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

Evo Morales’ shocking resignation in November 2019 laid bare Bolivia’s deep social and political divisions – which the increasingly tense impasse over elections is making much worse. Morales’s denouement marked the culmination of political decay traceable to at least 2016, when he and the MAS lost a referendum on re-election and ignored the results. Their insistence on re-election sharply polarized politics, became a focal point for opposition, and left the government vulnerable to a violent conservative backlash.

  • After Morales’s ouster – some call it a coup, others a popular revolt – a relatively unknown figure, Jeanine Áñez, became interim president with a narrow mandate to call elections and promote social pacification. She revealed, however, a personal ambition to stay in the presidency and a commitment to prevent the return of Morales and the MAS by any means, reflecting a raw animosity that was latent in important segments of Bolivia since Morales first came to power in 2006. She brought the Bible “back in the presidential palace” and militated against Morales, deeming him Bolivia’s “number one enemy,” and attempted to fracture and demobilize his social base.
  • Elections have been postponed several times due to the COVID‑19 pandemic. National protests and highway closures by peasant and labor allies of the MAS have surged in the past week, and Áñez’s sinking popularity provides reasons for her attempts to delay the electoral process. Road blockades by movements that back the MAS – and also by grass-roots groups that operate with independence from MAS – demanding elections and COVID assistance are giving rise to worrying threats and direct action by vigilante groups, which in many cases are promoted or at least tolerated by the government.

Similar to the “impossible game” described by Guillermo O’Donnell in post-1955 Argentina, the political field is sharply divided into two major antagonistic camps – masistas and anti-masistas – and neither can govern effectively while excluding the other.

  • Under Áñez, the anti-masista camp has splintered into at least two groups with clearly distinctive class and regional bases of support, but with the shared goal of preventing the return of Morales and the MAS. Through legal channels, Áñez and allied elite agro-industrial groups have pressured electoral authorities to ban MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce. (The MAS used similar draconian measures at least once in the past to exclude candidates.) Credible human rights reports show that MAS leaders, supporters, and allied social organizations have been harassed, intimidated, and violently repressed by state and paramilitary forces.
  • Such attempts to suppress the MAS, Bolivia’s largest party and one with deep societal roots, have spurred social mobilization, conflict, and instability. They also have motivated the MAS to unite, adjust its structures, and recover at least partially after its dramatic political defeat. Polls show that although the MAS no longer commands supermajorities, it could win an election in the first round due to the sharp fragmentation and mutual antagonism within the anti-masista camp. The ongoing popular mobilizations and street confrontations, however, can also undermine the MAS’s electoral reach, especially in urban segments.

Carlos Mesa, who came in second but did not qualify for the runoff under the official, but contested, vote count in the election last October that culminated in Morales’s downfall, is claiming the political center and has emerged as the candidate of the anti-masista urban middle class in the country’s western region. He is currently polling second (behind MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce) but, alienated from the MAS and repelled by Áñez’s authoritarian turn and mismanagement of the pandemic, will have difficulty building a majority. His past experience as Bolivia’s president also shows he is not especially savvy navigating troubled waters.

If elections are held this year, whoever wins the presidency will not “take it all” and will likely have to deal with a divided Congress, a highly mobilized and sharply polarized society, and a deep economic and public health crisis. Bolivia appears to be headed to a difficult – if not impossible – game with highly unpredictable consequences. Continued attempts to undo Morales’s legacy and restrict the participation of the MAS risk sending the country further down an uncertain and perilous road to prolonged violence and conflict.

  • The strength of the social movements backing the MAS make the stakes in this “impossible game” especially high, but Bolivia is not the only country in Latin America where recent efforts have been made to ban specific parties or candidates from participating in elections. Former Brazilian President Lula’s imprisonment on highly contested corruption charges prevented him from running for president at a time when he was leading in the polls, clearing the path for the far-right anti-establishment candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro. Ecuador and Peru both face political conflict over the electoral participation or proscription of parties associated with former president Rafael Correa, in the former, and Keiko Fujimori, in the latter.
  • Adjudicating the misdeeds that supposedly justify these disqualifications inevitably politicizes the judiciary and other oversight institutions, and the exclusion of major political currents from participating in democratic politics is deeply polarizing. The electoral proscriptions of Peronism in Argentina and the APRA party in Peru historically suggest that it is virtually impossible to stabilize democratic institutions when a country’s largest and best-organized political forces are banned from participation because elite groups, who are smaller and less densely organized, find them threatening. The Bolivian case is surely different from post-1955 Argentina, but Áñez’s backers and the MAS should not ignore the historical experiences of the region that suggest these games rarely end well.

August 12, 2020

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government and Director of Latin American Studies at Cornell University.

Bolivia: Prospects for Post-Evo Transition

By Robert Albro*

Crowd march with boy holding the pan-indigenous flag

March in favor of Evo Morales /Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/santiagosuburbano/49098960458/

Bolivia’s streets have been calmer in recent days, but actions by self-proclaimed President Jeanine Áñez have raised legitimate concerns about what sort of transition Bolivians face after the almost 14-year presidency of Evo Morales. The protests, marches, and violence that have characterized the aftermath of the disputed presidential election on October 20 have left at least 33 people dead – including 30 since Áñez took office and soon thereafter issued a presidential decree (since rescinded) giving security forces immunity from prosecution when engaged in restoring “order.” While Áñez has claimed she is a caretaker whose only charge is to organize new elections within 90 days, she has not behaved like one.

  • Previously an obscure backbencher and opposition senator from an inconsequential political party representing remote Beni, Áñez had planned to retire from politics at the end of her term. Her position as second vice-president of the Senate was largely ceremonial, with little control over budgets. Down the list of constitutional succession, she became acting president only after multiple Morales administration officials resigned.
  • Although unelected and lacking a mandate, Áñez has taken a series of decisive steps to undo Morales’s legacy. A conservative Christian and Morales critic, she has proclaimed Bolivia a “Catholic country” and disparaged its Indigenous majority as “irrational.” She has surrounded herself with a cabinet composed of like-minded critics from Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. This region includes the departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Beni, together often called the Media Luna (Half Moon), and is the heartland of economic elites whose political power was substantially diminished by Morales’s rise. In 2008 the Media Luna was for months in open revolt against Morales and his government, contending for control of the country’s considerable natural gas revenues. Often cast in racist terms, these elites consistently and categorically rejected Morales’s presidency.

As interim president, Áñez has replaced the military’s leadership, cabinet ministers, and heads of major state-owned companies with her own appointees. She reestablished ties with Washington, severed relations with Venezuela, kicked out Cuban doctors working in the country, and is considering Bolivia’s withdrawal from the largely-defunct UNASUR. Áñez has not sought conciliation with lawmakers from Morales’s MAS party, who still command a legislative majority. Instead, seeming to turn to the playbook of the country’s and the region’s dictatorial past, her administration has accused Venezuela and Cuba of supporting subversive groups in Bolivia, threatening to prosecute former government officials now in hiding and to charge MAS lawmakers and journalists critical of her policies with “sedition.”

These moves do not bode well for an orderly electoral do-over. Luis Fernando Camacho, the Santa Cruz civic committee leader who has emerged as Áñez’s vocal and controversial far-right supporter, already seems to be in campaign mode, despite his scant political credentials. Political moderate and second-place finisher in last month’s election, Carlos Mesa, appears to be largely sidelined. Morales himself has been legally barred from participating, and MAS, while still a political force in Bolivia, lacks an obvious figure to replace him. Meanwhile, Áñez and the far-right cabal gathering around her appear to be gearing up for hardball politics, although they lack legitimacy among Morales’s supporters and the many citizens who might have grown tired of Morales but view with alarm the actions and tone of the new caretaker government. The election may be technically wide open, but Bolivia’s far-right appears intent on seizing this opportunity to restore its influence.

  • By alienating the country’s Indigenous majority and exacerbating latent ethnic and class tensions, while signaling a commitment to reverse the gains made during the Morales years, Áñez is setting up conditions for a period of intense social conflict. If present trends continue, it is hard to imagine that in 90 days, and perhaps for a lengthy period thereafter, Bolivia won’t again experience more paroxysms comparable to what it has endured since October’s contested election.

December 6, 2019

* Robert Albro is the Research Associate Professor at CLALS.

The OAS and the Crises in Bolivia and Chile: Power Politics and Inconsistencies

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Protests in Chile, October 2019

Protests in Chile, October 2019/ Carlos Figueroa/ Wikimedia Commons/ https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Protestas_en_Chile_20191022_07.jpg

As political crises emerge one after the other in Latin America, the Organization of American States (OAS) is showing inconsistent behavior based on ideological rifts and power politics. This inconsistency – evidenced by the OAS’s role in the ongoing crises in Bolivia and Chile – undermines its mandate to protect human rights and democracy throughout the hemisphere.

In Bolivia, violence spread in the streets of various states after the opposition accused incumbent President Morales of manipulating the results of the October 20 elections. The OAS Electoral Mission reported possible irregularities, and both the Permanent Council and the Secretary General pressed the government to authorize an audit of the electoral procedures and a vote recount. Morales consented to both requests.

  • The same accusations of electoral irregularities were made two years ago in the Honduran presidential election, but a coalition of states headed by the United States swiftly recognized President Hernández – delegitimizing the OAS electoral mission and the Secretary General’s call for new elections. Those same countries have now pressed Morales, first for a recount of votes and later for new elections. When the OAS Electoral Mission confirmed the existence of electoral irregularities on November 10, the Bolivian military withdrew support for the government, prompting Morales’s resignation – an outcome radically different from that in Honduras.
  • Despite political violence and recurrent accusations by Morales of unconstitutional alterations to the constitutional order voiced by the Bolivian foreign minister at the OAS headquarters, neither the Secretary General nor OAS member states invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter. President Morales did not explicitly invoke the Charter, thinking that the crisis would follow the same course as in Honduras, or that the military remained supportive. Either way, he was wrong.

In Chile, in contrast, the police have engaged in systematic violations of human rights since an unprecedented social uprising that started on October 18. Twenty-three people have been killed, 1,950 have been injured, and 180 have suffered eye injuries from rubber bullets fired upon protesters by police – many losing their sight. The Inter- American Commission on Human Rights issued a declaration regarding the violations of human rights during the State of Emergency imposed by President Sebastián Piñera in the aftermath of the uprising. But the OAS political bodies have remained silent.

  • Neither Secretary General Almagro nor the Permanent Council have issued a single declaration of concern or condemnation regarding the situation in Chile. Almagro has refrained from convening the Permanent Council or the General Assembly, but he has loudly claimed the existence of destabilization attempts organized by Cuba and Venezuela (which he called “Bolivarian breezes”). To be sure, issuing such a statement without providing evidence or convening the political bodies of the organization jeopardizes the credibility of the OAS and breeds conspiracy theories. In a recent interview, President Piñera also subscribed to the thesis of foreign intervention in Chile’s protests without providing any evidence. The Chilean Attorney General confirmed that the government has not provided any information about the action of foreign groups.

The inconsistency displayed by the OAS in the handling of the political crises in the region suggests that the OAS applies different standards to similar situations. In fact, the organization is split into two coalitions: a larger and stronger one composed of right-wing governments that embrace or accept the foreign policy of U.S. President Donald Trump based on a revival of the Monroe Doctrine; and a smaller, weaker one composed of states with leftist and centrist governments with an anti-imperialist or a non-interventionist rhetoric.

  • Breaches of democracy and human rights violations exist on both sides of the rift, but the OAS political bodies seem to focus only on the side that happens to be weaker. This is bad news for those that would like to see in the OAS an honest broker and mediator in political crises, no matter the ideological color or the power of the concerned state. If this trend continues, it is also bad news for the protection of human rights and democracy and for multilateralism in the region.

November 11, 2019

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

Bolivia: Ready to Elect a New President?

By Robert Albro

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaking to students in Guarnes, Santa Cruz.

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaking in Guarnes, Santa Cruz/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://bit.ly/30N5hOF

President of Bolivia since 2006, Evo Morales faces a number of challenges as elections approach later this month, but his strong record appears to set him up for a fourth term in office. When, in 2016, he lost a national referendum vote to suspend term limits so that he could run again this year, his presidency appeared likely to soon end. But in 2017 the country’s highest court threw out the result, which Morales’s detractors understandably viewed as political manipulation. He resolved to run again, a decision met with accusations of authoritarianism and street protests in the indigenous city of El Alto.

  • The President’s disregard for term limits remains contentious. His popularity has declined from the lofty poll numbers he enjoyed throughout the first half of his presidency. He has endured several personal scandals. His party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), suffered some surprising setbacks in recent local elections. And his government has provoked political fights with indigenous groups – a bad sign for a candidate reliant on the support of indigenous voters. Most notorious of the confrontations was the so-called TIPNIS controversy, where the government sought to build a highway through a protected indigenous territory to benefit commerce with Brazil.
  • Last month Bolivia was beset by catastrophic wildfires in the lowlands of Santa Cruz, the worst in decades. The administration was criticized for being slow to act and for anti-environmental policies many insist intensified the fires, which provoked a protest march among lowland indigenous groups.

Normally such missteps might open the door for a rival candidate, but Morales is not a normal president. He is a historically transformative leader responsible for the political enfranchisement of Bolivia’s indigenous majority, and for the economic uplift of a large swath of previously impoverished citizens.

  • Morales’s administration is often glossed as leftist or socialist. But this misunderstands his adroit economic stewardship of Bolivia Inc. The country’s economic growth has averaged 5 percent since Morales entered office, with GDP increasing fourfold and export revenue sixfold, marking an impressive turnaround. Government debt has been reduced, inflation remains low, the minimum wage substantially increased, and – backed by a buildup of massive foreign exchange reserves – the currency kept stable. National control of the energy sector has enabled significant revenue reinvestment in popular social programs, including new infrastructure projects, pension benefits, agricultural subsidies, free universal health insurance, and improvements in education. During this period Bolivia ranks first regionally in reducing extreme poverty, while helping to move approximately 1 million largely indigenous Bolivians into the middle class.

Polls vary, but Morales appears to maintain a comfortable lead. The MAS, which came to power as a coalitional indigenous-popular social movement, has evolved into a well-organized and dominant political party, with greater resources and reach than its rivals, enabling it to consolidate or coopt control of key constituencies. The candidate polling second, Carlos Mesa, has been unable to unify a fractured opposition, and has run on a promise of stability, which Bolivians rightly perceive they already enjoy. Elected vice president in 2002, Mesa came to power a year later when popular protests forced then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to flee the country. Mesa represents a troubled era in Bolivian politics to which most Bolivians do not want to return.

Morales appears poised to win on October 20. But the next five years could be bumpy unless he and the MAS solve several urgent problems. As the region’s prolonged natural resource boom ebbs, Bolivia’s long-term economic stability remains vulnerable, given its lack of economic diversity, dependence on fossil fuels for capital growth, failure to develop new export industries such as lithium, and overreliance on neighboring Argentina and Brazil as commodity markets. Morales’s surprisingly poor environmental record, and extractives-dependent economic development model, are likely to lead to further conflicts with indigenous groups over control of territory and resources, and erode key sources of his and his party’s legitimacy. Moreover, the MAS has yet to offer any clues for how it plans to remain a dynamic national political force after its charismatic leader finally departs the scene.

October 4, 2019

* Robert Albro is the Research Associate Professor at CLALS. He has conducted ethnographic research and published widely on popular and indigenous politics along Bolivia’s urban periphery. Much of that work is presented in his book, Roosters at Midnight: Indigenous Signs and Stigma in Local Bolivian Politics (SAR Press, 2010).

 

 

 

 

Bolivia: The Exceptional Case of the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

MAS rally in Bolivia

A rally celebrating the nineteenth anniversary of the MAS in Bolivia. / Tercera Información / Wikimedia Commons

Bolivia’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) is one of the most important and electorally successful new parties in Latin America because it has succeeded in achieving and maintaining high levels of internal grassroots participation and bottom-up influence, even after assuming national power.  Unlike the ad hoc electoral vehicles created to sustain the support of a single charismatic leader like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the MAS has maintained autonomous forms of social mobilization by popular constituencies that have contributed to keeping party vibrancy and served as a check on concentrated executive power.

  • A “party of movements,” the MAS began as a largely indigenous coca growers’ union, but after 20 years of existence and more than a decade in power, it still deviates from the conventional wisdom that such parties inevitably become oligarchic in their operation. Compared to most other movement-based parties, the MAS remains responsive to the interests, demands, and preferences of its social bases – propelling its leader, Evo Morales, to the presidency but also, at times, limiting his authoritarian tendencies.  My research, recently published in a book entitled When Movements Become Parties, reveals that Bolivia is a rare example in which a party’s social movement origin not only facilitated party-building but also enabled the party to preserve high levels of grassroots participation in the selection of candidates and the crafting of public policies, with “bottom-up” correctives to hierarchy and concentrated executive authority.
  • While institutional checks and balances can be (and have been) weakened by an ambitious leader like Morales, governing parties more open to bottom-up input preserve opportunities to establish checks on decisions and constrain strategic behavior and hierarchical control. Channels to exert “voice” provide incentives for the social bases to shape important decisions, as these bases become de facto veto actors within the organization.  At the broader regime level, when a governing party establishes and upholds well-developed opportunities for bottom-up grass-roots participation, instances of bait-and-switch policy-making are less likely – a condition conducive to policy stability and ensuring the “continued responsiveness” that is central to democratic representation in between election cycles.  Finally, when governing parties are more open, they may generate opportunities and incentives for the political empowerment of traditionally marginalized groups by boosting the input that those groups have in the political power game.

The MAS has avoided extreme forms of professionalism and “top-down” control.  While the party as a bureaucratic organization remains weak after 20 years, that reality has allowed the social bases to act autonomously and continue to influence, constrain, and hold the party’s leadership accountable.  This has enabled the party to maintain unusually strong ties with the country’s major popular movements, which still provide a formidable mass base and coalition of support.  Today, 12 years after it gained power for the first time, the MAS remains the only truly national party in Bolivia and is that country’s dominant party.  The ongoing strength and relative autonomy of social mobilization in Bolivia not only explains much of the MAS’s continued success but also sets the Bolivian case apart from the Brazilian PT, where social mobilization withered, and from Venezuela under Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, where mobilization is strong but largely controlled from above.

The system is far from perfect.  Poised to seek a fourth term in 2019 after a legally dubious maneuver, polls show that Morales may not be unbeatable.  The party lacks a viable successor, and another reelection can open the door to further abuses and greater personalization of power – all of which can undermine the development of the democratic regime.  This could also atrophy the links between the party and segments of its movement base, a process already under way.  Power is already concentrated in an executive administration that too often treats opponents and the press with raw hostility.  Institutions are inefficient, liberal rights are poorly safeguarded, and courts are feeble and politicized.  Even if checks and balances on presidential authority have weakened, however, autonomous grassroots participation, inclusion, and accountability are highly robust.  Inclusion has created a “new normal” in the Bolivian political arena, with larger numbers of Bolivians enjoying rights of citizenship and greater input into political decision-making and into determining who gets what, when, and how – with the MAS at the center.  Seen from the long arc of Bolivian history, this is an exceptional change in a society characterized by social and political exclusion.

November 14, 2018

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College.  His new book, When Movements Become Parties: The Bolivian MAS in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics, 2018), studies the internal politics of Latin America’s three most innovative leftist parties: Bolivia’s MAS, Brazil’s PT, and Uruguay’s FA.

Bolivia: Locked in Its Past

By Carlos Malamud*

The International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice in The Hague. / International Court of Justice / Wikimedia

The International Court of Justice (ICJ)’s rejection of Bolivia’s case against Chile over access to the Pacific Ocean shocked Bolivian public opinion – and was a significant blow to President Evo Morales.  The ICJ judgment, issued on October 1, countered the beliefs of practically every Bolivian, educated since childhood that the Chilean port of Antofagasta was theirs.  In the Bolivians’ calculus, the complaint they brought to The Hague was already a compromise: they didn’t demand new borders or sovereignty, but rather argued that Chile had an obligation to negotiate a settlement.

  • The ICJ’s decision – by a vote of 12 to three – that Chile had no obligation to negotiate underscored, once again, that the Morales government had stirred up unrealistic expectations. While Morales, who was in The Hague for the announcement, declared that “Bolivia will never give up,” his Chilean counterpart, Sebastián Piñera, lamented that the ICJ case “made us waste five years which could have been spent building a healthy relationship between the two countries.”  Nationalism permeated both sides’ positions, but the Chilean government showed greater restraint, even if demonstrators in Antofagasta did show certain triumphalism after the verdict was announced.
  • In terms of politics, Morales was more ambitious preceding the Court’s decision than Piñera. The Bolivian president’s lawsuit wasn’t just about territory; he had the clear political objective of keeping himself in power indefinitely.  Had he won the case in The Hague, his ability to remain in office would have been practically guaranteed – as a national hero and savior for having regained Bolivia’s access to the Pacific Ocean.

The Bolivian government’s rhetoric has hurt its image.  In the week before the verdict was announced, Morales’s vice president, Álvaro García Linera, in his well-established role as mobilizer and opportunist, spoke of “Chilean aggression” and predicted a “major defeat” for Chilean diplomacy at the ICJ.  In his customary paternalistic style, he called for full compliance with the Court’s decision (although he himself did not do so later).  After the decision, Morales acknowledged that the Court said Chile was not obligated to negotiate, but – instead of clearing the way for better relations in the future – renewed his call for negotiations.  The Chilean government is not about to talk about anything unless Bolivia demonstrates that it is serious.  One important move would be for Bolivia to rescind, unilaterally and immediately, the suspension of diplomatic relations with Chile in 1978.

Bolivia’s defeat has already had serious political consequences.  It is a serious blow to the re-election aspirations of Evo Morales in 2019, which he was pursuing despite its unconstitutionality as reinforced by the defeat of a constitutional amendment allowing a third consecutive term in a referendum on February 21, 2016.  It also prompted ex-President Carlos Mesa – a rival with good chances of success – to announce his candidacy in elections next year.  Morales has already lashed out at Mesa, linking him to the “Chilean oligarchy” and speaking of his “betrayal of the fatherland.”

  •  Beyond the ICJ judgment, Bolivia will eventually have to free itself of the isolation – mental as well as geographic – that prevents it from finding better ways of promoting its interests. Bolivia has means – in Peru and Chile toward the Pacific, and in Santa Cruz toward the Atlantic – with which to find solutions and reinforce its potential for growth.  But that entails lowering the flag of nationalism, something that is still unclear they’re prepared to do.

October 10, 2018

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  A version of this article was originally published in El Heraldo de México.

Bolivia’s Remarkable Political Stability

By Miguel Centellas*

31077401152_b9af7fb247_b

Political slogans in support of Bolivian President Evo Morales and his MAS party (Movement for Socialism), calling for “500 more years” of their rule. / Francoise Gaujour / Flickr / Creative Commons

In the 11 years since he was first elected president of Bolivia, Evo Morales has delivered remarkable stability and progress even though his drive for power still concerns many opponents.  Along with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, he was labelled by some observers as part of the “irresponsible” or “populist” left – in contrast to more “social democratic” leftists like Brazil’s Lula da Silva or Chile’s Michelle Bachelet.  The “populists” were also widely criticized for weakening and playing loose with democratic institutions and for authoritarian practices associated with the region’s caudillo legacy.  But Morales’ course has neither followed Venezuela’s, whose populist regime lies in ruins with no clear exit strategy; nor Ecuador’s, which looks set to accept a peaceful transition of power to the opposition later this year.  Bolivia appears to have reached a sort of political equilibrium.

  • Despite charged economic rhetoric and his championing of leftist socioeconomic policies, Morales has pursued prudent, conservative macroeconomic policies. Bolivia has carefully increased its reserves from a little over $3 billion in 2006 to more than $15 billion by 2014.  As of 2015 reserves amounted to 40 percent of GDP.  At the same time, the GDP has grown from just over $8 billion in 2000 to nearly $33 billion by 2015, with GDP per capita (PPP) nearly doubling from $3,497 to $6,954 in the same time span.
  • Morales’s signature socioeconomic reforms borrow from the “responsible” leftist models, rather than the vertical chavista model. He has created cash transfer programs similar to those used successfully in Mexico and Brazil.  These bonos, including some created by Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, provide unconditional cash for pensions, pre- and post-natal care, and education.  While this spending pales in comparison to “megaprojects” such as highways and soccer stadiums, it goes directly to Bolivian households – with obvious political benefit for the Morales government and clear, direct benefits to average Bolivians.
  • The new constitution adopted in 2009 – a product of compromise between Morales and the regionalist opposition – radically decentralized state structure, satisfying opponents’ desire for significant space at the local level. The eastern lowland regionalist opposition can regularly count on winning governorships in Santa Cruz, Beni, and Tarija, while middle-class, liberal opponents win in the major cities of La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosí, and now even El Alto.  This diffuses political conflicts and prevents the consolidation of unified opposition.  Conflict between the central state and regionalists continues, but it has become routinized and therefore has stabilized.
  • The electoral court, elevated to be a “branch” of government in the 2009 constitution, has remained largely impartial, maintained its political independence, and significantly improved its capabilities – increasing Bolivians’ trust in the legitimacy of elections. A referendum last year, rejecting a constitutional reform that would allow Morales to run for another term in 2019, was managed competently and (for the most part) fairly.

Not all is well, however.  Despite losing the referendum, Morales and his MAS party made clear that he intends to find a way to run for reelection yet again in 2019.  The opposition’s concerns about his authoritarian tendencies are not wholly exaggerated.  Indeed, the government frequently lashes out at its perceived enemies in ways that go well beyond the niceties of democratic adversarial politics.  Likewise, there are clear signs that corruption remains deeply rooted within the government.  But none of this contradicts what seems obvious: The MAS government has brought relative prosperity and stability – even fueling optimism that if (or when) it steps down, its transition may be more like the one that Ecuador appears likely to experience later this year than the meltdown that is tearing apart Venezuela.

March 23, 2017

* Miguel Centellas teaches political sociology at the University of Mississippi’s Croft Institute for International Studies and has written extensively on Bolivian electoral and subnational politics.  He also co-directs an interdisciplinary summer field school based in La Paz.

Bolivia’s Constitutional Referendum Marks New Political Era

By Miguel Centellas*

Referendo Morales

Photo Credit: Organo Electoral Plurinacional de Bolivia and Alain Bachellier, respectively / Wikimedia and Flickr / Creative Commons

Bolivian voters’ rejection last week of a constitutional amendment to allow an incumbent president to run for a third consecutive term is a setback for President Evo Morales but a step forward for the country.  Both the government and opposition understood the national referendum as a plebiscite on Morales, who is now the longest serving head of state in Bolivian history.  Had the referendum passed, Morales would have been able to run for a fourth five-year term in 2019.  (Because Morales was first elected in 2005, before the new constitution was approved in 2009, the high court decided that he was eligible to run for reelection in 2014.)  During the months leading up to the referendum vote, polls showed a narrow gap between the votes in favor of the amendment and the No votes, with a large number of undecided.

As the final count began to crystalize (the official count is not yet available), it became clear that No won by a slim margin (51.3% to 48.7%).  At first, Morales and members of his government disputed the results, arguing that late-arriving rural ballots would vindicate him.  Later, they claimed opposition fraud and manipulation, including a “dirty” war waged by the opponents and the media.  Several scandals, however, appear to have been the real cause of Morales’s loss.

  • New developments in lingering accusations of fraud committed at the Fondo Indígena, an organization established to support economic, social, and political development of marginalized peoples. Government auditors last year uncovered more than a hundred incomplete or non-existent projects valued at tens of millions of dollars.  The case involved several ex-ministers in Morales’s government and leaders of his MAS party.
  • New allegations of corruption involving Gabriela Zapata Montaño, a romantic liaison of the President in 2006 who is now an executive for a Chinese-owned company (CAMC) that was awarded a large number of no-bid contracts for government development projects. Some sources claim millions of dollars have been misappropriated.  Zapata was arrested shortly after the vote.
  • Accusations that the MAS (and, implicitly, Morales) instigated angry protesters to attack the municipal building in El Alto, Bolivia’s second largest city, killing seven people and injuring many others. The mayor, Soledad Chapetón, and La Paz provincial governor Felix Patzi, a former education minister under Morales, were the first two opposition candidates to win those positions since MAS came to power.  The government dismissed the allegations and suggested that Chapetón orchestrated the violence to make herself a martyr.

The results of the referendum – and, more importantly, the frenzied reactions from Morales and other high-ranking members of his government – make the immediate future appear uncertain.  Morales accepted the results of the referendum but also ominously pointed out that there are other ways to amend the constitution.  He also dared opponents to initiate a recall referendum to remove him.  Nevertheless, some members of MAS – showing eagerness to carry the party’s wide support among Bolivians into the future – have begun publicly discussing possible successors.  Another positive sign is that Bolivia’s electoral court showed itself to be truly autonomous, bolstering opposition confidence in a key institution.  The question is whether Morales believes his party (and by extension his legacy) is worth preserving, or whether he wants to risk them for another dubious bid for reelection.  Claims that Morales’s setback is part of a “conservative tide” sweeping through Latin America may be premature, but this referendum may have repercussions elsewhere.  Ecuador’s Rafael Correa’s public comments that he would not seek reelection in 2017 may now become firmer.  The day of the three- or four-term president seems over.

March 3, 2016

* Miguel Centellas teaches political sociology at the Croft Institute for International Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Bolivia: Implications of Referendum for Democracy and the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

Evo Referendum

Photo Credit: zak / Flickr / Creative Commons

A Bolivian referendum on February 21 – one month after the 10th anniversary of President Morales’s rise to power – threatens a break with the country’s tradition and the democratic principle of power alternation.  A “Yes” vote on the constitutional amendment up for approval would allow Morales and Vice President García Linera to run in 2019 for a fourth consecutive term – a scenario that the fragmented opposition claims would mean not only greater concentration of power in a personalistic leader but also a shift toward authoritarianism, similar to that in Venezuela.  The government claims that a “No” vote would mean the end of an era of unprecedented economic and democratic stability, the end of measures that have empowered subordinate groups in society, and the return of the right and neoliberalism.  Opinion polls so far show the vote will be close.

Morales’s efforts to extend his time in office are consistent with his tendencies to dominate politics and the policy process.  Yet my research shows that increased political incorporation during his government has also given previously marginalized groups enhanced influence over agenda-setting and policy-making and led to important shifts in domestic power relations.  In today’s Bolivia, well-organized interest groups typically belonging to the “informal” labor sector (such as coca growers, cooperative miners, and transportation unions) have greater influence over policy from within the state (in representative institutions and state bureaucracies at all levels) and from without (direct pressure in the streets).  This has resulted in greater regime responsiveness to the groups’ interests and in policies that expand economic and social benefits, as well as improvements in poverty and inequality reduction – even without meeting some of their fundamental needs such as employment and health care reform.  While in some instances newly empowered groups have mobilized and served as a check on state power, their role is founded on a highly particularistic relationship of the MAS and allied groups and, as such, can actually be an obstacle for governing in the interest of broader segments of society.

An intense government campaign in favor of the constitutional amendment is already under way and will likely deepen in the coming weeks.  The Morales government lacks the kind of epic framing it had when it first won the presidential election in 2005.  Citizens today express concerns similar to those voiced during previous governments – concentration of power, widespread corruption, inefficient institutions, weak protection of liberal rights, politicization of courts, and hostility to opponents and the press.  A “Yes” victory on February 21 would not automatically mean a shift to an authoritarian regime as core features of authoritarianism (i.e., power exercised by a small group overriding the will of the citizens) are not currently evident.  In addition, Morales’s tendencies to dominate often meet strong checks from a relatively autonomous civil society.  Comparative evidence suggests, however, that a fourth Morales term might lead to further power concentration and decreased political input from below — which could mean a weakening of the MAS as an organizational actor for the empowerment of subordinate groups independent of its undisputed leader.  A “No” victory, on the other hand, would not necessarily mean the end of the social and political transformations carried out by the MAS.  If nothing else, Bolivia’s “process of change” over the past decade has given rise to a “new normal” of more inclusive institutions and basic social programs that benefit large sectors of the population and will be difficult for any future government to reverse.

January 19, 2016

* Santiago Anria is a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University’s Center for Inter-American Policy and Research.