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 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’s Remarkable Political Stability

By Miguel Centellas*

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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.