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.

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.

Bolivia’s Elections and Evo’s Surprising Political Malaise

By Robert Albro

Previous elections in La Paz. Photo credit: Pablo Andres Rivero / Flicker / CC BY-NC-ND

Previous elections in La Paz. Photo credit: Pablo Andres Rivero / Flicker / CC BY-NC-ND

Departmental and municipal elections in Bolivia last week dealt a significant setback to President Evo Morales’s party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).  Benefiting from strong economic growth, broad-based support from among the country’s many social movements, and the absence of major controversy, last October Morales was elected to a third term as Bolivia’s president with an impressive 61 percent of the vote.  He is on track to be in office until 2020, making him the longest-serving leader in Bolivian history.  Last week, however, the party won just four of nine races for departmental governor and two of the races for mayor in Bolivia’s ten largest cities, reversing a trend of sustained MAS dominance since Evo’s election in 2006.  Most alarming for the MAS is that it lost across the board in the previous strongholds of La Paz and El Alto.  This unexpected outcome has touched off speculation that the MAS is running out of steam.

The MAS emerged as a national political force during the sustained social ferment of the early 2000s.  It reaped the benefits of widespread popular disenchantment with government as a movement for change and indigenous enfranchisement, and it built a successful coalition across ethnic, class, rural-urban, and to some extent, regional differences.  The MAS’s rise coincided with the collapse of the country’s established political parties.  As the only remaining national political movement, the MAS has since often identified its approach to governance as a bottom up, participatory, or popular plebiscite – a multiethnic and plurinational vision of local autonomy that it has successfully enshrined in the country’s constitution.  Addressing last week’s upset, Vice President Alvaro García Linera noted the MAS had done a poor job of cultivating new local leaders.  Evo suggested it was a “punishment vote” in response to recent corruption scandals involving MAS candidates.  Nor did Morales do his candidates any favors when he threatened not to work with opposition politicians in El Alto or La Paz if they were elected.

Despite this setback for the MAS, local opposition at the polls does not necessarily lead to national opposition.  The political opposition remains fragmented, and the MAS remains the country’s only truly national political party.  Even where it lost races for governor or mayor, in most cases the MAS enjoys a majority in the state legislatures or city councils.  However, several factors – corruption scandals, continued dependence on the extractive industries, and the party’s habit of co-opting right-wing non-masistas as candidates where it thinks they will win – point to the stubborn persistence of different national and local political realities.  When the MAS has run into problems in recent years, as with recent controversy over a plan to build a highway through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park, it is because it misread local political terrain, chose poor candidates, and ran afoul of regional or local autonomies.  The horizontal and plural coalition-building that has been the MAS’s hallmark can be a clunky local political instrument.  Last week highlighted that local electorates are less driven by social movement ferment, ideology, or historical change; are notably distrustful of MAS impositions from above; and are more interested in prosaic matters of good governance and candidates they know and trust. It was certainly not the beginning of the end of the MAS.  But if the national party continues to struggle in the face of diverse local political realities, it could signal for the MAS a gradual death by a thousand cuts.

April 9, 2015

Bolivia: Evo Wins Again

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Evo Morales’s landslide election to a third term – fueled by a combination of moderate policies and fiery leftist rhetoric – portends continued stability in the near term, with still no indication of how his party will continue its project after him.  Although official results have yet to be announced, and some preliminary data show Evo garnering around 54 percent of the vote, exit poll estimates gave Evo a massive lead of 60 to 25 percent over the next closest candidate, a wealthy cement magnate named Samuel Doria Medina.  Regardless, the enormous margin separating Evo from his competitors precludes a runoff race.  Doria, who also ran against Evo in 2005 and 2009, claimed that OAS praise for the elections before the polls closed was “not normal,” but he is not disputing the results and has conceded defeat.  Congratulations to Evo poured in first from his left-leaning allies – Presidents Maduro (Venezuela), Mujica (Uruguay), Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina), and Sánchez Cerén (El Salvador) – but other voices soon followed.  The victory set Evo on track to be the longest-serving president in Bolivian history since national founder Andrés de Santa Cruz lost power in 1839.  His party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), is also reported to have expanded its control of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, although vote tallies are not final.

Evo has achieved things his domestic and foreign detractors said were impossible.  While his rhetoric has been stridently leftist and anti-U.S. – he even dedicated his “anti-imperialist triumph” to Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro – his policies have been decidedly pragmatic and disciplined, and the results have curried favor for him among foes.  His economic czar has emphasized Bolivia’s commitment to “have socialist policies with macroeconomic equilibrium … applying economic science.”  The economy grew 6.8 percent last year and is on course to grow another 5 percent this year.  Foreign reserves have skyrocketed; Bolivia’s are proportionately the largest in the world.  Poverty has declined; one in five Bolivians now lives in extreme poverty, as compared to one in three eight years ago.  IMF and World Bank officials, whose policies Evo largely rejected, have grudgingly conceded he has managed the economy well.  Some of his projects, such as a teleférico cable car system linking La Paz with the sprawling city of El Alto, have garnered praise for their economic and political vision.  He even won in the province of Santa Cruz, a cradle of anti-Evo conspiracy several years ago.  In foreign policy, he has good ties across the continent, but strains with Washington continue.  The two countries have been without ambassadors in each other’s capital since 2008, and talks to resolve differences over the activities of DEA and USAID failed and led to their expulsion from Bolivia.

Sixty-plus percent in a clean election for a third term – rare if your initials aren’t FDR – signals that Evo, like Roosevelt, is a transformative figure.  No matter how brilliantly Evo has led the country, however, the big gap between his MAS party and the opposition suggests political imbalances that could threaten progress over time if he doesn’t move to spread out the power.  Evo has given the MAS power to implement his agenda, but he has not given space to rising potential successors.  He has said he will “respect the Constitution” regarding a now-disallowed fourth term, but it would take great discipline not to encourage his two-thirds majority in the Senate to go ahead with an amendment allowing him yet another term.  It would be naïve, moreover, to dismiss out of hand the opposition’s allegations of corruption by Evo’s government, but his ability to grow his base above the poor and well into the middle class suggests that, for now, the fraud and abuse do not appear to be very debilitating … yet.  Washington, for its part, seems content with a relationship lacking substance rather than joining the rest of the hemisphere in cooperating with Bolivia where it can.

Other AULABLOG posts on this and related topics:  ALBA Governments and Presidential Succession; Lessons from the MAS; and Will Bolivia’s Half Moon Rise Again?

October 14, 2014

Bolivia: Lessons from the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

Joaquín Eguren / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Joaquín Eguren / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As Bolivian President Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) prepares for the October 12 general election – which opinion polls indicate it will win by wide margins – the MAS appears to be a remarkably diverse organization capable of adapting operations to different regions of the country.  It fits neither the typical journalistic portrayal of Latin American social and political movements as clashing with political parties and elected governments, nor political scientists’ characterization of parties as unitary actors under the control of a unified leadership.  Founded by coca growers in the mid-1990s as their “political instrument” to contest power, the MAS has become the collective political expression of grassroots organizations now in power – to this day having diffuse boundaries and multiple faces, combining features of a grassroots movement and a party, and being a remarkably successful instrument for exercising rule.

The MAS’s regional diversity is one of its greatest strengths.  As an organizational actor, it looks and operates differently in different contexts depending on how the political space is structured.  In the Bolivian central region of the Chapare, where strong peasant unions are aligned with the MAS and control the territory, civil society and party are fused.  Grassroots organizations monopolize the political space, and local decision-making structures are embedded in the union structure.  Their success is rooted in “agrarian union democracy,” which emphasizes that “bases” exert control on the leadership – that the rank and file should lead and leaders should follow.  In the eastern city of Santa Cruz, on the other hand, the MAS has made inroads in traditionally hostile territory by developing an unusually strong local party organization with remarkable mobilization capacity, and that capacity gives it a central role in local governance.  As in other cities with large informal economies, the local structure draws support from two powerful urban sectors – transportation workers and street venders – and is organized territorially in districts that operate both during and between elections.  Rather than having the features of a movement, in Santa Cruz the MAS looks and works more like a conventional political party.  In the Chapare, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, the MAS organization has considerable latitude to operate locally within alliances and policies usually defined at the national level.  As a result, the MAS and its governmental counterparts are not often, or by necessity, in tension.

Latin American history offers many examples of political movements becoming personalistic vehicles for charismatic leaders.  More than 10 years since it became a credible electoral vehicle, the MAS may offer a more promising organizational alternative.  Morales is certainly a charismatic leader, with significant popular legitimacy and authority within the MAS.  His leadership cannot be overstated, and he is the dominant figure binding a wide array of grassroots movements and organizations.  Yet, the MAS has remained permeable to popular input in areas where civil society is strong and has mechanisms to arrive at collective decisions.  In the last general elections in 2009, grassroots influence was consequential: it led to the massive entrance of individuals and members of allied grassroots organizations into the highest level of political representation.  Their participation in Congress (the Plurinational Legislative Assembly) has pushed to diversify the legislative agenda still largely subordinated to the executive.  New MAS leaders willing or able to challenge Morales’s leadership have not emerged but, as the candidacies for the upcoming elections are defined, the strong regional dynamics could alter the composition of the new parliamentary group.  Whether the MAS will remain open, and whether it will manage to outgrow its dominant leader figure, will depend on the continuing strength of allied groups in civil society.

*Santiago Anria is a Ph.D candidate in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Will Bolivia’s Half Moon Rise Again?

By Robert Albro

Embed from Getty Images

In early 2014 Bolivian President Evo Morales’s main nemesis, the Media Luna (or Half Moon), composing the eastern departments of Tarija, Pando, and Beni, and led by the economically powerful department of Santa Cruz, has all but vanished politically. Morales is a prohibitive favorite to win a third term, while the opposition Social Democratic Movement built on the vestiges of the Media Luna is not a serious electoral contender. In 2008 this seemed highly improbable. Evo Morales was in a battle for control of Bolivia’s future. The Media Luna was in open revolt. The conflict had begun with Morales’s election in 2005 and was exacerbated by the acrimonious constituent assembly of 2006-2007. It came to a head over the MAS government’s intention to nationalize the country’s natural gas industry and use royalties from Tarija’s vast reserves to fund a new national pension plan. The Media Luna wanted greater regional autonomy and control over revenues. Its August 2008 revolt, which raged for several months, included a region-wide strike, widespread road blocks, takeover of natural gas facilities, government offices, and airports, and violent skirmishes between youth brigades and the police and army, culminating in the killing or wounding of dozens of pro-MAS indigenous marchers in Pando.

Then what happened? The Media Luna, led by elites who had dominated Bolivia’s economic and political fortunes at least up through the second Banzer regime (1997-2001), discovered the limits of its diminishing influence. Throughout the conflict in 2008, Morales maintained control of the machinery of state, including the police and the military, while opposition leaders lacked a political party, critical presence in government, or the international leverage to oust the MAS government. Nor did they have a clear agenda beyond opposition to Morales. Their at times racist attacks fueled national outrage, mobilized defenders of the government, and elicited international condemnation. Accused of conspiring with the Media Luna, the U.S. ambassador was expelled. Media Luna overtures to the OAS were rejected. Most tellingly, UNASUR issued an unequivocal statement supporting Morales’s “constitutional government” and comparing Media Luna tactics to the ousting of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973.

Morales’s 67% victory total in the 2008 recall vote, convened as a concession to the opposition, hastened its fragmentation. Moreover, the MAS has made steady electoral inroads in the East, in part capitalizing upon a demographic shift. Santa Cruz is now far from “wealthy and white,” and the MAS enjoys sizable support among indigenous groups, highland in-migrants, urban and rural poor, and small business owners. Support for the MAS led to popular rejection of autonomy initiatives in these departments. The MAS has also successfully recruited candidates among former elite enemies, a strategy of cooptation that has enabled it to gain six of nine governorships (including in Pando). Even in the once reactionary bastion of Santa Cruz, the MAS won nine of fifteen provinces in the most recent elections. At the same time, the MAS has promoted its model of state capitalism with the private sector, promising to respect private property, and pledging economic development, even as it has begun to expropriate the agricultural holdings of many lowland opposition leaders.

What seemed an existential threat to Morales and the MAS in 2008 has been reduced to a disjointed cadre of right-wing ideologues in 2014. The fate of the Media Luna is a lesson about the sometimes rapidly changing political and economic circumstances around elites in Bolivia and Latin America. The MAS firmly controls the Bolivian state and enjoys broadly distributed electoral support. Despite occasional tensions, neighboring states have also backed the Morales administration. With major agribusiness and hydrocarbons investments in Bolivia, Brazil energetically pressured Media Luna leaders to negotiate with the MAS government. Internationally isolated, lacking a credible electoral instrument, with less economic clout than in the past, Media Luna elites also have lost their historical monopoly brokering access to the global economy. Perhaps hardest to recapture: they no longer appear able to offer a compelling national project or vision for the future.