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.

Argentina: The (Un)Fulfilled Promises of an Election Year

By Ernesto Calvo*

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Palace of the Argentine National Congress / Andresumida / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

As the 2017 mid-term election approaches, both Argentine voters and party elites see a gloomy present and a bright future. With only seven months until the October 22 election, the economy still shows few signs of recovery. Patience is running thin in Congress, among governors, and with organized labor – but it seems to be never-ending among voters.

  • For over a year, surveys have shown that a majority of voters perceive their personal economic situation as dire. In survey parlance, each month voters perceive that they are worse off than in the previous month. Yet, to the surprise of specialists, a majority of voters also expect the economy to improve in the next month. Indeed, voters seem as willing to credit the current administration of President Mauricio Macri for its policy choices as they are unhappy with the economy.
  • The opposition is betting its future success on the dismal economic outlook: high inflation, stagnating wages, and lack of growth. The government expects voters’ optimism, the raw expectation of future growth, to carry the day. The increasing gap between current perceptions and future expectations has baffled specialists. The only possible result, many confide, is either a rude awakening for the administration or a real change in the pace of economic growth.

Both parties suffer from divisions. Former President Cristina Fernández’s Front for Victory still carries most support among Peronists, although many fear that a Senate victory by their leader in the Province of Buenos Aires will ensure a divided party in the election of 2019. Peronist dissident Sergio Massa is still running outside the party, and few anticipate any grand-coalition before 2019. The other traditional party, the UCR, remains on life support after a decade of mishaps, and is only a minor partner of President Macri’s party, Republican Proposal (PRO), in the government coalition. Meanwhile, the incumbent PRO has yet to decide their strategy to form Provincial alliances and nominate its candidates.

As the election nears, it is unclear whether voters will hold the government responsible for their current economic malaise or will still believe in PRO’s capacity to deliver a better economy. Voters have one leg in a bad economy and another leg in the promise of a better tomorrow. They are, in the words of the Herald Editor J.G. Bennet, “Like a stork by a frog pond, they are as yet undecided which to rest upon.” Eventually, one of the two legs will have to go up, for either the government or the opposition – but not both – to celebrate on Election Day. Regardless, the mid-term election may provide little information as to who the real winner is. With no presidential candidates on the ballot, no important gubernatorial races to publicize, and only one important Senator on the line (that of the Province of Buenos Aires), the signal will be unclear. If the government does extremely well, it may gather a third of the House vote, all provinces considered together. If the government performs badly, it may get a quarter of the House seats. As the election approaches, it would seem that the only measure of success or failure would be whether the government coalition, Cambiemos, wins first, second, or third place in races for the National Senators of the Province of Buenos Aires. More troubling yet, it is unlikely that the result of the election, whichever it may be, will clarify the choices faced by voters, the future of the Peronists, or the likelihood of a steady government coalition after 2017.

March 9, 2017

*Ernesto Calvo is a Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland.

The Open Veins of Latin America: Disowned?

By Núria Vilanova

tintincai / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

tintincai / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Forty-three years after its publication, the emblematic and widely read Latin American anti-colonialist bestseller The Open Veins of Latin America has been disowned by its creator, 74-year-old Eduardo Galeano – but its literary message remains vital.  Interviewed last May about the book often called the “Bible of the Latin American Left,” Galeano said, “I don’t regret having written it, but it belongs to a time that to me has been overcome.”  His words left a sense of abandonment and deceit among many, who asked:  What had happened to the bleeding veins of Latin America drained by European and U.S. colonial powers?  Hadn’t the region been sacrificed since Columbus to profit diabolic foreign interests?  When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Obama a copy of the book in 2009, was he clinging to an interpretation of Latin American history no longer embraced by the region’s leading thinkers?  Others asked, however well-deserved a denunciation of the exploitation and oppression laid out in the book was, were they to be blamed for all of the damage inflicted in the region?

Galeano’s interview signaled a refocussing of his analysis rather than wholesale rejection of it.  He said Open Veins was too boring and written in a tedious style and with the doctrinal tone of the traditional left.  He added that in those early days of his career he did not know enough politics and economics to write a book of such reach.  What Galeano has demonstrated by this unassuming recognition is that he has evolved through the years and, like many others, realizes that the dependentista paradigm, with its rejection of western capitalism, that fueled his book had important shortcomings, and overlooked other key problems.  He underestimated the impact of weak institutions – anticipated by Bolívar in the early 19th Century – and internal political and economic issues such as government corruption and the unwillingness of the ruling classes to contribute to the development of more democratic and egalitarian societies, as Marx himself would argue when writing about Southern countries.

The real – and not insignificant – value of Open Veins today lies in its literary character.  Its capacity to capture the spirit, the hope and the rage of those turbulent times in the region lives on.  Filled with metaphors and symbolism, it is an essay, whose literary dimension makes it current and ageless.  Stemming from a deep Latin American tradition, the book crosses the blurred borders between literature and history, sociology, politics and other disciplines alike.  Like José Martí, Ricardo Palma and Octavio Paz, Galeano attempted to transgress the boundaries between literature – subjectivity, imagination and hyperbole – and disciplines based on empiricism and factuality.  This practice can lead to challenges over facts, but the messages remain compelling.  Elizabeth Burgos’s testimonial account of Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchú in I Rigoberta Menchú (1984) was criticized for alleged inaccuracies, yet it is difficult for anyone to deny that the suffering of the Mayan Quiché community in the 70s and 80s was at least as cruel as Rigoberta depicted in the book.  Carlos Fuentes once said that reality will always overpower fiction, no matter how hard writers tried.  The intellectual evolution that Galeano has displayed is welcome, and it is also an inspiration to reread Open Veins and Latin America with much-needed fresh eyes.

December 2, 2014