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.

A Return to Political Instability for Ecuador?

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

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Presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso (center, blue shirt) in Cuenca, Ecuador during a campaign rally last month. / Samurai Juan / Flickr / Creative Commons

General elections on Sunday could mark the beginning of the end of an impressive period of stability in Ecuador. Ecuadorians will elect a new congress and a replacement for the powerful and populist Rafael Correa, the longest-serving chief executive in the country’s history. Although the president’s handpicked successor, ex-Vice President Lenín Moreno is leading public opinion polls with 32 percent of likely voters in a crowded eight-candidate field, the chances of him winning a first-round victory outright are slim. Public approval of Correa and his ruling Alianza PAIS (AP) has fallen over the past two years as economic growth has slowed, and the administration is embroiled in allegations of corruption, including those against Jorge Glas Espinel, incumbent vice-president and Moreno’s running mate. Given Ecuador’s two-round presidential system, in which candidates must win by 10 percent or gain 40 percent of the vote, Moreno probably will end up in a run-off election on April 2.

  • The other seven candidates are vying for the chance to face Moreno in the second round. Three of them poll between 8 and 21 percent, and the rest appear to have 4 percent or less of the vote. However, rejection of the entire field is high – nearly 12 percent of respondents say they will cast a null vote – and a whopping 35 percent maintain that they are undecided.

Moreno does not appear likely to win the runoff. The Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that voters will coalesce around an opposition candidate – most likely the CREO movement’s Guillermo Lasso, a conservative former economy minister and banker who ran a distant second to Correa in the 2013 presidential race – who would then defeat Moreno.

  • If Moreno and Glas win, they will likely continue Correa’s leftist “Citizens’ Revolution,” especially its improvements to social welfare and emphasis on science and technology, and maintain close ties with China, which has become a key partner in trade and infrastructure investment over the past decade. If the opposition wins, it will try to repeal some of Correa’s onerous taxes, reverse stringent regulation of the media, shrink the size of the state, and seek improved relations with the U.S.

Regardless of who wins, the fragmented support for the candidates and their parties bodes poorly for Ecuador’s political stability, especially in the context of fiscal constraints, a stagnant economy, and burden of recovery from last April’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake. The so-called muerte cruzada (mutual death) in Article 148 of the country’s 2008 Constitution, moreover, will loom larger under a divided government. This clause gives the president a political “nuclear option” to dissolve the National Assembly in the event of gridlock, triggering new legislative and presidential elections – while the incumbent president is allowed to rule by decree on urgent economic matters in the interim. Correa, who enjoyed majority or near-majority government throughout his unprecedented ten-year presidency, never invoked the muerte cruzada, but his successor will feel stronger temptation to dissolve the Assembly in order to govern unilaterally. Ecuadorians should brace for an end to the country’s unprecedented political stability – and for the specter of Correa, much like the possibility of muerte cruzada, to loom large over the new government’s economic and political decisions.

February 17, 2017

* John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Latin America Sees Little That’s “Great” about U.S. Caudillo

By Aaron T. Bell*

Trump Latin America

Photo Credit: Maialisa/Pixabay/Public Domain (modified) and NASA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Donald Trump’s presumptive nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for president is raising fears among Latin Americans that the United States could close the door on them, while also provoking self-reflection about the region’s own potential to produce a Donald of its own.  Mexico has borne the brunt of Mr. Trump’s hostility for “beating us economically” and “sending people that have a lot of problems.”  He has proposed imposing steep tariffs on Mexico, restricting its access to visas, and forcing it to pay for a border wall.  Gustavo Madero, former president of the Partido Acción Nacional, denounced him as a “venom-spitting psychopath,” while members of Mexico’s Partido de la Revolución Democrática organized a social media campaign – #MXcontraTrump – to rebut Mr. Trump’s attacks.  Mexican President Peña Nieto has pledged to stay out of U.S. electoral politics and work with whomever is elected, but he rejected any notion that Mexico would pay for a wall and compared Mr. Trump’s rhetoric to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini’s.  In addition to initiating a public relations campaign to promote the positive effects of U.S.-Mexican relations, Peña Nieto replaced his ambassador to the United States, who was criticized for soft-pedaling Mr. Trump’s comments, with Carlos Sada, an experienced diplomat with a reputation for toughness.

Other nations have joined in the criticism while looking inward as well:

  • Latin American critics have compared Trump’s populism to that of Venezuelan Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, and former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Colombia, a member of the Partido Verde described former President Álvaro Uribe’s call for civil resistance to peace negotiations with the FARC as a “Donald Trump-like proposal.”  In Lucia, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony accused opposition leader Allen Chastenet of “fast becoming the Donald Trump of St. Lucian politics” for resorting to the “politics of hate and divisiveness.”
  • While worrying what might happen if immigrants to the United States are forced to return home, the editorial page of Guatemala’s La Hora has raised the issue of the long-term wisdom of relying on remittances. Meanwhile Argentina’s Nueva Sociedad used attention to Trump’s immigrant comments to analyze restrictive immigration policies within Latin America.
  • Some political observers see Mr. Trump’s rise as a warning of the danger of divisive politics. In Colombia’s El Tiempo, Carlos Caballero Argáez wrote that polarization and anti-government discourse in Washington paved the way for a “strong man” like Trump, and cautioned that something similar could happen in Colombia.  In El Salvador, Carlos G. Romero in La Prensa Gráfica attributed Trump’s success to his ability to connect with the working class, and warned that his country’s own parties risk facing a Trump lest they make similar connections.

Much of Latin America’s take on Trump mirrors that of opponents in the United States: they recognize that his support reflects the frustration of those who feel cut out from the benefits of globalization and ignored by political elites of all stripes; they reject his anti-immigrant and misogynistic comments; and they fear that someone with seemingly little depth on global politics may soon be the face of a global superpower.  While the region hasn’t exactly surged in its appreciation for President Obama’s leadership over the past seven years, Trump’s popularity reminds them that many Americans have less appealing values and principles, which could result in policies harmful to the region.  Latin Americans know of what they speak.  One need not look too far into the past to see the catastrophic effects of simplistic, nationalistic, strong-man policies on the people of Latin America.

 June 21, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.

Correction 2016.06.22: Gustavo Madero is the former president of Mexico’s PAN, currently headed by Ricardo Anaya.

Performing the Pope

By Brenda Werth

Photo credit: presidencia.gov.ar | Creative Commons

Photo credit: presidencia.gov.ar | Creative Commons

The pope is a populist par excellence – Pope Francis has proven to be no exception – and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) is trying to harness some of his unprecedented approval for her own ends.  Since his election in March 2013, supporters of Pope Francis have credited him with changing the tone of the Catholic Church, renewing its relevance, detracting attention away from intractable issues (abortion, gay marriage), decrying capitalism and refocusing efforts on fighting inequality and poverty.  “Who am I to judge?” he famously responded when asked to comment on gay priests.  And yet, in his previous life as Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, his judgments with regard to gay rights, specifically his strong condemnation of gay marriage, are what then caused the substantial rift between him and CFK’s government.  The Argentine government has passed some of the most progressive gay rights legislation in the world, making same-sex marriage legal and awarding full adoption rights to same-sex couples in July 2010.  CFK called Bergoglio’s stark opposition medieval.  What is surprising, then, is the conciliation that has taken place between the President and Bergoglio as pope.  It has taken place over the last year in the form of public rituals and urban iconography, bringing the Pope and CFK together in a symbiotic performance of national identity and Peronist imagery.

Given their past differences, their newly fashioned bond conjures a kinship not based solely on shared political views.  CFK has drawn public attention to certain rituals and events that link the two through the construction of familial intimacy.  Perhaps the most stunning example of her attempts to incorporate the Pope into the big happy Kirchner family is in her party’s use of a photographic collage juxtaposing Juan Perón, Néstor Kirchner, CFK, and Pope with the caption, “Mirá pibe a dónde llegamos” (Look, kid, how far we’ve come).  In May 2013 the collage appeared on a gigantic banner covering the façade of the Central Market in plain view of motorists on the heavily transited Riccheri highway.  In June, she broke protocol when she discarded the recommended template and wrote an informal letter to the Pope in honor of the Day of the Pontiff.  Discussed at length in the press, the missive was personal and colloquial in tone and closed mysteriously with Fernández urging the Pope to “take care” and “drink mate.”  When the President’s first grandchild was born a month later, images of the President accepting the Pope’s gift of baby shoes circulated widely in the press, together with her exclamations of “Look what the Pope got me for Néstor Iván.”  And in August, the Perón-Kirchner-Pope collage appeared blazoned on the side of a van deemed the Argentine version of the “Pope mobile,” unveiled by the Kirchner party in support of Frente por la Victoria candidates.

The collage captures perfectly CFK’s campaign to include the Pope in the big happy Kirchner family, but more importantly, it positions CFK herself as a key member of this influential family as she seeks to consolidate not only her own legacy, but also her political future.  With Juan Perón positioned top left and Néstor Kirchner top right, the collage resembles a family tree, in which CFK and the Pope are both direct descendents of a conflated Peronist/Kirchner genealogy.  Recast as founding fathers in this familial image, Juan Perón and Néstor Kirchner look down at CFK and the Pope from an atemporal, mythological realm, their solemn gaze directed at the newfound alliance between CFK and the Pope, solidified through the handshake between two of the world’s savviest of populists.  Dictatorial and democratic regimes alike have manipulated family discourse in Argentina to achieve political means.  The almost imperceptible image of the National Congress Building that constitutes the background of this collage is a reminder of what this performative family portrait ultimately seeks to achieve.  The Pope’s enthusiasm to play the familial role is unclear; a sign of wariness might be detected in his decision to postpone his first official trip to Argentina until 2016.  This date, ostensibly chosen in order for the Pope to participate in the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps more conveniently allows him to avoid the intense campaign period preceding general elections in 2015. 

Correa’s Second Term

By Rob Albro, CLALS Faculty Affiliate

President Rafael Correa, Ecuador | by: "el quinto infierno" | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Rafael Correa, Ecuador | by: “el quinto infierno” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Little drama accompanied results of the February 17 election in Ecuador, where center-left incumbent Rafael Correa retained the presidency by a wide margin. Correa enjoys the highest approval rating – nearly 80% late last year – of any Latin American head of state. He will be the first Ecuadoran president to complete his term since 1996, and his resounding victory at the polls will in principle keep him in office until 2017. Most pre-election polls had projected Correa to win decisively, and he did just that with 56.7% of the popular vote. The opposition is fractured, with seven different candidates running against him. His nearest rival, banker Guillermo Lasso, garnered only 23.3% of the vote. A testament to Correa’s dominance is that the right-leaning Lasso offered a vision little different from the president’s own policies and even adopted key elements of Correa’s discourse. The title of Lasso’s recent book, Another Ecuador is Possible, references the World Social Forum.

Correa’s political base was consolidated during the anti-neoliberal protests of 2005, and his “citizen’s revolution” represents an unorthodox combination of nationalist populism, robust social welfare spending and rhetorical flourishes in defense of Ecuador’s national sovereignty. Correa’s social spending – increasing the health budget, minimum wage, pensions, and access to medical care; offering micro-credit and free school lunches; providing new housing and anti-poverty subsidies –is highly popular, especially with the urban poor. These programs, dependent upon a commodity-led export strategy, have enabled Correa to marginalize once important political actors of the left and right. Organized labor and indigenous movements on the left, like economic and media elites on the right, have picked fights with Correa, objecting to his authoritarian style, attacks on the press, petroleum policies in the Amazon, poor record on crime, and outbursts directed toward foreign investors. But this has made little dent in his popularity.

If Correa is certain to face resistance to his agenda in his new term, the political fragmentation and lack of dramatic choices evident during the campaign suggest that it will not necessarily be effective.  Despite potential fiscal headwinds, redistributive social welfare policies are likely to continue to expand. Questions do remain: regular social investment has been enabled by ramping up an extraction-based economy dependent on oil, which has also generated some social conflict.  But there is mounting evidence that aside from being popular these policies are also measurably successful. Ecuador’s election comes on the heels of Venezuela’s, where opposition candidates also found it necessary to tout redistributive policies. If the economy turns south, a splintered opposition might find common cause. But as in a number of other South American countries, the redistributive politics of an incipient social welfare state will inform the agenda of Correa’s eventual successor. The long-term management of these policies, and whether the President will seek to alter the Constitution to permit indefinite re-election, are matters that could prove vexing during the coming years.