Evo Morales, the leader of the left wing MAS party, was elected as the new president of Bolivia in December. His victory is a reflection of the mass movement against neo-liberalism that has shaken the country in recent years. Valerie Mealla writes from Bolivia
It was ten minutes to nine in the evening in the Cafe Ciudad, in the heart of La Paz, a mere three hours after the polls closed on 18 December 2005, when Jorge Quiroga, the presidential candidate for the right wing Podemos party, ceded victory to Evo Morales.
There was stunned silence across Bolivia.
For the first time in the country’s brief democratic history, the people had voted into power a candidate reflecting the central demand of the movement from below — for change.
In doing so they gave, as one journalist put it, “the death blow to a political model” — that of neo-liberalism.
They also ushered into power the first indigenous (descended from the original inhabitants) president in Bolivia, a country where two thirds of the population are indigenous.
Morales’ goal was a vote of “50 percent plus one”, needed to ensure an outright victory and avoid a run-off in the newly elected congress to decide who would become president — with all the haggling and bargaining that would entail.
A few days before the election polls predicted that Morales and his party, MAS, would win just 35 percent.
Optimists, knowing that, of the country’s nine regions, Morales would carry the areas where the movement from below has been most powerful — La Paz, El Alto, Cochabamba and Oruro — felt he might just make it to 40 percent.
The final vote saw Morales take 54 percent of the vote. This is the first time that a Bolivian president has been elected by popular mandate, without having to rely on a second vote in congress. In his victory speech a visibly shaken Morales promised to change the history of the country.
He also denounced the fact that extraordinarily high numbers of voters had disappeared from the electoral register.
He promised to “govern with the mandate of the Bolivian people”. His running mate, García Linera spoke about the need for a “peaceful and democratic change and the end to an economic model”.
When Morales takes power on 22 January, he will face major challenges if he is to meet the expectations of those who elected him.
MAS must now convert its proposals into reality, promoting growth and keeping its promises — nationalisation of the country’s vast hydrocarbon reserves, land reform, the elimination of corruption, increased investment in education and culture, and the organisation of a constituent assembly, planned for August 2006.
If the results represent a massive vote of confidence in the new governing party and herald the end of an era, they also carry high hopes and expectations from those who have been politically, socially, economically and culturally excluded.
Victory comes from a movement for change
Evo Morales was the candidate most widely identified with the social movement that toppled Bolivian presidents in 2003 and 2005.
In June last year hundreds of thousands of indigenous protesters, miners, peasants and workers demanded the nationalisation of gas and oil reserves, and a national assembly to secure the rights of indigenous people.
The political crisis in Bolivia is the result of the neo-liberal policies imposed by successive governments since the 1980s. Sweeping privatisation and free market policies have seen inequality rise massively.
Many people eke out a living in the barrios of El Alto, which has grown explosively in recent years. Others have turned to growing coca, the raw material for cocaine and one of the few crops that attracts a profit on world markets.
About two-thirds of the population live in poverty. The country’s huge gas reserves have raised hopes that this suffering could end. Evo Morales came to prominence as a coca farmers’ leader, opposing the US-sponsored programme to eradicate coca. His rise reflects the anger from below.
Morales is seen as representing a break with the corrupt politicians that have ruled Bolivia for decades.
He has announced that he and his cabinet would cut their salaries by half and introduce new taxes on the wealthy.
At a meeting on 24 December he said, “This uprising of the Bolivian people has been not only about gas and hydrocarbons, but an intersection of many issues — discrimination, marginalisation and most importantly the failure of neo-liberalism.”
But at certain points Morales has tried to prevent the movement on the streets spilling over into a challenge to the whole existing order.
In 2003 when president Sanchez Lozada was overthrown he helped defuse protests and ensure that Carlos Mesa came to power.
He played a similar role in 2005 when the movement toppled Mesa.
Throughout these struggles Morales’s sights have been set on change through elections.
He has also made moves to reassure Bolivia’s wealthy elite.
Shortly after his election he told businessmen in gas-rich Santa Cruz, “I do not want to harm anybody. I do not want to expropriate or confiscate any assets. I want to learn from the businessmen.”
It is not yet clear how far Morales will go in his plans to nationalise the country’s gas reserves.
He has said that the reserves should be in the hands of the state, but he has also said he will not seize the assets of the British, French, Spanish and Brazilian corporations that are plundering Bolivia’s most precious resource.
Now Morales has achieved his aim of entering the presidential palace, he will face major challenges and be subject to the pressure applied by the Bolivian elite, the multinationals and foreign governments.
The movement from below will continue to play a decisive role in determining the future direction of the country.
Two different roads
Media commentators have registered Morales’s victory as another sign that Latin America is turning left.
In recent years a number of governments have asserted their opposition to US domination and have made outspoken criticisms of the neo-liberal model pushed by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
However, these “left governments” have widely different records in office. Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela has gone furthest in breaking with neo-liberalism.
When elected in 1998 Chavez promised to find a third way between neo-liberalism and state intervention. But his policies have been radicalised by successive attempts to overthrow him, and the powerful movement from below that has kept him in power.
Venezuela’s immense oil profits have also allowed substantial increases in social spending without having to seize the wealth of the country’s capitalist elite.
Other governments have been far less impressive. The government led by Lula and his Workers Party in Brazil was elected with high expectations in 2002.
But Lula has reached deals with the IMF and introduced tighter economic policies than his predecessors, leading to even greater inequality. Governments in Uruguay, Ecuador and Argentina have followed similar courses.
It is the spread of powerful movements from below that holds real hope for Latin America.