Bolivia and the Progressive Mandate
in Latin America
What will Evo Morales learn from
leftist governments in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela?
by Ben Dangl & Mark Engler
www.zmag.org, March 2006
On January 21, on a hill outside of La
Paz, a traditional ceremony marked both a major shift in Bolivian
politics and a milestone for the growing New Left in Latin America.
At Tiwanaku, a site of pre-Incan ruins significant to the country's
indigenous populations, Evo Morales, barefoot and dressed in a
red tunic, received a silver and gold staff from leaders of the
Aymara people. It was the first time in 500 years that this ritual
transfer of leadership had been performed in Bolivia and it came
just a day before Morales, former president of the coca-growers'
union and the leader of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party,
was officially inaugurated president of Bolivia.
In December Morales, who had campaigned
on a platform championing indigenous rights and denouncing economic
neoliberalism, won a landslide victory. He bested rivals, including
Jorge Quiroga, a Washington favorite who had served as president
of Bolivia from 2001 to 2002, finishing the term of past dictator
Hugo Banzer. With a surprising 54 percent of the vote in a multi-party
race, Morales not only secured the margin needed to avoid a run-off
vote, he obtained the largest mandate ever given a president in
Yet Morales's hardest work may have just
begun. He takes power as the first indigenous president in a country
where nearly two-thirds of the population identifies with the
Aymara, Quechua, or other indigenous groups. The same fraction
of the country lives in poverty and the divide between rich and
poor closely follows racial lines. Morales has announced plans
to nationalize the country's gas reserves, rewrite the constitution
in a popular assembly, redistribute land to poor farmers, and
change the rules of the U.S.-led war on drugs in Bolivia. If he
helps spur on the radical change that his social movement base
demands, he will face pressure from corporate investors and from
the White House. If he chooses a more moderate path, Bolivia's
social movements have pledged to organize the same type of strikes
and protests that have ousted two previous presidents in the past
As Morales faces these trials in the coming
months, he will do so in the context of a South America that has
moved increasingly leftward. His Administration joins left-of-center
governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile.
These countries offer diverse suggestions for what progressive
governments can accomplish and how social movements and financial
elites might respond.
The Bolivian Moment
Morales begins his presidency following
several years of social upheaval in Bolivia, fueled by a rejection
of two decades of corporate globalization that deepened poverty
and exacerbated inequality in the country. In April 2000 the residents
of Cochabamba, Bolivia's third largest city, organized street
protests and blockades against water privatization pushed by the
World Bank and carried out by the Bechtel Corporation. In February
2003, 34 Bolivians were killed during protests against an income
tax hike imposed at the behest of the International Monetary Fund
(IMF). In part of what became known as Bolivia's "gas war,"
over 60 people were killed in protests in October 2003 against
further privatization of the country's natural gas and a plan
to export the resource through Chile.
At that time, Bolivia's indigenous majority
widely referred to the sitting president-multi-millionaire Gonzalo
Sanchez de Lozada-as "el gringo" because he was raised
in the United States and spoke Spanish with an accent. As president,
Sanchez de Lozada, a leader of one of Bolivia's leading right-wing
parties-the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement-stood as a long-time
proponent of trade liberalization and IMF-recommended structural
After gas war demonstrators were killed,
street protests began calling for Sanchez de Lozada's resignation.
He was ultimately ousted on October 19, 2003. Vice President Carlos
Mesa took his place, as stipulated in the country's constitution.
Under Mesa, a referendum on Bolivia's gas resources was held in
July 2004. The measure did not include the option of nationalizing
the country's natural gas reserves, as demanded by the social
movements. As a result, protests continued. In March 2005, amid
further mass demonstrations, Mesa left office, claiming he was
incapable of governing such a tumultuous country.
Among the presidential candidates that
ran in the December 2005 election, Morales had the broadest ties
to the country's social movements, having built Bolivia's coca
growers' union into one of the most prominent social movements
in the country. Yet despite his history as an organizer, Morales
played a limited role in the popular uprisings of recent years.
During the height of the gas war in 2003, for example, when mobilizations
took to the streets to demand the nationalization of the country's
Morales attended meetings in Geneva on
parliamentary politics. Morales's actions were aimed at generating
broad support among diverse sectors of society, including the
middle class and those who did not fully support the tactics of
protest groups. This strategy, combined with directing the momentum
of social movements into the electoral realm, helped contribute
to his victory on December 18.
For their part, social movements supported
Morales as the best option in the electoral contest. However,
their allegiance to the state remains limited. As Oscar Olivera,
a key leader in the revolt against the privatization of Cochabamba's
water in 2000, explained in a recent interview with Uruguayan
political scientist Raúl Zibechi, "We are creating
a movement, a nonpartisan social-political front that addresses
the most vital needs of the people through a profound change in
power relations, social relations, and the management of water,
electricity, and garbage."
"The [54 percent] isn't a blank check,
it's a loan," said political analyst Helena Argirakis to
Los Tiempos, Cochabamba's daily newspaper. Her colleague Fernando
García added, "The social movements' support of Morales
will always be conditional."
At the same time, Morales faces severe
external pressure if he antagonizes foreign creditors. Conservatives
in the United States have been horrified by the success of Morales
whom they regularly slander as a narco-terrorist because of his
support of coca growers. (Although coca can be used to produce
cocaine, the natural plant leaves are used to make tea, have traditional
importance for the country's indigenous people, and are almost
impossible to abuse in their natural form.) Bolivia owes large
debts to international financial institutions, including the World
Bank, the IMF, and the Inter-American Development Bank. This gives
the U.S. an effective veto over future loans to the country and
thus the potential to plunge Bolivia's shaky economy into economic
crisis. Domestic right-wing factions, centered in the wealthy
province of Santa Cruz (the heartland of Bolivia's energy industry),
are threatening to secede if resource extraction is nationalized.
These conservatives are ready to side with the U.S. and the IMF
against Morales should an international showdown take place.
New Left Accomplishments?
In looking for a model for managing these
tensions, Morales can examine the record of other progressive
Administrations that have taken power in Latin America. Progressive
governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile
have generally increased social spending and devoted greater attention
to the needs of the poor. Rarely, however, have they lived up
to the expectations of the social movements that helped put them
Likewise, the electoral success of progressives
in South America has signaled a backlash to two decades of unfettered
economic neoliberalism. Yet the extent to which each country has
rejected the policies of the Washington Consensus varies greatly.
The most recent electoral victory for the left in Latin America
has taken place in Chile. There, a coalition of Christian Democrats
and Socialists known as Concertación had governed since
the end of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990. On January
15, Chileans elected Socialist Michelle Bachelet as their new
president. Bachelet is the first woman to govern the country and
only the third female directly elected a head of state in Latin
American history. (Her family has been imprisoned and her father
killed by the Pinochet regime in the 1970s.) While Bachelet's
victory marks an exciting cultural shift, the president-elect
has vowed to "walk the same road" as the sitting socialist
president, Ricardo Lagos. Lagos has supported neoliberal initiatives
such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), maintained
close ties with Washington, and distanced himself from more radical
governments in the region. Although optimistic international observers
hope that Bachelet will break with the moderation of the Lagos
administration to more aggressively address the sharp inequality
in the country, her statements thus far stress continuity.
More relevant to the Bolivian situation
are the examples of Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. Each represents
a dominant economy in the region and each has fared differently
since progressives have held power, offering unique lessons for
Bucking the IMF in Argentina: In 2003
the left-leaning Néstor Kirchner took office in Argentina
in the aftermath of the 2001 collapse of the country's economy
and the popular uprisings that forced several successive governments
from power. The neoliberal policies supported by the IMF and implemented
by President Carlos Menem in the 1990s were widely seen as responsible
for the collapse. Since then, Argentina has set an important example
by breaking with the IMF and playing hardball with international
The country made a credible threat of
defaulting on its payments to the IMF-something previously unheard
of for middle-income countries. In response the IMF backed away
from demands for austerity and higher interest rates. It did so
for fear that other countries would follow Argentina in defaulting.
The exchange shook the international standing of the IMF and allowed
Argentina to finalize a renegotiation of over $100 billion in
foreign debt in 2005. The renegotiation drastically reduced the
value of the country's outstanding obligations to private creditors.
Moreover, Argentina's stance against the IMF has allowed the country
to base its economic recovery on policies that, while not venturing
far to the left of the standard Keynesian playbook, run contrary
to those preferred by Washington. Beyond economic policy, Kirchner
has supported the repeal of amnesty laws protecting military officers.
This action has helped open a large number of legal cases against
human rights abusers from Argentina's past military government.
Still, tensions remain between Kirchner's
government and forces like the piqueteros (the unemployed workers'
movement). Such movements accuse the president of using radical
or nationalistic posturing to cover more conservative policy decisions.
One illustration of this conflict came with Kirchner's announcement
in December that the government (following a similar move by Brazil)
would "un-indebt" Argentina by paying off $9.8 billion
to the IMF. Citing the pain that the financial institution has
caused to the country's people, Kirchner framed the move as a
decision to be rid of the IMF and its odious policy recommendations
for good. However, as the Darío Santillán Popular
Front, a piquetero organization, pointed out, the move amounted
to a full debt repayment, rather than a renunciation. "Despite
the progressive rhetoric, the debt is paid off with the hunger
of the people," the group said in a statement cited by the
Inter-Press Service. Ultimately, the relevance of the decision
as a model for other progressive governments will depend on the
Kirchner government's ability to use its newfound freedom from
the IMF to chart an increasingly independent economic course.
Lost innocence in Brazil: The Brazilian
Workers' Party (PT) has stayed on a more conservative path since
taking the presidency, to the disappointment of many who were
enthusiastic to see Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva gain
office in 2003. Early on, Lula, a former metalworker and union
leader, pursued a "pragmatic" economic policy. His cautious
decisions were designed to reassure foreign investors and avoid
precipitous capital flight-a genuine concern for any country wishing
to avoid the economic collapse that Argentina had already experienced.
Over time, Lula's course has become virtually indistinguishable
from the policy direction the PT once criticized harshly. Lula
has opted to follow IMF prescriptions and continue making payments
on Brazil's huge foreign debt, which the World Bank valued in
2002 as 49.6 percent of Brazil's GDP (or some $230 billion). For
20 years the PT had campaigned against paying the debt, arguing
that it took too much money from social programs and productive
economic investment. The president's current position is a far
cry from even the most moderate of his party's past denunciations.
Lula's administration has been more aggressive
in pursuing some neoliberal measures than even the IMF has demanded.
IMF dictates call on the Brazilian government to maintain a primary
budget surplus of 3.75 percent of the country's GDP. But, Lula
has voluntarily elected to maintain an even greater primary surplus
of 4.25 percent, leaving money for only modest increases in government
spending on social programs. Several of these programs-such as
Fome Zero, the government's flagship anti-hunger initiative-have
been stunted by lackluster implementation and administration.
Moreover, while strong economic growth
was used in the past to justify the government's cautious approach,
this year's figures for growth hover at 2.5 percent. This has
caused even some centrist economists to criticize the government's
preoccupation with controlling inflation with high interest rates,
which lead to high unemployment.
Lula's actions on the international scene
also show a disappointing trajectory. In 2003, PT leadership of
South America's largest economy promised to open a space of possibility
in international negotiations. Lula spoke often about crafting
a "new geography" of trade and politics where poor countries
would be respected as equals. Brazil emerged as one of the most
outspoken countries condemning the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Lula
was an instrumental force behind the formation of the G20+, a
group of developing countries that stood up to U.S. and European
demands at the 2003 WTO ministerial in Cancún. Their stance
led to the collapse of those talks.
However, Brazil's commitment to solidarity
with the rest of the developing world has more recently been called
into question. In the summer of 2004, Brazilian negotiators bullied
poorer countries into signing the "July framework" for
agriculture at WTO negotiations in Geneva-likely because Lula
thought that a deal could benefit Brazilian agribusiness. This
move gave new life to the languishing institution. Along with
India, Brazil continued its pursuit of nationalist objectives
over G20+ solidarity at the WTO talks in Hong Kong in December
2005. There it used its weight to ensure that the developing world
did not block an agreement on the continuation of Doha Round negotiations.
Interest in growing Brazil's agribusiness exports has also caused
friction between Lula's government and the once-friendly Landless
Workers' Movement (MST), which has criticized the slow pace of
land reform under the PT.
In a final discouraging development, several
important PT officials have been implicated in a corruption scandal
in the past year. This has marred the party's reputation of holding
itself to a higher ethical standard than its competitors; it has
also positioned the PT unfavorably within a context of politics-as-usual,
rife with patronage and bribery.
Between corruption and policy failures,
some observers have aptly dubbed 2005 a Year of Innocence Lost
in Brazil. At the 2005 World Social Forum, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez
counseled Lula's critics to be patient and allow the PT government
more time to assert its independence from the Washington Consensus.
A year later, with Lula's popularity sagging and elections in
the fall drawing nearer, time may be running out.
Venezuela as protagonist: Much of the
progressive leadership expected from Lula when he was first elected
has ended up coming from Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who has
established himself as the White House's key adversary in the
region. Unlike other countries in which popular upheavals and
established social movement organizations have helped to put new
governments in power, Chávez has largely used the state
as the starting point for directing a Bolivarian Revolution, which
has subsequently developed popular dimensions. In the past two
years, the shape of this revolution has come into focus as the
Venezuelan economy has recovered from several rounds of oil strikes
and the instability of a U.S.-supported coup in 2002.
While Chávez is often cast in the
mold of Fidel Castro, several observers have noted that the redistributionist
programs that are the hallmark of his social policy owe more to
the New Deal than to Cuban state socialism. The many government
programs that have been funded in recent years by proceeds from
oil sales include an ambitious literacy program, free public education
through the university level, job training, an anti-hunger program
that provides subsidized food for over a third of the country,
and an extensive system of free public health clinics. Chávez's
decidedly un-neoliberal economic policy has created the most robust
growth in the hemisphere, with the country's GDP surging 18 percent
in 2004 and approximately 9 percent in 2005.
On the international scene, Chávez
has been the most outgoing of Latin American leaders in proposing
a unified front for the New Left. He has presented the Bolivarian
Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) as a model for regional cooperation
distinct from the FTAA. He has loaned Argentina almost a billion
dollars and has sold discounted oil to many countries in order
to benefit impoverished populations (including residents of low-income
housing in Boston and the Bronx). In another such oil deal, Cuba
sent some 20,000 doctors to bolster the public health care system
in Venezuela in exchange for infusions of oil. At the WTO talks
in Hong Kong, Venezuela provided a strong and consistent critical
voice. In one dramatic stance at the closing ceremony, Vice Minister
for Foreign Affairs Mari Pili Hernandez denounced the WTO agreement
on the record before it was rubber-stamped by the assembly.
That Venezuela is the leading oil exporter
in the hemisphere is a central fact in the country's recent transformation.
High oil prices-which produced $25 billion in profits for the
Venezuelan government in 2004 (even more in 2005)-have given Chávez
both abundant funds and political leeway to carry out his policies.
(Of course, high export prices do not necessarily translate into
human development. Previous oil booms have done nothing to boost
the incomes of the poor or decrease inequality.) Likewise, Chávez
deserves credit for his efforts to build solidarity among Latin
American nations, something other relatively affluent countries
have often neglected.
However, the Venezuelan model is not without
problems. The good fortune of the country's natural resource wealth
raises questions about whether the Bolivarian Revolution is an
exportable one. Indebted countries with less freedom to antagonize
the international financial community cannot afford to replicate
Chávez's social programs and public bluster. Moreover,
a number of state initiatives have drawn fire from environmentalists.
In one example, the PDVSA-the Venezuelan state energy company-has
teamed up with ChevronTexaco and Phillips Petroleum in the multi-million
dollar Hamaca project, which will develop an oil field in the
Orinoco river basin. Activists argue that the project will have
a devastating impact on the surrounding ecosystem.
The centrality of Venezuela's president
as a charismatic leader of reform efforts also raises concerns
about whether the "revolution" can survive beyond Chávez.
Having no lack of self-regard, Chávez regularly portrays
himself as a key historical actor and has often worked to consolidate
his own power. It remains to be seen how well local groups such
as the "Bolivarian circles," which act as forums for
democratic participation in new social initiatives, will be able
to mature so as to outlive Chávez's tenure and ensure a
model distinct from the centralized state power held by Castro
How Does Bolivia Compare?
Domestic circumstances, foreign pressures,
and the Morales government's own political inclinations will determine
whether Bolivia will travel down one of the paths blazed in Argentina,
Brazil, or Venezuela, or set an entirely different course. In
terms of political conditions, Bolivia is an amalgam of its South
American neighbors. Like Argentina, Bolivia has experienced a
crisis of governance, with rapid turnover in the presidency. Strong
social movement pressure has created a mandate for standing up
to international financial institutions. Yet like Brazil, Bolivia
must still worry about capital flight and foreign creditors, which
can potentially cripple its economy and limit the government's
ability to act. Ironically, Petrobras, an energy company partially
owned by the Brazilian state, is one of the largest foreign interests
in Bolivia's gas industry. That said, Bolivia's ample natural
resources could potentially translate into leverage for Morales,
just as oil has proven a boon to Chávez. Bolivia has some
of the largest natural gas reserves in the hemisphere and large
oil deposits as well. However, at least in the near future, the
country is dependent on foreign investment to develop these resources.
The independence of civil society marks
a critical difference between Bolivia and Venezuela. Leaders in
the new Morales government and in the country's social movements
have been quick to assert that Bolivian political landscape under
a MAS administration will be very distinct from that seen in Caracas.
In an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE, incoming Vice
President Álvaro García Linera argued that, while
in Cuba and Venezuela "the civil society has been constructed
by the state," Bolivian civil society is almost entirely
grassroots. Linera described the country's recent political experience
as a "construction of multiple social movements with a far-reaching
trajectory, and an organizational and autonomous capacity, that
little by little has been pressuring the state and eventually
Oscar Olivera, the social movement leader
in Cochabamba, explained, "We aren't fighting to govern,
we're fighting to make the government disappear and self-govern
ourselves." When asked if he was interested in helping transform
Bolivia into another Venezuela, he said: "I don't believe
in military leaders, or ex-military leaders [such as Chávez].
Every country is different, and has its own culture and history.
Many people in the media treat Chávez as though he were
the best thing possible. But the leader is one thing and the people
Nationalizing Oil and Gas
Two issues will preoccupy the Morales
administration in coming months: reclaiming profits and ownership
of Bolivian oil and gas resources; and rewriting the constitution
in a popular assembly. While these same two issues powered the
political process in Venezuela after Chávez took power,
Morales will face serious challenges in each arena.
No matter what the MAS leaders do with
Bolivia's gas and oil reserves, they are likely to upset corporate
investors, social movements, or both. The social movements are
demanding full nationalization. As Olivera explains, "We
won't accept partial nationalization. All of the contracts are
with neoliberal companies. All they want to do is take our gas.
People didn't die [in recent social struggles] to give the gas
to the companies. The people have to say what we need to do with
the gas. Pachamama [Mother Earth] is for the people, not for the
While also using the language of "nationalization,"
Morales has signaled a more moderate approach, distinguishing
between the natural resources underground and the assets of the
extraction industry. Ultimately, MAS is likely to deal with each
individual energy company differently, attempting to negotiate
concessions from each. "We will nationalize the natural resources,
gas and hydrocarbons," Morales said in early January. "We
are not going to nationalize the assets of the multinationals.
Any state has the right to use its natural resources. We must
establish new contracts with the oil companies based on equilibrium.
We are going to guarantee the returns on their investment and
their profits, but not looting and stealing."
Such reassurances have been popular with
groups such as the Comité Civico Pro Santa Cruz, a pro-privatization
lobby in the Santa Cruz region, with which Morales met following
his electoral victory. Morales also traveled to Brazil to meet
with Lula on January 13. There he vowed not to expropriate the
property of energy companies and guaranteed the security of Brazil's
investments. He also outlined a plan to organize a multinational
commission among Bolivia's gas investors to revise contracts and
agreements between different countries.
Dealing with individual companies may
be an effective way to gain concessions from the energy industry
without risking corporate lawsuits and pressure from the U.S.
However, it would leave the Morales administration open to charges
of having sold out to the corporations if the concessions it gains
are inadequate. This dilemma adds importance to the second main
issue confronting the government: the need for a popular assembly
to rewrite the constitution. Such an assembly would create an
opportunity for diverse political parties, business leaders, and
social movements to agree on the terms for gas exportation.
A Constituent Assembly
Morales's campaign promise to call an
assembly between diverse social sectors to rewrite the constitution
contributed significantly to his victory. The re-writing of Venezuela's
constitution in 2000 served as the launching pad for that country's
new political process. There, a referendum and nationwide assemblies
were held to create and approve the new constitution. The new
document mandated that profits from the oil industry be redirected
into the state for social programs in education, health care,
and community media initiatives. Today, a common saying in Venezuela
holds that the new constitution is the country's strongest weapon
against corporate globalization and imperialism.
The re-writing of Bolivia's constitution
may prove to be similarly powerful. The election of delegates
for a constituent assembly is now scheduled to take place in June
2006 and the actual assembly will convene in August. Three delegates
will be elected from each of the country's municipalities and
delegations must include a minimum of one woman and one indigenous
person. At present, social movements are putting forth proposals
for what they want to see in a new constitution. Some of the main
issues on the table include gas nationalization, land reform,
free trade agreements with the U.S., and a referendum on autonomy
for the Santa Cruz region. Because the majority of the delegates
are likely to represent social movements, the new constitution
is expected to favor popular forces over corporations and foreign
The constituent assembly may well redraw
Bolivia's electoral map to allow for adequate representation of
indigenous peoples. This could result in new elections, which
might challenge Morales's power. However, his enormous electoral
victory indicates that any elections resulting from changes to
the constitution will favor MAS. Nonetheless, well-funded lobbyists
from Santa Cruz may be successful in pushing for autonomy in their
gas-rich region. Moreover, it is unclear how the changes in a
new constitution would be enforced. In Venezuela the country's
constitution declares that all housewives are entitled to a pension
for their work. However, this has not been made into a law or
put into effect.
Some social movement groups, such as the
Workers and Campesinos Federation of La Paz, have given Morales
a two-month window to make immense changes in the country. Such
radicals are in the minority. Most social movement organizations
have pledged to wait for the results of the constituent assembly
before seriously pressing the Administration. If the assembly
fails to meet such demands as gas nationalization, protests and
road blockades are expected to occur.
Such protest campaigns could paralyze
the country and exacerbate political divisions. They could also
give Morales leverage to pursue some of his more radical campaign
promises if elites decide they would rather keep the government
in place than risk upheaval. There is probably no other country
in Latin American where social movements are so well organized
and have such a great capacity to threaten the presidency. This
balance of political muscle between the street and state makes
it unlikely that Morales could replicate Lula's "pragmatic"
concessions to neo- liberalism, even if he wanted to.
Outside of their role in pressuring the
government, established grassroots networks could provide a base
for the reorganization of political power and representation.
Right before the December elections, a meeting called the Congress
of the National Front for the Defense of Water and Basic Human
Services convened to forge alliances between the country's social
movement groups. The Congress includes the Water Coordinating
Committee of Cochabamba, the Federation of Neighborhood Councils
of El Alto, the Water and Drainage Cooperatives of Santa Cruz,
as well as other neighborhood organizations, cooperatives, irrigation
farmers, and committees on electricity and other services. In
many cases, these autonomous groups have organized methods of
providing citizens with basic services that the state fails to
offer. Such a coalition of grassroots forces will serve as a powerful
lobbying instrument for the constituent assembly. Depending on
the results of the assembly, it could either provide an infrastructure
for participation in new state programs or represent an alternative
structure for governance.
Like many other Bolivians who voted for
Morales, Anselmo Martinez Tola, an organizer of indigenous groups
in Potosi, Bolivia, believed the MAS candidate was the most likely
among presidential contenders to convoke a constituent assembly.
"We are a majority and through the assembly we hope to rescue
what belongs to us," he said, referring to the nationalization
of the gas and the redistribution of land. His organization has
been choosing delegates for their municipality and developing
proposals for the assembly. Among them is a suggestion that the
government be restructured along the lines of traditional ayllus,
which are small groups of families that have long guided decision-making
in indigenous communities across the country. "We have to
have a new constitution that refers to our culture, our history,
and not foreign countries or companies. It has to reflect the
varied movement of indigenous groups in Bolivia," Tola explained.
Critics such as James Petras, a long-time
analyst of Latin America, have denounced the "army of uncritical
left cheerleaders" that has celebrated Evo Morales's victory
and has expressed hope for significant changes in Bolivia. Just
as he has been disappointed by Lula and Kirchner, Petras predicts
that the Morales administration will undertake only "symbolic
gestures of a purely rhetorical nature, devoid of nationalist
substance," rather than truly redistributive initiatives.
There is reason to believe otherwise.
Morales may have presented himself as a moderate during the presidential
campaign in order to gain broader support, but his decisive victory
has created space for bolder action. In the eyes of many MAS supporters,
policies regarding gas nationalization, land reform, and indigenous
rights are not in the hands of Morales, but rather in the hands
of the constituent assembly. A rewritten constitution brings with
it promise for significant change. Cognizant of the assembly's
will and closely monitored by one of Latin America's most powerful
social movements, the Morales administration will have the mandate
and the motivation to drive a hard bargain with international
creditors and create its own model for progressive governance.
Until then, Bolivia will stand on the
brink of a new post-colonial period, for the first time governed
by an indigenous leader who looks like the majority of its people
and resting in a continent that has moved another step away from
neoliberalism. If the victory put on display at the ruins of Tiwanaku
is thus far only a symbol, it is no doubt a potent one.
Benjamin Dangl edits UpsideDownWorld.org
and is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social
Movements in Bolivia and Beyond (forthcoming from AK Press). Mark
Engler is an analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus.