Bolivia's Political Revolution -- Nine Months On
By Jim Shultz / The Democracy Center
September 21, 2006

Bolivian President Evo Morales, in his trademark stripped sweater. Credit: Agence France-Presse
(September 18, 2006) -- In September, Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, made his first trip to the United States. Since his election last December, the former coca grower and first indigenous president in the nation's history, has made headlines abroad over and over again -- from "nationalizing" Bolivia's gas to hobnobbing with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. This week Evo takes his act on the road to New York to speak before the United Nations and others. In honor of that visit, here's a look at Bolivia's "revolution in progress."

It really was a dramatic and hopeful beginning that cold January weekend when Evo Morales took over the presidency of Bolivia. Standing atop 1000-year-old pre-Inca ruins at Tiahuanaco, Morales received a blessing of his powers from leaders of the indigenous communities of Bolivia's highlands, in a ceremony that hadn't been held in 500 years. His formal inauguration in the Bolivian Congress drew nearly a dozen heads of state, from Chile to Slovenia. Knock-off copies of the new president's red and blue horizontal striped sweater sold briskly on the Internet. His picture graced page one of the Washington Post. "Evo Mania" took Bolivia and the world by storm.

In the months since, Bolivia has developed a whole new tourism industry of filmmakers, journalists, academics, and revolution-seekers who want to see close-up what they think is some new form of democracy by the people taking shape in the Andes. If they look close, and with their eyes wide open, they can see a new government that really does inspire great hope among people long-marginalized by both politics and economics. They can also get a really good lesson in how hard it is to convert the romance of hope into the far less romantic task of governing a nation.

When Morales was elected in December, with a historic majority double that of any president in decades, he had a clear mandate from the Bolivian people to do two things. The first was to reverse, full-speed, 20 years of market-driven economic reforms that had privatized much of the nation's resources -- from water to gas -- into foreign corporate hands. The second was to initiate a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the nation's constitution and its most fundamental political rules. Today these two pledges illustrate both the hopes and the challenges of Morales' historic presidency.

On May 1, Evo Morales stepped out onto the balcony of the Presidential Palace in La Paz, just across the street from where one of his predecessors had been hung to death from a lamppost 60 years earlier.

Before a massive crowd cheering from below, Morales announced a presidential decree "nationalizing" the vast oil and gas reserves that had been privatized into the hands of corporations like Enron a decade before. "For more than 500 years, our resources have been pillaged," Morales declared. "This has to end now." Then, in a grand gesture that was pure domestic political photo-op, Morales sent Bolivian troops to the nation's oil fields to "protect" them.

Even though the soldiers left soon after CNN's cameras did, and even though the decree itself was far more moderate than many expected, many in the foreign press had a field day. Bolivia had "seized" foreign assets, wrote major news outlets. Foreign analysts declared that Morales had "been conned by Castro and Chavez" and predicted that foreign investors would flee the nation.

In fact, Morales' decree was far from a classic "nationalization." As a taxi driver in my neighborhood, Enrique, noted to me afterwards, "It's not nationalization. If it were, then the companies wouldn't still be operating here. But that's okay. We need to negotiate with them. If we just kick them out they'll sue us."

The new plan did three basic things: it declared the government's intent to buy back a majority controlling stake in the companies given away by Morales' predecessors; it began a process of renegotiating the country's contracts with foreign oil firms; and it increased steeply the taxes foreign oil companies would pay. Economic Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz flew to Bolivia to endorse the plan, calling it, "a matter of fairness."

Five months later, however, the gas plan is in trouble. On the one hand, public support for the decree remains high and, just last week, the national treasury collected a check for more than $32 million from a French oil firm as part of the new tax scheme. On the other hand, the government recently announced that, because of a lack of funds, it will have to slowdown its takeover plans by the newly constituted public gas company. And the head of that company, along with the national gas minister -- the country's two most important gas officials -- have both resigned in the face of charges of incompetence and scandal.

Herein lie two of the biggest challenges faced by the new government; cash and competence.

Bolivia's hopes rely on promises, most of them concerning money -- promises to boost education, create employment, and get the nation's poor the basics, like clean water. Generating the funds to reduce the nation's poverty is exactly what getting a fair share of gas profits is about, but the lag time is substantial.

So is the gap between what the new government hopes to do and its actual capacity to do so. In January, I attended a meeting of senior officials trying to put together a negotiating team to deal with foreign trade agreements. The government had two options, neither of them good -- rely on a well-educated elite with "free trade will solve everything" politics or a new guard dedicated to fairer agreements but with little background on the issues.

To be clear, there are many excellent and competent people in the new government, but they are stretched to the limit. I had lunch with a friend of mine last week who helps lead the new Water Ministry and he looked like he'd aged five years since January. Governing, it turns out, requires a far different set of skills than organizing a social movement and Morales and his teams are struggling to make the transition.

Evo Morales leads a street demonstration for the nationalization of Bolivia's oil.
On July 2, Bolivians went to the polls in yet another historic vote, this one to elect delegates to a national Constituent Assembly to rewrite the country's constitution. And once again, Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party won big -- a vote of more than 55%, twice that of his nearest rival. But as that Assembly starts to convene, battles over how it should function have driven the deep divides in Bolivian politics out in the open. Two weeks ago, the Morales government faced the kind of massive protests he used to help organize against his predecessors.

On September 8 civic groups in four of Bolivia's nine states staged a one-day general strike and road blockade. Their rallying cry was that Morales and MAS were seeking to use the Assembly to run roughshod over their opponents. Central to that cry was a procedural matter. While MAS agreed that final approval of the new Constitution would require a 2/3 vote of the Assembly (one that would require approval from at least some of their opponents), the party declared that decisions along the way could be settled by a simple majority (i.e. by Morales backers on their own).

That half the nation would shut down over a procedural numbers game is a measure of just how much is at stake. Potentially everything from land reform to a more radical form of gas nationalization could end up on the table, and the interests involved know it.

Morales' domestic and foreign opponents have cast dire warnings that the new president is steering the nation to civil conflict. But is that what is really happening here?

The debate in Bolivia today is not just about what economic or political course the nation should take. At issue is what this moment means in the broad sweep of the nation's history. The Bolivian elite, which has held power for decades, sees the Morales presidency as just someone else getting their turn -- "Okay, now five years for you. Go ahead and make some changes, but not any big ones."

Morales and his backers see things quite differently. They see this moment as the equivalent of Nelson Mandela and the ANC taking over the reins in South Africa in 1994 -- a new Constitution, a new weave of power, a new nation.

They may well succeed in creating one but, as in South Africa, the job will be much harder than they anticipated. They will end up compromising more than they imagined. They will struggle with the day-to-day challenges of governing far more than they dreamed. They will need as much humility and self-reflection as they have had global attention. Negotiations, be it with foreign investors or domestic opponents, will be part of the deal.

At Tiahuanaco, on the eve of his inauguration, Morales told his countrymen, "We are human, we will make mistakes, but when we do, refocus us, guide us, for we will never betray our country." With public support that still registers at more than 60%, Morales retains huge backing from his people. How he uses that support in the months ahead will determine whether he can turn his presidency into the instrument of hope Bolivians want it to be.

For readers interested in more analysis of the Bolivian gas issue, The Democracy Center has recently posted a series of briefing papers on the issue, including an analysis of President Morales's gas decree and foreign media coverage of the plan. All that can be found at:

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