Much to no-ones surprise Evo Morales steam rolled his way to another election victory on October 12th, 2014. His party Moviemento Al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism) was by far the favourite and secured 61% of the Bolivia’s total votes to give Morales a third term in office. The fact that they received over 50% of total votes allows them to introduce new policies without opposition.
Considering five major parties competed to run the country, 61% is a pretty convincing figure. So why is it that Evo’s MAS is so popular?
Voters can relate to him
Evo, “the people’s man”, grew up in an impoverished family and spent much of his childhood working as a llama herder. He received only very basic public education and never went to university. Upon election in 2006 he was the first ever indigenous president of Bolivia, an almost unbelievable fact considering 92% of Bolivians identify themselves as having indigenous heritage. Much of his young adult life was spent lobbying for the rights of coca farmers and preaching socialist ideals. This makes him very identifiable to the working class indigenous who are Bolivia’s largest voting demographic. On the other hand, his biggest competitor this election, Samuel Doria Medina, comes from the wealthy, white, (former) ruling class. His assets include Burger King Bolivia and numerous five star hotels.
Evo’s presidency has thus far had the good fortune to oversee an unprecedented commodities boom. Bolivia’s major exports of natural gas, minerals, soya beans and quinoa have attracted huge international demand while his ability to nationalize the hydrocarbons industry has further enhanced governments coffers. As a result of the commodities boom Morales can boast a GDP three times higher than when he was elected in 2006, and it doesn’t look to be slowing down just yet. GDP in 2014 is forecast to grow 6.5%, the highest in South America.
He helps the poor
True to his socialist ideologies, Morales has invested Bolivia’s new-found wealth in programs benefiting the countries poorest citizens. He has poured massive amounts of money into health, education, housing and welfare. His new Mi Teleferico project (a cable car system) is a huge government expenditure aimed at providing the mostly poor Aymara citizens of El Alto with easy access to their workplaces in the neighbouring city of La Paz. All this is in stark contrast to previous presidents who were largely perceived to be exploiting Bolivia’s natural resources to line their own pockets.
A peaceful Bolivia
Under Evo, Bolivia has for the first time experienced (relative) political stability. 36 of the 83 Bolivian governments since independence have lasted for less than one year. Bolivian politics have historically been a long string of coups and military dictatorships. The fact that we now have one person in power, leading in peace for 8 years would have been unimaginable some years ago.
So having said all that, 39% of Bolivians don’t think he is the right man for the job. What do his opponents have against him?
He cheated his way into a third term; kind of.
Under Bolivia’s constitution a president is only allowed to serve a maximum of two terms. In 2009, Evo introduced a new constitution with the aim of improving the rights of indigenous Bolivians by “rolling back half a millennium of colonialism, discrimination and humiliation”. He was then able to convince the courts (and the people) that his first term was under the old constitution therefore he can still have two terms under the new one. It will be interesting to see if he decides to change the constitution again to run for a fourth presidency in 2020.
He is an authoritarian.
Such sentiments are laughable when comparing him to former Bolivian dictators, but by western standards they certainly hold some truth. Evo introduced a widely controversial land redistribution scheme as part of his new 2009 constitution. His government repossessed vast areas of profitable land from their white owners and redistributed them among indigenous Bolivians. As you can imagine, this ruffled a few feathers among the wealthier former ruling class.
He’s said some pretty stupid stuff.
In one infamous quote Evo warned Bolivians not to eat too much chicken as it could turn them gay and make them bald. Apparently it’s because chickens are injected with female hormones, although he later admitted that statement was “foolish”. He also accused the CIA of covertly poisoning his fellow comrade Hugo Chavez with cancer. Even the most extreme conspiracy theorist might have trouble believing that one.
He is a staunch and outspoken opponent of the United States.
Since his election Evo has expelled the US ambassador and the entire Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2008, and US Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2013 for “conspiring against his government”. He repeats a popular catchphrase “decolonization”, which seems to refer more to US imperialism than Bolivia’s Spanish conquistadors of yesteryear. In 2013 his private jet was denied entry into various European air spaces at the request of the US government because they believed he was personally harbouring Edward Snowden, which turned out to be untrue. Evo later went on to declare a that day would be observed as the “Day of Latin American and Bolivian Dignity”.
Bolivia has become too expensive.
The cost of living has certainly risen dramatically during Evo’s presidency (although fortunately for this blogger the country is still dirt cheap by western standards). However, the increase is a direct result of Evo’s decision to more than double the minimum wage since taking office. The latest increase was 20% in April 2014, up from 1200Bs (US$175) to 1488Bs (US$215) per month for a full-time employee. US$215 per month is still nowhere near enough to live a comfortable existence in Bolivia so anyone with a social conscience might have difficulty disagreeing with this policy. Nonetheless, many business owners and the upper class remain defiantly opposed.
So is Mr Morales really a good choice for Bolivia’s top job? It really depends on how high you stand on the socio-economic ladder. For those on the top, his policies pose a serious threat to their fortunes. But for the struggling masses desperately trying to climb that ladder “Con Evo Vamos Bien” (With Evo we’re going well).