Much to no-one’s surprise, Evo Morales steam rolled his way to another election victory on October 12th, 2014. His party, Moviemento Al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism), was the favorite by far and secured 61% of votes to give Morales a third term in office. Furthermore, the fact he received over 50% of total votes allows him to introduce new policies without having to get agreement from the opposition.
Considering five major parties competed to run the country, 61% is a pretty convincing figure. So why is Evo’s 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, receiving only very basic public education and missing out on university.
Upon election in 2006, he was the first ever indigenous president of Bolivia, an amazing fact considering 62% of Bolivians identify as indigenous. Much of his young adult life was spent lobbying for the rights of coca farmers and preaching socialist ideals which makes him identifiable to 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 and has assets including Burger King Bolivia as well as numerous five star hotels.
A strong economy
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 decision 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. Massive amounts of money have been poured into health, education, housing and welfare, while his new Mi Teleferico project (a cable car system) provides the mostly poor Aymara citizens of El Alto with easy access to their workplaces in the neighboring city of La Paz. All this is in stark contrast to previous presidents who were largely perceived to be in favor of supporting big business at the cost of the poor.
A peaceful Bolivia
Under Evo, Bolivia has for the first time experienced (relative) political stability. Until now, 36 of the last 83 Bolivian governments since independence have lasted for less than one year. Not to mention the 70’s when Bolivian politics were nothing more than a long string of coups and military dictatorships. The fact that we now have one person leading a stable country for eight years would have been unimaginable not so long 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”. This conveniently allowed him to convince the courts that his first term was under the old constitution which meant he could 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 a dictator
Such sentiments are laughable when comparing him to former Bolivian dictators, but by western standards there is certainly an authoritarian element to his rule. For example, Evo introduced a widely controversial land redistribution scheme as part of his 2009 constitution where 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, he was referring to the fact chickens are injected with female hormones, although he later admitted that statement was “foolish”. He has also accused the CIA of covertly poisoning his fellow comrade Hugo Chavez with cancer, something even the most extreme conspiracy theorist might have trouble believing in.
He is a staunch opponent of the United States
Since his election, Evo has expelled the US ambassador, the entire Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) 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 harboring Edward Snowden, which turned out to be untrue. Evo later went on to declare the 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, rather than financial mismanagement. The latest increase was 20% in April 2014, up from 1200 BOB (US$175) to 1488 BOB (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? Then answer 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 the ladder, “Con Evo Vamos Bien” (With Evo we’re going well).