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Last Updated:4/19/05
February 20, 2006

The Big Gorilla in the Shadows of Bolivia
The Challenges and Opportunities Confronting Evo Morales


The stunning victory of Evo Morales in the presidential election of December 18, 2005, exceeded nearly everyone's expectations, and it has been followed by a succession of other unexpected triumphs in Europe, in Asia, and on the fashion pages. Having an indigenous president in Bolivia is perhaps a small thing in itself, since Bolivia has fewer than 9,000,000 inhabitants. But Morales has captured the world's attention and his election further consolidates a growing conviction in Latin America that "free trade agreements," like IMF loans, are instruments of exploitation and oppression. In addition it has for the first time put a full-blooded AmerIndian on center stage in world affairs.

Between his election and his inauguration on January 23, 2006, Morales made a dramatic trip around the world, stopping not only in Caracas and Havana but also in Madrid, Paris, Brussels, Beijing and South Africa--never wearing a suit or a tie. Following his inauguration he immediately fulfilled three of his campaign commitments by nationalizing the country's hydrocarbons (oil and gas in the ground), issuing an austerity decree that cut top government salaries (including his own) nearly in half in order to increase resources for health and education, and appointing a diverse cabinet that includes three women and at least one member from each of the nine provinces. His striped alpaca pullover has become a fashion icon (featured on the style page of the New York Times), and he still has not been seen in a suit or a tie, though he did wear a jacket (leather) for his meeting with President Chirac and another one for his inauguration. He has drawn lines, for sure, but has also shown willingness to reach out and to negotiate.

The Election

The election itself was of historic proportions. It is the first time ever in Bolivia that a candidate has won a presidential election with 54% percent of the popular vote. Morales is also the first full-blooded Indian to be elected president in any Latin American country. There were eight candidates, roughly the same number as in previous elections, and Evo's margin of victory was far greater than ever seen before. In fact his margin (about 20%) was about the same as the total vote of recent presidents, who cobbled together a coalition that allowed them to be voted in by the legislature. My own conjecture prior to the voting was that Morales would win a clear plurality, but not a clear majority, leaving a good chance that opposing forces would again deny him the presidency by means of legislative maneuvering. Just as the U. S. Supreme Court did for Al Gore. But the vote itself was utterly decisive, and the US was thereby denied its first line of rejectionism.

One big change is that none of what I have just said is news to any readers of this website, or indeed of most major newspapers. For some years I have searched the New York Times regularly for news of Bolivia, and until last spring it was not unusual for months to go by with nothing new, and reports were usually inaccurate. Now there is something nearly every week, with greater depth as well as greater accuracy. Some credit for this goes to the media, even the Times, but it is mostly due to the charisma, the poise, the confidence, the sense of timing and drama, and the PR team of Evo Morales. Other Aymara leaders, such as Felipe Quispe and Abel Mamani (both of whom remain active and important, Mamani being minister responsible for water in Morales's cabinet), have been imaginative and passionate but mustered only a narrow base of support. Morales has obviously unified the Indian vote, from all 23 ethnic groups, and won support from members of the Castellano elite as well.

In the left-leaning press in Bolivia there has been understandable gloating about this historic achievement, claiming that Bolivia has taught the whole world a lesson in democracy. There is a good deal to be said for that claim, since no one in Bolivia disputes the legitimacy of the election, and the other parties now need to consider how to adjust. The oldest and most "respected" parties suffered worst. Among those crushed by the vote was the MNR (National Revolutionary Movement), which gave Bolivia its first steps toward democracy under the leadership of three-time president Victor Paz Estenssoro, beginning with the election of 1951 and continuing (with interruptions) until 1985. The MNR adopted neoliberal globalization policies under the leadership of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, elected president in 1993 and 2002 and then forced out of office by the blockades and demonstrations of October 2003. In the election of December 18, 2005, MNR garnered only a quarter of its previous vote, thoroughly discredited not only by the increasing awareness of the failure of those economic policies but also by the campesino deaths when Sánchez ordered the army to escort fuel trucks through the blockade (see Buffalo Report 17 October 2003). Following the inauguration of Morales, the MNR was the only party to oppose the austerity decree, further aligning itself with the elite rather than the impoverished.

There is no doubt that the election result represents accurately the sentiments of the majority of Bolivian citizens. About 70% of Bolivians are Native Americans, American Indians who do not live in reservations or operate casinos but who are impoverished, were brutally oppressed until 1952, and are often looked down upon by the elite. Though he won in every area of the country, garnering substantial support from members of the old-line parties, he won 95% of the vote in many small towns and villages where the population is wholly indigenous. With the election there is now democracy in the realm of politics, with the indigenous voice being heard for the first time, but of course the elite continues to dominate in the realm of economics.

Another historic feature is that Evo Morales is the first full-blooded Indian to be president of any country in the Western hemisphere. There are other South American presidents of Indian blood, notably in Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador. It does not take pure blood to be an Indian in Latin America, any more than it has required pure African blood to be "Negro" or "black" in the USA. In Bolivia both the social segregation and the oppression remained in place longer than elsewhere, and the change is therefore bound to be especially challenging for the elite, as it is especially encouraging for the indigenous people.

Evo Morales is Aymara, a member of the second largest of the 23 indigenous groups in Bolivia. Since the Aymara make up about 10% of the Bolivia's 8.5 million inhabitants, ethnic differences clearly did not matter in the election. It was the social difference that mattered, and indigenous people from all the ethnic groups voted overwhelmingly for the Aymara leader. That a full-blooded Indian will be president breaks glass ceilings for all the indigenous people, and is likely to lead young people to raise their sights, a portent of other changes to come.

The Tour of World Capitals

The world tour was almost as stunning as the election. Caracas and Havana received thanks for their support and advice, with discussion on how to continue to oppose US economic policies in South America. These stops were for consolidating the base upon which Morales will continue to build and which will continue to vex Washington. It is no accident that Washington was pointedly by-passed.

Madrid and Paris were, of course, more difficult, because the determination to nationalize underground natural resources meant negative repercussions for large energy firms of Spain (Repsol YPF) and France (Total). In both countries Morales went straight to the head of government with assurances that the nationalization would not affect the wells and pipelines and other capital investments ,and with hopes that Bolivia might expand economic relations with Europe. The visit to Brussels, still wearing his black jeans and his alpaca sweater, the clothes of an Andean peasant, had two purposes: to secure elimination of debt owed to the World Bank and IMF (about $1.5 billion) and to plea for the removal of coca leaves from the international list of addictive substances. So the three European stops were carefully arranged to address pressing high-priority long-term economic and development issues in his country.

Beijing and Cape Town were easier visits, again designed to make Bolivia's presence felt on the world scene and in particular among nations outside the tight reign of US economic policies. In addition Morales hopes to export more coca leaves and coca products to these countries, especially to China, and no doubt pointed out that coca leaves provide a far richer source of calcium than milk (according to a 1975 Harvard study).


One of the first acts of the new government was to nationalize the natural resources of the nation, most particularly water and hydrocarbons, and to proclaim that they will be developed for the benefit of the people. At the same time it was made clear that the infrastructure for exploitation (wells and pipelines) would remain the property of the international consortiums who installed it, signalling Bolivia's desire to work out an arrangement for developing the resources with international help, albeit on the basis of Bolivia's owning the resources.

The nationalization was consummated by listing the proven gas and oil reserves as national property on the New York Stock Exchange, where they had previously been listed as property of Repsol YPF, SA. Bolivia maintains that assignment of ownership of the resources to the consortium under a presidential decree in 1997 was unconstitutional, and therefore the nationalization was without compensation. The internationals have taken a hit, but the door has been left open. It is a nuanced action, whose combination of firmness with openness suggests shrewd bargaining ahead.

At roughly the same time Bechtel announced that it was dropping its suit against Bolivia, instituted in response to their contract to modernize the water supply of Cochabamba being terminated. The suit was for a huge amount, representing the amount Bechtel could hope to gain by charging its elevated fees over decades, an amount wholly unreasonable by any standards of justice but allowed by investment recovery clauses of WTO agreements. So plans for both water and hydrocarbons can begin again on a level playing field.


The headlines in US papers read that Morales had cut his own salary in half. That is roughly true, but only a small part of the story. Morales began an austerity program by issuing Presidential Decree #28,609. (By the high number one can immediately see that presidential decrees are an important part of governance in Bolivia.) This decree sets his own monthly salary at $1,500 (a reduction of 43%), that of cabinet ministers at $1,400, that of the vice-president at $1,300, and so on. Altogether 409 positions were directly affected by this decree. Beyond that, there is another long-standing Bolivian law requiring that no public salary exceed that of the President, and an undetermined number of other persons were impacted by this provision. Initial reports put the annual savings from this austerity decree at $27,000,000, which Morales decreed were to be diverted to health and education.

Morales, before becoming President, had an monthly income less than $1,500, so it is doubtful that he cut his own income at all. Nor that of other Indians in his cabinet. On the other hand members of the elite have been accustomed to higher incomes, and I have no doubt that many department heads did suffer a reduction in take-home pay. As I mentioned earlier, the neo-liberal MNR, which half a century ago led the country in its first steps toward democracy, is now a party of capitalists from Santa Cruz, and was the only party to voice opposition to the austerity decree. Outside the purely political sphere, the first to oppose the decree were university professors, some of whose salaries were trimmed back by the law requiring that no public employee be paid more than the President.

Since people in the village where Morales grew up are unlikely to be making more than $100 a month, the austerity decree does not leave him badly off. To portray the action as if it were a heroic personal sacrifice, as in the US press, is to misrepresent the facts and trivialize the action. It is more to the point that Morales reaffirmed his identity with peasants by reducing the salaries of members of the elite who continue to hold high positions in government (and universities).

The Big Gorilla in the Shadows

It is well known that Evo Morales is George Bush's worst nightmare, and Morales is wasting no time trying to be conciliating. Shortly after his victory he said in an interview that George Bush is a terrorist, and the one campaign promise on which he has shown no signs of accommodation is decriminalizing growing coca. His slogan all along has been, "Zero tolerance for cocaine, total tolerance for coca," which puts him on a collision course with US policy in spite of the "zero tolerance" clause. He has decriminalized growing coca, but he has also urged farmers to plant no more than the traditional "cato" (about four-tenths of an acre) per family, and he has refused to expel the US anti-drug officials.

The Bush administration responded to his victory by cautiously congratulating him and saying that it will wait to see whether he governs democratically. Since there is no definition what in the world it would mean to "govern democratically," especially given the decisive democratic victory in the elections, the threat is obvious and ominous.

One can never foretell the future, although everyone persists in trying. In the case of Bolivia today there lurks in the background the matter of what the US government might do. In recent decades there has been no Latin American president half as antithetical to US policy and dominance as Morales that the US has not tried to undermine. Think of Castro, Arbenz, Allende, and the Sandinistas. Is there any reason to think that the Bush administration will do less to undermine Morales?

When President Bush unveiled his budget for 2007, it contained a 96% cut in military aid to Bolivia. In the current fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2005, Bolivia is to receive about $1.7 million. Next year, according to the budget proposal, Bolivia would get only $70,000. Just over half of this year's money would be used for civil defense supplies and other nonlethal equipment. Another $792,000 would be used primarily to send Bolivian military officers to the School of the Americas in Georgia. In recent years, Bolivia has sent between 50 and 100 officers a year to the school. Both the director of the Center for international Policy and the Bolivian ambassador to Washington said that the cuts are likely to antagonize the Bolivian Military.

Could someone in the Administration possibly be thinking that those hundreds of young officers, trained at our school of assassins in Georgia, might rise up and overthrow Morales? Or even kill him? Perish the thought.

Bolivian campesinos are wiser and stronger than other regimes unwelcome the Washington. The blockades of the past few years have been extremely effective, shutting down the country on two occasions. In the course of organizing the blockades and preparing for a military response from the government, the campesinos developed impressive systems of communication. Furthermore the core groups are Indian, and therefore more difficult to penetrate than groups of castellanos or mestizos. I am not hopeful about the motives and policies in Washington, but the pressing issues are so far from Bolivia, the competence in executing plans so abysmally absent, and the alternative sources of support so conspicuous, that I doubt that Morales has much to fear from Washington.

Going Forward

On November 3 of 2003 the NY Times editorialized that the "nationalism and economic ignorance of the opposition to the gas deal show where the indigenous movement is going wrong." Morales has shown himself an internationalist, and the range of his moves in the economic domain--- $1.5 billion in debt relief, relief from the Bechtel suit, seeking to market both gas and coca, leveling public salaries--- exhibit an impressive understanding of money matters. Morales has certainly laid to rest definitively, for any impartial observer, what little justification there ever was for the complaint of the Times. Poverty and deprivation remain severe, the challenges are real and huge, and Morales cannot work miracles. But Morales has claimed the attention of the world as well as of his people. His first moves, full of panache and often unexpected, have all been in the right direction, and the country seems poised for continued growth and development. He seems well on the way to showing another side to what it is to be an American Indian.

Newton Garver is SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at University at Buffalo. Eleven of his essays on war, power, ethics, truth and justice in the US during the Bush years, and the recent struggle for human rights and political decency in Bolivia, were recently published in Limits of Power: Some Friendly Reminders.

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