Evo Morales’ hollow victory

August 12, 2008

Tom Lewis argues that despite Evo Morales' victory in Bolivia's recall election, the right has gained more leverage in its effort to bring down his government.

BOLIVIANS WENT to the polls Sunday for a recall referendum that put the jobs of the president, vice president and eight of the country's nine prefects (governors) on the line. The vote confirmed President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera in office. Beyond the celebratory fanfare, however, the outcome represents a pyrrhic victory for Morales and his governing party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).

The referendum itself brought no surprises. Morales and García Linera were expected to win confirmation, and they did, with 63.1 percent of the national vote. With this total, they surpassed by 10 percent their showing in the 2005 election.

The outcome for the eight sitting governors was also as expected. Five were confirmed and three were rejected. Significantly, however, the four staunchest anti-Morales governors also received larger numbers of votes than in 2005. These are the governors who are most committed to unseating Bolivia's first indigenous president as part of a right-wing campaign for regional autonomy.

A sign on the road in Chimoré urges people to vote yes in the referendum
A sign on the road in Chimoré urges people to vote yes in the referendum (Sarah Hines | SW)

Rubén Costas of Santa Cruz won 66.6 percent of the vote in his state, improving his 2005 mark by almost 20 percent. Mario Cossío of Tarija was also up 20 percent from 2005, 64.5 percent. Ernesto Suárez of Beni received 61.2 percent of the vote this time around, up 15 percent from three years ago. And Leopoldo Fernández of Pando increased his total by 8 percent to 56.3 percent.

Prior to the referendum, seven of Bolivia's nine governors stood in opposition to Morales. Since one staunchly pro-Morales governor was confirmed in office, and since constitutionally, it falls to Morales to designate replacements for the three governors (two anti-Morales and one independent) who were recalled, the balance may shift to five anti-Morales and four pro-Morales governors.

Both Morales and his opponents apparently have reasons to cheer. But the reality is that the referendum has done nothing to resolve the deep divisions that have created two de facto governments in Bolivia.

WHY SHOULD a recall vote that Morales technically "won" be considered, in reality, a "defeat"?

The immediate aim of Bolivia's right wing, whose forces are concentrated in a movement for regional autonomy, is to transfer an unprecedented and extraordinary degree of power over natural resources and agriculture to state governments.

Their intermediate strategy is to topple the Morales administration as soon as possible. And if that proves impossible, their long-term goal continues to be to obstruct and paralyze the government until the next election in 2010.

Far from a movement for genuine autonomy--one that would involve participatory democracy and government from below--the Bolivian autonomy movement is tied to the entrenched interests of international capital and the dominant sectors of national capital, in particular, the hydrocarbon industry and agribusiness.

The movement is strongest in the four eastern "half-moon" states--Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando--where voters approved autonomy resolutions in May and June. These are Bolivia's wealthiest states in terms of resources such as natural gas, oil, lumber and agriculture. Santa Cruz alone accounts for 30 percent of Bolivian gross domestic product, 50 percent of tax revenues and 47 percent of foreign investment in Bolivia.

On June 29, a new anti-Morales prefect was elected in the state of Chuquisaca, adding weight to the autonomy movement and physically dividing the country in two: east and west, highland and lowland.

Voter demographics don't exactly match the divided physical geography, but they increasingly illustrate another duality: city and country.

Morales does, of course, enjoy strong support in the working-class city of El Alto. Otherwise, his chief support comes from the Chapare region, where the majority of cocaleros remain loyal to their former leader. And, in the opposition states, Morales can count on substantial peasant majorities.

Outside of the altiplano and the rural valleys, however, the right-wing opposition dominates. In Bolivia's largest city, Santa Cruz, and in its historical capital, Sucre, Morales was expected to lose by as much as a two-thirds margin. The "no" vote against Morales prevailed handily in the states of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Chuquisaca and Beni, primarily as a result of urban voters.

Throughout the country as a whole, such numbers reflect what Federico Fuentes has identified as a "growing tension between urban middle-class mestizo sectors and the MAS government, many of whom voted for Morales with the hope of returning stability to the country" after the years of progressive social upheaval between 2000 and 2005.

IN ORDER to understand why even confirmation in office for Morales and García Linera represents a defeat, it is necessary to place the recall referendum in the larger context of the right-wing's tactics in opposing the government.

From the beginning of Morales's administration, the right has played hardball while Morales has made concession after concession. Maneuvering to insure that it could block the passage of planks proposed for the new constitution, the right forced Evo to accept an electoral law for the Constituent Assembly that guaranteed no radical reform would be accomplished. Unappeased, the right went on to fight passage of the Assembly's final draft and boycotted the final vote.

This vote, moreover, had to be held in a military barracks in Oruro, rather than in the assembly headquarters in Sucre, because violent street demonstrations made anything else too dangerous for delegates. The boycott and final setting allowed the right wing to claim that the new constitution was undemocratic. In fact it was quite moderate, and if there was anything undemocratic about it, it was the result of the electoral rules that Morales had allowed the right to push down his throat.

Subsequently, faced with a series of unconstitutional, illegal votes on state autonomy, Morales again did nothing to effectively combat the right. The governors and elites of the "half-moon" states openly flaunted Morales' authority without suffering consequences. Even though high rates of abstention meant that the results were not as decisive as the right had hoped, the autonomy referendums went far toward legitimizing right-wing opposition.

Simultaneously, opposition senators in La Paz dusted off a draft measure originally proposed by MAS, but which the right wing had buried in congressional archives. This measure legalized a process of presidential and gubernatorial recall, and it easily won approval in the right-wing dominated Senate. The aim was to possibly unseat Morales in what looked to the right like a propitious moment. And if they failed, the recall referendum still would have served as yet another obstacle in Morales' way.

While some of his supporters prepared to protest the recall vote, Morales declared that he welcomed it. His dilemma was that, because he had not challenged the autonomy referendums more vigorously, he allowed the right to back him into a corner. If he resorted to parliamentary moves to undo a measure his own party had once supported, then he would look weak and scared. If he refused outright to participate in the referendum, then he would reinforce the right's image of him as undemocratic.

His only choice was to accept the recall referendum--but his need to accept it resulted from his past acts of appeasement, rather than from a sudden outburst of democratic conviction.

Fortunately for Morales, the right had misjudged the political moment by overestimating their strength as a result of their autonomy votes. They thought the autonomy referendums reflected the level of nationwide support of their opposition to Morales. But polls taken shortly after the Senate had passed the recall measure forecast that at least two, if not four, of the opposition governors would lose their posts, while Morales and García Linera would be confirmed.

In late June, the opposition governors thus declared they would not submit to the recall referendum. They proposed instead that Morales' presidential term be shortened, that a new general election be held without Morales as a candidate, and that their autonomy statutes be immediately recognized. Their declaration merely continued the game of delay, defiance, disobedience and disrespect that the right has played from the beginning.

Enter the U.S. State Department and embassy officials in Bolivia.

According to the Centro de Documentación e Información Bolivia (CEDIB), based in Cochabamba, embassy officials--possibly including Ambassador Philip Goldberg--met with Ernesto Suárez, the governor of Beni, and other highly placed leaders of the right-wing opposition on July 3. On July 4, the opposition governors, with the exception of Manfred Reyes Villa of Cochabamba, indicated they were, once again, willing to participate in the recall referendum.

According to CEDIB, the U.S. embassy evidently gave instructions or otherwise convinced the governors to withdraw their refusal to submit to the recall vote.

The logic of the U.S. insistence on the governors reversing course is not difficult to surmise. First, it had been the right itself that sought to call out Morales with passage of the recall measure. Second, to withdraw from the recall referendum now would make the right look weak and fearful. Third, to block holding the referendum in its own territories would require the full mobilization of its fascist street gangs and shock troops, who have been used on various occasions to intimidate Morales's supporters, particularly in Santa Cruz.

Finally, such a mobilization might escalate the conflict to the next level. Although Morales did not send government troops into the "half-moon" to block the illegal autonomy referendums, he might feel sufficiently justified to do so if the governors disobeyed a recall law that they themselves had brought into play.

And the U.S. apparently feels that the right is not yet ready for that level of confrontation. It is not as strong nationally as presumed, and the whole issue of the recall has produced confusion and disunity among its leaders.

Thus, the imperial advice to the national ruling class has been to prepare ways of discrediting and disobeying any results of the recall vote it doesn't like. In the meantime, the autonomy issue can still be used as a fulcrum to destabilize the Morales government.

THE RESULTS of the Constituent Assembly not only disaffected the right but also weakened and demoralized much of the Bolivian left.

Here, it is important to remember that convening a Constituent Assembly had been a prominent demand of the social movements from the Water War rebellion of 2000, to the overthrow of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada in 2003, to the toppling of President Carlos Mesa in 2005. Holding a Constituent Assembly was also a central promise of the MAS in the 2005 presidential campaign.

The social movements expected that a new constitution would fulfill the demands of the so-called Agenda of October 2003. Other than the demand for the Constituent Assembly, these included the nationalization of hydrocarbons, agrarian reform and punishment of former politicians responsible for killing protesters. But these expectations haven't been realized, not in the new constitution and not in any other decrees or legislation from the MAS government.

Instead, the MAS government has bent over backwards to appease the oligarchy and "half-moon," along with the foreign investors and international financial institutions, which they serve.

Its agrarian reform law, for example, redistributes only land that is currently unproductive, thus awarding peasants the least arable parcels, and giving the large landowners ample time to make their land productive. The latifundio system (large tracts held by a tiny elite of wealthy landowners) remains untouched as the infrastructure of Bolivian agriculture.

While the new hydrocarbon contracts negotiated by the MAS assure larger royalties flowing to the Bolivian treasury--and, ironically, greater revenues to the state treasuries--these contracts basically leave the gas and oil transnationals a free hand to exploit resources as they wish (i.e., with little concern for environmental damage or workers' rights, and, it goes without saying, with no workers' control over production).

Fatally, the new contracts accomplish next to nothing toward facilitating the domestic industrialization of natural gas. Thus, they leave Bolivia without any realistic hope of raising itself out of the trap of being an economy primarily based on the export of raw materials.

A similar sweetheart deal with the effect of perpetuating Bolivia's economic dependency is the contract the government signed with an Indian transnational to exploit the Mutún iron and magnesium mine. The Mutún mine represents the world's largest known deposit of iron ore and could provide a dramatic opportunity for advancing publicly owned and controlled mining and metals processing.

The so-called "nationalizations" of hydrocarbons, some agriculture, some mining, some transportation and some telecommunications as carried by the Morales government really accomplish very little toward enabling Bolivian workers and peasants to have greater decision-making power over their country's wealth and over their own daily lives.

Added to these profound disillusionments is the increasing propensity of the Morales administration to repress the left. Initially reluctant to use violence against unions and social movements, Morales has grown less and less tolerant of radical dissent. At the same time, he has run away from confrontation with the right.

Most recently, the deaths in early August of two miners protesting the government's proposed new pension law have demonstrated Morales' willingness to meet left-wing social protest with lethal force.

Touted as yet another "nationalization" by Morales because the state would take over the administration of the pension program from a private company, the law itself can still only be characterized as neoliberal. It raises the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men, and from 50 to 55 for women. It provides coverage for only about 10 percent of the workforce and obtains its funding exclusively out of workers' wages, with no contributions from employers or the state. Opposing the new law on pensions is therefore both necessary and just.

Meanwhile, when some 200 fascist youth in Tarija took over the city's airport in early August to protest a visit by Morales and the presidents of Argentina and Venezuela, the Bolivian president chose to cancel the trip rather than risk a confrontation. During the season of autonomy referendums, and even during the recall referendum, Morales did the same for trips throughout the "half-moon." Not only Morales but also government ministers have let themselves be blocked from entering separatist territory.

During such calculated attacks by the right, Morales has never used the violence against the right that he is willing to use against the left.

IN MORALES' Bolivia, the national state has doubled its intake of revenue, and big business has seen its profits increase five-fold, according to the government's own statistics. Meanwhile, real wages have fallen after inflation, and the popular sectors are increasingly excluded from governance.

Despite these facts, when set against the right-wing challenge, the Morales government has proven itself to be more popular at the ballot box than when it was first elected.

But Morales' "victory" in the recall referendum is still, in essence, a defeat. The referendum itself remains a product of Morales' conciliatory strategy toward the right. This strategy is responsible for allowing the right to grow, since it has only fed their greed and helped to build their national profile. The precondition for Morales' ability to seek to appease the right, moreover, has been his willingness to demoralize and alienate the left, particularly through his economic policies, but also by pulling any radical teeth out of the new constitution.

Morales hopes that he can use his recall confirmation to bring about a national reconciliation with the right. But this is an illusion. The right has shown repeatedly that it is only interested subverting Morales' administration and preserving the economic power and dominance of the Bolivian ruling class.

For example, on Monday, the day following the referendum, Morales struck a conciliatory tone, congratulating his opponents on their confirmation and inviting them to meet. At the same time, the right-wing governor of Cochabamba refused to step down. And Morales' principal antagonist, Santa Cruz governor Rubén Costas, declared that Morales would never impose his "racist" [i.e., "indigenous"] constitution on the "half-moon" states.

The present political conjuncture in Bolivia is indeed contradictory. In principle, regional self-determination and the peoples' right to immediately recall their elected officials are pillars of democracy. But in today's Bolivia, "regional autonomy" means handing over the country's wealth--lock, stock and barrel--to the most reactionary sectors of the Bolivian ruling class and to continued exploitation by the transnational corporations.

The barbaric oligarchy of the "half-moon" was quite happy to see a central government share the nation's wealth across Bolivia's various regions when, just a couple of decades ago, the country's riches were to be found primarily in the mining industry of the altiplano. And they never dreamed of a recall referendum when military dictators and U.S.-trained technocrats occupied the Bolivian presidency.

Now that they find themselves blessed with the main sources of the present and future economic wellbeing of the nation, however, they imagine that their wealth and power are threatened by a central state aiming to strip them bare.

The irony, of course, is that the Morales government has no such grand design on the wealth of the Bolivian ruling class. As he has shown repeatedly, Morales remains more concerned with placating the right. It will take a revitalized, militant and united effort by the social movements to bring real self-determination and social democracy to Bolivia.

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