As the tri-colored presidential sash was draped over the shoulder of Evo Morales on January 22, tears welled up in his eyes. The day before, he was vested with the power to rule by amautas (indigenous authorities) at the pre-Incan ruins of Tiwanaku, where a crowd of some 50,000 cheered the nation’s new Aymara president; history in the making. Even the military command ceremoniously handed the former coca farmer a “leadership cane” symbolizing maximum authority.
“With the strength of the people we can put an end to the colonial and neoliberal state,” said Morales to the mostly indigenous crowd at Tiwanaku. “We need the support of all of you, a serious and responsible commitment to bend the hand of the empire…. If I can’t advance, push me. It’s possible that I’ll make mistakes, but I’ll never betray the struggle of the people and the fight for the liberation of the Americas.”
This last message was a direct appeal to Bolivia’s powerful, yet fragmented, social movements. It was this overwhelmingly poor and indigenous constellation of communities that had forced the impromptu December 18 elections in the first place, and then handed Morales the victory with nearly 54% of the vote—an historically unprecedented mandate given the country’s fractious political landscape. It will be the rank-and-file of these movements that are likely to determine what happens next in Bolivia.
Shortly after the official inauguration, the country erupted in celebration. More than 100,000 revelers braved a driving rain in La Paz to receive their new president in the Plaza of Heroes, site of the country’s many popular uprisings. Despite a general sense of uncertainty among the public, hopes are high and expectations growing for the new government. The coca growers, who form the base of Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, want his administration to address coca production; landless peasants want extensive land redistribution; campesinos from the altiplano (highland plateau), organizations from the largely Aymara city of El Alto and other social movement groups are demanding that the government nationalize the hydrocarbons industry; and elite business groups from eastern provinces continue to clamor for greater provincial autonomy. The MAS government is also expected to make quick on its promise to convoke a constituent assembly that will rewrite Bolivia’s constitution.
Internationally, the government’s compliance with most of these demands will be met with stiff opposition, if not outright rejection. The hostile U.S. Administration, which holds the purse strings to a significant portion of the national budget, will adamantly oppose changes in coca policy and the rollback of market reforms. Although they have shown openness toward negotiation, some of Morales’ closest allies in the region will respond unfavorably if he makes good on his campaign promise of gas nationalization—both Argentina and, particularly, Brazil are highly dependent on cheap Bolivian gas and have significant investments in the industry. And if the past is any indication, transnational corporations will file costly international lawsuits if changes are made to contracts on everything from gas exploration to basic services like water and electricity provision.
Bolivia, the most trampled and bullied republic of South America, is in the international spotlight. The Latin American left waits anxiously to see if an impoverished country, made up mostly of indigenous people and led by one of their own, will be able to shed centuries of colonialism and tip the scales of globalization toward liberty, justice and equality. But already some fear that Morales’ conciliatory tones toward international capital in the last stretch of the campaign forecast a repeat of the disappointing Brazilian experience, which had similarly raised the hopes of millions.
Bolivia is unpredictable, especially now, yet many analysts and media outlets—from left to right—predict that the seemingly irreconcilable demands by the social movements and a globalized neoliberal economy will create an impossible situation for Morales, who, unable to deliver, will eventually be forced to resign amid mass protests.
Although Morales might not be a radical by Bolivian standards, it is the radicalness of the social movements that could save him by forcing his hand and pushing him, as he asked of them at Tiwanaku. All eyes are on Morales, yet keen observers should instead be watching the social movements and how they respond to the new government. If they are able to maintain their independence and combativeness, as the more radical sectors surely will, then Morales will have a fighting chance to effect lasting changes—because he’ll have to. And for that, as an op-ed in Argentina’s Página/12 loudly proclaimed, “¡Gracias Bolivia!”
About the Author
Teo Ballvé is a NACLA editor and covered the beginning of The Other Campaign as part of the multimedia collective “The Other Journalism with The Other Campaign.” For ongoing coverage, visit www.narconews.com.