Bolivia: Movement for change strengthens

January 29, 2010

The results of Bolivia's December 6 national elections confirmed the support won by President Evo Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party for the profound changes underway.

Morales increased his vote from 53.7% in 2005 (a record at the time), winning 64.2% of the vote in a poll marked by the highest level of participation ever. Some 93.9% of registered voters took part.

A divided opposition with no clear project, whose traditional parties have all but disintegrated, was unable to contain the MAS landslide.

In the MAS strongholds in the Andean west, Morales scored 80.2% in La Paz, 79.4% in Oruro and 78.3% in Potosi.

His vote reached more than 90% in rural areas. Among Bolivians overseas, allowed to vote for the first time, Morales won almost 70%, including more than 90% among Bolivians in Argentina and Brazil.

He also increased his vote in the east, which is controlled by opposition prefects (governors). He won 56% in Chuquisaca and 51% in Tarija, as well as 44% in Pando, 37.6% in Beni and 40.9% in the opposition heartland of Santa Cruz.

The vote showed Morales maintains powerful support among his traditional base of indigenous peoples, campesinos and workers, and has extended his support further into middle-class sectors.

More than an election victory

Ironically, in a country that had been in a permanent state of convulsion with threats of civil war and disintegration, Bolivia appears one of the most stable countries in the region.

The reason lies in the resounding political defeat of a right-wing anti-government offensive in August-September 2008.

Morales was first elected in 2005, on the back of five years of intense social confrontations during which politics was defined more on the streets than in parliament.

Morales was quick to note that his election did not mean the poor majority had "won power".

Once elected, Morales, together with the social movements (particular the indigenous and campesino organisations that make up the heart of the MAS), sought to implement the key demands that emerged from the peoples' struggles: winning back control over Bolivia's natural resources, in particular the nationalisation of gas; and a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution to "decolonise" the state and end the political exclusion of the indigenous majority.

All of this was too much for the rich elite, which felt that it was losing power to the same people it had long exploited.

Almost immediately, the elite launched a fierce onslaught against the government, using its control by its representatives over the prefectures in the east, the right-wing majority in the senate, and its media and economic might.

This battle reached a climax in September 2008, after Morales's crushing victory in a recall referendum on the presidency the previous month. Unleashing a campaign of terror, opposition leaders, the US embassy and some high ranking military officials attempted to carry out a coup.

This offensive was defeated by the combined action of the social movements and loyal soldiers, who were mobilised directly by Morales to areas where military commanders were refusing to stop the coup plotters.

The defeat of the coup created the political space for the adoption of the new constitution and Morales's re-election. The MAS now enjoys a two-thirds majority in the senate.

On election night, Morales said the MAS's parliamentary majority "obliges me to accelerate the process of change".

"Now we have a free path to apply the constitution to the benefit of all ... now we have an enormous responsibility to deepen and speed-up the process of change and proclaim socialism."

Breaking the elite's economic power

Morales has begun increasingly implementing his land reform program. Until now, it had been stalled by the violent opposition of paramilitaries tied to agribusiness and the weakness of his government in the east.

In moving on land reform, it seems the Morales government is seeking to break the economic power of the large landowning oligarchy based in the east.

Only days after his re-election, Morales ordered the seizure of 12,500 hectares of land illegally acquired by the family of Branco Marinkovic, one of the country's largest soybean magnates and a leader of the violent campaign to overthrow Morales.

With 20 police officers, the vice-minister for land walked onto the property and ordered it be handed over to the local Guarani indigenous people.

The Marinkovic family is also fighting a legal battle to keep control of a slightly bigger ranch.

A week later, the government took control of 2800 hectares of land belonging to Osvaldo Monaterios, the owner of the Red Unitel television network and a fierce Morales critic.

Despite the extreme weakness of the right-wing opposition, the struggle is far from over.

US imperialism remains a big threat, as it showed with the military coup by US-trained officers in Honduras last years and the current occupation of Haiti.


There are also dangers within the process of change and the old state the Morales government inherited — of bureaucracy, corruption, inefficiency and disputes over positions of power.

In a visit to Pando last November, Morales raised these problems. "There are some leaders of my party who think they are the owners of the process", he said, referring to sectors within MAS that protested the fact that some MAS-backed candidates for the election where not MAS members.

"The process of change belongs to all the citizens, be they MAS supporters or not, given that we do not want more corruption or neoliberalism in the country."

Morales said: "The state bureaucracy, which remains as a vice from the old state, is still an internal enemy within the process of change that halts and delays decisions that require speed and efficiency."

Vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera said in his January 21 swearing in speech that it was necessary to build a new state, "which the Bolivian people have proposed be built from below".

The new state's three pillars would be: "plurinationality" (recognition of indigenous equality); regional and indigenous autonomy within the framework of "a democratic decentralisation of power"; and a mixed economy in which the state plays the central role in strategic sectors.

Garcia Linera also noted the need to spread the socialist revolution internationally. "No revolution can triumph if it is not support by other revolutions in the world. The empire is a global demon, and the only way to defeat it is with another globalisation, otherwise the empire will impose itself.

"We are globalising the power of the people."

[Fred Fuentes edits Bolivia Rising.]

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