BOLIVIA: US opposes selection of a socialist president

July 24, 2002


On June 30, Bolivians went to the polls to choose their next president and elect a new congress. No candidate gained the “50% plus one” margin required for outright victory. Bolivia's congress will decide in early August which of the two top vote-getters will be inaugurated as Bolivia's next leader on August 6.

On July 9, Bolivia's National Electoral Court announced the long-awaited final results. Former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) was the front-runner with 624,126 votes (about 22.5%).

The second-highest vote went to indigenous Quechua leader Evo Morales Ayma of the left-wing Movement to Socialism (MAS). Morales won 581,884 votes (20.9% of the vote), just 721 more than former army captain Manfred Reyes Villa of the New Republican Force (NFR), who had been favoured in pre-election polls.

The lack of a decisive winner reflects the Bolivian people's disenchantment with the traditional political parties and their frustration with the government's neo-liberal economic policies.

After 17 years of neo-liberalism, Bolivia's economy is faltering, unemployment is on the rise and the rich-poor gap has widened. Corruption and social exclusion remain serious problems.

Introduced in 1985 under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for partial relief of Bolivia's crushing foreign debt, the neo-liberal model includes opening up markets, lowering government spending and privatisation.


The economic growth rate in South America's poorest country last year was just 0.5%. About 65% of Bolivians live below the poverty line, and in the countryside, that figure is greater than 90%.

Nearly 12% of urban Bolivians are officially out of work (accurate figures for rural unemployment do not exist, but are estimated to be many times higher). Many of those who do work only earn the monthly minimum wage of US$67. Close to 66% of Bolivians are estimated to work in the informal economy, shining shoes or selling produce and other wares in street markets, and do not draw regular salaries.

For Bolivia's indigenous population, who make up more than 70% of Bolivia's 8.3 million people, poverty and unemployment rates are much higher still.

Even with partial debt relief in exchange for market reforms, Bolivia currently owes US$4.37 billion to international lenders, more than half its annual gross national product of $7 billion. Last year, the government received US$312 million in fresh loans, but paid US$250 million to international lenders.

Indeed, the most distinguishing aspect of the election was that virtually all the candidates attacked neo-liberalism. Candidates of all political stripes — including the right — attempted to tap the people's anger.

Reyes Villa — who as four-time former mayor of Bolivia's third-largest city Cochabamba embraced controversial water privatisation schemes — shrewdly said in a televised public debate one week before the vote: “The people are tired. We need to leave the neo-liberal model in the past and focus on building a productive model.”

Fourth-placed Jaime Paz Zamora, a former president (1989-1993), went a step further and said that his Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) would not participate in any coalition government that maintained neo-liberal economic policies. The votes of the MIR's congressional deputies may be decisive in deciding whether Morales or de Lozada becomes president.

Front-runner de Lozada, popularly known as “Goni”, played a key role in implementing market reforms in tandem with the IMF and World Bank as president of the country from 1993-97.

But in a recent interview, even Goni denied that he supports neo-liberalism. “I don't believe in neo-liberalism, I believe in an open market economy”, he stated. “But I am not dogmatic. My reforms had very important social consequences. But I think you need to have a market economy, which also requires a great deal of government intervention, this stuff about the invisible hand, it just doesn't work that way.”


The big surprise in the election was the showing of Morales, who is best known opponent of US-backed neoliberal economic policies and is the leader of the cocaleros (peasants who grow coca leaves). He is against US-mandated coca eradication programs. Morale's MAS also won the second-highest number of seats in congress.

The US government moved quickly to try to prevent congress from selecting Morales as president. On July 9, Reyes Villa told the Bolivision television network that he had met with US ambassador Manuel Rocha. "I didn't receive any pressure, but he did make it clear to me that there should be no agreement with Evo Morales", Reyes Villa said. Reyes is not planning to lend his support to either Sanchez de Lozada or Morales, he told Bolivision.

Rocha appeared on three TV networks on July 9 to urge the traditional parties to unite against Morales. Rocha's statements have backfired in the past. Morales jumped in the polls after Rocha threatened on June 26 that the US would cut off aid if voters elected "leaders linked, one way or another, to drug trafficking and terrorism".

Rocha warned that if Morales was elected, or the MAS was included in a coalition government, Washington would close its markets to Bolivian textiles and natural gas. The threat was roundly denounced by politicians from all of Bolivia's numerous parties.

Otto Reich, US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, has repeated the threats.

Morales has called for the repeal of the 1985 government decree which initiated many of the neo-liberal “reforms” and has pledged to renationalise many of Bolivia's privatised state companies.

Morales responded to Rocha: “The ambassador's threats don't make us afraid. The people are rising up against the system and the model.”

Morales added that he is not pro-cocaine, but pro-coca. “Coca has been part of our diet and traditions in Bolivia for many hundreds of years. Coca is not the same as cocaine.”

[Jimmy Langman is a journalist based in Santiago, Chile. A frequent visitor to Bolivia, he covers Latin America for a number of publications. Abridged from an article issued by the Americas Program of the Interhemispheric Resource Center, with added information from the Weekly Update on the Americas.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 24, 2002.
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