Bolivia: Resounding victory for Evo opens new path to change

December 8, 2009

"Today Bolivia has once again shown its democracy, and that change is possible", Bolivian President Evo Morales said on December 6, after he was re-elected that day with more than 63% of the vote, the December 7 Granma said.

Granma said exit polls indicated Morales' party, Movement Towards Socialism, would win a majority in both seats of Bolivia's parliament — removing a right-wing majority in the Senate that had blocked progressive changes.

In frot the seat of government in the in front of thousands of emotional supporters in Plaza Muillo, La Paz, Granma reported that Morales, emphasised the triumph constitutes an endorsement of Latin America's anti-imperialist governments.

Morales, elected for a new term, along with Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Lineras, from 2010-2015, promised to accelerate the social changes taking place in Bolivia. Morales is the first Bolivian president from the indigenous majority.

Granma said there was a massive turnout for the elections, the first to occur under the new, progressive constitution drafted by a constituent assembly and endorsed in January in a referendum. The new constitution, which declares Bolivia a "pluri-national state" with justice and autonomy for the indigenous majority, was a key demand of the social movements and a promise by Morales when first elected in 2005.

In the article below, Tanya Kerssen, a contributor to the Center for the Study of the Americas, looks at the challenges facing Bolivia's democratic process of change in light of the election results. The article is reprinted from

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Bolivian President Evo Morales and his political party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), won a resounding victory in the presidential elections on December 6.

The nearest challengers, Manfred Reyes Villa and his running mate Leopoldo Fernandez — whose current address is a La Paz prison, where he stands accused of ordering the murder of pro-government peasants — represent an old political and economic order that has used sedition and violence in an effort to obstruct and destabilise the Morales government.

The old order and the new are locked in a struggle for the future of Bolivia.

At an October summit in Cochabamba of left-wing Latin American presidents, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Bolivian foreign minister David Choquehuanca declared: "The social movements are critical for presidents to be able to create a new alternative."

At the parallel Social Movements Summit comprised of 700 delegates from 40 countries, Isaac Ávalos, leader of the Bolivian Peasants Federation promised to help "bury the opposition" in the election.

The dialogue between these parallel summits is emblematic of the close association between social movements and the new left governments of Latin America.

In Bolivia, a broad-based coalition of movements — with peasants, workers and indigenous groups at the forefront — was instrumental in defining Morales' platform even before he was first elected to the presidency in 2005.

With the support of the social movements, the administration succeeded in meeting three key goals in its first term: government control over the nation's oil and gas resources, the creation of a new constitution to re-found the Bolivian state, and the advance of agrarian reform.

The right-wing opposition, rooted in its control of large landed estates and petro-carbon resources in the eastern lowlands, constitutes the main challenge to transforming property relations and creating a more equitable, democratic society in Bolivia.

The deepening of "21st Century Socialism" during Morales' next five years in office will depend on the sustained strength of the social movements, the government's continued responsiveness to their evolving agenda, and the ability of both to overcome the opposition of the entrenched elites while maintaining democratic legitimacy.

A report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) showed that despite the global recession and destabilising threats from the right, the government was able to minimise the impact of the economic crisis and increase foreign exchange reserves.

Morales also expanded social services for the poorest Bolivians through the creation of health and literacy programs and financial support for the elderly, school-aged children and pregnant women.

These achievements were made possible by the government takeover of the oil and natural gas industries, which increased government revenue by an impressive 20% of GDP since 2004.

The deepening of government involvement in the economy — one of Morales' key campaign planks — is a remarkable achievement, and one that was unthinkable just a few years ago.

It was built on the blood and sweat of the social movements, which called for an end to the privatisation of public corporations, land and natural resources; the restoration of social protections and government regulation of private capital; and the reassertion of state sovereignty vis-a-vis the United States and the dominant international financial institutions.

In a long turbulent process, the administration succeeded in creating a new constitution — approved in a popular referendum in February 2009 — that seeks to re-found the nation to be more reflective of, and accountable to the country's indigenous majority. The constitution provides indigenous peoples with greater territorial autonomy and recognises Bolivia's 36 indigenous languages as "official".

The new charter also grants the state greater control over natural resources, establishes access to water as a human right and requires the government to protect biodiversity.

In a country with one of the most unequal land tenure systems in Latin America, deepening the land reform program is a central challenge facing this administration.

Since large landholdings are the basis for elite power, land reform is an overtly, sometimes violently, contested issue.

Under the changes introduced to the land reform law in 2006 and approved by congress, land must fulfill a "social and economic function" — regardless of property tax payment — in order to avoid expropriation and re-distribution to poor peasant families.

The land reform process, which according to government figures has titled 26 million hectares and distributed 958,454 hectares since 2006, was further bolstered by a measure approved by voters in 2009 limiting private landholdings to 5000 hectares (about 12,400 acres) rather than the 10,000 hectares demanded by the landed elite.

As a result of pressure from conservative landowners in the process of drafting the new constitution, however, these reforms will not be retroactive to include currently owned properties.

This compromise greatly defuses the radical potential of the legislation.

In another capitulation to the right, language that prohibited the use and production of genetically modified organisms was removed in the final text, a large blow to the peasant movements and environmental NGOs that fought for its inclusion.

The more radical leaders of the social movements are advocating new decrees and legislation to overcome these limitations and deepen the agrarian reform.

Changes in the international context are promising for the Morales government's ability to implement its agenda. The rise of South-South cooperation provides opportunities for greater independence from and negotiating power with the North, especially the United States.

ALBA, the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the People, is an important part of this phenomenon.

Relations with the US remain estranged ever since the expulsion of the US ambassador in September 2008 for meddling in Bolivian affairs. Though Bolivia has long been dependent on US foreign aid, ALBA's support — and particularly support coming directly from Venezuela — has allowed it to escape Washington's political and economic stranglehold.

Venezuela also helped Bolivia cushion the blow of its suspension from the US Andean Trade Preference agreement, a suspension initiated by then-president George Bush in 2008 and extended by President Barack Obama in June.

Negotiations for the normalisation of relations took place at the State Department in Washington last month, but with no final resolution. Morales has expressed his disappointment with the policies of the Obama administration, particularly its decision to establish seven military bases in nearby Colombia.

He said Latin America is no longer "in the time of kings" and that "we cannot be in the time of American military bases."

One of the poorest countries in Latin America, Bolivia under Morales is in a strong position to transform its economy and to break the historic hegemony of the United States.

The strength and character of this transformation will largely hinge on continued dialogue between the government and the social movements that have been at the vanguard of progressive change.

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