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Last Updated: 03/19/2010The people of Bolivia are rising and provide us with hope
Matt Kennard finds inspiration in the ground-up democratic movements of Bolivia, and the progress made by Evo Morales' social policies. This article is cross-posted from the thecommentfactory.com
There’s a game I’ve been playing recently. Any time I read the news and get depressed about the parlous state of our world, I type “Bolivia” into Google news and wait for the results. It’s really all you need to brighten up your day.
In the last month things such as this have popped up: Bolivian women spearhead Morales revolution, which describes the decision by Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, to stock half his new cabinet with women, nearly half of them indigenous. More recently there was this: Bolivian president donates half pay to victims, which detailed Morales and his vice president Alvaro García’s decision to donate half their March salaries to help the victims of the Haiti and Chile earthquakes.
What is happening in Bolivia now – and has been since MAS, or Movimiento al Socalismo, came to power in 2005 – is truly inspiring. There has been a lot of talk about how the left is dead and Francis Fukayama’s “End of History” means we all have to accept that a global economic system that creates obscene inequalities and mass starvation is the highest stage of social and economic organisation our species can attain.
That might be true for an academic at Johns Hopkins, but for everyone else looking to the future and something to fight for, I ask them to kindly divert their gaze to Bolivia. It is the closest thing we have to real democratic socialism: a government, but more importantly a grassroots movement, committed to economic and gender equality, anti-racism, free speech and every other ideal the left should hold dear.
In December last year MAS won their second five-year term with 67% of the public vote, more than double the percentage won by their nearest opponent, Manfred Reyes Villa. The re-election of an incumbent was particularly exceptional in Bolivia. A country often dismissed by regional experts as “ungovernable” due to its bloody history of military coups and mass public protests, it has seen only a handful of presidents complete their terms in office. The FT now calls Morales “one of Latin America’s most popular leaders”.
Morales’s landslide victory was a clear sign of public support for the present administration and the extensive social reforms they have implemented. On coming to power in 2005, Morales pledged to see through a “democratic revolution” in an attempt to alleviate poverty in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America. The democratic revolution had its genesis in 2000 in what were called the “water wars“, centred in the city of Cochabamba. The water industry had just been privatised with the help of the neoliberal government and the IMF and was run now by the US corporation Bechtel.
Prices soared and police were even instructed to arrest people collecting rainwater to bypass the new prices. The indigenous community was up in arms and Bechtel was forced out by the local communities. The indigenous movement, which is based around small micro-democratic communities, went on to blockade La Paz. The government shot dead a score of protesters in 2005, before the presidential incumbent was forced out and fled to Miami.
When Morales was elected he became the country’s first indigenous president and his party embarked on a programme of “decolonising the state”. For Latin America, the election of an indigenous leader had the same poignancy as Barack Obama’s election in the US.
Throughout his mandate Morales has determinedly pursued a programme of social change, including the part-nationalisation of the country’s energy resources and a surge in social spending that has focused on conditional cash transfers (whereby payments have been made to poor families on the condition that they send their children to school.) These measures have seen Bolivia record a fiscal surplus for the first time in 30 years; the country has been predicted a higher growth rate this year than anywhere else in the Americas; and poverty levels have dropped continually since MAS came to power. Even the head of the IMF’s western hemisphere countries unit has praised the Morales government for what he referred to as its “very responsible” macroeconomic policies.
The backbone of Morales’s reform programme was the creation of a new Bolivian constitution, which was ratified by a public referendum in 2009. Morales has signalled that he will make the implementation of the new constitution his main legislative priority at the start of his second term. In a country that is often compared to apartheid South Africa, as the stark divisions of poverty and inequality are marked along racial lines, this constitution represents Bolivia’s Freedom Charter.
The texture of the modern Bolivian revolution is different to that of Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. It is a much more bottom-up revolution, and Morales is kept on a tight leash by the democratic movement that was behind his rise to power in a way Chávez isn’t. As you look to our election battle between a Labour government that has been in power for 13 years and allowed inequality to worsen and a Conservative cabinet full of reactionary Old Etonians, it’s easy to despair. But when you do, look to Bolivia. The future lies in that small landlocked Latin American country of 9 million people.
Matt Kennard graduated from University of Leeds in the UK. Since then he has completed a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in New York City, where he lives now. He has written for the Guardian, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, New Statesman, amongst others.