Bolivia under Morales

Bolivian President Evo Morales addresses the United Nations General Assembly in April 2016. 
By Bruce Bagley

Bolivian President Evo Morales addresses the United Nations General Assembly in April 2016. 

Bolivia under Morales

By Bruce Bagley
Evo Morales, first elected president of Bolivia in 2005, and could win an unprecedented fourth term in office in October despite concerns over political corruption.

A nation of statistical extremes, landlocked Bolivia is the highest and most isolated South American country. Approximately 60 percent of its 10 million inhabitants are indigenous, the largest proportion of any country in the hemisphere. 

Although rich in mineral and energy resources, Bolivia ranks among South America's poorest countries. Wealthy urban elites, mostly of Spanish ancestry, traditionally dominated economic, social, and political life of the country while the great majority of Bolivians, mostly low-income subsistence indigenous peasant farmers, miners, small traders and artisans, had little or no voice in national affairs. 

Victorious in the presidential campaign of 2005, Evo Morales is the first full-blooded, indigenous president ever elected in Bolivia. Morales comes from an Aymara impoverished family. He rose to prominence in Bolivian politics in the 1990s as a champion of the marginalized rural and urban poor, first as the leader of Bolivia's militant coca farmers’ (cocaleros) association and, subsequently, of the leftist Movimiento al Socialismo(MAS) party. The movements he led were increasingly imbued with nationalism and heightened ethnic awareness.

In May 2006, President Morales put Bolivia’s energy industry under state control. Foreign energy firms were given six months to sell at least 51 percent of their holdings to the state and negotiate new contracts or leave the country. Although vehemently opposed by Bolivian business elites and foreign oil executives as a radical move, Morales’ nationalization was in practice more as a renegotiation of terms with the foreign energy companies than an outright expropriation. As world energy prices rose in 2006 and beyond, the country's finances improved dramatically. At the same time, Morales allied his government closely with the leftist, populist and anti-American Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and adopted an increasingly critical, public stance toward the United States. 

In June 2006, Morales’ MAS party won a decisive majority in special elections for a new constituent assembly tasked with rewriting the nation’s constitution. The resulting draft constitution promised more rights to Bolivia's indigenous majority and more autonomy to the departments. It also contained provisions authorizing an incumbent president to stand for re-election for a second five-year term. Violent demonstrations by opponents, mainly from the wealthy elites, ensued and four of the country's richest regions defiantly declared autonomy in protest. The new charter was finally approved by more than 60 percent of Bolivian voters in a referendum held in January 2009. The passage of the new Constitution shifted political power toward the highland provinces, where poor, indigenous voters predominate, and away from the lowlands, where most of Bolivia's food is grown and where its petroleum and natural gas reserves are located.

Talks between Morales’s congressional backers and the fragmented opposition ultimately produced a compromise that modified earlier versions of the proposed new charter. One of the most polemical articles in the final draft reversed a plan to allow Morales to run for re-election indefinitely, limiting him (and future Bolivian presidents) instead to a single five-year term without the possibility of re-election. Other, often vaguely worded items among the new constitution’s 411 articles broadened definitions of property to include communal ownership; allowed natives to mete out corporal punishment under their own legal systems; extended limited autonomy to regional prefects (governors); and reaffirmed state control over Bolivia’s ample natural gas reserves and other resources. 

Opposition leaders, especially in the eastern lowlands around the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, campaigned vigorously against approval of the proposed new charter. The Constitution was finally adopted in a referendum on January 25, 2009, with close to 60 percent of the country in favor. The four departments in Bolivia’s rebellious eastern lowlands rejected the charter by wide margins. 

Despite the intensity of his opposition in the eastern lowlands, Morales scored a comfortable win over his conservative opponents when he stood for re-election in December 2009, improving on his 2005 majority and becoming the first incumbent Bolivian president since 1964 to win a second term. His party also won control of both chambers of congress, though in the lower house it fell just short of the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional changes. 

On April 4, 2010, Bolivians went to the polls to elect 500 officials in local and provincial elections, including the governors of nine departments. The election was seen as a crucial test of the spreading strength and influence of Morales and his MAS party. They won handily. On May 1, 2010, the Morales government took control of four privately owned companies that generate electricity. The companies accounted for more than half of Bolivia’s electricity market.

The key to Morales's success has been his appeal to the 65 percent of Bolivians who identify as indigenous and who see him as "one of their own." Under Morales, they have benefited from increased levels of social spending, boosted by high international prices for hydrocarbons and more taxes on foreign oil and gas companies. Cash payments have been made to poor families to encourage school attendance. Extra pension payments have been provided to the elderly, and pre-natal and post-natal care has been extended to mothers without access to health care. Some estimates suggest that the payments reached a quarter of Bolivia's 10 million people in 2018. 

While Morales remains popular with the majority of Bolivians owing to his indigenous roots, charismatic personality, and successful redistributive and economic development programs, in the second and third Morales presidential terms his administration became progressively more bogged down in the problems of political corruption and drug trafficking. Today Bolivia is not only a transit nation for drugs, but also is a coca and cocaine producing country. 

While Morales did manage to reduce coca production in the last three years, there is little question that his government has become increasingly hard put to contain the ongoing expansion of illegal coca cultivation in the Bolivian countryside. Moreover, Morales’ decision early in his first government to legalize the cultivation of coca on small peasant farms (one “cato” or acre, recently expanded to two) deeply alienated the George W. Bush administration from his government in 2006. U.S. frictions with Morales led to his decisions to suspend diplomatic relations with Washington in 2007 and 2008 and beyond (including the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador, USAID, the DEA and the Peace Corps from Bolivia) and his adamant refusal to allow U.S. corporations to invest in Bolivia’s extensive mineral deposits (including, oil, natural gas, and lithium).   

Since Morales’ first term in office, U.S.-Bolivian relations have remained distant and hostile. Under President Donald Trump they have virtually collapsed altogether. Morales remains a staunch critic of Trump, U.S. “imperialism,” a vocal supporter of Venezuela and the Maduro regime, and a firm member of the anti-America regional grouping known as the Bolivarian Revolutionary Alliance (ALBA for its initials in Spanish), made up of principally, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. 

In January 2019 Morales celebrated his 13th year in office amid controversy over whether he should be allowed to run again for a fourth time for the presidency in 2019. In 2018, Bolivia’s top electoral court accepted Morales’ candidacy for a fourth consecutive presidential run despite a constitutional ban and referendum against such re-election. Elections for the next five-year presidential term are set for October 2019. 

Morales has presided over an unprecedented economic boom and is credited with lifting millions of Bolivians out of poverty over his first three terms, but since 2016 he has lost considerable political support following allegations about manipulation of the justice system, and his insistence on running for another term amid growing corruption scandals within his MAS party and his administration. During his annual state-of-the-union speech to the Bolivian Congress in early 2019, Morales highlighted his government’s achievements, including high rates of economic growth, which at 4.5 percent is South America’s strongest. 

Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in the country’s almost 500 years-long history in 2005. He supported a 2009 constitutional reform that allowed the chief executive only two consecutive presidential terms—though he later argued the restriction took effect only after the new constitution was adopted. The former coca farmer was re-elected in 2009 and 2014 by substantial majorities. Most Bolivians rejected, however, a constitutional amendment to allow more than two consecutive terms in a 2016 referendum backed by Morales. But Morales’ MAS party convinced the Bolivian constitutional court to rule that his candidacy was legal on the grounds that term limits violate all Bolivian citizens’ human right to run for office. 

An October 2018 poll found that 68 percent of Bolivians surveyed at the time opposed his re-election. Nonetheless, despite continuing intense opposition, as of June 2019 it appeared increasingly probable that Morales would win an unprecedented fourth term in office beginning in 2020. If he does win re-election again, there can be little doubt that Bolivian-U.S. relations will continue on their current antagonistic and conflictual paths for the foreseeable future.

Bruce Bagley is a professor in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences Department of International Studies.