Morales’ Bolivia — a triumph or too good to be true?


Left-wing Evo Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous President, in power since 2005.

Being the first indigenous president of a fiercely proud nation such as Bolivia is no easy task. When Evo Morales rolled to a landslide victory in the 2004 elections he did so with the hopes of millions of perpetually ignored indigenous people resting on his shoulders. As the leader of the coca growers union with a political emphasis on indigenous Andean traditions Morales managed to galvanise support utilising his left wing ideology and a bounty of gas money. He is well-known for criticising capitalism, having labelled Obama an “imperialist” in 2014, and is widely praised for alleviating poverty and investing in social programmes across Bolivia. In this sense it is clear how Morales has come to represent and support the working classes and indigenous people. However, one can question how stable Morales’ success is considering his reliance on global commodity prices and how left-wing his strategy actually is in the context of the widespread move away from the left currently happening across South America.

Morales’ policies have certainly brought prosperity to certain parts of Bolivian society. He recently doubled the area that coca crops could be grown in legally, thus empowering coca growth as a major source of income in rural Bolivia. Bolivia is currently experiencing the strongest economic growth in South America, with a peak growth of 6.8% in 2013 and a predicted growth of 3.9% in 2017 despite a fall in commodity prices. Morales increased spending on education, healthcare, poverty prevention and pensions thus reducing inequality and improving access to basic services. He also renationalised oil and heavy industry and used the profits from natural gas to invest in social programmes, ideas that showcase his left-wing ideology. These policies and successes under Morales help to explain his popularity, particularly amongst the rural working classes, as not only does he implement left wing policies, but these policies themselves produce remarkable results. For example, Morales’ idea to massively expand the role of the Bolivian state has reduced poverty by 25% and extreme poverty by 43% under his government. The triumph and popularity of Morales can be summed up by his campaign slogan “with Evo, we’re doing well”.

Many in Bolivia’s large indigenous community have long complained of being sidelined by the central government in La Paz. Most are happy Morales is taking up their grievances.

It is therefore clear that Morales has achieved much success, but there have naturally also been some faults to his leadership. Bolivia has the second largest natural gas reserves in South America, and this means that there is a tendency for Bolivian presidents to rely on money from gas exports. Although this has provided benefits to the Bolivian population under Morales, which in turn has led him to invest this money into social programmes, it can also bring an over-reliance on this unstable and volatile source of income. There have also been criticisms that Morales has had too much power for too long. He lost a referendum in February this year to allow him to run for a fourth time to be president but he has still been nominated as the party’s candidate in the election. This illustrates a stubbornness to step down from power and an attempt to override government rules. Furthermore, there is a growing sense in Bolivia that Morales is moving away from his leftist politics and towards the elites of the country. He has used the private sector and the business elites in his growth plan for Bolivia, cut fuel subsidies and made many deals with multinational companies. These actions seem to have gone against the wishes of the rural working classes and indigenous people resulting in some of his supporters souring in their support of him. Additionally, some of his policies such as the cutting of fuel subsidies have resulted in protests in cities such as El Alto. More shockingly, Morales has used government funding to open a $7m museum in his honour in the rural area of Orinoca. 90% of people who live in this area live in poverty despite the huge budget for this museum. Whilst it could be argued that the museum boosts tourism to the area it seems contradictory to spend $7m on a museum rather than social improvements to the area. His reliance on gas exports, right-wing tendencies and long standing power all point towards a leadership that has brought success but may not be sustainable.

Many people in Bolivia work in mines and the gas industry, often in hazardous conditions. Critics argue that an over-reliance in Bolivia on these kinds of commodities in the economy are unsustainable.

Success under Morales is evident and Bolivian citizens are still prospering under his leadership. However, there are uncertainties surrounding whether Bolivia will be able to sustain this success with a fall in commodity prices and whether they will become a part of the wider fall of left-wing politicians in South America. Bolivia is expected to make $2.1bn on gas exports in 2017, but this is still low compared to when the oil price was higher and the country faces long-term issues of slowing growth and drought. Morales is clearly a popular figure to have been re-elected twice by the Bolivian electorate, yet this popularity may be dwindling with his first electoral defeat in the February referendum, perhaps signifying Bolivia’s part in South America’s fall of the left. The left has suffered electoral defeats in Venezuela and Argentina, Correa is not running again in Ecuador and the Chilean president is flagging in the opinion polls. It is therefore ripe to debate whether voters are becoming tired of left-wing dominance in countries where the fall in commodity prices is slowing growth, and how this will affect Morales’ resilient, generation-changing rule in Bolivia and the unique challenges it faces.

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