Bolivia: Revolutionary change ;The Guardian, Tuesday 8 December 2009
President Evo Morales won a stunning victory in Bolivia yesterday, taking 63% of the popular vote and guiding his party to win control of congress. Bolivia’s first indigenous president has won the biggest popular mandate in recent memory, destroying three political parties that rotated the presidency between them for the last two decades. In doing this, Mr Morales has gone a long way to making the social transformation inside Bolivia irreversible. The Indian majority is getting back the voice denied to it for centuries. South Africa remembers Nelson Mandela, and eastern Europe the fall of the Berlin Wall. What a former herder of llamas has achieved in one of the world’s poorest nations may be no less momentous.
Mr Morales has done this by defying the Washington consensus on development, natural gas and coca leaves. In his first term, he sent the IMF, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the US ambassador packing – all for different reasons. He renationalised the gas industry and increased royalties on hydrocarbons. The result was three years of budget surpluses and $8bn in cash reserves. He gave cash payments to school children, mothers and pensioners, giving poor families an incentive to keep children in full-time education. Curiously, Bolivia now wins praise from the IMF, which applauded the government’s prudence in saving part of the windfall income from gas revenues.
The relationship with the US remains troubled, partly because Latin America is so low on the list of Barack Obama’s foreign policy priorities. But there are also specific reasons: a decision by George Bush to suspend trade preferences benefiting Bolivian textile and jewellery workers, as punishment for failing to co-operate with his drug eradication programmes, was made permanent by Mr Obama. As a former leader of Bolivia’s coca growers, Mr Morales’s policy on the little green leaf differs little from the pragmatism British troops show to Afghan poppy growers. Mr Morales has allowed coca farmers to cultivate a limited acreage per family; he promotes the export of the leaf as a tea, and vowed to stop cocaine production. It should not be beyond the resources of the state department to get back on the right side of Bolivian history by re-establishing relations with a genuinely progressive president.
The future is clouded. It always is when one man is given so much power. There are question marks over how he will deal with his opponents, now that a national political opposition no longer exists. The country needs foreign investors to help it export value-added products instead of raw materials. But thus far, his efforts and his victory are to be applauded.