Morales and Social Movements Confront New Challenges


Bolivian president Evo Morales and his political party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), won a resounding victory in the presidential elections on December 6, 2009. The nearest challengers, Manfred Reyes Villa and his running mate Leopoldo Fernández (whose current address is at La Paz prison, where he stands accused of ordering the murder of pro-Morales peasants), represent an old political and economic order that has used sedition and violence in an effort to obstruct and destabilize the Morales government.

"The social movements are critical for presidents to be able to create a new alternative," declared Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca in the tropical city of Cochabamba in October at a summit of leftist Latin American presidents, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. 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’s platform even before he was first elected to the presidency in 2005. With the support of these social movements, the Morales 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’s 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) shows that, despite the global recession and destabilizing threats from the right, the Bolivian government was able to minimize the impact of the economic crisis and increase foreign exchange reserves. Morales has expanded social services for the poorest Bolivians through 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 has increased government revenue by an impressive 20 percent of GDP since 2004.

The deepening government involvement in the economy—one of Morales’s key campaign planks—is a remarkable achievement, and one that was unthinkable just a few years ago. It was, of course, built on the blood and sweat of the social movements, which called for an end to the privatization 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-à-vis the United States and the dominant international financial institutions.

 
Bolivians march in favor of a new constitution in January 2009photo by Ben Dangl

In a long and 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 recognizes 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 the Morales administration. Since large land holdings 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, according to government figures, has titled 26 million hectares and distributed 958,454 hectares since 2006. It was further bolstered by a measure approved by voters in 2009 limiting private land holdings to 5,000 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 to 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 iteration of this phenomenon. Relations with the United States remain estranged ever since the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador in September 2008 for meddling in Bolivian affairs. Though Bolivia has long been dependent on U.S. foreign aid, ALBA’s support—particularly from Venezuela—has allowed it to escape Washington’s political and economic stranglehold. Venezuela also helped Bolivia cushion its suspension from the U.S. Andean Trade Promotion agreement, a suspension initiated by President Bush in 2008 and extended by President Obama last June.

Negotiations for the normalization 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 declared that 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 Evo 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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Tanya Kerssen is a Masters candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and a contributor to the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA). This article was first published on www.nacla.org.