Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bolivia: The Disturbing Political Situation

This will be the first in a short series of posts based upon my 5 weeks in Bolivia.

Today, Bolivians go to the polls in a referendum that will decide the fate of Evo Morales' government. Morales called the referendum to legitimize his government against the separatists that dominate the eastern half of the country. He, as well as the state governors, are subject to recall if an equal percentage of the population vote against them as voted for them when they were elected. For Morales, this is about 54%. He will win fairly easily according to all experts.

But will this actually legitimize Morales around the nation? Absolutely not. In fact, Bolivia is in the midst of the most severe political crisis in Latin America. Bolivia has 9 provinces. Morales literally cannot step foot in 4 of them. Those 4 provinces are making moves toward independence. While I don't actually think that will happen soon, we can't count it out.

What is going on here? When I was in Bolivia, I felt like I had stepped into a time warp and come out in 1983. Morales and his supporters, by and large the poor and indigenous majority, are moving toward socialism, at least in rhetoric. Morales clearly sees himself squarely in the center of the Latin American revolutionary tradition. There are problems with this, which I will get into in a minute.

But much more problematic is the opposition. It is quite clear to me that the opposition really wishes that it was 1983 and that Reagan would send the CIA in to help them overthrow Morales. They hate him with 12 shades of passion. Why? To some extent it is the socialistic aspects of his government. But I believe that is secondary. They really hate him because he is an Indian and because he gives the indigenous population equal or even more than equal benefits of the government. This stands in stark contrast to the rest of Bolivian history with the white minority stealing almost every cent that went into government coffers. The openly refer to him as "that fucking Indian." In English if they can speak the language well enough.

The Bolivian opposition has no commitment to democracy. They didn't show much commitment even when they were in power. Now they are openly contemptuous of the whole process. Randy Paul posted this yesterday:

“This government has not learned how to govern, and for that reason I ask the armed forces to overthrow the president of the republic,” Percy Fernández, the mayor of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest and richest city and a bastion of separatist groups, said Thursday. The mayor’s comments infuriated Mr. Morales and his senior advisers."

As Randy said, this is treason. Yet leaders openly speak like this throughout the eastern half of the nation. Morales tried to campaign this week in Tarija, but protesters burned tires at the airport, not allowing him to land. One of his ministers had the tires shot out of his vehicle in the east last week.

What the opposition has not done is come up with any kind of coherent economic reasons for opposing Morales. They are deeply capitalist, it is true. But Morales hasn't restricted their ability to make money. No doubt they are worried about the future, but that doesn't explain their treasonous mutiny. What has Morales done in office? First, he nationalized Bolivia's large natural gas supplies. Oil companies and the eastern provinces erupted in anger? I can see why the oil companies were upset. But why the eastern provinces?

The move was an unabashed success. Bolivia has more money now than it ever has before. The giveaway of the resources to the oil companies was orchestrated by the right-wing governments, no doubt with large amounts of money going into their Swiss bank accounts. But Bolivia has nearly paid off their foreign debt in the last 2 years and the potential is there for the government to have both the money and the willpower to create positive changes in Bolivians' material conditions--for the first time in history. I had dinner with an American priest who has been in Bolivia for 37 years. He is so well-respected that he was a leader in the Franciscans delegation to the United Nations for some years in the middle of that time. While hardly an unabashed Evo fan, he said that Bolivia is better off economically now than they have been in at least the last half-century. The nationalization of the natural gas was a huge success for Morales and the right thing to do for his poor country.

Morales has also pledged to not expropriate lands, except for the recent land grabs by right-wingers in the east that they are not using. During the 1990s and the early 2000s, the right-wing governments granted enormous land tracts to its supporters in the east. Theoretically, this is for soy farms and other exports, but it was also largely to create enormous fiefdoms for themselves. Interestingly, the same priest told us that many of these land grants went to right-wing Croatian nationalists that fled their nation during the civil war and ended up in Bolivia where they aligned themselves with the conservatives there. Morales has threatened to take these lands and give them to poor landless indigenous people. But I don't think this has actually happened. Those lands are far away from the indigenous homelands in the mountains and it seems to me that many more native peoples are moving to La Paz than trying to farm new lands. On the other hand, there may well be poor mestizo campesinos who would take that land, particularly given the problem with the landless poor entering national parks. The potential of losing their fiefdoms certainly drives some of the opposition, though by no means does any sort of eastern majority have access to land.

The role of Hugo Chavez is also extremely controversial. Chavez is Morales' top international supporter. I hardly to refresh people on how problematic Chavez is, but certainly he is part of the reason the right despises the government so strongly. On the other hand, Chavez is actually helping Bolivia economically in ways that no foreign nation ever has before.

But Morales also deserves part of the blame here too. Maybe he shouldn't tie himself so closely to Chavez. He also seems to alienate people unnecessarily. For instance, I talked to one Bolivian guy who opposed Morales in no small part because he had changed the rules in Bolivian schools to have the children do some sort of Cuban-style flag salute. I don't know all the details of what he was talking about. But there's no question that Morales has copied a good chunk of the symbols of Latin American socialism. Why? What does this accomplish? Nothing. It does not seem to me that Morales is a particularly good politician. He is prone to statements that don't accomplish anything except for angering people unnecessarily. For instance, take this statement that Randy discusses in the post linked above.

“When a jurist tells me, ‘Evo, you are making a legal mistake; what you are doing is illegal,’ I go ahead even if it’s illegal,” Mr. Morales said. “I later tell the lawyers, ‘If it’s illegal, you make it legal. Otherwise, what have you studied for?’ ”

This is just stupid. If Morales was a better politician, he would take the moral high ground by being a good democrat who loves his people while demonizing his traitorous opposition. Instead, he gives them legitimacy by making undemocratic statements and engaging in meaningless socialist posturing. I'm sympathetic to the man and such statements make me worry greatly.

Morales also trashes the U.S. a lot too. Maybe it's for good reason. But I don't get the sense that his followers really hate the United States much. While Bolivia has been a U.S. client state for most of the last century, the direct ways the U.S. has affected the daily lives of indigenous people seems pretty limited. For what its worth, I certainly did not get any flack for being an American. And I'm not one of those stupid Americans who claims they are Canadian and sews Canadian flags on their backpacks. But Morales and the coca growers kicked USAID out of the country just before I arrived. He also claimed that the Peace Corps are spies. Thanks to the Bush administration, he has some reason to think this. But he also knew what he said was not true (in fact in the case when he said this, it was religious missionaries at fault). It is quite possible that Morales will give the Peace Corps the boot after the referendum. But the problem with doing this is that USAID and Peace Corps are filled with Americans who are actually helping average Bolivians. What good does kicking them out do? None that I can see.

Finally, there is the question of where all this new money is going. Bolivia is badly in need of massive investment in infrastructure. Certainly the right-wingers who hate Morales did absolutely nothing in this regard when they were in power. Too busy lining their pockets I guess. I would think that the one advantage of a socialist government would be centrally planned projects to provide decent roads and sanitation to the population. But Morales hasn't done much of this. He has done some good things, it is true. He's been investing in education and health care, things that Bolivians also desperately need. But he has also taken a decentralized approach to appropriating money. He just gives large chunks back to local communities. While this might sound nice, how does it get spent? The prompt for me going to Bolivia was that I have a friend in the Peace Corps. In his village, the first big check went to a racquetball court. Why? The mayor likes racquetball. Great use of the resource there. Certainly the village doesn't need anything else.... Now they are spending the money to build a market building for the surrounding area. That's fine and all, but every village seems to be doing the same thing. The village is near the big market town of Tarabuco and I don't see tourists flocking to their town instead. I don't think the market will bring them the money they desire, though it may make their daily conditions slightly more comfortable.

This decentralized monetary policy makes me wonder about Morales' socialist credentials. Does he really believe in socialist economic policy or is he really just talking a good anti-American game? Maybe not many would agree with me that what Bolivia needs is a good dose of centralized economic planning, but given the state of the "roads," the utter lack of sanitation, that many people don't have access to electricity, that health care is dismal, infant mortality very high, and education levels very low, centralized planning is exactly what the nation needs. Whether that's under a socialist regime or some other kind of government doesn't matter much I guess. But if Evo really wants to change the lives of his people, he needs to use the financial windfall from the nationalization of natural gas in a much more responsible way than letting local power brokers build racquetball courts with it.

Finally, what does the future hold? This is really hard to say. As the linked article above states, Bolivia is devolving into a series of city-states. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, Bolivia is in serious trouble. The right-wingers are still not going to accept Morales as their president. The fate of the Morales government and the nation as a whole may well come down to the military.

The military has an especially interesting role in this conflict. One of the first things Morales did upon taking office was pledge that under his rule, the military would never kill civilians. Under the right-wing governments, firing on civilians at protests or during coca-destruction operations was not uncommon. So making this pledge is a good thing, right? Well, maybe not. The problem is that the right knows that they can do whatever they want to and Morales won't send the military against them. This has emboldened them to engage in treasonous activity. I guess at least the threat of force is necessary to ensure civil behavior in Bolivia. I hate to say this, but maybe Morales does need to send in the military to crack a few heads in Santa Cruz, particularly when the city's mayor is openly calling for a military coup.

What are the chances for a coup? I don't really know. I have no doubt that the officer corps is very white. They are probably anti-Evo too. On the other hand, Evo is worshiped by the poor and indigenous majority. That majority also makes up the majority of the average soldiers. Would they take orders to bring down the Morales government? I hate to say it, but it is on this very question that the future of Bolivia may rest.