Bolivian Prospects

The Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) of the reigning President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has won the regional elections held on April 9th of this year.(1) Morales is the first elected President of Bolivia to be fully Native American, despite the great majority of the Bolivian population being Aymará or Quechua. For most of its history, the country has been governed by a swift succession of military dictators, vassal oligarchs of the United States and assorted strongmen. Universal suffrage was only introduced in 1951 by the reformist MNR party, which was subsequently overthrown by a series of juntas.

Much of the conflict has revolved around the main economic products of Bolivia: its enormous tin mines (it is the world’s largest tin producer) and the coca leaves grown as export crop by the country’s many poor farmers, which forms the basis for the drug cocaine. The United States, worried about the effect of this production on its disastrous ‘war on drugs’, has systematically pressured successive Bolivian governments into attempting to eradicate this production. Failing to offer anything in its stead, this led to widespread resentment among the farmers involved and increased the degree to which they could be extorted by drug barons, not unlike the current campaigns against opium production in Afghanistan. The election of Morales, who is titular head of the organization defending the interests of the cocaleros, represents a great step forward in countering the destructive policies of the US in this regard. Also of relevance is the fact that prior governments, including the long-lasting dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer, were pressured by American and other interests into massively selling off the country’s public assets. Even water was privatized and subjected to the ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital, leading to enormous pressures on the very poor population of the country. The electoral success of Morales is unique in its degree in Bolivian history, but this should come as no surprise when one realizes the degree to which the President systematically opposes the depredations of capitalism in his country.

Unsurprisingly, Morales has immediately come into serious conflict with the interests of the southern provinces. These provinces produce by far the greatest part of the wealth of Bolivia, but very little of it is distributed among the population generally. The right-wing opposition is centered in the province of Santa Cruz, where the ultra-right candidate for the VERDES party won re-election as governor in the recent elections. Morales had moved against the foreign natural gas interests in Bolivia by expropriating their assets and forcing them to re-negotiate the contracts, thereby showing that he justly refused to allow his country to be burdened by agreements entered into by dictators and compradors of foreign states. His party also changed the constitution of the country to democratize it in favor of the indigenous majority. Both these moves were vigorously opposed by the southern capitalists. After all, the new state income from the production of gas and other natural resources was no longer funnelled to foreign companies or local bosses, but went to the implementation of direct development programs in the form of ‘cash transfer programmes’. As Upside Down World explains:

“The Ministry of Economy and Public Finance reported that 2.5 million children, pregnant women and elderly persons, equivalent to 25 percent of the population, are beneficiaries of the cash transfer programmes created by the government to bolster human development in this land-locked country, South America’s poorest.

The programmes include a monthly pension of roughly 30 dollars for the elderly, a cash grant of 30 dollars a month per schoolchild between the 1st and 8th grades, conditional on school attendance and vaccination, and special payments to pregnant women and mothers of small children who keep regular doctors’ appointments and give birth in hospitals. (…) “None of this would have been possible without the government’s regaining control of the country’s natural resources,” said CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot. “Bolivia’s fiscal stimulus over the past year was vastly larger than ours in the United States, relative to their economy.”


The vigorous opposition of the entrenched capitalists in southern Bolivia forced Morales to resort to referendum to implement the reforms, rather than passing them outright in the legislature, as he could have done. Needless to say, the referendum passed. But the opposition will not lightly forgive Morales for being the first head of state since the MNR to directly act against the interests of the expropriators and to expropriate him in turn. Morales was overwhelmingly re-elected last year, and his party returned with an astounding two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament. But the recent election results show that the bulwark of opposition has not yet been defeated.

Morales is to be praised so far for avoiding the bluff and the tendency to favor arbitrary power that other leaders such as Hugo Chavez have shown, but he must not underestimate the criminality of the capitalist class, least of all in Latin America. Manfred Reyes Villa, one of the main opposition leaders, has already fled to the United States. A convergence of interests there would form an immediate danger to socialism in Bolivia. After all, the United States is highly worried about the Venezolan government’s systematic démarches against it on the diplomatic front, and even more so about the ‘left turn’ of Latin America in general. It proves this by its spate of new treaties intended to remilitarize the continent and to catch the socialists in a net. Colombia has already permitted the US to plant a great number of military bases there, making it even more of a vassal than it already is. Although President Obama has denied intent to militarize the country, the treaty “would allow the Pentagon to lease access to seven Colombian military bases for U.S. support in fighting drug traffickers and guerrillas involved in the cocaine trade. The agreement would also increase the number of American troops in Colombia above the current total of less than 300 but not more than 800, the maximum permitted under the existing pact.”(3) The US is also making deals with the Lula da Silva’s government in Brazil, which has increasingly been presenting itself as a secondary power on the world stage. Brazil has been aiming for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council(4), and has just recently signed a “Defense Cooperation Agreement” with the Americans.(5) A simple look on the map will show how these moves, though perhaps innocent enough on their own, cast an ominous shadow over the attempts at reform by the various South American governments of the ‘left turn’.

Given Bolivia’s long history of military coups, and the increasing inability of the opposition to stem the democratic-socialist tide, Morales must take heed. It may well be that purely formal democratic methods no longer suffice. His opponents may very well not adhere to them, and in such an explosive situation, the substance of democracy, that is the potential of MAS to revolutionize the structure of the Bolivian economy and body politic, must supercede its merely formal aspects. After all, when MAS acts on its name and indeed moves towards socialism, it is as it was put so long ago and as it still sounds clear today: the “self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”.(6)

1), 2) Franz Chávez, “Bolivia: Moderate Gains for Morales’ MAS Party”.
3) “Obama denies U.S. creating military bases in Colombia”. Reuters (Aug. 7, 2009).
4) Elise Labott, “Powell calls Brazil ‘serious candidate’ for U.N. Security Council”. CNN (Oct. 05, 2004)
5) “U.S.- Brazil Defense Cooperation Agreement”. Press Release: US State Department (April 14, 2010).
6) Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party.


Just wanted to say that this is a fascinating collection of essays. I am not sure if you care if you have a readership or not, but I figured you could use some words of encouragement. There’s a reader in South America who regularly follows your writings. Keep it up!

Of course appreciation is very welcome! I don’t have many illusions about yet another pile o’ words online, but any writer likes having readers. So thanks!

I’d like to echo that praise; I’ve been reading over the articles here over the past few days and they’re exactly the sort of thoughtful writing I crave (but often have trouble finding online) on these topics, and I will certainly continue to follow this blog. Keep up the great work!

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