The revolution that has occurred quietly in Bolivia is quite something to see. Evo Morales, President of Bolivia since 2006 and the first from an indigenous group to hold that position, has transformed Bolivian society in a way that is positive for most people in this the poorest country in South America.
Bolivia has a sad history of oppression through decades of extreme right wing dictators at a national and local level. The list is long and depressing. To name but a few from recent decades: Hugo Banzer, specialist in “disappearing” those critical of him (as an aside, his official portrait looks like a caricature of a south American tinpot dictator); Luis García Meza Tejada, a cocaine-financed dictator, actively supported by then resident Klaus Barbie, who used the army to protect drug traffickers and had a penchant for murdering intellectuals; and the brutal major of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes-Villa, now living in luxurious exile in the US with other crypto-facist Bolivian thugs. Reyes-Villa is a typical example of how the elite has raped Bolivia for so long. In 2000 he privatised water provision in Cochabamba, passing a law so draconian that wells used by people for many years were sealed, and rainwater collected from roofs was technically owned by the water company. Water charges were increased to about $20 a month, at a time when typical state employees earned $80 a month and many campesinos less than that. When people protested in an organized way, threatening his business deal, Reyes-Villa set the army and police on the protesters, and to ensure motivation increased the pay of the police by 50%. Live ammunition was used against the protesters, some of which was captured by TV cameras. He has been charged with over 20 counts of personal corruption (his mayoral salary of $1000 a month is unlikely to be the source of financing for his beachfront Miami residence), and is avoiding answering those charges by remaining in the US, complaining that the charges are politically motivated. The indigenous protestors killed to protect his business deal of course remain resolutely dead.
With a tremendous popular mandate, reconfirmed several times, Morales´ government has initiated changes that start to rebalance the poor and the rich here and improve indigenous rights. A noticeable sign in every restaurant is “Todos somos iguales ante la ley”: everyone is equal before the law. The point being that discrimination and racism has long been endemic in Bolivian society, and his government quickly passed laws to outlaw it and then publicised those laws extensively. Civil servants are now required to speak at least one indigenous language as well as Spanish (43% of the population speak an indigenous language as their mother tongue).
|“Our country, our businesses”|
There has also been a significant increase in direct and indirect transfer payments to the poor during the Morales presidency, especially to the indigenous poor. Economic inequality, while still dramatic here, has been reduced, with the Gini coefficient now standing at 53 compared to 58 under the right wing dictators, still appallingly high but a notable achievement at a time when the trend in almost every country is in the opposite direction. Illiteracy has been all but eliminated, and the constitution provides every Bolivian with water, food, free health care, education, and housing as fundamental rights of citizenship. All this has been achieved with sound government finances – the Morales government has always run a small budget surplus.
The national oil and gas company was nationalised to ensure that profits would benefit the whole nation rather than the elite. (Compare this for a moment to the actions of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, economics minister at the time, who in 1985 fired two thirds of the oil and tin workforce, as well as removing price controls, to win favour with the international financial markets – yes, two thirds of the workforce. After that stellar performance he went on to become President and in 2003 massacred even more protesters than Reyes-Villa, this time because of a gas deal, before fleeing to luxurious exile in Washington DC).
|Queuing for the Teleferico in El Alto|
Another good and symbolic example of how public money is being used in today´s Bolivia is the new Teleferico in La Paz. This is a top of the line gondala, manufactured and installed by Doppelmayr, that connects downtown La Paz to the huge and poor El Alto area, some 500m higher in elevation, with the intention to reduce traffic congestion. A single ride is priced at 3 Bolivianos, about 32 euro cents – that is about twice as much as a local minibus, but is still practical for ordinary people, and obviously is highly subsidised. El Alto is not a beautiful place, but it is home to a million ordinary Bolivians, mostly indigenous. The elite only venture to El Alto for the airport. It sends a powerful message – tangible investment to benefit ordinary people.
Protests are a regular event throughout Bolivia, and especially so in La Paz. The population is actively engaged in politics, pressing for change of things they don’t agree with. And what is very interesting is that the government actually listens to the protests and quite often makes changes to reflect the protesters´ demands. In Bolivia this is called listening to the people. In the UK or the US, supposed beacons of democracy, listening to the people would be a sign of political weakness, derided as flip-flopping.
|A protest camp on the Prado, now in its third year|
Is this Athenian Democracy in the 21st century? Well, not quite … a realistic issue is that, as with most forms of lobbying, the protesters´ aims can be narrowly focused, and that often the loudest get heard. Having said that, their focus is probably no narrower than that of the average corporate lobbyist. And I would argue that overall the Bolivian setup is a lot more about government by the people for the people, a genuine example of participatory democracy. In the UK and the US, where corporate lobbyists get listened to and the people not, it is easy to recall politicians loudly paying lip service to the right to protest before sending in armed riot police to remove protestors for the unforgivable crime of camping in cities. (As an aside, there is a protest camp on the Prado, the smartest boulevard in La Paz, publicising the crimes of some of Banzer´s henchmen, which has been in place for over 800 days … democracy in action. In London and New York the Occupy protest camps were considered intolerable after a few months).
Bolivia, though, is certainly not a utopia. The Morales government has always had an authoritarian streak, especially against the right, increasingly so in recent years, and has continued the Bolivian traditional of prosecuting/persecuting previous governmental ministers (not entirely without cause in this case, it should be said). The press is fairly free, but the hand of the government is heavy. One more concern of note is how many things here are identified with Evo Morales personally. He is a constant presence on billboards in the city – for example on the autopista from La Paz to El Alto almost every billboard prominently includes his picture. This is material produced by the government communications department, not his political party – a worrying intermingling of the two. Although he personally appears to be a man of modest tastes (he lives alone, simply, and reduced the salaries of himself and his ministers on gaining office), it does seem to me that there is more than the beginning of a cult of personality. He remains genuinely popular – the latest polls ahead of the 2014 election give him 46% support, compared to 13% for his nearest rival. That is impressive, but less so than the 60%+ support he used to have.
|Government propoganda typically features a prominent picture of Evo Morales|
The country is polarised politically, as polarised as the US under Bush (the war criminal, not his father) or Hungary. I´ve met people who are fairly obviously from the elite (being wealthy enough to hang out in wine bars) and they are scathing about Morales. They might, grudgingly, admit that some of his actions have benefited indigenous people, but go on to point out how unfair these actions are, in their view. Others, including people involved in education and charity work, and whose interaction with indigenous people is not only as domestic staff, have positive opinions of Morales. No one I have met is neutral.
Let´s hope things progress on a fair and positive track in Bolivia, that economic inequality will continue to be reduced, and that in the process Morales doesn’t become entrenched as the only political game in town.
On balance, in my view, there is much to be positive about in Bolivia in 2014. It is a remarkable country in so many ways.