Bolivia: On the Threshold of a New Future Ranja Sengupta

The presidential election held on 30 June 2002 in Bolivia brought into focus the growing disillusionment of the Bolivian people with the direction in which their country is moving. With the exception of ex-president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who is known to be a proponent of free market reforms, most of the presidential candidates who gained political ground in the pre-election campaign did so on the basis of a promised move away from the existing free market economy and towards greater government investment. They include the populist leader Manfred Reyes Villa of the ‘New Republican Force’ and former president Jaime Paz Zamora of the ‘Movement of the Revolutionary Left’. Reyes Villa has gone on record saying that he favours a “social revolution” and “moving beyond” the country’s free market system, although he has not specified how exactly this is to be achieved.

The results declared until now (based on all but 0.3% of the votes which is yet to be counted) shows Lozada at the top with 22.46 per cent of the votes, but obviously very far from an outright majority. More significantly, the results showed that the second place in the presidential race and 20.92 per cent of the votes have been captured by the native Indian, leftist leader Evo Morales, of the ‘Movement Towards Socialism’, who has been in the forefront of the struggle for the rights of coca growers in Bolivia. Contrary to expectations generated by the exit polls, he has actually beaten Reyes Villa, the candidate who was tipped to come second, by 700 votes.

Morales’s rise has in Bolivian politics had already been clearly established by the results of the exit polls. Votes in his favour, it has been reported, rose from 4 to 12 per cent during the pre-election campaign. Thanks, partly, to the irresponsible and arrogant statements of the US ambassador Manuel Rocha, who threatened to cut aid to Bolivia if someone like Morales is voted into power, the exit polls registered a further increase in his share of the vote – taking it up to around 16 per cent. The latest results mark a new trend in Bolivian politics, as the native Quechua and Aymara Indians, despite forming the majority, have held very few congressional seats before this election. Once the final results are declared, it will give Morales at least 6 seats in a 27-member senate. This, coupled with the 5 per cent votes that the former leftist and native Indian guerrilla leader, Felipe Quispe, is likely to  garner, will ensure that the radical left has a substantial presence in the Bolivian senate.

A political turnaround of this kind may be viewed as an inevitable fall-out of the economic policy that Bolivia has pursued over the last twenty years or so. Since the 1980s, when Bolivia faithfully adopted the economic reforms programme pushed by the Washington Consensus, the country has been zealous in its pursuit of the free economy capitalist path under successive governments. This includes the recent ones under the previous president and current presidential candidate, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, and the present government, led by Hugo Banzer and Jorge Quiroga. But the opening up of the economy, despite the initial gains, failed to improve the lot of the ordinary Bolivian. Today, Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America, with 70 per cent of its population living under the poverty line. It has faced severe economic recession over the last four years. The Asian crisis of 1997 and the devaluation of the currency in neighbouring Brazil, Chile and Peru contributed to worsening this process of impoverishment, the roots of which had been sown much earlier.

As a result of the recession, private companies in Bolivia, especially in the mining sector which is the major source of employment in the country, have had to resort to large-scale job cuts. Although reactivization plans initiated by the government over the last two years have focused on restructuring the debt burden of these struggling private companies, due to the fact that these schemes were ill-planned and not followed through, companies that were in dire need of funds have been forced to close down. There has been a big demand for state subsidies to stall such closures, but the government has refused to interfere with the free market set-up. As a result, the unemployment rate in the country has risen to 10 per cent. In addition, it is estimated that 13 per cent of the working population are underemployed, meaning that they earn less than the national minimum monthly wage of 400 Bolivianos (about £44, US$61).

Again, Bolivia is rich in natural resources like tin, natural gas, silver, gold etc. But most of the resources have not been exploited properly due to lack of resources. So possible employment generation has not been made possible by the running of the economy the way it has.

The unemployment situation deteriorated further with the government’s decision to ban the cultivation of coca, a plant traditionally produced by large sections of the native Indian population. Coca is a basic ingredient of cocaine, the trading in and production of which the US has been trying to regulate. In 1998 ‘Plan Dignity’, aimed at total eradication of coca production, was implemented in Bolivia at the behest of the US. Following this, Bolivia was hailed as an important ally of the US in its fight against global drug trafficking. But this was of little consolation to the thousands of coca cultivators who have suffered major losses of incomes and have been offered little by way of alternate means of livelihood. At present 90 per cent of the farmers in the Bolivian countryside live in conditions of extreme poverty, in freezing huts, without electricity or water. The flow of aid that was promised by the US as compensation for the eradication of coca cultivation has been insufficient to provide them with other sources of income and employment. The beneficiaries of American assistance are actually much fewer than the numbers listed officially.

Cultivation of coca, which is a plant that flourishes easily and is not susceptible to rotting or disease, ensured levels of income that cannot be matched by alternatives such as pineapple, banana, orange and macademia nuts. Compared to coca, the latter products suffer from several disadvantages, including lack of adequate and reliable infrastructure to transport them; volatile international prices and protectionism in many countries that have failed to ensure steady market access and decent prices; and low income generation ability. Further, the US has failed to reciprocrate with adequate opening up of its own economy and provision of full market access to products from Bolivia.

The banning of coca cultivation has also had cultural and other impacts. Coca has been a part of the traditional Indian way of life, and is regarded as a cultural heritage as much as an economic one. Its medicinal qualities, and specially its strong hunger-assuaging qualities, had made it a necessity for the people who live in dire poverty.

For all the reasons cited above, the ban on coca cultivation led to violent protests in Bolivia. Opposition to the recent closure of Sacaba, a major market in coca, resulted in the death of 6 persons. Over the last six months, 10 coca growers and 4 soldiers have been killed, and more than 350 persons injured or detained, in similar clashes.

The rise of a leader like Evo Morales has to be seen against this background. He has led the struggle for a reversal of the ban on coca cultivation in the absence of suitable alternatives. He has vehemently opposed US interference in Bolivia that takes the form of establishing economic domination over the country. He has led protests against the forces of imperialism, neoliberalism and globalization. He has been able to convince poor Bolivians that a restricted economy with greater government intervention and one that recognizes the rights of its indigenous cultivators is the only hope for the people of this counry.

Bolivians are clearly tired of the kind of democracy they have had for the last 20 years: a democracy that has meant independent votes at home but dependence on and subservience to big economic powers like the US. More so since it has not improved their living conditions. 6 out of every 10 Bolivians across the country, and 9 out of 10 in rural areas, live in conditions of poverty. Violent crime, including bank robberies, kidnappings and bombings, are now a common phenomenon in a once happy and peace-loving nation. Even if Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada forms the new government, he will have to reach agreements with Morales on key issues such as the ownership of gold, silver and natural gas deposits that lie beneath Bolivian soil, and on ways in which the economy will be restructured.

One thing is clear. New forms of governance will have to ensure a reduction of poverty, greater rights for the cultivators, and greater protection for the miners and workers. Bolivia can no longer function as a subservient nation that can be exploited at will by the lure of aid from developed nations.

Who’s Counting? U.S. plan to eradicate coca crops in Bolivia fails miserably’ by
Benjamin Kunkel and Lisa Kunkel (In These Times, April 13, 2002)
‘Free markets lose their enchantment for ordinary Bolivians’ by Paul Keller 
(Financial Times, June 28, 2002 )
‘Mayor, Ex-President Lead Bolivia Vote – Exit Polls’ By Alistair Scrutton, July 1, 2002 
‘Bolivia Elects Newcomers to Gov’t”, by Vanessa Arrington( Associated Press Writer), 
July 1,2002 (]