It’s got something on the White House. In a ceremony last Wednesday, Bolivian President Evo Morales marked the start of his third term at Tiwanaku, the crumbling remains of an ancient city 45 miles west of La Paz dating back almost 2,000 years.
Morales also used the site — the religious and political center of an empire that stretched into Peru and Chile — for his 2006 and 2010 inaugurations. But the pageantry on display this time took things to new heights. After a ritual purification on the steps of the Kalasasaya temple, the 55-year-old president delivered an address that made heavy use of his trademark combination of indigenous mythology and left-wing ideology.
“Today is a historic day of affirmation for our identity, and for the democratic revolution. We’re living in the time of Pachakuti [equilibrium], in a process of change. We need to consolidate our educational and cultural revolution, in health, in production, in justice, in work and thought. We need to change the entire national, international, and intercontinental scale,” he said, further decrying the “racism, discrimination and individualism” brought to the Americas by “alien men” 500 years ago.
His words, though moving, raise several questions. To what extent does Morales’ claim to represent Bolivia’s diverse indigenous peoples ring true? And will his multiple administrations have delivered real change for them and for the rest of the country?
Bolivia: Still open for business
As a former coca-leaf grower himself, Morales rose to prominence some 15 years ago as one of the leaders of a broad coalition of cocaleros (coca growers), opponents of utility privatization, and indigenous activists. He was elected president in 2006 with 53.7 percent of the vote — winning Bolivia’s first absolute majority in 40 years, and making him the country’s first indigenous head of state (Morales identifies as Aymara). Yet even before this, he took steps to reform his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, centralizing control and moderating the party’s radical image.
A sense of symbolic moves accompanied by a hard practical edge was also evident in appointments to his first cabinet. A ministerial group of indigenous campaigners and socialist thinkers in 2006 was gradually phased out in favor of experienced middle-class politicians; in 2012, only two out of 20 identified as indigenous.
On economic policy, Morales largely kept the status quo intact, with annual growth averaging 5 percent, even throughout the 2007-8 global financial crisis. A corporate tax hike on oil and gas refineries, raising rates from 18 to 82 percent in 2007, was soon followed by state purchases of oil refineries, but Morales has resisted calls for wider nationalization. He’s clearly capitalized on economic trends that predate his administration, but events in Venezuela have proven that huge commodity reserves don’t provide long-term benefits unless carefully managed.
Morales’ record on poverty reduction is impressive. A UNDP report released in August 2014 suggested that extreme income poverty was reduced from 38.2 percent in 2005 to 25.4 percent in 2010, while moderate poverty fell by 10 percent to 49.6 percent: equating to dramatic improvements in the lives of over 2 million people.
The country’s Human Development Index score has grown by about 0.63 annually since 2000, aided by social welfare programs that incentivize women to access health services and send their children to school. An illiteracy rate that was at almost 1 in 5 in 2006 has been reversed; in 2014, UNESCO declared the country free of illiteracy.
However, the achievements are precarious. The same UNDP report found that the proportion of the population at risk of falling into poverty had risen dramatically, to 16.9 percent. Many of these individuals will be members of a what critics label an emergent urbanized indigenous elite, enriched by cash transfers without bringing isolated communities with them.
The announcement this week of 6 new lines to La Paz’s showpiece cable-car, soaring to the disadvantaged cliff-top barrio of El Alto, may confirm fears that modernization comes first over meaningful rural development. The 2011 approval of a new highway bisecting the indigenous territory and national park of Isiboro Sécure was met with fierce local opposition, but work begins in 2015; hydrocarbon exploration in national parks has also been approved.
Morales has made symbolic strides forward on recognizing indigenous right, not least with the 2007 constitutional refoundation of Bolivia as a “plurinational state,” which acknowledged the right to self-determination of its various peoples (and simultaneously allowed Morales to run for a third consecutive term.) But the conservatism underlying the president’s rhetoric has earned him the scorn of one-time allies: Aymara activist Felipe Quispe has labelled Morales’ administration “neoliberalism with an Indian face.” Vice-President Álvaro García Linera, meanwhile, has shied away from the s-word, dubbing government policy a version of “Andean-Amazonian capitalism.”
Threats and opportunities
Challenges loom as Morales enters his third term. Plunging oil prices will hit state revenues, and progress is still lacking on human rights. The Bolivian presidency has become excessively personalized under Morales; infrastructure projects are regularly accompanied by his picture. Allegations emerged during the 2014 campaign that MAS officials were using public resources to canvass for their re-election.
Morales has thus far denied any designs on the presidency again in 2020; such a move would require fresh constitutional change. But he must resist further temptation to follow the slide towards autocracy of his fellow leftist rulers, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.
Morales is less radical, but more revolutionary, than his detractors on either side suggest. The one-time farmer has shown that progressive, indigenous-centric politics can challenge inequalities without risking growth. But if he were to retire to his farm in 2020, leaving behind a changed country, and a democratized party structure? That truly would be a legacy to last the ages.