Monday, July 18, 2005

Bolivia: The Evo Debate

The following was lifted from BLOG FROM BOLIVIA

The Evo Debate – by Jim Shultz

Maybe it is what happens when Bolivian politics gets looked at through the prism of a US political culture driven by personality. Pick up almost any current analysis of Bolivian politics written abroad and it would seem like the political world here revolves around one person, MAS party leader Evo Morales.

Analysts on the left cast him as a charismatic leader who represents rising indigenous power and new wave Latin American socialism all in one. Critics on the right love to demonize him as a Hugo Chavez stooge who is pushing Bolivian democracy to the brink.

But here’s what you see when you start to get close up and especially if you talk to the other actors in Bolivia’s social movements who are trying to figure out how to deal with him. What Evo Morales really is….is a politician.

Morales first rose to prominence as head of the Chapare-based coca growers unions and then rode a wave of Bolivian anger over imported economic policies to become the close second place finisher in the 2002 Presidential elections. He also got a big political boost when the US Ambassador at the time publicly threatened Bolivia with a cutoff of aid if they voted Evo to power. Morales joked that the Ambassador was his campaign manager.

Who is Evo Morales in Bolivian politics today?

First, despite a lot of foreign claims otherwise, he was not the initiator of the recent national blockades and protests demanding that Bolivia recover its gas and oil reserves. The credit there (regardless of what you think of the protests) goes to the neighborhood organizations in El Alto and the Aymara pueblos in the altiplano. Morales scrambled to get in on the action, at the head of a hastily organized march from Cochabamba and when he arrived in El Alto he was not warmly received. Morales had, long before, abandoned street tactics for Congressional negotiation on the gas issue and had abandoned the calls for “nationalization” in favor of focusing on the demand for a 50% tax on the multinationals. I heard the words “Evo” and “sell-out” used in the same sentence a lot more than once.

Second, I think that Evo has about as much chance of becoming President of Bolivia after next December’s elections as I have of being Bush’s pick for the US Supreme Court. There are three main candidates running. They include former President Tuto Quiroga (who has decided to move back to Bolivia for a while from the US, to run for the top job), Burger King owner Samuel Doria Medina, who finally gets to run on his own after playing second fiddle for a decade to Jaime Paz Zamora in the MIR party (which Medina has now abandoned), and Morales. Former Cochabamba Mayor Manfred Reyes Villa may also run, but he seems almost irrelevant.

To win you need either 51% of the popular vote, which Evo will never get, or you have to put together a coalition deal that gets you to 51% of the Congress to elect you. My prediction is that Tuto will finish first and within 24 hours Medina will find himself in a chair across a desk from the US Ambassador being told how important it is to form a coalition with Quiroga, echoes of the game that put together Goni’s majority in 2002.

Third, the most heated debate over Evo Morales can be found not on Bolivia’s political right but its left. On one side the argument goes: Evo botched whatever leadership opportunity he had on the gas issue the last two years, he isn’t trustworthy, and he is going nowhere politically, having alienated the middle class on the one side (by being seen as too radical) and a chunk of his natural base on the other (by being viewed as a sellout). On the other side the argument goes: Evo is the best chance there is for a consolidated campaign from the left. Instead of complaining that he isn’t politically pure (that holy grail that social movements in any country look for and never find in Presidential candidates), movement leaders should exchange political support for specific promises from MAS and Evo on both policy and the way he would govern. The debate here on the left is whether there should be another candidate besides Evo.

All this reminds me so much of places like South Africa and Brazil (I have spent significant time working in both places) where progressive movements finally won power after many years of waiting. Get close to progressives in South Africa and they’ll tell you that the ANC didn’t need to be shoved into neoliberal economics by the World Bank and the IMF. The party did it themselves. So now you have water privatization and water cutoffs in Johannesburg, all courtesy of the ANC. Get close to progressives in Brazil and they will tell you that Lula seems almost like a Washington Consensus cheerleader.

What is the point?

All this trashing from the right of “Evo the Barbarian” and lauding from the left of “Evo the Indigenous Hero” is really just lazy analysis. It is stuck in August of 2002 and for those who may not have noticed, it isn’t 2002 anymore, not in Bolivia at least. In the odd world of Bolivian politics, so deeply polarized by ideology and sectoral and regional interests, Evo seems more and more like a politician trying to engage in a political balancing act (trying to expand his base in the middle and keep his base on the left) and not doing especially well at either.

Bolivian politics isn’t about personality these days. If it were, then Carlos Mesa would still be President. It is about two issues that are splitting apart the nation – how to develop the country’s gas and oil and how to bring the nation’s poor and indigenous majority out of the political margins. No national election is going to change that and none of the candidates running look to be any better than Mesa was at leading the country toward some resolution.

My guess is that a year from now we’ll look back on election 2005 as an unplanned and unsought national political detour and we’ll be back again to the kinds of conflicts we saw here in June, but this time with a President (Quiroga) who has demonstrated already his easy hand at responding to protest with the bullet.
Jim Shultz is executive director of The Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He is the author, most recently, of The Democracy Owners' Manual (Rutgers).


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