Morales, a man of hope and promise


In the first of a three-part series from Bolivia, Fionuala Creganreports from La Paz on Evo Morales’s first three challenging years

THE ENTRANCE to the Presidential Palace in Bolivia’s capital La Paz is a sea of colour – women in wine and pink skirts, plaited hair peeping out of black bowler hats, men in red and blue ponchos, and musicians with flutes and drums.

Amidst the colours a lone figure stands out – a man dressed in white wearing a chef’s hat, looking expectantly from his watch to the door. He has a different role to that of the crowds surging around the entrance to meet President Evo Morales; as the palace’s head chef, his job is to remind the president to eat.

Having come to power three years ago this month, Bolivia’s, and indeed Latin America’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, has had a hectic schedule.

Rumoured to sleep just two hours a night, starting his working day at 5am and often forgetting to eat, Morales came to power in January 2006, committed to bringing about deep social, cultural and economic change and overturning centuries of structural inequality in this, South America’s poorest nation.

This is no easy challenge and yet, over the past three years, Morales’s popularity has grown.

Having won elections with a landslide 53.9 per cent of the vote in 2005, a recall referendum called by the opposition in August 2008 saw 67 per cent of the electorate vote in his favour, a majority unheard of in the history of democratic elections in Bolivia.

So does this mean change has really happened? “It is important to remember that for over 150 years the same elite group held on to power in Bolivia,” says union leader Fidel Surco. “We have only been in power for three years; in comparison it is like a few days in Government, and in those few days we have achieved a lot.

“On one hand, as an Aymara-Quechua Indian, Evo Morales has changed the face of politics in Bolivia and brought dignity to the millions of indigenous people who have been discriminated against for decades. On the other hand, as social movements we brought the president to power and now we work closely with him in creating a programme for change.”

By social movements, Surco is referring to the collective of organisations including trade unions and indigenous, women’s and youth groups which, in the absence of institutional political parties to advocate for them, became a major force for change in Bolivia in the 1980s, responding in particular to the neoliberal economic policies being pursued by successive governments.

These policies promoted the privatisation of state companies and services and a withdrawal of the government from the economy. As a result the country’s mines, one of its chief sources of employment, were gradually closed or privatised. Unemployment soared and poverty increased.

While 97 per cent of Bolivians had neither gas or electricity in their homes, a pipeline was constructed across the country to transport gas to Argentina and Brazil.

In 2000 these social movements paralysed the city of Cochabamba and prevented a French company from privatising the city’s water services.

Three years later they took on La Paz, demanding nationalisation of the country’s gas reserves and the resignation of the then president, Sanchez de Lousada. They refused to move until their demands were met.

Sixty-eight people were killed and 400 more wounded during the government repression that followed, but eventually the president resigned.

Evo Morales, from an impoverished background himself, was a major protagonist in these social movements – a factor which was key to his running for election and to his continued success today. His political party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), is also made up of a wide number of grass roots organisations with representation throughout the country, and as a result there is a constant process of consultation and dialogue.

Another factor in the success of the Morales government is his adherence to his electoral promises. Long used to a history of politicians who have betrayed their electorate on gaining power, citizens are impressed with Morales’s policies.

“Evo made two key promises in his electoral campaign,” says political analyst Oscar Camacho. “One, that he would nationalise the state’s gas reserves and use the wealth to improve the lives of the Bolivian people, and two, that he would create a constitutional assembly to draft a new National Constitution. He may have made mistakes along the way, but he has fulfilled these two promises.”

A referendum on the new constitution will be held on January 25th; the Bolivian gas reserves were nationalised on May 1st, 2006.

While transnational companies are still responsible for the day-to-day running of production, they are no longer entitled to a greater share of the profit and have recognised the reserves as officially belonging to the Bolivian state. According to minister for planning and development Carlos Villegas, this policy has resulted in massive economic growth.

In 2005 the Bolivian government received $250 million (€188 million) for its gas reserves. By 2008 this had increased to $2.3 billion.

This has allowed for introduction of a number of social policies – including a small universal pension for Bolivian men and women over the age of 60, and a primary school grants programme to encourage young children to finish school. In addition, with support from Venezuela and Cuba, a major nationwide reading and writing programme was launched, and on December 20th last the education minister claimed that Bolivia was 100 per cent free of illiteracy.

Many have been critical of these programmes, claiming that they do not tackle the root causes of poverty. Others, however, are more optimistic.

“For the first time in history, our grandparents can live with dignity and our grandchildren have the opportunity to go to school,” says Surco, “and this is only the beginning of change, the first step, and once the first steps have been taken there is no going back.”

  • Fionuala Cregan and Paul Kelly travelled to Bolivia with support from the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Award