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At six months, Evo Morales is highly popular despite conflictive issues

Guest columnist

Bolivian President Evo Morales reached the six-month mark of his presidency July 22, and pundits throughout Bolivia and Latin America took stock of his administration’s performance; by looking at the first 200 days, the first day of the Constituent Assembly forming a new constitution starting on Aug. 6 can be included.

According to a large majority of his fellow Bolivians, Evo Morales is doing a good job. On July 22, results of a national survey showed that Morales had earned an 81 percent approval rating, making him the most popular president in the Western Hemisphere. Following him were President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina, with 80 percent in second place; and tied for third place, with 70 percent, were presidents Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. (U.S. President Bush came in at 13th place with 34 percent.)

For the son of very poor Aymara peasants, it has been an auspicious beginning.

In these first 200 days, statistics and other indicators show progress in the economy, foreign trade, education, health and land reform; a dramatic emphasis on indigenous rights; and the start of a process leading to a new constitution. While many of the positive accomplishments are evident – including rising numbers of Native people in government and in the spotlight – there are still many serious problems facing Morales and the Bolivian people. For most citizens of this impoverished nation, however, their ambitious indigenous president is on the right track.

Morales announced a few weeks ago that the Bolivian economy had grown by 4.3 percent; exports had increased by 45 percent; and inflation, which has crippled Bolivia in the past, dropped by 2 percent. One revenue source that is beginning to bring more monies to the state involves the nationalization of the gas/oil industries. While this program compels the big companies to pay more fees on their profits, thereby putting more money into the state-owned oil enterprise, the foreign multinationals operating in Bolivia have not lost their businesses and, so far, they are not losing money. But it was more sales of gas to Brazil and Argentina that make up the largest part of the increases, according to Bolivian economists. Morales pointed out, though, that these bigger revenues have not yet translated into more jobs. He took this message with him to several conferences.

During his appearance at the Mercosur (Common Market of the South) Summit in Argentina in July, Morales expressed optimism at the good trade relations with both Mercosur countries and others. He did note that Bolivia was beginning to benefit from the sale of raw materials but that significant job growth would come mainly from the sale of manufactured goods. In that area he explained that part of their efforts involved further industrialization of agriculture in a country where most farmers are still using animals to pull plows, and to further develop gas-related industries leading to factory jobs that would feature strong unions.

Morales also lead discussions into the potential for a larger pan-South American trade bloc. The hemisphere is divided into two main trading groups – Mercosur, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay; and CAN (translated into English as the Andean Community of Nations) with Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and, until recently, Venezuela. At this year’s Mercosur Summit, Bolivia, Chile and Cuba were special guests and Venezuela was in the process of being installed as an official member. The three guest countries were also invited to consider joining the group. Morales and his several allies at the gathering emphasized the potential of a South American Community bloc, which would provide serious competition to the United States and the European Union.

“CAN and Mercosur are brothers and they should go much further to unite all of South America,” he opined. When encouraged to join Mercosur by Argentinian representative Carlos Alvarez, Morales replied that if Cuban President “Fidel [Castro] is in Mercosur, then our population, our indigenous peoples would be obliged to enter into Mercosur.” In the same press conference, Morales referred to Castro as “our older brother, Fidel.” While the Bolivian leader was complimenting his Cuban friend, his vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, was in the United States trying to negotiate the continuation of a prior trade deal that involved Bolivian products entering the states without tariffs if Bolivia continues to assist this country in its war on drugs.

By early August it appears that the agreement with the United States may still be salvageable, while Bolivia’s relationship with Cuba has projected a positive role in the areas of education and public health. Starting in March, Cuban educators started arriving in Bolivia to implement a literacy program that has had some success in Argentina and elsewhere. Early on, Bolivian journalists reported problems with the Cubans’ methods but the general consensus is that the effort has helped. Another dimension of the change in education has been the inclusion of Quechua and other indigenous languages in the curricula of several schools. The Cuban teachers’ medical colleagues have had a notable impact on Bolivian public health.

According to Bolivian estimates, several hundred Cuban doctors have treated close to 760,000 Bolivian patients and performed ophthalmologic surgery on 18,600 people throughout the country. Along with further investment in hospitals and other medical facilities by the government, the Cubans have also sent close to $4 million worth of medical equipment to Bolivia since February. For a country where the average citizen makes $2,600 per year and receives little or no medical care, these gifts are greatly appreciated by the majority of Bolivians.

Another policy that has been well received by the public is the Agrarian Reform Law that has yet to be passed by the Bolivian Congress, although the Morales administration has taken steps toward preparing its implementation. For instance, the government has seized close to 200,000 acres of land along the borders with Brazil and Peru that had been illegally occupied by citizens of both of those countries. So far, the neighboring governments have not objected to what is widely seen as a reasonable legal action. All of these lands are to be dedicated to small farm operations in keeping with Morales’ commitment to micro-enterprise. In fact, the government bank recently announced that loans to all micro-enterprises would be granted at a 4 percent interest rate.

While many in the West (with the notable exception of the U.S. media) have been watching Morales’ actions on the world stage closely, including his participation in many indigenous ceremonies preceding official events, Bolivian newspapers have provided extensive coverage of the process leading up to the Constituent Assembly, which was installed Aug. 6 in the city of Sucre. Bolivians had gone to the polls July 2 to elect 255 assembly members who will draft, over the course of the next year, a new constitution for Bolivia. Tensions and rivalries leading up to the elections have been intense and the possibility of future violence never far from the surface. When the dust settled, the MAS party of Morales garnered 134 seats while their nearest rival, the Podemos Party, earned 60 with the remaining 61 seats going to a dozen smaller political groups. This means that MAS will not have the two-thirds majority it would need to override opposition votes. This statistic is critically important for the Morales administration.

It means that MAS and Morales will have to negotiate with the very rich and very angry representatives from the eastern regions around Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija, Pando and elsewhere. Voters from these areas are supporting what they call “autonomy,” which they define as being almost completely independent of the indigenous and socialist Morales regime. However, this same bloc of folks who stand the most to lose in the redistribution of wealth and land in Bolivia do not have enough votes to force their will, either.

In the months leading up to the elections, leaders, especially those from Santa Cruz, have threatened that the streets “will run red with blood” if their desire for autonomy is not accepted by the assembly. A few violent confrontations with pro-autonomy thugs, peasants and workers have been reported in the media; and on the “other side,” the Bolivian press made much of a newly formed group called the “Aymara Taliban,” an organization of about 100 young indigenous men who reportedly are sworn to “protect their own.”

Morales and his allies also jumped into the fray. At one point, Morales threatened to have the MAS assembly members vote to disband the Parliament, seen by many as retaliation for the near-complete boycott of all Morales initiatives by Santa Cruz officials in the Legislature. A few days later the threat was rescinded, but many in the media pointed to Chavez as being a mentor for that action.

In the meantime, more moderating voices from both sides have been talking about seeking consensus; and MAS, the controlling group, was able to install an indigenous woman, Silvia Lazarte, as president of the Constituent Assembly. Lazarte has been known to be a deal-maker in her role as a leader in the coca growers organizations.

At the beginning of the installation Aug. 6, Morales read from his Declaration of Sucre:

“Until today we have inherited a country where our rights were systematically trampled and beaten down. Our natural resources were sacked, and an unequal distribution of the riches was perpetrated by a corrupt, illegitimate and elite political class made up of a few families who did not represent the feelings and the will of the sovereign people. … We want a Bolivia with no exclusions, with sustainable socio-economic development for all Bolivian women and men, preserving the ecosystem in harmony with the indigenous and original peoples, that faithfully reflects the political, social and economic realities of the country, based on a new constitution, pluralist, intercultural and multilingual. Only in this way will we have a true social compact, but above all we must pledge ourselves to this and never again will we be excluded.”

<i>Rick Kearns, Boricua, a writer on Latin American Native issues, teaches at Harris-burg Area Com-munity College in Pennsylvania.