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Media watch: Bolivia

Sixty days of Evo Morales: Threats and accomplishments

Evo Morales is still a winner, according to the Bolivian press. For that country’s first indigenous president, the political honeymoon may be over; but as he enrages some, including the United States, he inspires many others.

From Feb. 9 to March 26, Morales has had to face a possible civil war threatened by the richest people in the country in Santa Cruz; accusations of treason from leftist former allies; the withdrawal of funding and weapons from the United States – along with veiled threats – and the refusal of travel visas to one of his senators and to a prominent Aymara historian; torrential rains that left tens of thousands homeless and many dead; and threats of strikes from teachers, miners and other progressive unions along with a nine-day pilots’ strike that brought foreign trade to almost a complete halt.

But the good news was very good.

Through tense negotiations with all sectors of this fractious country, the Constituents Assembly is scheduled to convene in July, where they hope to “re-found” Bolivia by ensuring the voting access that is bringing power to the indigenous majority; the final outcome of the assembly will be a new constitution.

Morales legislated pay cuts for his administration and 7 percent pay raises for teachers. He is still the president of the Coca Leaf Growers of Bolivia and was named president pro tempore of the Andean Community of Nations, which focuses on trade between Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela. Morales and his team negotiated price increases for state sales of gas to Brazil and Argentina, while Japan and the International Monetary Fund together forgave millions. The Bolivian state also moved to take majority control of shares of energy utilities while hiking fees for multinationals that operate in the country.

Funding from these new revenue sources is to go to education, health care, infrastructure and other necessities. In the first visit with his new Chilean counterpart, President Michelle Bachelet, Morales was treated like a rock star with thousands yelling “The ocean for Bolivia, the ocean for Bolivia,” giving Bolivians hope that their prior access to the Pacific would be reinstated.

Those are some of the high and low lights of this eventful political season in Bolivia. The following is a summary, by topic, of events covered in the major Bolivian newspapers, most of which are still generally pro-Morales; it must be noted that significant coverage was given to many of the president’s fiercest critics.

Starting with early February, the administration announced a 7 percent salary increase for teachers, who then attempted to reject the proposal as being unacceptable by all unions who, in the end, did not strike as a result.

The government’s ambitious literacy plan, aiming at eradicating illiteracy in 30 months, was announced a month later. Bolivian educators were also unhappy with this proposal as they were being left out of the planning process. The national plan would target 700,000 people in three stages, involving instruction in Native languages and Spanish.

Fifty-two locations were selected, including a women’s prison in La Paz and a school in the town of La Higuera, where Che Guevara was executed in 1967.

This project was planned and partially implemented by Cuban educators; their educational plan is called “Yes, I can” and has been put into action in Haiti, Venezuela, certain states in Mexico and a handful of cities in Argentina.

Morales was in close contact with Cuba in late February, when he held a special ceremony to thank the 600 Cuban doctors who had come to help treat the more than 60,000 victims of flooding that had punished his country that same month. Along with the loss of life and many injuries, the torrential rains ruined thousands of acres of farmland in areas that were already in difficult straits.

While several events made it to the front page in Bolivian newspapers, two other major developments were in and out of the public eye during February and March.

Coming to an agreement on how to select 255 representatives who would make up the Constituent Assembly for the re-foundation of the country was a complicated and contentious process. Civic leaders from Santa Cruz, who came from various organizations that were never fully described, started making ominous comments on the process.

Santa Cruz was mentioned as having vast natural gas, oil and mineral reserves. (In no news stories, however, was it ever pointed out that most of the richest people in Bolivia are from Santa Cruz.)

Figures such as German Antelo, leader of the Pro Santa Cruz Committee, appeared as spokesmen in various articles. Antelo and others declared that Santa Cruz would not be a part of the assembly unless given a certain amount of autonomy in the process and the constitution. “Autonomy” became the key word in the Santa Cruz protests.

On a weekly basis, Santa Cruz leaders stated that they would only be part of the process if a referendum stating their right to autonomy would be included at the assembly.

One unnamed commentator said that “blood will run” if these requirements were not met, and still another said that the government should never forget where violent opposition has appeared in the past: meaning the Santa Cruz area.

Appearing almost as frequently were criticisms from mainstream socialist, labor and opposition groups who objected to the participation of “oligarchs” such as the Santa Cruz leadership.

By the first week of March, the Constituent Assembly and Referendum on Autonomy were voted into law by the Bolivian Congress. Morales stated, “The Assembly must draft a new constitution that gives the majority indigenous population a greater role in the political and economic life of the country, reaffirms the state’s property regarding natural resources and puts an end to the neo-liberalism in the current economy.”

Critics of the accord objected to the presence of the “neo-liberal political class” in the assembly.

Many stories in the Bolivian press dealt with foreign policy, especially involving the United States. From the beginning of his term, Morales promoted his “cocaine zero but not coca zero” policy, which supported efforts to prosecute cocaine dealers and traffickers, while at the same time protecting the ancient indigenous practice of using coca leaves for medications and sacred ceremonies.

Morales was, in fact, re-elected as president of the Bolivian Coca Growers Association in February, right around the same time that U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee was trying to advocate against coca growing but supporting other elements of the Bolivian drug policy.

This disagreement has not been resolved. In the ensuing two months, U.S./Bolivia relations took a mostly downward turn, according to press accounts.

First, on Feb. 18, the United States denied a travel visa to professor Waskar Ari, a distinguished Aymara historian and scholar who had been contracted to teach at the University of Nebraska.

The American Historians Association filed protests with the State Department, which responded by saying Ari was denied a visa due to being in the category of “conspicuous review.”

On the 23rd, Sen. Leonilda Zurita was denied a visa for having “supposed links with terrorists.” Details on the supposed links were not published, although Morales and his vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, were clearly upset.

By early March, things went from bad to worse between the United States and Bolivia. U.S. military officials announced that they were calling for the return of military equipment from Bolivia as a result of the United States’ displeasure with the appointment of a certain Bolivian general to the Anti-Drug Brigades.

Along with the removal of the weaponry came news that the United States would also be cutting anti-drug funding, from approximately $1.7 million to $70,000.

Morales was furious, stating that “no Bolivian commander will be changed on orders from the armed forces of the United States.”

As both Linera and Greenlee tried to smooth out the differences between their nations, Bolivia entered into trade agreements with Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Mexico and others. Most of the accords involved foreign purchases of Bolivian oil and natural gas.

During this time, Morales announced the “Nationalization of Hydrocarbons,” which did not mean the expropriation of the energy facilities, nor the expulsion of the multinational owners and investors, but rather a 32 percent tax on their profits as well as an 18 percent fees for “royalties.”

On March 6, the government announced it would be taking majority control, or 51 percent of stock holdings, of several utilities and transportation industries, many of which had been privatized in the 1990s.

Less than a week later, Morales was given a rousing welcome at the inauguration of Bachelet as president of Chile.

After the same event, Morales met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, handing her a Bolivian charango – a small stringed instrument – that was festooned with lacquered coca leaves.

Rice grinned for the cameras while strumming the gift. She reiterated the United States’ position on coca growing, while saying that the United States respected Bolivian sovereignty.

Morales responded later, “We are disposed to strengthen our relations with the United States government. I can speak with Bush, as I also can speak with my friend Fidel [Castro, president of Cuba]. We hope that the self-determination of peoples will be respected by the United States government.”

Rick Kearns, a writer on Latin American Native issues, teaches at Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania.