Evo Morales is intent upon gathering unchallenged and unending power to
impose "21st Century Bolivarian Socialism" in Bolivia. Although
pro-democracy, free-market forces appear to have scored a significant
victory in a May 4 referendum about control of the country's
mineral-rich and economically more successful eastern lowlands, Morales
and his followers will surely not give up their quest to subjugate the
industrious and independent-minded Department of Santa Cruz.
in Bolivia is a threat to the entire South American continent and to
the United States. The Bush Administration and Congress, joined by
other pro-democracy U.S. allies, should do everything possible to
support the establishment of market-based democracy in Bolivia.
In a referendum on Sunday, May 4, voters in the Department of Santa
Cruz, which includes Bolivia's largest and most industrialized city in
the country's agriculturally rich and energy-rich eastern lowlands,
delivered a powerful rebuke to leftist President Evo Morales by calling
for the creation of a provincial legislature with broad powers to
challenge the authority of the central government in La Paz.
Among the most significant of these powers would be the authority to
approve royalty agreements with foreign companies for the exploitation
of the department's abundant natural gas. Much of the tax revenue in
Bolivia comes from levies on hydrocarbons, and Morales' nationalization
plans call for Santa Cruz to bear the heaviest costs of his politics of
The statute also gives departmental officials
more control over Bolivian national security forces as well as "over
land titles—a move aimed at countering Morales's proposals to break up
large parcels of land and redistribute plots to landless farmers."
Approval of the autonomy statute further challenges Morales' efforts to
draft a more centralized and authoritarian constitution and has pushed
Bolivia to the breaking point. It could "spark violence." Three other departments (Beni, Prando, and Tairja) are scheduled to hold similar referenda in June.
Although Bolivia is "one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America,"
the eastern lowlands are the wealthiest part of it and are blessed with
"an impressively diverse economy, including not only oil and gas but
also forest products and commercial agriculture."
Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute points out that,
economically speaking, "the lowland departments, particularly Santa
Cruz, eastern Chuquisaca, and Tarija" are "extensions of the Argentine
north" and have higher living standards.
People in the lowlands "have every reason to regard normal trade with the outside world as the key to prosperity."Most
of the country's "mestizo" (racially mixed, representing 30 percent of
Bolivia's population) and white European (15 percent) citizens live in
the lowland areas.
Residents of gas-rich Santa Cruz, where about 25 percent of Bolivians
live, have demanded more control over their resources and greater
Critics claim the departmental leaders are selfishly seeking to retain
a veto power on economic policy at the expense of Bolivia's
impoverished majority. Overall, Morales has pursued a divisive, ethnic,
and redistributionist strategy that tends to polarize Bolivians and has
fostered the current autonomy movement.
The highlands power base of Evo Morales, formerly head of the coca
leaf–growers union, is home to the majority indigenous Quechua and
Aymara Indians. Advised and funded in part by Venezuelan President Hugo
Chávez, Morales came to power in December 2005 after mounting a
ruthless and sometimes violent populist campaign in 2003 and 2004 that
stoked and exploited anger over a proposed pipeline to export some of
Bolivia's newly discovered natural gas. By May 2006, the Morales
government had "issued a decree ‘nationalizing' the hydrocarbons sector
and calling for the renegotiation of contracts with hydrocarbons
has relentlessly pushed an anti-U.S., anti-globalization 21st Century
Bolivarian Socialist agenda and wants to undo many of the privatization
reforms that neo-liberal governments undertook in Bolivia in the 1990s
under the International Monetary Fund's Washington Consensus program.
To increase his regime's control over the lowlands, Morales has
followed the same strategy and usedthe same legalistic tactics employed
by Chávez in Venezuela and President Rafael Correa in Ecuador: pushing
for a new constitution that centralizes power in the presidency and
empowers Morales to redistribute national income to his impoverished
political base. "Morales's backers passed the proposed constitution
December 9, 2007 in a constitutional assembly boycotted by much of the
country's political opposition," although they say they "were prevented from attending."
political uncertainty has resulted in lower levels of foreign
investment in Bolivia. "Investment in exploration and production in
Bolivia's oil and gas industry fell to $149 million last year, the
lowest since 1996, according to the Santa Cruz-based Hydrocarbons
Chamber. The chamber's members include Petroleo Brasileiro SA, Total
SA, and BG Group Plc."
What Should Be Done.
The setback to Morales can be compared to the defeat on December 2,
2007, of a constitutional referendum in Venezuela that would have
granted Hugo Chávez unlimited rule. Electorates in Venezuela and
Bolivia are not ready to give blank checks to their populist leaders
and have begun to show resistance to populist/socialist steamrollers.
breakdown of national unity, destabilization, and violence along
regional lines benefits no one in Bolivia, the May 4 referendum should
force Morales and his government, which has declared the referendum
illegal, to reconsider its divisive and reckless assaults on the
country's most productive areas. In an effort to shore up support and
regain the political upper hand, Morales and his opponents have agreed
to hold a recall referendum on August 10.
Morales needs to
recognize there are limits on the power of the central government and
on his ability to reshape Bolivia into a socialist workers paradise.
That model has been tried before—in the former Soviet Union. It failed
miserably then, and the people of Bolivia know that it is doomed to
fail again in the future. The U.S. should remain vigilant throughout
and seek, through public diplomacy, coordination with regional allies,
and work with institutions of civic society, to foster the spirit of
democratic capitalism in the Andes.
 U.S. Department of State, "Background Note: Bolivia."
 Reel and Abramson, "Four Bolivian States Challenge Morales."
 Painter, "Bolivia Poll Sparks Crisis Fears."
 Faries, "Bolivian Autonomy Vote May Undercut Morales, Spark Violence."