Bolivia elections | Evo Morales’ victory could mean progressive cycle is not over

Foreign relations professor Igor Fuser looks into the relevance of the Oct. 20 election in Bolivia for South America

October 17, 2019 by Brasil de Fato
Bolivian president Evo Morales during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly. Photo: Johannes EISELE/AFP

Bolivia’s 2019 presidential elections are a decisive moment for the future of the neoliberal project in Latin America. That’s how Igor Fuser, a foreign relations professor at the Federal University of the ABC Metropolitan Area, sees the race that could pave the way for president Evo Morales’ fourth term.

Morales is leading the polls and needs 50 percent of valid votes – that is, excluding spoilt votes – or more than 40 percent of votes as long as he is ten percentage points ahead of the second most voted candidate to win in the first round of the election that will be held on Oct. 20.

The current Bolivian president is running as the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) candidate, and his main opposers are Carlos Mesa, who ran the country between 2003 and 2005, and senator Óscar Ortiz, both supported by conservative sectors. The latest polls show that Morales could win in the first round, but, if no candidate receives the necessary majority of votes, center-right and right-wing candidates could beat the president in the event of a run-off election.

Looking into Bolivia’s current situation, Fuser points out that the Morales administration made social and economic progress in the country, maintaining Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth levels above 4 percent since 2006 and reducing extreme poverty from 38.2 percent to 15.2 percent in 13 years. The foreign affairs expert told Brasil de Fato that a victory for the opposition could represent a significant shift in the economy and would make it easier for rich countries to access Bolivia’s natural gas, oil, and lithium reserves.

Read the highlights of the interview:

Brasil de Fato: How relevant are the Bolivian elections for the South American continent in terms of geopolitics, considering, for example, the political crisis in Peru and Ecuador, the frustrated coup attempts in Venezuela, the rise of conservatism in Brazil, and the elections in Argentina and Uruguay, which will also be held in October?

Igor Fuser: The Bolivian elections are extremely important amid this process we have been facing in recent years, with the rise of right-wing forces in South America and the crisis, collapse, and demise of progressive governments – center-left and left-wing.

In South America, Bolivia is – along with Uruguay, which is not such a big point of reference – the last of the countries with a left-wing government that is “standing firm,” so to speak. In Venezuela, the government is also holding up, but they are facing a colossal crisis, where everything is absolutely uncertain.

In Bolivia, Evo Morales has been running the country without suffering serious mishaps, and recording excellent economic and social indicators. It’s been the fastest-growing country in Latin America for many years. With Evo Morales, Bolivia has achieved extraordinary social progress, reducing poverty and improving living conditions in every aspect, with a relatively stable political situation.

For right-wing forces, removing Morales from office through the ballot box would be the “icing on the cake,” the piece that was missing to finish the puzzle of removing the left from South American governments.

This is why this election has a very strong symbolic meaning, both for the left and the right. If Evo is defeated, that could be seen as proof that the “progressive cycle” is over in South America. Conversely, if he wins, that would show the strength of this progressive project in the region. It would show that it’s a viable project, capable of holding up and continuing through time, democratically.

BDF: Bolívia has a population of around 11 million, and more than 10 million fixed and mobile internet access points, which makes this election different from all previous voting processes in terms of information access and consumption. How can this scenario impact the election process and Evo Morales’ campaign?

IF: Evo Morales has been in office since 2006. He was elected for the first time in 2005 and, in these nearly 14 years, there was a lot of positive change. Bolivians’ living conditions improved overall and most of them were provided access to a lot of amenities, like the cell phone. So that relative isolation in which they used to live, especially indigenous and peasant Bolivians, was replaced with integration through social media, internet access, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc.

That has become a problem for the ruling political bloc in Bolivia when it comes to the elections, because they originally came together through social struggle on the streets, mobilizing people, blocking roads, handing out folders, papers… The generation that is in power now are in their 40s, 50s, many are in their 60s, and there are not a lot of new names coming up.

Meanwhile, there is what we’ve been witnessing in countries like Venezuela and Brazil. After a government that promoted profound reforms came a generation that does not remember how things used to be before that. In Brazil, in the 2016 coup and the 2018 elections, there were so many young people who didn’t know how the neoliberal period had been [before 2004] – how hard life used to be, with no rights, social exclusion, high unemployment rates, brutal income concentration, and all those fallacies of the neoliberal rhetoric.

In Bolivia, you can clearly see something very similar. There is a very large part of young voters with access to the internet, who are living very comfortably and browsing that online world, and they don’t remember what Bolivia used to be before Evo Morales. It was the poorest country in Latin America, with some of the worst living conditions in the world, a country where the economy was largely impacted by drug trafficking, coups d’état, and a neoliberal government that excluded large parts of the people.

These young people became socially aware during an extremely benign government for the poor and disenfranchised. They grew up during a moment of economic growth and increasing stability, and those people tend to disregard these achievements as the result of struggle, blood, sweat, and sacrifice. As they were born during a more comfortable situation in the country, it’s not clear to them how their relatively more comfortable lives and the political struggle are connected. So these young people are more vulnerable to the right-wing rhetoric.

You could see that in the 2016 referendum, when Evo Morales lost by a small margin about a constitutional change to allow him to run for another reelection. That polling process was already marked by a network spreading fake news in a dirty, infamous campaign, with absurd lies, slander, which caught the government off guard and fooled part of the people.

A few years have passed, and the government is having to get ready for this race that will take place online, but it’s late already. This is a field where the left doesn’t have the upper hand in Bolivia.

And the right is concentrating their efforts exactly on that, after all, they don’t have a lot of arguments to run in this election. The Evo Morales administration was very successful in terms of the economy and social aspects. So it’s really hard to have a consistent critique of and present an alternative to the government.

BDF: What are the potential impacts of a victory of Evo Morales or the opposition for Brazil and the region?

IF: We clearly see that the Bolivian government is extremely careful about its relationship with the Brazilian government. Evo Morales attended Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration and does everything he can to avoid any kind of friction or controversy.

There’s this caution, especially considering that the international scenario has not been very good for progressive governments, especially the more clearly left-leaning, socialist, revolutionary ones. That’s the case for Bolivia and Venezuela, and it used to be the case for Ecuador during the Rafael Correa administration.

Evo is very aware of the risk of isolation and wants to keep the best possible relations with the country’s neighbors amid a difficult scenario. Argentina, which used to be a great ally, fell into the hands of the right when [Mauricio] Macri was elected, by the end of 2015.

If Evo loses in Bolivia, Bolsonaro would obviously celebrate it as another defeat for the left, the Boliviarians, the communists, whatever he calls them. But if Evo Morales wins, that would prove that the narrative about the end of the “progressive cycle” in the region is false, and it would show, as I myself believe, that the game is being played, and that things are not that simple. It’s a long-term race between neoliberalism – which is closely connected to imperialism and the bourgeoisie in these countries – and the forces that oppose that – basically, the workers and people’s forces. That battle will not be over soon, and it’s in full swing.

That view could gain or lose strength, depending on the October results, especially in Bolivia.

BDF: The current stage of capitalism has been marked by rich countries’ attempts to seize natural resources. In Brazil, it was clear that the asset foreign powers were interested in was mainly the pre-salt oil fields. Interventions from abroad in the Brazilian political scenario became more clear after oil was found in the pre-salt layer in the country. In Bolivia, is it possible to say this is an important element for the race? Could the nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry be at risk if the opposition wins the election?

IF: When Evo first won the elections [in 2005], the key topic was actually the hydrocarbon industry, Bolivia’s oil and natural gas reserves, which are some of the largest in the world. Bolivia is a big natural gas exporter selling to Brazil and Argentina.

The natural gas issue is still obviously at stake, with transnational corporations interested in controlling and seizing as much as possible the income from Bolivian gas. That’s still there, but there is a new fact now: lithium.

Bolivia has one of the world’s largest lithium reserves, and it’s quality lithium.

Lithium is an essential raw material to produce batteries. Especially now that electric cars are booming as more prestigious, sustainable vehicles with no CO2 emissions, Bolivian lithium has been very coveted by transnational corporations.

Bolivia has adopted a very smart policy for lithium. The government knows that it cannot exploit it by itself, so it is making deals with foreign companies – especially Chinese, but from other countries too –, where Bolivia holds the most shares in all partnerships and incorporates the technology developed.

Lithium is obviously at stake. If the Morales government is defeated, the imperialists will fiercely move forward with lithium exploitation, and hydrocarbons as well.


Original article by Daniel Giovanaz, Translation by Aline Scatola