Bolivia’s socialist win is a triumph for democracy

South Africa can learn much about progressive governance from the South American nation, where the Movement Towards Socialism won back power in a landslide after last year’s coup.

When the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), with Evo Morales as its presidential candidate, won the election in Bolivia in December 2005, there was a seismic shift in Bolivian society. 

The MAS victory followed years of street protests and road blockades organised by some of the most impressive popular movements on the planet at the time, and the party promised to be an instrument of the popular movements. This commitment to popular rather than liberal democracy enabled MAS to clearly distinguish itself from a discredited political class. It shook elites from La Paz to Washington.

MAS was also a socialist party, and Morales’ running mate, Álvaro García Linera, a former guerrilla, was a brilliant Marxist intellectual. MAS promised to nationalise Bolivia’s abundant natural resources in the interests of developing a social programme. This shook elites in Bolivia, and beyond.

Morales was also indigenous, and the first indigenous leader since the Spanish completed their defeat of the Inca empire in 1533. With good cause, he and Linera compared the regime of racial domination in Bolivia to apartheid South Africa, and the election of Morales to the presidency was met with the same kind of rapturous excitement as the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. But the white Right, which controlled much of the country’s wealth and its media, were deeply hostile.

The year before Morales came to power, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the progressive Haitian president, also brought to power by popular social mobilisation, had been removed from office via a United States-backed coup. The US has a long and sordid history of removing elected governments from power in Latin America and installing right-wing dictatorships. This dark history stretches back decades. It was widely thought Morales would have to quickly back down from his democratic and socialist commitments if he wanted to see out his term in office. But Morales had an unflinching desire to change the condition of the poor in Bolivia.

Before Morales took office in January 2006 he was sent to South Africa to meet Thabo Mbeki to learn how, in the words of a number of newspaper reports, “South Africa’s postapartheid leaders have proven pragmatic, not prisoners of socialist ideology, as they struggle to bring prosperity to the long-neglected Black majority”. Morales memorably wore a bright striped jersey to his meeting with Mbeki.

11 January 2006: From left, Bolivian president-elect Evo Morales waves as he meets then-president Thabo Mbeki at the Union Buildings in Pretoria during a two-day visit to South Africa. (Photograph by Reuters/ Siphiwe Sibeko)

In 2020, we all know that while the elite has been significantly deracialised in South Africa the Black majority is more impoverished than it was in 1994, and inequality has worsened, too. Pragmatism turned out to work well for elites – and to leave the majority in the vice grip of poverty.

In Bolivia things turned out very differently. Morales made good on his promises to nationalise natural resources, beginning with oil and gas, and used the profits to set up a system of cash transfers. Investment in infrastructure and social services including healthcare and around 4 500 new educational facilities resulting in a massive decline in illiteracy. He also raised the minimum wage and redistributed 134 million acres of land to the poor. The result of this deviation from “pragmatic” government was that the economy grew and even the World Bank had to concede that poverty halved. In 2010, it reclassified Bolivia from “lower income” to “lower-middle income”.

On every metric the lives of the majority, and especially the impoverished and the indigenous, improved dramatically under Morales. For South Africans, Bolivia is the road not taken. It’s hard not to wish that Mbeki had travelled to La Paz to meet Morales and learn what a progressive 21st-century government could look like, instead of the other way around.

19 November 2019: A woman walks near a road blocked by supporters demanding the return of Evo Morales during protests in El Alto, Bolivia. (Photograph by Gaston Brito Miserocchi/ Getty Images)

Of course, the Morales government was not without its limits and flaws. Many felt that Morales tried to stay in power for too long. There was also strong criticism, from an environmental perspective, of the fact that the MAS government didn’t make a break from the extractive economy. It was also argued, and with good cause, that while the MAS was initially set up to be a political instrument of the popular movements, it changed over time so that, in the end, the MAS tried to use the movements to achieve its own objectives. 

But while it is always important to acknowledge the limits and contradictions of any progressive government it is also important to acknowledge real gains, and the gains made under the MAS were extraordinary.

Democracy restored

The US-backed military coup finally came in November 2019 when power was returned to the white far-Right, and there was serious repression, including two massacres. There were harrowing images of Patricia Arce, the indigenous mayor of the small town of Vinto, being dragged through the streets by a mob, which covered her in red paint and cut off her hair. Morales and Linera had to flee to Mexico.

The coup was legitimated by a claim by the largely US-funded Organization of American States that there had been electoral fraud. It was swiftly and comprehensively debunked. But much of the international media reported uncritically on the bogus claims of electoral fraud, and there were many headlines declaring that the coup has somehow restored democracy to Bolivia.

But when another election was finally held, the MAS was returned to power in a landslide victory, this time under the leadership of Luis Arce. The huge win for MAS made all the claims that the US-backed military coup was some sort of democratic event look utterly ridiculous. It is a basic tenet of democracy that people have a right to elect the government of their choosing, and the Bolivian people have chosen to return the MAS to power.

Of course, this does not mean that we should be uncritical of the MAS. On the contrary, it is always necessary to sustain free and open debate and critique, even when a progressive government faces external pressure. But we should certainly celebrate the restoration of democracy in Bolivia, and the extraordinary social achievements of the MAS under Morales. 

A key lesson for us in South Africa is that there are real alternatives to the neoliberal consensus, alternatives that can, in the space of a few years, make a huge difference to the life of the majority. 

9 September 2020: A woman in El Alto blows smoke during the first campaign event of the Movement Towards Socialism ahead of the presidential election in Bolivia. (Photograph by Gaston Brito Miserocchi/ Getty Images)
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