As Evo Morales increasing works against his own constitutional amendments, democratic prospects in Bolivia are shrinking.
Evo Morales came to power in 2006 as Bolivia’s first indigenous president. During his first term, Morales made a promising and inspiring amendment to the constitution that henceforth allowed only one presidential re-election. Not only did this act signify a step towards further democratisation, following the establishment of democratic rule in Bolivia in 1982, it also contributed to Morales winning his second term by a landslide. This makes a recent ruling by a constitutional tribunal all the more difficult to swallow for many Bolivians. On 29 April 2013 the court ruled that Morales is exempt from his own amendment. The reason given was that Morales’ first term was served under the previous constitution, therefore it ‘does not count’.
However, to many, it does count. When Morales first came to power, he presumed that his Aymara heritage would appease Bolivia’s indigenous population; he made promises to them of greater social, political and economic equality. To the indigenous groups, which comprise 60% of the Bolivian population, it was easy to hope that these promises would be fulfilled, particularly as they were being represented by the president. A series of protests and public outrages illustrate that this is not the case. The indigenous population has spoken out against not being consulted on infrastructure projects directly affecting them, despite a legislative clause guaranteeing this (another of Morales’ constitutional amendments). For example, in 2011 the construction of a highway connecting Brazil and Chile began, to the outrage of a number of indigenous groups. The highway cuts through the ‘protected’ National Park of Isiboro Sécure and has bred concern about neighbouring coca growers invading the area. The reaction was a march of more than 1,000 Bolivians along the highway to La Paz, with protests turning violent.
It is natural to question Morales’ true intentions as a number of his policies hark back to his previous occupation; before running for the presidency, Morales was famous for leading the Coca Growers Union. Bolivia is the third largest producer in the world of both coca and its derivative, cocaine. US attempts for further control on global drug trafficking through Bolivia were brought to a halt by Morales in 2008 when he expelled the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
More recently, on May Day 2013, Morales also banished the presence of USAID and its project to help farmers replace coca with other crops. USAID was in Bolivia for almost fifty years and the body had an annual budget for the country of around $50 million and contributed significantly to the health, education and agricultural sectors. According to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook, Bolivia has one of the worst levels of poverty and unequal access to basic services in Latin America. Bolivia also ranks at the bottom in terms of income inequality, malnutrition, mortality, health and a lack of basic sanitation and clean water.
Considering the benefits of their assistance, does the expulsion of USAID signify a move driven by self-interest and a prioritisation of coca cultivation over the needs of the Bolivian people? When making the announcement, Morales accused the US of using their development programmes in Bolivia for political purposes. Perhaps Morales was driven by fears of US interference following the astronomical death toll in the US-Mexican ‘war on drugs’. Whatever his reasons, removing this substantial aid will significantly slow down development and worsen the acute lack of public services; this dangerous combination drastically enhances the risk of social unrest and violent clashes in Bolivia.
Morales’ close alliance with Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and the late Hugo Chavez suggests a kinship in terms of governing style: autocratic leadership. He is gradually reversing the process of democratization that began in Bolivia just 31 years ago – the regime in place has become a pseudo democracy. The amendments and promises of greater equality, particularly for the indigenous population, are a farce. They were made to encourage public support but were then easily dismissed in order to serve the interests of Bolivia’s already wealthy and powerful elite. Morales’ recent constitutional amendment which will allow him to run in the 2014 presidential election is a stark example of this. With a series of protests since the incumbent’s rule illustrating the frustration of the indigenous population, anger will only increase as the divide between poor and rich worsens. If Morales continues his disregard for the principles of democracy and for those people he promised to represent and help, a revolution could very well be in Bolivia’s near future.