Bolivia's Morales Faces Tough Second Term

(International Relations and Security Network, 08/02/2007)


Bolivian President Evo Morales made good on a number of campaign promises during his first year in office, including the successful nationalization of Bolivia's energy assets. Looking ahead, however, as he embarks on his second year, he will have to focus on consolidating enough power to enact promised reforms while achieving a balance with the opposition.


Since the beginning of the year, Morales has faced protests in Cochabamba, La Paz and the southern town of Camiri, and some analysts have begun predicting the amount of time before he is forced to resign. Others, however, believe Morales will remain in office for the full length of his five-year term.


Perhaps the most demanding issue facing the Bolivian president is the opposition's call for more autonomy for the country's departments in the east, home to most of the country's natural gas deposits. A number of governors, mayors and influential businessmen continue to press the Morales administration for autonomy. They are worried about a president with a tighter grip on power and close relations with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who many conservatives now consider a "democratator" or a popularly elected autocrat.


Rumbling in Cochabamba


During a late January visit to Washington, DC, the governor of Bolivia's central department of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes Villa, met with various groups, including Human Rights Observatory and the Center for Justice and International Law to protest Morales' government. He claims the Morales administration is on track to become a "totalitarian regime," according to the EFE news service.


Just two weeks prior to his visit, Reyes' supporters clashed with local coca growers and others in downtown Cochabamba. Morales’ supporters hit the streets to demand that Reyes step down as governor after he called for a second referendum on autonomy, a tense topic in Cochabamba where there is a large concentration of Bolivians that still believe Evo Morales will improve their lives. The last thing they want is autonomy for Cochabamba. In the fighting two were killed and some 130 wounded, according to The Washington Post.


The first referendum on autonomy for Bolivia's departments occurred in July 2006: Four of Bolivia's nine departments voted for autonomy with Cochabamba voting "no" by a slim margin. Yet, Reyes is at the top of the list of governors who want autonomy from La Paz.


The autonomy vote was not enough to force the issue on Morales' government, but the governors and business leaders of the four departments found mutual support and continue to battle Morales within their own departments and inside the Bolivian Congress.


Morales held a meeting in Cochabamba in response to the violence. According to a 14 January Washington Post article, Morales said the protesters' demands for Reyes' resignation was justifiable and congratulated them on avoiding further violence.


Explosions in La Paz


On 6 February, some 30,000 Bolivian miners marched on La Paz to protest a tax the Bolivian government seeks to place on mining exports, according to Bolivian daily La Razon. Opponents of the tax say it would put excessive demands on hundreds of small independent mining cooperatives.


Pressure from Bolivia's miners peaked in October 2006, when miners employed by mining cooperatives clashed with state-employed miners for control of a tin deposit. Some 16 people were killed. Morales responded to the violence by sacking Mining Minister Walter Villarroel, who was a leader of the miners' cooperative.


The new minister and former leader of state-run mines, Guillermo Dalence, implemented Morales' orders to freeze the tax at current levels on 7 February. The agreement was reached on 6 February, a day before the protests in La Paz.


The protesters said the tax should have been nullified altogether. Dalence, when interviewed by a Bolivian radio station, claimed the taxes were necessary to "[guarantee] that the living and working conditions of the cooperatives are improved." There have been calls for Morales to fire Dalence.


Gas protests


Gas workers in Bolivia's southern town of Camiri ended eight days of protests on 6 February when local leaders agreed to their demands to open a local office of Bolivia's national energy company, Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB).


Local gas workers, impatient after Morales nationalized Bolivia's energy assets on 1 May 2006, blocked the main road entering Argentina on 29 January. Camiri's gas fields are some of the oldest in Bolivia, and work there has been stalled due to continued negotiations between the Bolivian government and the various international energy companies that hold assets in the area.


Under the new agreement between Camiri gas workers and the Bolivian government, YPFB will now invest some US$100 million in Camiri to install a gas separating plant that will provide some 500 jobs, according to IPS news service.


Balance and power


Over the course of the past few weeks, Morales has shown his ability to negotiate and reach agreements with some of the most virulent and organized elements of his constituency. But it appears he still lacks the power to enact changes at pace with his supporters' expectations.


When asked if he thought Morales would be forced to give up the presidency, Jim Shultz, director of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center, said it was not likely.


"Evo will be president for his full term," Shultz told ISN Security Watch. He said that what Bolivia is experiencing is part of a process where the old political institution, now in opposition, seeks to find balance in Bolivia's new political order.


"You have a political process in Bolivia that is historical and deep and inevitable," Shultz said.


"Bolivia is a country that has been knocked off balance and is in the process of trying to figure out what the new political balance should look like."


Through the ongoing constituent assembly, Morales hopes to rewrite the country's constitution, favoring his constituency of Bolivia's poorest citizens. On 10 January, however, Morales's Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party agreed to use a two-thirds voting system to approve changes made to the Bolivian constitution - a considerable set back.


Previously, Morales insisted that a simple majority dictate changes made to the constitution, but he faced stiff opposition within the assembly and around the country. The MAS holds a majority in the assembly, but does not have enough support for a two-thirds quorum.


Morales' attempts to change the modalities of the assembly in late 2006 led, in part, to growing frustration among Bolivia's middle and upper class leaders as well as governors from those departments seeking autonomy. His actions are likely the cause of Cochabamba Governor Reyes' calls for a new autonomy referendum, which led to the recent violence in that city.


Morales, like Hugo Chavez before him, and now Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, sees an opportunity to fundamentally change his country through a constituent assembly, but he is finding that dealing with miners, gas workers and protesting coca farmers is perhaps easier than opposition politicians.


"Chavez, Morales and now Correa have not been able to resist the temptation to 'refound' the nation through a constituent assembly," Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, told ISN Security Watch.


Shifter points out that Morales has faced more difficulty than Chavez, yet argues that the constituent assembly can be popular and yield "political dividends for the executive."


"This is not a question of the left or right," Shifter added, "since [former Peruvian president Alberto] Fujimori, who closed down Peru's Congress in 1992, was the quintessential practitioner of this style of politics."


"What all of these leaders have in common is a rejection of the institutions of representative democracy."