Uncertainty Taints Bolivian Elections

(International Relations and Security Network, 16/12/2005)

 

As a leading candidate for the Bolivian presidential elections, Evo Morales claimed his government would be a "nightmare" for the US in one of his final campaign speeches on 12 December. Strong anti-US, anti-capitalistic rhetoric has colored his campaign, ensuring continued popularity with Bolivians that blame the US-controlled international lending organizations for 20 years of painful reform with little more than continued poverty to show for it.

 

But many doubt if Morales can govern and preside over an unruly, demanding bunch of angry coca farmers, Indians, miners, transport workers, students, and others who think they deserve better from their government.

 

The other presidential candidate, Jorge Quiroga, represents the status quo, more of the same white, US-university trained Bolivian leaders that have repeatedly been ousted by popular protests - five presidents in five years.

 

Street protests have gathered in strength, momentum, and effectiveness over the years. They are more organized and disciplined than before, and they are controlled by a small group of men currently loyal to Quiroga's presidential opponent.

 

There is little hope for a man who thinks he can do better than each of his five predecessors. He will certainly have US support, but at the great cost of presiding over the same mob that threw out the long line of upper class Bolivian presidents that came before him.

 

There is no clear solution to the region's most complicated political conundrum. An instable Bolivia clearly is not what the region needs. Bolivia is a cornerstone for regional energy security, an important player in the supply-side drug war, and an important link for regional trade and commerce. Yet the country is on the brink of a political meltdown that could turn a concerning situation into a crisis in the heart of South America.

 

Morales as president

 

In a perfect presidential administration, Morales would keep all of his campaign promises. He would nationalize Bolivian energy assets and spread the wealth to the provinces bringing water, education, and health to the region's poorest families.

 

According to Carlos Villegas, economic strategist for Morales' Movement Towards Socialsm (MAS) party, the Bolivian state would become a "fundamental axis" of development, funneling revenues from the sale of Bolivia's energy assets to the poor.

 

"They could do it," former chief economist of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, said in a recent New York Times Magazine article. Stiglitz believes Western oil giants would gladly negotiate contracts on new terms with the new government, adding that other companies would enter the game, including Petronas, the Malaysian state oil company, and others from China and India.

 

Of all his promises, the state control of energy assets would be a central focus to the young Morales administration. Morales has considered using Brazil's Petrobras as a model to form the management company for Bolivia's future state-run oil and gas company. Considering his working relationship with Brazilian President Luis Inacio "Lula" Da Silva, it is a feasible solution.

 

Morales would take on the US head-to-head and completely stop the eradication of coca leaves. He wants "zero cocaine, but not zero coca". With such a position, Bolivia would risk receiving a "decertification" status from the US government.

 

Decertification is the de facto freeze of any US government aid to Bolivia. Decertification is an annual event, so it could not happen to Bolivia sooner than late next year. Bolivia would have enough time to prove that political stability, under Morales, can lead to an increase in international investment before the flow of US funds dries up.

 

John Price, founder and CEO of Miami-based consulting firm InfoAmericas, thinks Morales could bring the stability necessary to attract foreign investment, with a caveat.

 

"A Morales victory, if tempered by the moderating influence of Lula in Brazil looking out for the interests of Brazilian oil and gas interests in Bolivia, could turn out to be a workable formula that on the one hand will calm Bolivian populist militancy and on the other not represent a sizable threat to the international investor,' he told ISN Security Watch.

 

Price added that investors would wait up to a year to see how Bolivia stabilized before making decisions.

 

Meanwhile, Morales has campaigned against the neo-liberal economy, capitalism, and US imperialism. These rhetorical attacks have led many to believe he is in bed with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro - a fact he denies.

 

A group of Bolivian trade unionists and social movements announced that Morales would have 90 days to eliminate the "neo-liberal economy", suggesting that if he did not fulfill his promise they would break from his coalition and hit the streets. Clearly they expect him to follow through.

The ramifications of such radical movements within the Bolivian economy would be a dramatic shift to the left.

 

The fruition of all these promises would play into the hands of US government cynics. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's senior advisor for Latin America, Rogelio Pardo-Maruer IV, said in a speech earlier this year that "urban rage and ethnic resentments have combined into a force that is seeking to change Bolivia".

 

The former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Roger Noreiga, believes Morales is working for Castro and Chavez, having said, "it's no secret that Morales reports to Caracas and Havana".

 

"The policy of the US State Department and the US embassy in Bolivia has always been to have zero contact with Evo," Adam Isacson, the Center for International Policy's director of programs, told ISN Security Watch, adding, "it may blow up in their face".

 

"Among some that work on South America Evo Morales is referred to as an anti-American, narco-mafia, and border-line terrorist," he said, adding that the US government was "not prepared to engage with Morales if he wins".

 

Rather, the US would seek to engage the opposition and work with contacts in the Bolivian military to weaken Morales' administration.

 

However, Bolivia observers claim that Morales is more center-left than radical.

 

His position has been softened over the years and multiple presidential elections. And if he intends to govern, he must work toward the center to ensure economic viability while appeasing the far left. This style of government worked for Brazil's Lula, but Bolivia is a different case, where the radical left lost patience years ago.

 

A hostile position taken by the US would be second only to the street protests Morales could face if he is unable to meet the demands of the far left - an impossible goal with a weak mandate and center-left government.

 

A lose-lose proposition

 

As president, Morales would be stretched from the political center to the extreme left by expectations and demands. Ultimately, the lack of time and resources would combine with simple pragmatism to form policy that would alienate the far left. They could certainly decry that Morales is a sell-out and take to the streets again. It would be bitter medicine.

 

As president, Quiroga would immediately face popular protests. He is the quintessential politician the Bolivian left loves to hate. It is hard to envision Quiroga managing his government in the face of such protests without the support of leftist leaders, who would manage the mob well enough to give him ample breathing room to run a government.

 

Neither man will win enough votes to claim the presidency free and clear. The Bolivian Congress will be the stage for enough back room deal making that will prove to dilute either candidate's mandate. Morales' mandate would have strong popular support but very little support in Congress. Quiroga's mandate would have more support in Congress but little to zero street credit.

 

Both men would have to deal with former congressional heavy-weight and the third presidential candidate, Samuel Doria Medina. Any deal with Medina is sure to further weaken the ability of either Morales or Quiroga to turn promises into action. This is a reality Quiroga may be able to live with, considering his willingness to use the military to control protests. But it is a reality that would all but unravel Morales' support base. He has run on promises he simply cannot keep as a president with a weak mandate and little congressional support.

 

The alternative

 

Considering Morales has made promises he cannot possibly keep, he would be clever to choose not to be president, but instead to preside over a strong opposition from the position of a first place finish in the popular vote.

 

Jim Shultz, director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, argues that Morales may do better in the opposition because "Morales and MAS could [.] turn a first-place finish into political and street pressure for the convening of a Constituent Assembly".

 

From this strong position Morales would not be forced to bring his wild promises to action, keeping the mob at bay. He would also be able to put pressure on forming a Constituent Assembly, and once in secession, the assembly would be pressured to bring Bolivia's energy assets under state control - a long fight that is near completion. Any tendency Quiroga may have to block Morales would be tempered by the promise of massive street protests.

 

This is an alternative that if played right could create a compromise that may lead Bolivia towards the prosperity that comes with a renewed flow of international investment.

 

It is possibly the only alternative that will keep Bolivia together long enough to see the benefit of international investment and an extended term of stability. With this alternative, Morales would not prove quite the nightmare he had hoped for the US government, but it is a reality that he, Quiroga, and all poor Bolivians may be able to live with.

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