Bolivia’s Socialist King: The Beginning of the End

By Wesley TomaselliMAR 04-20-16

Why you should care

Because it’s easy to critique socialism under a Castro or a Chavez. Evo Morales forces you to confront it.
Many Americans may consider Barack Obama a socialist, but to one dyed-in-the-wool socialist in the Americas, the U.S. president is nothing less than a ruthless capitalist, imperialist and war criminal. In fact, Obama’s alleged (and rather unsuccessful) “hidden agenda,” according to some — wealth redistribution, nationalization of industry, higher taxes and greater government control — reads like President Evo Morales’ list of accomplishments in Bolivia.
The list has been crescendoing since the former coca farmer came to power in 2006: He’s defied World Bank economic recommendations, ignored Western labor laws and thumbed his nose at America’s war on drugs. The public mandate seemed to support him; he reached a third term in 2014, and just in August, according to a poll from Ipsos Bolivia, Morales’ approval rating stood at 70 percent. And then, last week, he stretched too far, holding a referendum to change national laws that would let him run for re-election for a fourth term … in 2019.
It didn’t go Morales’ way. With three years left, then, the question is: What will he do? “It’s certainly a blow to him,” says Raúl Madrid, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. “This is the first time he’s ever lost.” But, Madrid adds, “he’s still quite strong,” and with his next three years, Madrid writes us later, Morales is sure to keep up his combination of “aggressive redistributivist social policies with relatively conservative economic policies.” He has a chance to keep driving home his legacy thus far: Under Morales, extreme poverty has plummeted by 43 percent, the real minimum wage has increased by almost 90 percent and the economy has grown by 5 percent on average since he stepped into office and renationalized the natural gas industry. As Swiss-made gondolas drift over the capital of La Paz — part of Morales’ new aerial transport system — it’s not hard to see why most Bolivians approve of their president.
Instead of heeding to human rights interests over child labor in Bolivia, he kept it legal.
It wasn’t obvious that Morales, today the leader of the landlocked nation of more than 10 million, would bring Bolivia economic stability. Flash back to the early 1990s: Bolivia, with its colonial history and stark inequality, is a laboratory for neoliberalism — its mineral wealth sold off to foreign investors; its unemployed miners growing illicit coca, a native plant whose leaves are used to make cocaine. As their crop growth is threatened, thanks to the cocaine association, the growers organize behind an indigenous Aymara man known for yelling into crowds of farmers high up in the Andes, “Let’s go, coca! Death to the gringos!”

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