Turning of the tide
Bolivia’s ‘road to socialism’ turned out to be another dead end, writes Eddie Ford
Evo Morales: presidential finery
Everything now indicates that president Evo Morales has failed in his bid to amend the constitution so as to allow him to run for a fourth term in 2019. With over 99% of votes counted at the time of writing, ‘no’ has beaten ‘yes’ by 51.3% to 48.7% - representing the first time in 10 years that Morales has lost any sort of national vote or poll. The outcome also prevents vice-president Álvaro García Linera - former Túpac guerrilla - from running again. Just like in Venezuela, the ‘revolution’ is running out of steam.
Morales defiantly declared on February 22 that, whatever the result, he would not abandon his struggle - “We’re anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist - we’ve been formed that way” - and promised that the “struggle will continue”. He attributed his defeat to a “dirty war” waged by “rightwing sectors” on social media and elsewhere - an accusation which doubtlessly contains some truth. Referring to himself and his Movement For Socialism (MAS), he said that they “don’t like us much in the city” - he was still hoping for a late surge of support from the more remote rural areas and overseas votes.
Though he may have lost the vote, the Bolivian president clearly retains a popular base in the countryside and shanty towns. His fervent supporters (‘masistas’) argue that he has ended five centuries of oppression against indigenous people - he won his first term in 2005 with 54% of the vote, increasing that support four years later to 63% and almost matching it again in 2014 with 61%. Bolivia’s GDP has more than tripled from $9 billion in 2005 to over $34 billion under his “indigenous socialist programme”. In the words of the Financial Times, Morales has “matched anti-capitalist rhetoric and a programme of nationalisation with prudent macroeconomic management” (February 22).
However, the economic boom presided over by Morales has started to wane. Bolivia’s revenues from natural gas and minerals, making up three-quarters of its exports, were down 32% last year. More importantly, the reputation of Morales and the MAS government has been steadily tarnished by constant stories of corruption and cronyism - some of which are bound to be true, given that he is he trying to run capitalism. For example, his personal popularity took a fairly big hammering following a 2013 scandal involving a former lover, Gabriela Zapata, with whom he admitted fathering a child - the main problem not being sexual indiscretion, but the fact that Zapata holds an important position in the Chinese engineering company, CAMC, which has secured more than $500 million in contracts with the Bolivian government.
Whilst communists obviously have no truck with Morales’s rightwing opponents, his attempts to cling onto power have become increasingly desperate and unedifying. And it goes without saying that the burgeoning state bureaucracy and semi-cult of personality around him is antithetical to genuine socialism.
Thinking back to only a few years ago, Evo Morales (alongside Hugo Chávez) was a great hero for those sections of the British left that looked towards Latin America for political inspiration. In fact, Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian revolution’ was regarded by many as a model. Similarly Morales’s coming to power was excitably viewed as a pachakuti: the beginning of a new history, free from colonialism and capitalism.
Acting as a barometer of leftwing thought on this matter was Red Pepper - the “independent radical red and green magazine”. RP featured numerous articles assuring us that Bolivia under Morales was laying the foundations for socialism. In a September 2010 feature tellingly entitled ‘The Bolivian road to socialism’, Mark Geddes was typically confident that in the period since 2000 the country had “successfully overthrown a neoliberal regime and begun to build new institutions and policies”.1 He approvingly quoted Linera (described as a “Marxist intellectual”), who claimed that the MAS had been “utilising the mass support of the trade unions and a wide range of social movements” and, “when necessary”, the “coercive mechanisms of the state”.
The main lesson, in the opinion of Geddes, is that a “radical refounding of the state must embody an active dialectic between state and social movements” - it also required the ability of the MAS to “hold together the broad alliance necessary to win power and begin to map out and implement a movement towards socialism”. As we can see, this was an extremely optimistic (or naive) assessment of Morales and the MAS.
Some other left groups, though a little critical of Morales, were also swept away by the excitement. For instance, the International Marxist Tendency of Ted Grant and Alan Woods said the 2008 referendum was a “new turning point for the revolution, in which opposite class interests are clashing.”2 We were also told that the results of the presidential election the following year were a massive “vote for socialism”.3 Similarly, the “ecosocialist and feminist” Socialist Resistance (formerly International Socialist Group), entertained fantasies about the “revolutions” in Venezuela and Bolivia.4 Yet the fact of the matter is that the state machines in both countries remain intact. No matter, for the likes of Red Pepper, IMT, Socialist Resistance, etc - Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez represented some kind of way forward.
But look how things are today. The tide of opinion is turning against Morales, and the MAS bureaucracy is bogged down in corruption and scandal, with the economy going into contraction. As for Venezuela, the collapse in oil prices has had a calamitous effect on the economy - president Nicolás Maduro declaring an “economic emergency”, on top of a sharp devaluation of the currency (the mainly centre-right opposition now controls the assembly for the first time in 17 years).
The so-called Bolivian and Venezuelan roads to socialism have turned out to be dead ends.