[Marxism] Evo Morales/Bolivia: Populist gestures and neo-liberal substance

Juan Carlos juancarloscruz at hotmail.com
Fri Jan 6 10:40:07 MST 2006

HELLO ALL: Here is the article that James Petras just wrote about Evo 
Morales and Bolivia

Juan Carlos Cruz

La página de Petras - PETRAS ESSAYS IN ENGLISH

Evo Morales/Bolivia: Populist gestures and neo-liberal substance

James Petras
A realistic assessment of the electoral victory of Evo Morales requires 
knowledge of his recent role in Bolivia’s popular struggles, his program and 
ideology as well as the first measures adopted by his regime. In the recent 
past innumerable leftist intellectuals, academics, journalists and NGOers 
have mindlessly jumped on the bandwagon of a series of newly elected 
“popular” presidents(Lula in Brazil, Gutierrez in Ecuador, Vazquez in 
Uruguay and Kirchner in Argentina) who maintained all privatized firms, 
punctually paid the foreign debt, applied IMF fiscal policies and sent 
military forces to Haiti to uphold a US-imposed puppet regime and repress 
the poor struggling to restore the democratically elected Aristide 

Once again in Bolivia we have a popular leader elected to power. Once again 
we have an army of uncritical left cheerleaders, dominating the discussion, 
ignorant of significant facts and policy changes over the last 5 years.

The Significance of Morales Electoral Victory
Evo Morales margin of victory, 54% against 29% for his closest opponent 
exceeded that of any prior president in recent (50 years) history. His 
party, the MAS (Movement to Socialism) gained a majority in the lower house, 
and a near majority in the Senate, and won 3 tof 9 governorships, despite 
the fact that the Electoral Council eliminated nearly one million registered 
voters (mostly peasant-Indian voters for Morales) on technicalities. 
Secondly, Morales won all the major cities (except Santa Cruz, bulwark of 
the extreme right) and exceeded 65% in many rural and urban impoverished 
regions. Thirdly, Morales and the MAS won despite the opposition of all the 
major electronic and print media, the business and mine owners associations 
and the heavy-handed intervention and threats of the US embassy. In this 
case US business opposition to Evo added to his popular support and resulted 
in a massive, record turnout. Contrary to the world re-knowned “media 
critics”, the great majority of the people were not influenced by the 24 
hour barrage of dirty propaganda by all the mass media. Fifthly, Evo was 
presented by the mass media and his publicists as the first Indian president 
of the Americas, which was technically correct. However, it should be noted 
that President Chavez of Venezuela is part Indian, a former Vice president 
of Bolivia was a (neo-liberal) Indian, Peruvian President Toledo claimed 
Indian origins and wore a poncho during his campaigns, and Indians in 
Ecuador occupied key ministerial posts during the regime of the ousted 
President Gutierrez in Ecuador (including Agriculture and Foreign Affairs). 
With the exception of Chavez, the presence of Indians in high places did not 
lead to the passage of any progressive measures in basically neo-liberal 

Response to Morales/MAS Electoral Victory
The general response from left, center and right wing regimes to Morales 
victory was positive. Congratulatory greetings were sent by Fidel, Chavez, 
Zapatero (Spain), Chirac (France) and Wolfowitz (of the World Bank). The US 
took an ambiguous position. Rice’s guarded praise of electoral politics was 
accompanied by the predictable warning to rule by “democratic methods” 
(follow US directives). Meantime shortly after the election, the US Special 
Forces based in Paraguay began military exercises on the frontier with 
Bolivia. The major oil companies (Repsol, Petrobras etc) expressed their 
willingness to work with the new president (if he would abide by the rules 
of their game). In the meantime, they announced that new investments were 
being held up.

The leaders of the major labor confederations, the Bolivian Workers 
Confederation (COB), the Mineworkers Confederation, the barrio 
confederations of El Alto (a proletarian city of 800,000 hear La Paz) took a 
cautious “wait and see” attitude, demanding that his first measures include 
the nationalization of the petroleum and gas companies and the convocation 
of a constitutional convention. Despite the reticence of these leaders, even 
in supporting Evo’s election, the great mass of their followers voted 
overwhelmingly for Morales.

In summary, except for the US, there was a broad spectrum of support of 
Evo’s victory from Big Business to the unemployed, from the World Bank to 
the barefoot Indians of the Andes, each with their own reading and 
expectations of what policies an Evo Morales presidency and a MAS dominated 
congress would pursue.

Two Views on the Evo Morales Presidency
There are at least two views on what to expect from an Evo Morales 
Presidency, which cross ideological boundaries.

The exuberant left and sectors of the far right (especially in the US and 
Bolivia) evoke a scenario in which a radical leftist Indian President, 
responding to the great majority of poor Bolivians will transform Bolivia 
from a white oligarchic-imperialist dominated country based on a neo-liberal 
economy, to an Indian-peasant-workers’ state pursuing an independent foreign 
policy, the nationalization of the petroleum industry, a profound agrarian 
reform and the defense of the coca farmers. This is the view of 95% of the 
Left and the view of the extreme-right including the Bush Administration.

An alternative scenario, the one I hold, sees Morales as a moderate social 
liberal politician who has over the past 5 years moved to the center. He 
will not nationalize petrol or gas MNCs, but will probably renegotiate a 
moderate increase on their taxes, and “nationalize” the subsoil minerals, 
leaving the companies free to extract, transport and market the minerals. He 
will promote 3 variants of capitalism: Protection of small and medium size 
businesses, invitations to foreign investors and financing of state 
petroleum and mining firms as junior partners of the MNCs. To compensate and 
stabilize his regime he will appoint a number of popular leaders to 
government posts dealing with labor and social welfare with limited budgets 
who will be subject to the economic and financial ministries run by liberal 
economists. Morales will promote and fund Indian cultural celebrations. He 
will promote Indian language use in Andean schools and at public functions. 
“Land reform” will not involve any expropriations of plantations but will 
involve colonization projects in unsettled or uncultivated lands. Coca 
farming will be legalized but reduced to less than ½ acre per family. Drug 
trafficking will be outlawed. Morales will propose to work with the US DEA 
against trafficking and money laundering

Review of the Data
A wealth of data – facts pertinent to evaluating the two scenarios – are 
abundantly available to anyone interested in making an informed judgment in 
which direction Evo Morales will take:

Even before taking office Morales gave the green light to the privatization 
of MUTUN, one of the biggest iron mining fields in the world (Econoticias 
25/12/2005). In late 2005, private bidding, under very questionable 
circumstances, was underway among several competing MNCs. The outgoing 
President, Rodriguez, consulted two leading congressmen of the MAS and 
agreed to suspend the bidding, in deference to the incoming Morales 
government. Morales and his neo-liberal vice president, Alvaro Garcia 
Linera, over-ruled and reprimanded the Congressional leaders and their 
parliamentarian advisers and told President Rodriguez to proceed with the 
private bidding of MUTUN. The mine has 40 billion tons in iron reserves and 
10 billion tons of magnesium reserves (70% of the world total). In the lead 
up to his unilateral decision to continue, Morales bent to pressure from 
right-wing pro-imperialist business interests of Santa Cruz and ignored 
ecologists, trade unionists and nationalists who opposed corrupt bidding,and 
ignored ecological, workers nationalist interests.

While the ill-informed leftists boosters of Evo picture him as the 
revolutionary leader of the Bolivian masses, they ignore the fact that he 
played no role in the insurrections of October 2003 and May-June 2005. 
During the general strikes and street battles of October, Evo was in Europe 
at an inter-parliamentary meeting in Geneva discussing the virtues of 
parliamentary politics. Meanwhile, scores of Bolivians were being massacred 
by the electoral regime of Sanchez de Losada for opposing his policies on 
foreign ownership of petro-gas interests. Morales returned in time to 
celebrate the overthrow of Sanchez de Losada and to convince a half-million 
protesters to accept neo-liberal Vice President Carlos Mesa as the new 
president. Less than two years later, another wave of strikes and barricades 
led to the overthrow of Mesa for continuing Sanchez de Losada’s oil policy. 
Once again Morales stepped in to direct the uprising into institutional 
channels proposing a Supreme Court Judge to serve as interim president while 
new presidential elections were convoked. Morales succeeded in taking the 
peoples’ struggle out of the street and dismantling the nascent popular 
councils and channeling them into established bourgeois institutions. In 
both crises, Evo favored a neo-liberal replacement in opposition to the 
peoples’ demands for a new popularly controlled national assembly.

During the Presidency of Mesa, Evo supported the latter’s referendum (2004) 
which left the foreign MNCs in control of the oil and gas subject to a small 
increase in royalty payments. Though parts of the referendum passed, it was 
later repudiated by the mass insurrectionary movement.

In the run-up to the Presidential elections, Morales-Garcia Linera’s 
(Vice-President) slate spoke a “triple discourse”: to the urban and trade 
union crowds they spoke of “Andean Socialism”, to the Indians in the 
highlands they spoke of “Andean Capitalism”, to the business leaders they 
said socialism was not on the agenda for at least 50 to 100 years. In 
private meetings with the US Ambassador, Bolivian oligarchs and bankers and 
the MNCs, Morales/Garcia Linera eschewed all intentions to nationalize – on 
the contrary they welcomed foreign investment as long as it was 
“transparent”. By that they meant that the MNC’s paid their taxes, and 
didn’t bribe regulators. The message to the masses lacked specifics; the 
speeches to the business elites were backed by concrete agreements.

Evo and his Vice-President Linera have promised to retain the tight fiscal 
and macro economic policies of their predecessors and to maintain all the 
illegally privatized companies. Evo’s economic spokesperson, Carlos 
Villegas, stated that President Morales will “derogate in a symbolic fashion 
the decree which privatized enterprises” – but added it will “not have any 
retroactive effects”. Symbolic gestures of a purely rhetorical nature, 
devoid of nationalist substance, seem to be the path chosen by Morales and 

The incoming President/Vice-President have categorically stated they will 
not expropriate any large private monopolies or large landholdings, nor 
foreign investments. On January 13, 2006 Evo travels to Brazil to discuss 
with big Brazilian corporations new investments in gas, petrochemicals, oil 
and other raw materials. According to the Brazilian financial daily Valor 
(Dec. 26, 2005), Lula will offer state loans and insist that Evo creates a 
“climate of stability for investments”. The giant Brazilian corporation 
PETROBRAS pays less than 15% in taxes on the daily extraction of 25 million 
cubic meters of natural gas, at prices far below international levels. Lula 
hopes to use “aid” to deepen and extend Brazil’s MNC low cost exploitation 
of valuable energy sources. Meanwhile gas sold in La Paz is three times more 
expensive than in Sao Paolo.

Evo promises to “tax the rich” knowing full well that any new taxes on low 
income groups would provoke a major uprising as took place in 2004. However 
the tax proposed on property valued at $300,000 or $400,000 will exclude the 
vast majority of the upper middle class and all but one percent of the very 
rich. As a source of revenue it will make a negligible impact, but the 
“symbolic” propaganda value will be immense.

Regarding peasant demands, Evo’s agrarian commission has not come up with 
any specific targets for agrarian reform, (neither the number of acres to be 
distributed nor any lists of landless family beneficiaries).

While his local and international supporters emphasize his “popular” and 
Indian origins (the “face of Indo-America”), there is no discussion of his 
support for big business, his agreements, with the pro-imperialist Civic 
Committee for Santa Cruz, PETROBRAS and the other petro-gas MNCs. What is 
crucial is not Evo’s militancy during the 1980’s and 1990’s but his 
alliances, deals and program on his way to the Presidency.

  All the data on Evo Morales politics, especially since 2002, point to a 
decided right turn, from mass struggle to electoral politics, a shift toward 
operating inside Congress and with institutional elites. Evo has turned from 
supporting popular uprisings to backing one or another neo-liberal 
President. His style is populist, his dress informal. He speaks the language 
of the people. He is photogenic, personable and charismatic. He mixes well 
with street venders and visits the homes of the poor. But what political 
purpose do all these populist gestures and symbols serve? His 
anti-neo-liberal rhetoric will not have any meaning if he invites more 
foreign investors to plunder iron, gas, oil, magnesium and other prime 
materials. Systemic transformations do not follow from upholding illegal 
privatizations, the maintenance of the financial and business elites of La 
Paz and Cochabamba and the agro-business oligarchy of Santa Cruz. At best, 
Evo will promote some marginal increases in property and royalty taxes, and 
perhaps increase some social spending on welfare services (but always 
limited by a tight fiscal budget). Political power will be shared between 
the new upwardly mobile petit bourgeois of the MAS office holders and the 
old economic oligarchs. No doubt diplomatic relations will greatly improve 
with Cuba and Venezuela. Relations with the World Bank and the IMF will 
remain unchanged – unless the Cuban-American mafia in Washington push their 
extremist agenda. While any aggression is possible with the fascist-thinking 
policy makers in command in Washington, it is also possible, given Morales’ 
de facto liberal policies, that the State Department may opt for pressuring 
Evo to move further to the right and to make further concessions to big 
business and coca cultivation reduction. Unfortunately, the Left will 
continue to respond to symbols, mythical histories, political rhetoric and 
gestures and not to programmatic substance, historical experiences and 
concrete socio-economic policies. To paraphrase Marx: Populist rhetoric is 
the opium of the intellectuals.

December 29, 2005

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