Catrin Harris suggests that the President of Bolivia is no longer “the man of the people”
Evo Morales: the first indigenous president of Bolivia. In a country where 62% of the population is indigenous, this would seem an applaudable feat. Yet has he maintained his socialist charm? Has he continued his legacy as “the man of the people”? As 2017 drew to a close, Bolivians watched their leader disregard a national referendum and relight previously-extinguished plans for a highway through indigenous territory. Not exactly the expected New Year’s Resolutions expected from this socialist “hero.”
From an agricultural Aymara family, Morales has long been an advocate for the rights of indigenous people, leading his regional unit of cocaleros (the union of immigrant and indigenous coca leaf growers) long before he entered national politics. In 2006 he was elected President of Bolivia, which at the time was the poorest country in South America. Through promptly renationalising the country’s gas businesses, he ensured that 82% of the industry’s profits came to the State. These funds were then directed towards the construction of infrastructure for running water, roads and electricity in indigenous areas, which in turn has helped Morales reduce levels of extreme poverty by 43%. Morales promised to continuously champion such efforts during his presidency. Yet it now appears that his raising the Wiphala flag (of the Andean indigenous peoples) might only have been for the cameras.
At the end of last year, Morales re-instigated plans for the Tipnis highway through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park. The plans were originally proposed in 2011, but national protests forced the Government to abandon them. The projected 300km road from Villa Tunari to San Ignacio de Moxos will divide previously-protected indigenous territory in two, disrupting land inhabited by the Moxeños, Yurakarés and Chimanes peoples. Severe deforestation now lies in store for this 10,000km2 stretch of the Bolivian Amazon. It is not only the destruction of the land that is alarming, it is Morales’ complete indifference towards the voices of his people who objected relentlessly to these proposals when they originally appeared.
Morales became president in 2006; it is now 2017. The Bolivian Constitution dictates that a president can only serve two terms of five years. Yet Morales evidentially developed too much of a taste for presidential power. In 2009 had changed the name of the country from Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia, ensuring that his first term ‘did not count’ and he could thus run for another two terms as president of a ‘new’ Bolivia. In February 2016, during his current (third) term, the country held a referendum to vote whether he should be allowed to run in the 2019 elections and stand for a fourth term. The country voted, the people made their decision, and the result was 51.3% ‘No’. Despite this, on 28th November, members of Morales’ political party appealed to the Constitutional Tribunal of Bolivia, which states that “a president has the right to be chosen and the public has the right to choose him.” By not allowing Morales to run for the upcoming elections, his party argued, they would be depriving him and his people of this right. The Constitutional Tribunal of Bolivia agreed to suspend the article, thus opening the gates for Evo Morales to run for a fourth term in the 2019 elections. The opposition leader, Samuel Doria Medina, called the decision “a blow to the Constitution, to democracy.” He is not wrong: Evo Morales asked his people what they wanted, and they told him. By directly acting against the wishes of the majority (albeit a 51.3% majority, but a majority nonetheless) he has shown himself to be willing to sacrifice all democratic and constitutional credibility to his insatiable lust for power.
He was the first indigenous president of Bolivia; a “hero” to many who finally believed their voices would be heard in the nation’s politics. Yet Morales’ blatant disregard for these same voices on two separate, though equally poignant, occasions makes it clear that he is no longer acting in their best interests. Morales eterno was what the people of Bolivia once shouted in the streets. It now seems they will get just that, whether they like it or not.