Exit polls over the weekend put Evo Morales on course for an overwhelming victory in Bolivia’s Presidential election. As the Guardian said in their editorial today, this victory has gone a long way to making the social transformation inside Bolivia irreversible.
Such a transformation was unthinkable as recently as nine years ago. Then, Bolivia was one of those textbook examples we all have as global justice campaigners of the World Bank being bad – not only was Bolivia forced to privatise it’s water supply, people were charged for collecting rainwater on top of their own houses! Somewhat unsurprisingly riots ensued.
You do not have to scratch much deeper into Bolivia’s history to realise that sorry episode was not an isolated injustice. For over 500 years, poor people in Bolivia were marginalised and exploited, with no rights, no voice and no power. And for ‘poor’, read ‘indigenous’.
Those riots, however, were part of new chapter in Bolivia’s history that would culminate in Morales’ election. Indigenous peoples were become more and more vocal. Once such peoples, the Chiquitanos – who had at first had to organise under the guise of a football league to avoid the attentions of the authorities – were marching on the capital. After protests toppled President Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003, it become easier for people to run independently of the traditional political parties and indigenous peoples could now make huge electoral headway.
In December 2005 Evo Morales was elected Bolivia’s first indigenous President. Four years later, extreme poverty has been reduced by 6%, illiteracy eradicated, a state pension scheme created, infant mortality reduced by 4%, eye operations given for free to those in need.
This success was paid for by the renationalisation of the gas industry and royalties on hydrocarbons. It is easy to dismiss that move as populism – but Bolivia has had three years of budget surpluses, has $8bn earned in cash reserves, and even won praise from the IMF, which applauded the government’s prudence in saving part of the windfall income from gas revenues. Economic growth was as high as 6.5% and even with the recession will be 2.8% next year according the IMF, no small achievement amongst Latin America counties.
But perhaps the most important achievement of the last five years has been the redistribution of power. The Chiquitanos have now what for centuries what they could have not – their own mayors and senators, and with that power, land. After a ten-year campaign, the Chiquitanos were granted a ‘land of communal origin’ of 1m hectares. That story has been replicated across the country – according to Morales’ Party title has been given to 26 million hectares benefiting 98,454 families.
Morales and his party are not perfect. It is wise to wary when one man is given so much power, as he has been now the opposition has been so roundly trounced; of too much populism; of his uncritical relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and, inexcusably, of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But this election is about more than victory for Morales or his Party. It is about an entire people rising from poverty to power after more than 500 years of oppression. As The Guardian said today,
“South Africa remembers Nelson Mandela, and eastern Europe the fall of the Berlin Wall. What a former herder of llamas has achieved in one of the world’s poorest nations may be no less momentous.”
by David Taylor, Labour Campaign for International Development
[To read more about the transformation of power to Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, please see Duncan Green, Oxfam’s Head of Policy, fantastic book From Poverty to Power (Part 2: Politics & Power). Duncan’s blog is also essential reading too.]