Global Independent Analytics
Pedro Marin
Pedro Marin

Location: Brazil

Specialization: Latin America, Ukraine, North Korea

Evo’s Last Chance

Bolivian President Evo Morales has to ensure his popularity will keep growing next year, in a scenario where the economy tends to fall.

On February 21, Bolivians got out of their houses and vote on a historical referendum that may change the country’s fate for the next decade. They voted on whether the constitution of 2009 will be changed to remove the current presidential two-term limit, and therefore allow President Evo Morales to run for office in 2019. But the referendum, which was pushed for by Bolivian popular movements who marched on September 17 last year to deliver the request for its establishment, faces the opposition of both left-wing and right-wing political figures.

Evo Morales is a former coca farmer and trade unionist, and also a member of the Aymara indigenous nation. In a scenario where the struggle between Latin America’s progressive governments and neoliberal figures gets harder and harder by the day, Evo, unlike many leaders, has been securing the support of his people.

A poll carried out in December showed the President has the approval of 65% of Bolivians and in the last elections in 2014, Evo’s Movement Towards Socialism party [MAS] won with 61.4% of the votes, against 24.2% of the votes for the Democrat Unity Party and 9% for the Christian Democratic Party.

Such approval rates are explained by the government’s pro-development measures. Since Evo got into power ten years ago, extreme poverty was reduced from 38.2% to 17.8%, Bolivians’ purchasing power doubled and there was an increase of investment in public spending of over 750%. From 2005 to 2013, Bolivia’s total GDP growth tripled, and the country has managed to increase its international reserves to 48 percent of its GDP. The country’s main exports partners today are Brazil (29.8%), Argentina (19.7%) and United States (15.6%).  Its key import partners are China (17.2%), Brazil (15.8%), the United States (11.7%) and Argentina (10.9%). All that allowed the country to become more independent.

But it seems things changed a little in Bolivia. This is the first time in years in which Evo may suffer a defeat. In the last regional elections, in 2015, the MAS party lost in El Alto, Cochabamba, La Paz and Tarija - which were always considered the party’s strongholds. The polls are showing slightly different results for the referendum: Ipsos’ poll, for instance, showed 45% will vote for “Yes” - in favor of Evo, 50% will vote “No,” and 5% are undecided. In a poll carried out by Mori polling firm, 40% said they would vote “Yes” and 37% “No.” 8% were uncertain.

Evo is praised for Bolivia’s economic stability (from 2004 to 2014 there was a growth rate of 4.9%), but a new economic cycle is scheduled to begin. The gas industry, which was nationalized in 2006 and represents half of the nation’s exports and a third of the government budget, will have its production decline in the next years, due to natural factors. Gas revenues are expected to fall by 30% this year alone and the country’s trade balance has been falling since 2014 – that is, Bolivia is importing more than it is exporting.

Although Bolivia’s economy isn’t collapsing yet (the IMF predicts a 3.5% growth rate for 2016), it is a fact that its dependency on the gas industry coupled by the factor that most of its partners are facing an economic crisis that makes Bolivia a very vulnerable economy right now. Yet, Evo says he isn’t worried about it – but he definitely should.

After all, whether the “Yes” wins or not, Evo will still have to face the next years in Presidency, and his party will still run for office in the next elections. The referendum, indeed, is Evo’s last chance to run for office, but the economic measures he will take in the next years will determine if he or his party keep ruling the country.

EXPERT OPINION

Danny Haiphong

This article is timely, as shortly after its release Evo Morales lost a referendum bid to run for President in the next election. I agree with the author's assessment that the Bolivian economy's reliance on gas as well as the international capitalist market as a whole will create rifts between the masses and the movement Morales represents. The author could have also mentioned that the left-wing "Bolivarian" movement throughout the continent is facing crisis and setback. A right-wing government has taken power in Argentina. Venezuela's oligarchy has also gained serious ground by capturing the National Assembly. 

While the progressive reforms that have reduced poverty, illiteracy, and political corruption must be defended, the mass movements that brought them about must also advance and deepen toward the goal of state power. Without a revolutionary overthrow of the oligarchy in Latin America, Bolivia and the non-aligned nations of South America will become increasingly vulnerable to destabilization. Evo Morales' referendum loss does not spell doom for his party necessarily. However, recent developments across the continent as well as the points in this piece do make a strong case that the struggle for the sovereignty and independence of Latin America is just beginning.

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