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Amor Serrano

This blog post first appeared in an edited format on 12 August 2008 in Guardian.co.uk’s Comment is Free, under the title ‘Bolivia divided’.

Evo Morales has jumped over yet another hurdle this weekend. He has managed to secure a new vote of confidence from among the social movements and grassroots that constitute the loose coalition that is his political platform. This backing is what he needs to further advance his drive to transform Bolivia into a socialist state. But this is also an unfortunate step further into a vicious cycle of ideological polarisation from which, Latin American history says, one can only leave through violence and the absolute rejection of the past. Mr. Morales should know better. He is, after all, the latest personification of this Latin American way of reform. If he wants to avoid this future, he should review his strategy and introduce knowledge into the policy debate.

The support that Mr. Morales enjoys today must be seen in relation to the rest of the political forces in the country. It would be a mistake to assume that this vote is the deepening of democracy and that Mr. Morales’ party, MAS, is backed up by traditional democratic forces. It would even be a mistake to assume that el MAS is a political party at all.

What Mr. Morales and his supporters enjoy is a perverse love-hate relationship that is feeding a vicious process of exclusion and polarisation of Bolivian society in matter of public interest. Mr. Morales’ MAS is a loose coalition of highly political social movements, lacks the most basic characteristics of a political party - and it does not attempt to be one. In fact, it draws its strength from its image as the anti-party (just like Alberto Fujimori did in Peru in the 1990s - with similar anti-party rhetoric; albeit for neo-liberal policy objectives).

El MAS’ type of democracy is no longer the participatory democracy of the Bolivian Popular Participation Law. Bolivian political scientist Carlos Toranzo has classified it as a ‘gobierno por plebicito’ (government by plebiscite). Mass demonstrations and ‘cabildos abiertos’ (public meetings) create and illusion of democracy that actually undermines democracy. In Bolivia today, people’s participation has gone beyond the boundaries of the legislation and the principles of an orderly, constructive and inclusive participation.

Mass popular support wins the day but comes at a price. For the shows of force and confidence votes, Mr. Morales has had to make promises that follow an ideological line that feeds the political fire of the social movements and cools their socio-economic concerns. For example, el MAS and its supporters have rejected the idea of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States to replace the current unilateral trade preferences agreement (the ATPDEA). However, many of Mr. Morales’ supporters in the coca producing areas and the urban factories of El Alto, outside La Paz, draw their income directly from the ATPDEA (and would do so from the FTA). Without an FTA his government has turned to the profits of the natural gas sector as a source of funds for an ever increasing portfolio of cash transfers and other direct subsidies; which would be unnecessary if the FTA was appropriately negotiated and implemented.

But the price of popular support is closing the door to this trade policy mechanism altogether. El MAS’ policies are directed to both rally their supporters around an ideological narrative and satisfy their increasing demands as a consequence of the shortcomings of those same policies.

These policies are also broadening the gap between those who support Morales and those who oppose him. As Naomi Mapstone in the Financial Times has so eloquently illustrated, the ‘socialización’ of the Bolivian State, the nationalisation of the Bolivian economy and his anti-western and anti-decentralisation rhetoric is radicalising the lowlands: government authorities, the private sector and civil society in the lowlands are all in opposition to the central government and Mr. Morales’ apparent grip to power.

To withstand their increasing pressure, Mr. Morales resorts to even more radical policy promises and political discourses. He has approached Cuba and Venezuela (and signed the ALBA treaty that is irrelevant for the country’s trade interests), promises to nationalise new industries, rejects all FTAs and is letting the current ATPDEA (that accounts for about 12% of all Bolivian labour intensive exports) expire at the end of the year. With each policy decision his government makes, he simultaneously prompts a new level of demands from those who support and those who oppose him; and this increasingly narrows his own space for manoeuvre.

The natural ultimate consequence of this process is, and Mr. Morales should know it all too well, the collapse of the system. Absolute power in Latin America always leads to absolute change.

David Batty in this paper has paraphrased the Bolivian’s political analyst Carlos Alarcón’s view that, in the recent polls, “The nation was split by two competing visions: liberal, free-wheeling capitalism versus centralised, pro-indigenous, income -redistributing socialism.” This polarisation, in the case of Bolivia, is dangerously easy to stereotype.

Worse still, this process is weakening the already weak political, economic and social institutions in the country. Work by Steve Wiggins, at the Overseas Development Institute, has identified institutional weaknesses in Bolivia as the main causes for poor social and economic development performance – even when other countries in the region have fared well. Bolivian democratic institutions are young and have suffered many blows since the 1980s (when they were charged with the implementation of a rather harsh structural adjustment programme). This is the opportunity to focus on them.

To tackle ideology, Mr. Morales would do well to remember that the culture he represents is one of the cradles of civilisation and owes much of this title to the value it placed to knowledge. Scientific, social and economic research can provide a new foundation to his movement. To break the vicious cycle, a renewed attention needs to be given to academic and policy research institutions in Bolivia which have been marginalised by the current ideologically based political struggle. As the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) closes its Andean office this year, it should seek to strengthen this country’s policy research institutions’ relations with their Bolivian peers. Without their research based evidence to moderate and translate the demands of both sides into policy instruments, the struggle will never yield positive pro-poor and sustainable developments.

Enrique Mendizabal

Enrique Mendizabal is a Research Fellow and chair of the Latin America and the Caribbean Group at the Overseas Development Institute. He is currently coordinating the Trade and Poverty in Latin America programme (www.cop-la.net) that aims to improve the quality of policy dialogues on trade, poverty and social exclusion in the region.