Coca farmer sweeps Bolivian elections

Bolivia joins the leftward shift in Latin American politics. By Ellen Carpenter

Bolivia inaugurated its new president amidst hopes for an end to the turmoil it has suffered under previous leaders. Evo Morales, the indigenous leader of the Movement Towards Socialism party (MAS) was voted in with a decisive majority on the 8th of December 2005.

As Bolivia’s first indigenous president and a former coca farmer and llama herder, Morales has great support from Bolivia’s two-thirds indigenous population. Journalist Rene Barcena says, “as a Bolivian I am really proud to have voted for him”.

Morales’ election campaign was based around the reform of Bolivia’s natural gas industry, an issue which has resulted in violent unrest in recent years. Bolivia’s previous elected president, Carlos Mesa, was forced to resign after weeks of mass protests and blockades surrounded the de facto capital of La Paz.

Elections were called earlier than usual by the interim president, Eduardo Rodriguez, in order to prevent further disorder.

President Morales was inaugurated on the 22nd of January. The official ceremony was preceded by a religious ritual at the Tiahuanaco, a pre-Inca ruined city in the Andes, in which Morales made offerings to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, in tribute to the country’s indigenous population.
Fellow left-wing leaders Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva were present at the official inauguration at the Palacio Quemado, La Paz’s seat of government.

Evo Morales’ policy is predicted to meet with opposition from Washington and international business. Morales has vowed to redress the inequalities of Bolivian society, and in particular to create a fairer hydrocarbons industry. While the landlocked country has the second largest natural gas reserves in South America, the vast majority of profit goes to foreign exporters. Morales plans to follow Hugo Chavez’s approach of nationalised exploitation of natural resources to fund social spending.

Several international companies have already attempted to sue the Bolivian state for breach of contract after Mesa’s government raised export taxes on hydrocarbons in 2005. Morales has attempted to soothe investors with promises of maintained profits, but insists that he will take steps towards nationalising the industry.

Morales may also encounter opposition from the gas-rich departments of Santa Cruz and Tarija in the east of Bolivia, populated largely by non-indigenous European Bolivians. Morales’ opponent in the presidential elections, Jorge Quiroga, drew his support largely from these areas.

Morales’s policy on coca farming will also potentially bring Bolivia into conflict with the US government. The coca plant, the raw material for cocaine, is an integral part of Bolivian life. Consumed as tea or chewed raw, coca acts to suppress hunger, raise the body temperature and combat the adverse physical effects of altitude, all vital in the impoverished altiplano lifestyle of many indigenous Bolivians.

While Morales has proclaimed his dedication to fighting the production of cocaine, his refusal to cooperate with America’s coca eradication schemes has raised questions regarding continuing aid from the US government.

The new president has already demonstrated his socialist convictions by halving his own pay to little over £1000 a month, a cut of 57%.

Evo Morales’s victory in the recent elections, in which he gained the largest majority of votes since the reintroduction of democracy in the 1980s, is evidence of the overall leftward shift in Latin American politics. As a close friend of Hugo Chavez, the leftist leader of Venezuela, and Fidel Castro, Morales has claimed to be part of a growing ‘axis of good’ in the region in opposition to Washington and its allies.

Chile has also joined the emerging trend, electing its first female president, socialist single mother Michelle Bachalet, in early January.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is a more moderate example of a left-leaning Latin American leader, considered by Washington to be an ally against the more radical governments. Some commentators have suggested that Evo Morales will have to lean towards Lula’s style if he is to balance his domestic goals with international pressure.

While Morales’s presidency is widely seen as a victory for Bolivia’s indigenous majority and a chance to end the huge inequalities in Bolivian society, many are unsure of his ability to overcome the country’s deep-rooted problems. NGO worker Alix Shand says, “if Evo fails and we are subjected to social upheaval during his presidential period then we will know that this truly is an ungovernable country and maybe it should be divided up among neighbouring countries”.

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