Evo Morales has done much to shepherd Bolivia towards greater equality and wealth. But now he has to go
Renowned for their top-quality wool and meat, blackface sheep are a gift of god. Or in Bolivia’s case, a gift from the government. At least that’s what an indigenous community thought when it received a shipment paid for by Fondo Indígena, a programme that finances development projects with cash collected from the country's natural gas rents. Until rain started pouring during the presentation ceremony, and the paint on the sheep’s faces washed away.
Such mishaps haven't yet caused Evo Morales' popular ratings to dramatically fade: Bolivia’s president remains a more popular leader than most of his South American peers. But this and other scandals have helped dampen enthusiasm for seeing him stay much longer. Preliminary results of a referendum held on Sunday on whether he should be allowed to stand for a fourth term - which was so far barred by the constitution - show the no vote leading by a 13 percent margin (final results are due next week).
Morales, Bolivia’s first president of indigenous origin, marked his 10-year anniversary in office last month by delivering a six-hour speech commending his own achievements. The list was substantial: extreme poverty has fallen from 38 percent to 17 percent since the beginning of his tenure, allowing 2.6 million to join the ranks of the middle class. Nearly 90 percent of voting-age Bolivians are now registered to vote, up from half in the 1990s.
Granted, funding the cash transfer schemes and vast programmes of public works responsible for this would have been harder without high commodity prices. But sound macroeconomic management has certainly helped: GDP has nearly trebled since Morales took power. Foreign-exchange reserves, at $13 billion, are the largest in Latin America as a share of domestic product. Episodes of hyperinflation have receded to the distant past (price rose an annualised 60,000 percent from May to August 1985).
What some call Bolivia "leftist revolution" is underpinned by a consumer boom. Indigenous people, the elderly and schoolchildren are among those who have most benefitted from Morales' welfare and poverty-relief programmes. They've contributed the lion's share of an increase in spending. But investment has since cropped up on the president’s agenda: Morales, for instance, wants to modernise Bolivia through projects like natural gas liquids separation, batteries built out of lithium deposits and a nuclear energy programme.
Such ambitions may be coming too late. Morales plans to invest $48 billion in the years to 2025, by which he hopes to have cut poverty rates to zero. But having done little to diversify the economy away from hydrocarbons, the president now faces crunch time. Export revenues dropped 30 percent last year on the back of falling oil prices (the gas Bolivia sells is indexed on oil benchmarks). The hole this is creating in the state’s finances will soon force the president to trim his welfare budget.
Some of Morales’ supporters are already feeling the pinch. Others have different gripes: after a decade in power, they believe the president has changed – and not for the better. His hold on the country has grown increasingly autocratic, they say, with the judiciary and the central bank now under influence of the government. The media’s dependency on public advertising is skewing its coverage, they note. Even within Morales’ Movement to Socialism – a fractious coalition ranging from coca farmers to miners – critics reckon they are being ostracised.
But most damaging have been scandals linked to Fondo Indígena: tens of millions of dollars from the fund are deemed to have been disappeared, with some resurfacing in indigenous leaders’ personal bank accounts. Morales doesn’t stand directly accused of this, but the government’s failure to hold allies to account has made it an easy target for the opposition.
Recently it was also revealed that Gabriela Zapata, a young woman he dated a decade ago, is now a manager at a Chinese company that has raked in $500 million in contracts from the Bolivian state in recent years. Morales, who is unmarried, is said to have had a son with her. He claims the child later died, with the relationship finishing shortly thereafter - but few people are convinced.
The sum of all this explains why Bolivians don’t want to be governed by Morales for much longer. After a decade of highly personal rule, it won't be easy to replace him. But political figures across the political spectrum don’t seem ready to ditch the good bits of his enlightened socialism. Morales, a football aficionado, is probably wrong to say only he can continue coaching Bolivia. He should stop playing for time.
Photo: AFP/Getty's Aizar Raldes, featured in the Baltimore Sun