Photo credits: Carolina, Cochabamba.
Why such turmoil in Bolivia?
From November 2017 there have been ongoing manifestations throughout the whole of Bolivia against some recently implemented regulations and changes to the established Constitutional Penal Code. Hundreds of Bolivians have taken to the streets, demanding their right to have a say, demanding that the changes be revoked and tailoring them as unconstitutional, and some even as totalitarian. Upon reviewing some of the amendments, however, I found that many are not in fact, unreasonable, and are found in the Penal Codes of various well-established democracies: doctors can now be sued for malpractice, for example, as can driver negligence, and some abortion restrictions have been removed (whether one is pro or against abortion is in this context irrelevant, what this discussion is focusing on is whether the nature of the reforms are, in fact, oppressive). So where does this rejection and country-wide outrage stem from? Firstly, it is not necessarily country wide- it may just be that a certain section of the population, or social class, has had enough. Secondly and more importantly, the issues pertaining to the current political situation in Bolivia are much more deeply engrained in the social fabric and context of the nation.
Photo credits: Carolina, Cochabamba
Evo Morales, the current, democratically elected president of Bolivia, has been in power, (democratically) since 2006. The Bolivian constitution allows for two consecutive terms without re-election, but due to a constitutional reform in 2009, it was decided that Morales could start counting years off from then. On the 21st of February, 2016, (21F) however, a referendum for a variety of constitutional reforms, including that of allowing unlimited re-election of one same candidate was put to a vote, and said proposal lost with 51.3% of voters rejecting the amendment. Why did Morales’ proposal lose the referendum? There are various valid arguments and explanations, an obvious one being, the people simply do not want him in power anymore. Another one, however, which was evidenced by various polls prior to and following the referendum vote, was that the amendment lost due to a false journalistic campaign which journalist Carlos Valverde ruthlessly undertook during the months prior to the referendum, making (supposedly) false allegations about Morales having a rejected son. Valverde, following the referendum, confessed to the falsity of the news, and exiled himself to Argentina. The extent to which this was, in fact, the reason for the referendum result, I cannot confirm; I am merely stating that there seem to be more complex reasons for the loss of the referendum than simply, ‘Morales has no support’.
Nonetheless, Morales and his cabinet found a loophole to change the constitution and implement the unlimited postulation of one same nominee for president, regardless of the referendum result. And that, obviously, was wrong.
But why is there such a systematic rejection of Morales by a section of the Bolivian population? If we look at the facts, it doesn’t appear that Morales and the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) cabinet have gotten it all that wrong– Bolivia has had a steady rate of around 5% GDP growth since MAS entered government, now the fastest growing country in South America, coupled with low inflation rates, and has reduced the poverty index amongst the indigenous population by around 50%. Further, it has improved education, healthcare and social integration, and provided Bolivia with a stable government which prior to Morales was non-existent. Bolivia isn’t Ecuador or Venezuela- the few expropriations that have taken place have strategically targeted Bolivian resources and MNCs have nonetheless remained in Bolivia, it isn’t intoxicated by censorship and oppression, nor is it a country traditionally classified amongst those with political violence (although things have recently started to get out of hand). Sure, there are some similarities contained in the populist rhetoric that Chavez, now Maduro and Morales all exemplify, including a ferociously anti-capitalist and demagogic discourse, but the political and social context in which they are used is distinctively different.
Furthermore, when various Bolivians took to the streets to protest about the amendments to the Penal Code, starting a 50 day strike, Morales publicly stated (and Tweeted, actually) that the changes angering doctors and carriers be revoked. Nonetheless, the protests have continued, which makes one wonder what all the fuss is really about. The Bolivian right, made up chiefly by the upper middle class bourgeoisie and businessmen, were in power until Morales won the 2006 election, and they have not been able to regain support since. There are talks by many, including Morales and the MAS party themselves, of a neoliberal conspiracy said to be taking over the media, to convince all that Morales is not a good choice for Bolivia. His humble origins, anti-imperialistic and anti-capitalistic discourse, and progressive stance on social issues does not seem to fare well with the conservatives. Then again, how to pick what media to trust these days? The majority of indigenous groups in Bolivia are on his side, (who make up around 62% of the population) and, as mentioned previously, the positive impact of MAS seems to outweigh the bad, at least for the time being.
The Bolivian population remains deeply divided by race, social class and status, and thus whilst modernising, it drags with it the remnants of a hierarchical society. It makes sense that an indignant population would walk the streets following an unconstitutional, undemocratic reform as was the approval of 21F, (if you’ve read my previous article, you probably already know of my dislike for unconstitutional reform within democracies). Yet even in this scenario, most protests revolved around a Penal Code reform which was, upon popular request, repealed. Many democrats will argue that democratically held referendum results, such the Brexit vote or in this case, the 21F, must be respected, whether or not the result is due to a lack of transparency or a dishonest campaign, because ultimately it is precisely the principle of democracy which is at stake. Morales is in a sticky situation to say the least, and should at least hold another referendum prior to the Constitutional amendment if he still wants to be an eligible candidate in the 2019 elections, if he wants (as he should) to preserve the democratic principle, in an attempt to make up for his prior disregard for it. He must then respect the result, even if this means leaving the big chair to somebody else for a while. Moreover, there are a variety of other major problems placating Bolivia, namely the extreme partiality of the judiciary and the high levels of corruption, as well as the sudden eruption of police suppression following protests against 21F, which the government really needs to deal with, and needs to do so now- with or without Evo in charge.
Having said that, to this day, Evo Morales doesn’t seem to have done such condemnable job. Maybe we humans just get bored, maybe we simply need to point a finger and demand change. Or, maybe, though it scares me to think so, it is potentially the educated, middle classes who are purporting past prejudices and curbing social integration and modernisation in Bolivia today.
By: Lara Santos Ayllón