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Bolivia: Morales reelected in landslide
NewsNotes, January-February 2010

On December 6, with over 95 percent of eligible Bolivian voters participating, President Evo Morales was reelected with 64 percent of the vote, more than double his closest opponent, Manfred Reyes Villa, who received 27 percent. No other elected president has won more than 25 percent of the vote in this politically divided nation, so the results show an unprecedented level of support for Morales’ policies since taking office in 2006. Morales’ political party, the MAS, and allies won the two-thirds of the seats in both houses of Congress which are needed to pass more controversial legislation. Morales and the Congress now begin an ambitious legislative program aimed at solidifying the changes in the new Constitution that was passed by referendum in January 2009.

In addition to creating the new Constitution, Morales has followed through with two other difficult mandates from his first election in 2005: to keep a larger portion of the profits from gas and mineral exploitation in the country, and to carry out long overdue agrarian reform. Instead of nationalizing gas and minerals outright, Morales chose to renegotiate contracts with foreign corporations to extract natural resources. From giving only 18 percent of profits to Bolivians through taxes and royalties, they now turn over 40 to 80 percent. Instead of hobbling the economy as many predicted, this change has allowed for impressive economic growth while dramatically increasing government revenues, resulting in notable increases in social and other government spending and a budget surplus for the first time in over 30 years.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), Bolivia’s economic growth has averaged 5.2 percent annually in the first three years of Morales’ mandate, higher than any time in the last 30 years. Despite “falling remittances, declining foreign investment, the revocation of trade preferences by the U.S. and declining export prices and markets,” Bolivia has also weathered the current global economic crisis well with projected growth in 2009 to be the highest in the hemisphere. CEPR predicts 4.0 percent growth in 2009, a year in which most of the region will experience negative growth and only one other country, Guyana, will have positive growth over 2.0 percent. Even the IMF has praised the Morales government for its “very responsible” macroeconomic policies.

With the increased government revenue from gas and mineral contracts, the Morales government has initiated a number of new social programs have brought notable improvements in the lives of millions of Bolivians. Bolivia has eradicated illiteracy within its borders and started three key programs to address the high levels of poverty.

The Bono Juancito Pinto program, begun in 2006, gives 200 bolivianos (about US$29) annually to children who are enrolled in school up to the sixth grade. This has increased school attendance and helped many families’ budgets.

The Renta Dignidad is an expansion of the previous Bonosol program that addresses the problem of extreme poverty among the elderly by giving all low-income residents over 60 years old grants. Those who receive Social Security get 1,800 bolivianos (about US$258) from the program while those without Social Security receive 2,400 (about US$344) annually.

Finally, the Bono Juana Azurduy, which began in May 2009, gives financial assistance to uninsured mothers for pre-natal medical check-ups, childbirth and doctor’s visits until the child’s second birthday. This program will reduce infant and maternal mortality rates.

Looking ahead, the Bolivian administration and new Congress have a number of difficult measures to pass in order for the new Constitution to come to bear. Perhaps the two most difficult tasks will be to combine Bolivia’s traditional legal system with a variety of indigenous community justice systems, and to define the various types of autonomy -- departmental, regional, indigenous, and municipal.

Having a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress will not necessarily make it easy, as could be expected. As Kathryn Ledeber of the Andean Information Network points out, “A majority in the legislature could prove to be a double-edged sword.” First of all, the MAS party is less a political party than “an umbrella for diverse social movements, unions and other interests groups with diverse and often conflicting demands.” As the Democratic party in the U.S. has struggled to maintain unity, it should prove difficult for the MAS too. The administration will face significant pressures for appointments to key posts which could result in destructive infighting. The MAS “calculates that there are at least 100 key pieces of legislation essential to implement the new constitution,” not an easy task for any legislature.

While facing difficult challenges ahead, the Morales government has the highest popular support in the democratic history of Bolivia and its opposition is weak and divided. The changes that Bolivia is trying to accomplish represent a fundamental shift away from over 500 years of political domination by a minority ruling class. If successful, Bolivia will be a beacon for people’s movements around the world fighting for dignity and equality for all.

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