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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Evo Morales in Tarija

LA PAZ, Bolivia – President Evo Morales appears certain to win a second term in nationwide elections Sunday, and he has promised to deepen the radical social and economic changes he began four years ago.

Morales, an ally of Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, has said his Movement Toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS) hopes to control two-thirds of the seats in both houses of Congress so they can pass 100 news laws to extend the state’s control of the economy and redistribute resources to the poor.

“They said I was just an Indian. But we have made them respect us,” Morales told thousands of supporters at a rally in El Alto, the industrial and working-class district adjacent to La Paz. “I want to say to the middle class: ‘Welcome to the revolutionary process.’”

Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and its most charismatic and popular politician in more than half a century. All polls indicate he will win handily and may exceed the 54 percent support received in 2005. MAS’s overwhelming power harkens back to the Bolivia of the 1950s and early 1960s, when the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) party of Victor Paz Estenssoro and Hernan Siles held sway over the nation for some 12 years.

Critics say he and his followers are destroying the country’s economy and its democratic institutions, particularly the judiciary, and promote conflict among different social and ethnic groups and the country’s largely private media. They say he has blatantly attacked his political opponents by arresting, intimidating or forcing them into exile.

Vice-presidential candidate Leopoldo Fernandez, the ex-prefect (governor) of Pando Department is running for office from inside San Pedro prison in La Paz, where he has been held without formal charges for more than a year. The government will not allow him to campaign, despite an order to do so from the National Electoral Court.

“These are the most important elections in the history of Bolivia,” said historian Alcides Parejas. “What’s at stake is democracy.”

Opposition to Morales’s government has been fierce but is splintered. Seven political parties seek to turn him out of office. The two largest parties are those of rightist politician Manfred Reyes Villa and centrist and pro-business Samuel Doria Medina. Opponents have limited support and little or no resources to conduct a national campaign. All lag far behind in the national polls. Four of his opponents are indigenous men; one is a woman.
The governing MAS now controls a majority among deputies, but the opposition controls the Senate. To get around that Morales has issued dozens of presidential decrees, from nationalizing privately-held companies to creating new “bonos” or government payments to the poorest Bolivians for education costs, maternity care and other benefits.
He has nationalized much of the oil and gas industry – Bolivia’s export mainstay – leading to windfall earnings for the government, and mining and telecommunications companies, many of which were privatized under his predecessors. Though the economy is growing at a healthy 3-4 percent this year, and the Central Bank has reserves of nearly $9 billion, critics say Morales’s economic program has undermined economic productivity, and figures out this week show unemployment to be climbing.
“Evo has just destroyed the mining industry,” says Charles Bruce, a Scot who has worked in Bolivia’s mines for 50 years and lost his own property, the Santa Maria tin mine, to a campesino takeover two years ago.
Morales’s first term also has seen a steady increase in the production and export of cocaine, according to American and United Nations reports, partly a result of Morales -- a former coca growers’ union leaders -- ignoring increases in coca cultivation as expelling the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from Bolivia just over a year ago.
U.S. officials say that the Bolivian government has expressed its concern about the potential involvement of violent international drug cartels in the cocaine trade in Bolivia. So whether Morales will act to staunch the flow of cocaine during a second term will be closely watched by Washington.
The drug issue is included in a bilateral “framework” agreement being negotiated between Washington and La Paz. Full diplomatic relations have not existed between the two countries since Morales expelled then-U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg in September 2008. Morales accused him of promoting opposition to the government. American officials say they hope to sign an agreement after the elections.

While Morales’s most steadfast support comes from the country’s so-called “social movements,” well-organized indigenous and union groups, his backers also include students, leftist intellectuals, campesinos and miners -- and the powerful coca growers’ syndicates.

“Our support is growing in the middle class and with professionals,” says Santa Cruz-based MAS activist Alberto Saucedo, where opposition to Morales is the strongest.

Since its independence from Spain in 1825, Bolivia has been characterized by huge gaps in wealth and power between a largely mestizo political and middle class and the mass of peasants, most of them indigenous. Morales and his supporters say it is those privileged classes that oppose him the most.

“The middle class can’t see beyond the ends of their noses,” says Magda Calvimontes, a
Morales supporter and a member of Constituent Assembly that wrote the new Constitution last year. “They don’t know the other Bolivia.”

Government officials say their sometimes harsh methods have been been necessary to attack a system that benefitted a few at the expense of the many. “We will continue with policies that give priority to the rural areas because that’s where the most extreme poverty is,” says MAS spokesman Jorge Silva.

Meanwhile, Morales has been widely criticized for using state resources in his campaign and those for MAS deputy and senate candidates. This practice attracted the attention of Renate Weber, the head of the European Union’s 130-strong election observer mission, who expressed unusually harsh criticism of the government in an interview.

A Romanian lawyer and human rights activist who is a member of the European Parliament, Weber praised the government for vastly expanding voter rolls under a new computerized "biometric" registration process. A record 5.1 million Bolivians are registered to vote.

But Weber noted the absence of campaign spending and ethics laws in Bolivia, and said the country's once-independent judicial system today is “non-functional.” The Constitutional Tribunal, which hears judicial appeals, has not met in nearly three years because of vacancies on the court. And the Supreme Court lacks a quorum due in part to a law that allows the Chamber of Deputies, controlled by the MAS, to file charges against judges. Two justices, including the chief justice, both critics of Morales, were removed in that manner.

Weber called that “against the standards of an independent judiciary.” She added: “The electoral legislation of Bolivia should be changed. There is no transparency.”

Morales, meanwhile, faces big challenges in a second term, however, including repairing the damage done during his first term to the oil and gas industry and the mining sector, which have seen steep declines in investment and production, and in fighting corruption and inefficiency that are endemic throughout all levels of government here.

While the government has given mixed signals on how it will deal with corruption, there has been one clear sign it knows it exists. Earlier this year Santos Ramirez, the head of the state oil company, YPFB, and the No. 2 figure in the MAS party under Morales, was arrested on embezzlement charges. A onetime close confidant of the president, Ramirez is now in jail awaiting trial.

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