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BOLIVIA: Indigenous President Chalks Up Impressive Early Results

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Jul 31 2006 (IPS) - The “democratic and cultural revolution” launched by Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, when he took office in late January hit its six-month mark with impressive economic and political indicators.

However, analysts who spoke to IPS said they preferred to wait a while longer before evaluating the results of the policies implemented by the government of Morales, whose popularity ratings stand between 70 and 80 percent, only comparable in the region to the high levels enjoyed by presidents Álvaro Uribe in Colombia and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina.

In Bolivia, such strong early results have not been usual for the presidents elected since the restoration of democracy in 1982.

Although the region that has shown the greatest progress – the wealthy eastern department (province) of Santa Cruz – has loudly opposed the government’s efforts to promote Andean indigenous culture and strengthen administrative centralism, and is seeking autonomy from the rest of the country, the economy is by far the best ally of the president, a former coca farmer and the leader of Bolivia’s coca producers.

In the first six months of the year, Bolivia’s gross domestic product (GDP) of 8.5 billion dollars grew 4.33 percent, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE).

This strong growth occurred despite initial warnings from the business community that the election of a leftist president would create a climate adverse to private investment.

Exports reached a record 1.8 billion dollars between January and June, which means the 2006 total should easily surpass last year’s export earnings of 2.4 billion dollars.

The results are especially striking given the tough international relations scenario faced by the government, which from the start refused to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States and is running the risk of losing trade benefits granted by Washington to countries in the region through the Andean Trade Preference Agreement (ATPDEA).

“I feel that we have not failed in our task as leaders,” Morales recently said in a speech given in his hometown of Orinoca, in the department of Oruro, 450 km south of La Paz.

According to government figures released in June, extreme poverty currently affects 34.5 percent of Bolivians, while 67.3 percent live below the poverty line. The third report on Bolivia’s progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), drafted last year with United Nations support, had put the proportion of Bolivians living in extreme poverty at 41.3 percent.

The MDGs are a series of targets aimed at reducing poverty adopted by the international community in 2000.

Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) triumphed in last December’s elections with 53.7 percent of the vote.

And in the elections held in June for the creation of a constituent assembly, to rewrite the constitution, MAS won 50.72 percent of the vote, taking 137 of the 255 seats on the assembly. The second largest number of seats, 60, went to the Poder Democrático y Social (Podemos) coalition.

These victories were based on mobilisation by the people, rather than promises of future favours or perks, said Minister of the Presidency (prime minister) Juan Ramón Quintana, who added that the constituent assembly faced the challenge of bringing about unity among the country’s indigenous peoples and different social classes.

The constituent assembly will begin its sessions on Aug. 6, after a ceremony in Sucre, the seat of the judiciary. Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and Kirchner are among the leaders invited to the ceremony.

“As we did in the case of natural gas, we should recover all of our natural resources for the benefit of the people, and break off these links with the centres of imperialist power that condemned us to be mere providers of raw materials,” said Quintana.

On May 1, Morales issued a decree to re-nationalise Bolivia’s energy resources, which were in the hands of foreign oil companies since the mid-1990s, forcing the corporations to renegotiate their contracts under new terms.

History professor Alexis Pérez at the public University Mayor de San Andrés told IPS that one of the most outstanding aspects of the first six months of the Morales administration is the strengthening of Bolivia’s bargaining position with respect to the foreign oil companies.

The aim of the re-nationalisation is to obtain fiscal revenues of at least 600 million dollars a year, while rebuilding the badly weakened state-owned oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), which was put back in charge of oversight and development of the natural gas industry.

On the other hand, Pérez said that “One problem still in need of solutions is corruption.” The government has stated that the fight against corruption is one of its top priorities.

The professor also questioned the need for a constituent assembly, since rewriting the constitution will cost eight million dollars over the space of the next year.

In his view, the constituent assembly’s sole aim is to benefit one sector of Bolivian society, while what is needed are “national solutions.”

Pérez argued that government officials have taken a fanatic focus on strengthening and promoting the traditions and customs of the Aymara and Quechua indigenous people, who mainly live in Bolivia’s poorer western highlands region, while excluding the wealthier eastern lowlands in policy-making.

He said there are weaknesses in the government’s economic policies due to a dearth of proposals addressing industry and agribusiness, and that this is caused by the presence of anthropologists, ethnologists and linguists, rather than economists, on the team that is designing macroeconomic policy.

For his part, sociologist Joaquín Saravia told IPS that more time is needed to assess the real impact of government decisions like the cutting of salaries of senior officials (Morales sliced his own by 57 percent), the redistribution of land, and the nationalisation of natural gas reserves.

The analyst said all of these measures respond to citizen demands, but that only time will tell whether or not government policies will satisfy voters’ expectations in the long term.

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