Sunday, December 17, 2006

Political Winds

In a past life, long ago, I used to work for politicians – people who ran for everything from city council to President of the United States. Some won and some lost. But from that experience, and as a political junkie for three and a half decades, I have noticed that the most powerful political force in any country is the political wind – sudden or historic sweeps of public opinion that change things.

Most often, politicians who are successful are that because they manage to ride these winds. George Bush, for example, caught one post 9/11 in the U.S. that kept him going politically for years. Then his adventure in Iraq turned ugly and the winds shifted so far into his face that he lost both houses of Congress. It looks so far that he intends to ignore that shift. The truly skillful politician can actually shift the wind, as Kennedy and Reagan both did, in favor of their vision of the world. A note, I am just talking about skill here, not whether I agree with the winds involved.

So what can we say about the political winds in Bolivia at the end of 2006?

Evo Morales and the Winds of South American Discontent

Evo Morales, among many other things, is a product of a powerful political wind that has swept not only through Bolivia but much of South America. It is a wind called dissatisfaction with the economic results of two decades of economic experimentation. It is about public mistrust of economics based on the principle of, “trust the free marketplace and the market will set you free.” Bolivia, like a lot of its neighbors, did not choose this economic course as a matter of free will. The adoption of that course was essentially a deal cut behind closed doors between international financial institutions who made such reforms “conditionalities” of loans and aid, and homegrown politicians such as Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada who believed in those policies for reasons of both ideology and self-interest.

From the Cochabamba water revolt forward (including the essentially anti-IMF Febrero Negro and the gas wars of October 2003 to June 2005) popular discontent with those policies became a pretty unmistakable political wind in Bolivia, whether you agree with it or not.

And that was the first wind that helped Evo Morales convert himself from the leader of the coca growers of the Chapare to a national political figure. In 2002 he overtly made himself the way people could express that dissatisfaction at the ballot box, which, along with the suspicious pre-election denouncement of him by the US Ambassador, propelled him to within 2% of finishing in top place. In 2005 Morales rode that wind again, which was even more powerful three years later, along with a different, also powerful wind, indigenous identity. Until 2005 I never saw Morales identify himself so much as an indigenous leader, but during the election and afterwards he wrapped himself tightly in that as well.

A year ago this weekend Morales rode those winds, translated into one word, “change”, to a historic majority victory for President.

For the first six months of his unusual presidency Morales managed those winds pretty well. His gas nationalization decree proved to be both politically popular (MAS only increased its support in the July Constituent Assembly vote) and despite problems along the way it will end up boosting annual gas and oil revenue from $400 million per year to $1.4 billion, a national fortune.

Evo spent the first half of his term benefiting from an enviable political honeymoon in which his popularity soared at more than 80% and his opponents looked more and more feeble by the moment. Then Morales and MAS made a huge miscalculation and the political winds ahead for 2007 are beginning to bear almost no resemblance to Evo’s now evaporated honeymoon.

The Uproar Over 2/3 – A Political Wind of Morales' Own Making

It doesn’t take much conversation with any of the people who have turned out into the streets of Bolivia this week to understand that the wind at their backs is not simply about the demand that all actions of the Constituent Assembly be subject to a 2/3 vote. No, this wind, like the opposite one that made Morales president year ago, is a confluence of several things.

First, it about the fear among many Bolivians (particularly the middle class) that Morales is becoming the Evo they didn’t want to elect.

“I voted for him because I voted for ‘the change,” says a neighbor of mine, who has since become a fierce critic of Morales. His nationalism on the economy – negotiating better deals with foreign oil companies, resisting unfair “free trade” agreements, etc. – is still popular. But the fear Morales evokes is not about a strong state role in economics, it is the fear (warranted or not) that Morales aims to take that strong state into other aspects of people’s lives. And here Morales has not been very politically smart.

When letters from the education ministry went out informing private and public schools that they would need to start teaching in Quechua and Aymara, and that the government wanted to rollback Catholic religious education in the schools (this is a very Catholic country), it evoked alarmed comments among reasonable people such as this, “See Evo wants us to be just like Cuba. He wants to kick out the church.” That’s when the opposition finally found some political traction. That is when people first started taking their anti-Evo fears into the streets.

The rallying cry for a 2/3 votes on everything in the Constituent Assembly (again, there is no dispute on a 2/3 vote requirement for the final document) is an extension of that same political wind. People aren’t turning out in mass in the streets here over a number, but because many see the MAS demand for simple majority vote (on procedural issues and separate articles) as a power grab, as Evo and MAS being able to push their way forward “without talking to anyone.”

Here MAS was even less politically adept than on education reform. As a friend of mine described it the other day (a person with very strong ties to Bolivian social movements on the left) – “Why did they pick this fight over 2/3? It is stupid. They could have compromised early, having all the committee votes decided by a simple majority and letting all the votes of the full Assembly be decided by 2/3. They aren’t even talking about what the new Constitution should actually include and now the right is unified all across the country.”

Morales also doesn’t exactly calm those opponents down when he attacks them by declaring, as he did a few weeks ago in Santa Cruz, that hunger strikers there are fasting because they are fat.

Bolivia, Meet Iraq

But the uproar over 2/3 is also about regional economic self-interest. Or, to put it more bluntly, “It about oil money, stupid.” A gathering of “autonomistas” from the protesting states is meeting this week in Tarija and leaders have announced that they intend to promulgate their own draft constitution to present to the Constituent Assembly. On the one hand that’s a good thing. At last the Assembly might start talking about what the new Constitution should include instead of just procedural matters. But it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that one of the key things those departments plan to fight for is to have control over as much of the revenue as possible from the exploitation of oil and gas under those states. MAS has declared that those resources belong to the nation as a whole and that their distribution must remain a national political decision.

Bolivia, meet Iraq. One of the underlying sources of conflict in Iraq (and there are many to choose from) is that the minority Sunnis live in the areas of the country where oil doesn’t happen to lie in abundance under the sand. One of their demands is that the oil be treated as a shared national resource, not a regional one. Almost anywhere in the world the math equation is the same: an impoverished nation + resource wealth = political conflict. It is called “the resource curse” and Bolivia’s current conflicts have a good deal to do with it. As we have noted here before, Santa Cruz and the other departments never clamored for autonomy when the mineral wealth of Bolivia was in tin and silver mines in the highlands of Potosi and Oruro.

Political Ambitions

Finally, it is safe to say that the intensity of the current anti-Evo winds (while in large part Evo’s fault, as noted) is also because his opposition is fanning them for all they are worth. Such are the rules of politics. And, as we have noted here before, the best barometer is the actions of Cochabamba’s own President-in-waiting, Captain Manfred Ryes Villa, the departmental governor. No political fool, Reyes Villa spent most of 2006 virtually silent on national political disputes until the breeze on his finger in the wind told him the time was right.

To be clear, Manfred’s boast in yet another paid ad in Sunday’s paper – that 60,000 people turned out for his 2/3 rally on Thursday – is a huge stretch. I was there. It wasn’t anywhere close to 60,000. I have seen 60,000 people. That’s what it takes to fill a good chunk of the Washington Mall, not the three blocks at the end of the Prado in Cochabamba. Nevertheless, Manfred is as good a reader of political winds as they come and he knows that this new one against Evo has some staying power.

In the end there are two Evos. One is an economic populist who wraps himself in indigenous symbolism and also assures the middle class that he is their president too. It is an Evo that can often be charming. That Evo won a historic majority a year ago. The other Evo is the one who sees himself at the head of a historic move to translate that majority into a long time rearrangement of power in Bolivia, in ways that make much of the country feel excluded and fearful instead of a part of it. It is the Evo who vows that his base should rule 500 years. It is an Evo that can be arrogant.

It is that second Evo that marches into 2007 politically wounded and into a strong headwind against him. He can still survive this and keep the hopes of his election alive. To do that he needs to find a compromise fast on the voting procedure at the Assembly. Only then can he and MAS move the public discourse back to where it should be. Who owns Bolivia’s mineral wealth and how can it be used to advance the future of the whole nation and not just those with the current historic good fortune to have it under their feet?

That is a debate Morales and MAS can still win.

19 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have one question. Is anyone actually changing their minds throughout all of this? Sure, in the last few posts this blog mentioned people who had been pro-gas nationalization, but against the 50% approval in the AC. But in my experience observing Bolivian politics at rallies and the local public debates between candidates for the Assembly, it seemed that no matter what “correct” language the parties used, no matter how they tried to sway their points towards the middle to make everyone think that their party would help them, everyone watching the debates and most voters I spoke to already knew who they were voting for and why what the other guy said was bullshit.

Now the Right is unified. This is true. I have no doubt that many more people are participating in the rallies and marches than before. I also think that the populist rhetoric of the autonomista project and the 2/3 fight has helped gain sympathy from people who maybe didn't pay as much attention as before. But are there any MASistas who have turned against Evo and MAS? Does MAS still hold a very small majority over Santa Cruz? Has its political base of support collapsed under his arrogance and stupidity?

These are key questions to ask when wondering about whether Jim is right when he says that MAS and Evo could still win the debate over the country’s wealth and power.
Ben Sacks

1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What pisses me off is these damm asambleistas most of whom are masistas. Apart from giving themselves a nice fat 15,000 payraise are doing nothing but bikering over BS and so far have acomplished nothing, but division and bickering!! how long are these leeches going to be paid for doing nothing constructive???? and when is the press going to focus on these bastards??

12:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should give Friedman credit for the equation. I believe he came up with it first.

1:50 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Friedman may have been the first person to make the equation cute and catchy in a widely-read column in the Times, but I would be flabbergasted if he came up with it first. It is an old truism of international relations/political economy. I don't think Jim is pretending it's an original observation of his, either.

By the way, for Spanish readers, here is an interesting piece by a friend of mine that gets at some of the thinking behind the "second Evo" described above, or at least a significant part of his base: http://amigosdelalto.org/articulos/carlosquintanilla3.htm

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