Evo Morales, Bolivia’s powerful incumbent, plays politics at high altitude

LA PAZ, Bolivia — There was a time when Evo Morales so alienated his opponents that Bolivia nearly broke in two.

But those were the days of the old Evo. On Sunday, when Bolivians vote for president, Morales is expected to breeze to a third term behind a broad coalition of longtime supporters and one-time enemies. The latest polls show him trouncing a scattered field of opponents by a margin of 40 points or more.

After nearly a decade in power, Morales has buried the old political order in Bolivia, one of South America’s poorest nations, and consolidated control over nearly every facet of government. Much of the country’s economy is in state hands. Morales’s political party, the Movement Toward Socialism, dominates Bolivia’s legislature. Last year, supreme court judges said he could run for president again, despite term limits, because his first term had been interrupted when he had the constitution rewritten.

“We have never had a government as powerful as this one,” said Jorge Lazarte, a political analyst in La Paz. “But it has despotic tendencies.”

The first president elected from Bolivia’s long-suffering indigenous majority, Morales, 54, was a former coca farmer who rose to prominence leading marches against U.S.-backed drug-eradication efforts. He often railed against capitalism and Bolivia’s business class, which initially regarded him as a homegrown version of Hugo Chávez, in a hairy sweater.

Morales was once so despised in Bolivia’s wealthier, lowland regions that his opponents tried to build a separatist movement in 2008. Their push eventually fizzled out. Today even his critics concede he is a supreme political talent and a savvy operator.

Also, they say, Evo has evolved.

When Morales moved early on to increase government control and taxation of Bolivia’s gas and oil development, critics warned he would scare away foreign capital. But Bolivia’s hydrocarbon riches drew more new investors, pumping billions from gas royalties into government coffers. The gas money has been the source of Morales’s power, allowing him to vastly expand the reach and the role of the Bolivian state.

Morales has invested heavily in public works projects and social programs to battle poverty and racism in some of Bolivia’s most neglected corners. He also practiced fiscal discipline — running a budget surplus every year — and quietly accommodated private-sector interests, delivering 7 percent economic growth last year.

Morales said last week that Bolivia will spend $2 billion to build nuclear power plant and research labs by 2025 “for peaceful ends.”

Here in chilly, high-altitude La Paz, the streets are clogged with new cars. Construction crews are everywhere. Indigenous women in bowler hats and billowing skirts ascend the city’s steep canyonsides in the quiet comfort of Swiss-made gondolas, floating above the streets aboard a new aerial public transportation system, the Teleferico, that has become a new symbol of Morales’s development vision.

Morales said last week that Bolivia will spend $2 billion to build nuclear power plant and research labs by 2025 “for peaceful ends.”

Morales’s smiling face appears on Teleferico maps, promotional billboards — even stenciled onto the metal towers that support the cables.

Elsewhere around the city, the president’s campaign banners simply say: “With Evo, we’re doing well.” Few would disagree.

Most improbably, Morales has won grudging respect in lowland Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s most populous city and the bastion of the mostly white industrial captains who once conspired against him and threatened to form their own breakaway state.

“This is a great moment for Bolivia,” said Luis Barbery, a sugar magnate and the president of CAINCO, the country’s leading business and trade association. “We have a new understanding with the government.”

Over the years, Santa Cruz’s business leaders have learned to tune out Morales’s anticapitalist diatribes but take seriously his private appeals for help with an ambitious growth agenda. Morales recently told agribusiness owners such as Barbery that he wants to triple Bolivia’s food production and achieve a ten-fold increase in such export commodities as soy and corn.

According to Barbery, Morales has come to understand that “the government can’t do everything on its own” and “needs everyone pulling in the same direction.”

When squatters recently attempted to invade the property of a local landowner, the government sent in police to arrest the intruders — sending “a positive signal” to foreign investors, Barbery said.

Some of the indigenous leaders, environmentalists and activists who lifted Morales to power have soured on him for many of these same reasons, saying he’s turned out no different from previous Bolivian presidents who ruled on behalf of a wealthy light-skinned elite. They note that indigenous representation in Bolivia’s parliament has decreased, and Morales seems increasingly inclined to surround himself with foreign-educated technocrats in business suits.

“I feel cheated,” said Felix Muruchi, a union activist and university professor from Morales’s same Aymara ethnic group, who, like other indigenous Bolivians, didn’t have voting rights until 1950.

“We indigenous people continue at the bottom, out of sight,” Muruchi said.

In El Alto, the sprawling Aymara settlement at the edge of La Paz that has boomed under Morales to become one of South America’s fastest-growing cities, there have been flashes of discontent, including violent protests in 2011 that forced the government to abandon its bid to slash fuel subsidies.

But support for Morales among ordinary Bolivians remains strong, and Bolivia’s indigenous groups are largely committed to the leader they still view as one of their own. In some traditional highland communities, villagers vote collectively and in public, with no dissenting ballots allowed, often delivering 100 percent margins for Morales.

Another reason Morales so thoroughly dominates Bolivian politics is that there is no significant ideological debate over the direction in which the country should be heading, said Grover Yapura, editor of the Bolivian magazine Oxigeno. “No one is proposing, for example, the reprivatization of the petroleum industry,” he said.

Morales’s campaign opponents, such as former president Jorge Quiroga, instead focus on allegations of waste and corruption.

Yapura said the average Bolivian has seen a clear improvement in the standard of living under Morales. But it has come at the expense of democratic checks on power. “We live in a country with a strongman who wants to control everything,” Yapura said.

Despite its name, Morales’s powerful political party, the Movement Toward Socialism, does not appear in much of a hurry to get there, as it seeks new partnerships with multinational oil companies and other foreign investors. But Morales still blasts global capitalism in his speeches and wields the anti-American rhetoric he honed decades earlier leading coca growers to march against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

While in New York last month for the U.N. General Assembly, Morales called President Obama “an imperialist” and “a war criminal” who should be tried in international court.

“The world’s biggest terrorist state, that engages in the worst terrorism, is the United States,” he said in an interview with the Moscow-financed RT network, criticizing U.S. support for Israel and the bombing campaign against ISIS militants in Syria.

Morales restored diplomatic relations with the United States in 2011 — he had kicked out the U.S. ambassador in 2008 — but has refused to allow the DEA back into the country.

Bolivia remains the world’s third-largest cocaine producer, after Peru and Colombia, but according to U.N. figures, coca cultivation in the country fell last year to its lowest point since 2002, the result of Morales’s own eradication efforts and negotiations with growers. Coca cultivation is legal in the country, as the plant’s leaves are widely used here in tea or chewed raw for their mild stimulant effect, and have been for centuries.

If elected to another five-year term, Morales could engineer another constitutional change to allow him to remain in office. Then again, if gas prices were to fall, he would lose his main power source, analysts say, potentially bringing Bolivia’s dormant divisions back to the fore.

“We have a saying,” said Muruchi, the Aymara activist and professor. “In Bolivia, anything is possible, and nothing is certain.”

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By Everest Right 10/06/2014 10:30:00