Evo, the senior Latin American president

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 29, 2014


Bolivian President Evo Morales is the longest serving president currently in power in Latin America. As the favourite candidate to win a new five-year term in October, Morales will also soon become the longest serving leader in the history of Bolivia.


Since taking office in early 2006, the leader of the indigenous party Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) has brought political stability to the country’s formerly chaotic political system. But despite the progress made in alleviating poverty, Bolivia remains the least developed country in South America. Rather than building and strengthening democratic institutions, Morales has focused on consolidating personal power. Thus, in addition to entering history as the first indigenous president of Bolivia, Morales will also join a long list of political caudillos who rose to power in Bolivia but failed to build a sustainable democratic institutional legacy.


When he was first elected for a four-year term in late 2005, Morales had a history of political activism as the leader of a coca leaf growers’ association. Staunchly opposed to the neoliberal economic policies implemented in Bolivia in the 1990s, Morales rose to prominence as the charismatic leader of a federation of indigenous groups that united to form MAS. As one of the leaders of the protests against the neoliberal reforms that brought down democratically-elected president Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada (2001-2002), Morales showed his power. The political instability that characterized the 1997-2005 period — when no elected president completed a full term in office — further eroded the legitimacy of existing political parties.


In 2005, Morales easily won an absolute majority of the votes. High indigenous turn-out and discontent with the old party system allowed Morales to join the wave of leftwing leaders that, starting with Venezuelan Hugo Chávez in 1998, rose to power in Latin America.


Once in power, Morales successfully pushed for the re-founding of political institutions and championed a programme of nationalization. Strongly embracing the leftist anti-US Bolivarian initiative promoted by Chávez, Morales won a majority in a constitutional assembly that drafted a new Constitution in 2009. Once the Constitution was ratified, Morales went on to win a new five-year term in late 2009. A disorganized and fractured opposition proved unable to prevent Morales’ MAS coalition from controlling most political institutions in Bolivia. Claiming that the ancient regime was illegitimate, Morales wasted no time, continuing to dismantle all institutions that could threaten his grip of power.


The custom-made Constitution only allowed for one presidential re-election. Morales term ends in 2014. However, a constitutional tribunal determined that since Morales was first elected under the old constitution, his 2009 victory was his first under the new Constitution and, thus, Morales could legally stand for re-election in 2014. A similar constitutional interpretation was argued for in 1999 by Argentine President Carlos Menem and in 2000 by Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, two leaders who also reformed the rules to allow for one immediate re-election. Though the efforts by Menem and Fujimori produced widespread condemnation among Latin American intellectuals at the time, the political move by Morales went almost unnoticed.


Having spent eight years already as president, Morales is now the longest serving democratically-elected president in Bolivia’s history. Including non-elected leaders, only Andrés de Santa Cruz (1829-1839), the controversial strongman that presided after independence, had a longer tenure in power. If Morales goes on to win the presidency, as most polls predict, and completes his term, he will become the longest serving leader in the history of Bolivia.


Morales’ legacy is mixed. As with the rest of Latin America, the economy has expanded, but critics point to the numerous missed opportunities — such as free trade agreements and foreign investment — which could have contributed to a more vigorous economic expansion. Poverty has declined partly thanks to government subsidies and social programmes, but also due to economic growth. However, formal employment has grown more moderately. Poor Bolivians are better off today than when Morales came to power, but Bolivia has made less progress in alleviating poverty than Peru, a country that embraces the market-friendly policies that Morales opposes, or Ecuador, a country also identified with the left in Latin America.


In his re-foundational efforts, Morales has revamped some inefficient and corrupt institutions, but rather than distributing power and strengthening checks-and-balance provisions, power is now firmly under the control of MAS. The hegemonic power of MAS is such that Bolivia can be described as a democracy with only one dominant party, similar to the system in place in South Africa.


A fragmented opposition, more concerned with obstructing Morales than with presenting an alternative to the Socialist model, shares the blame.


Many Bolivians are eager to see the rise of political alternatives to Morales and MAS, but so far, the opposition seems fixated on trying to preserve the ancient regime, as if not realizing that it no longer exists.


When Evo Morales was first elected, many drew comparisons between the Bolivian indigenous leader and Nelson Mandela, the South African leader that became president after apartheid ended. Unfortunately, eight years after Morales’s rise to power, fewer such comparisons are made.