5 January 2006 Edition

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Bolivia - another brick in the wall

International - Latest victory for Left in Latin America

When Bolivia's 3.5 million voters headed to the polls on 18 December 2005 to vote for a new president to lead one of Latin America's poorest, most divided countries, it was to re-affirm they wanted change and to follow the tide that is tilting Latin America to the left.

Since 1999, when Hugo Chavez took office in Venezuela, left-leaning leaders have emerged in three-quarters of the hemisphere's countries, and now head Latin America's three largest economies, Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela.

The victory of the indigenous, outspoken leader of the coalition Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) Evo Morales is further evidence that Latin Americans are turning their backs on traditional ruling oligarchies and what is seen as an oppressive US influence, to embrace their own destiny. Bolivia's new leader promised to give the country's indigenous people, who make up more than 50% of the population, a greater say in the running of the country's affairs.

Huge support

Four days before the election, polls forecast that Morales would not reach the 50% of the popular vote and would be forced into pact with former conservative President Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, leader of the centre-right Democratic and Social Power Party (Podemos). But the polls were wrong and Evo got nearly 54% of the vote, the biggest support for any candidate since democracy was restored in Bolivia in the 1980s.

The impressive result demonstrated an unexpected cross section of support in the country — evidence that Morales is popular, not only populist, as many of his critics described him. He comes from the Aymara Nation, one of the indigenous groups in Bolivia, and entered politics on the back of protests by indigenous farmers opposing the banning of coca crops. Cocaine is an alkaloid extracted from coca leaves after a quite simple process, but more importantly, coca is also a traditional, sacred plant used by indigenous people in Latin America since before Europeans set foot in the country. The coca ban highlighted the division in Bolivian society. For many it illustrated the attitude of the ruling elite towards the indigenous population.

Nationalising natural resources

Evo's plan to legalise the cultivation of coca for traditional and medical use — though he has already announced a zero tolerance policy towards cocaine — has brought him into conflict with the US administration, but what makes Morales victory more significant is the core of his electoral programme — the nationalisation of natural resources.

Bolivia's energy resources are second only to Venezuela's in Latin America, with 54 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. In 1996, the then President Sanchez de Lozada passed the Hydrocarbons Law that made it easier for foreign companies to invest in Bolivia, exponentially increasing Bolivia's energy production.

By 2004 the law had become so unpopular that in a national referendum that year Bolivians overwhelmingly voted to repeal the 1996 law and to allow the government more control over foreign gas companies' investments in the country. Massive street protests over the ownership of the natural gas industry led to the political demise of both Lozada and his successor, Carlos Mesa. Interim President Eduardo Rodriguez succeeded Mesa in June 2005 after Mesa was forced to resign because of protests demanding the nationalisation of Bolivia's natural gas industry.

Under the new 2005 Hydrocarbons Law, companies are charged 50% in taxes and royalties and some companies have threatened to take their cases to international arbitration over the higher fees. Carlos Villega, which is MAS strategist in this area, said that the new government would require all companies operating in Bolivia to hand over their extracted hydrocarbons to the state oil company, the Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), which would then be responsible for selling the hydrocarbons and would pay the companies a "fair profit" for their services. These companies would still be charged 50% for taxes and royalties. The companies, which include Total, British Gas, and Repsol are threatening the withdrawal of any future investment.

Wealthy internal opposition expected

Morales would also have to face internal opposition to some of his plans, as the wealthier and mainly non-indigenous lowland areas including the city of Santa Cruz, seek wider autonomy.

In could be a repeat of the demonstrations against Venezuelan President Chavez, the rich and powerful in Bolivia are expected to use similar arguments to those employed by Morales' opponent, Quiroga, during the electoral campaign, when the right-winger accused MAS of links with drug trafficking, terrorism, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro.

As for the first two accusations, Quiroga could not find any evidence to sustain the accusations. In fact, Morales has been very vocal in renouncing violence: "I don't accept armed struggle. Maybe it was the way in the '50s and '60s, but we want a democratic revolution," he said recently. However, his friendship with Castro, whom he visited on 30 December, and his good relationship with Chavez are factors irritating the US administration with Condoleezza Rice saying recently that she was "very worried" that Evo could come to lead Bolivia. The newly-elected President of Bolivia believes that "America would be better off without the United States and the IMF controlling all of its resources" and his vision of integration for Latin America, is one "with a single market and a single currency and with the corporations subordinate to the state".

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