Buses charged through downtown La Paz, Bolivia, honking horns and belching exhaust, as street vendors hawked ice cream and cell phones. I walked past corner stores selling mining equipment, and climbed the steps to the central offices of the Bartolina Sisa indigenous and women farmers’ organization, a close ally of President Evo Morales, who is expected to be re-elected to a third term on October 12th.
“Our challenge as an organization is to continue moving forward, continue protecting this process of change which has cost so many men, women, young people and even children so much,” Anselma Perlacios Peralta, the organization’s current Secretary of the Defense of the Coca Leaf, told me last April. We were sitting on sofas beneath framed portraits of Evo Morales and Latin American independence leader Simón Bolívar.
The process of change, or proceso de cambio, is the phrase typically used to describe the far-reaching political project of Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), a party which grew out of social movements; Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, is himself a former union leader and coca farmer. The costs, for Perlacios, are a reference to the many struggles against neoliberal policies and imperialism that led to the MAS election for the first time, in 2005. “We have been a fundamental part of this process, and as an organization we have to continue pushing, we have to continue advancing,” she explained.
Along with the Bartolina Sisa organization, the MAS enjoys crucial support from the Bolivian Workers’ Center, the Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia, and other major sectors of civil society and workers organizations. Perlacios’ comment underlines the commitment among MAS allies to bolster the momentum and support of the government in its projects, protecting and advancing Morales’ vision from the streets, union meetings, strikes and road blockades.
Morales is almost certainly going to win the election – he is currently polling with 59% support, 47 points ahead of his closest opponent, Doria Medina, a right wing politician who is one among many of the fractured opposition candidates running against Morales. The president’s likely victory at the polls, along with many other MAS politicians running for office on October 12th, is in part a result of popular economic and social policies which have lifted people out of poverty and empowered marginalized sectors of society.
But the votes for the MAS don’t articulate the serious divisions among various leftist social movements regarding the government, the negative environmental impacts of the MAS’s extractivist industries, or what kind of grassroots autonomy has been lost through the MAS’s channeling of people’s power. From the streets to the government palace, the looming elections have put the successes and shortcomings of the proceso de cambio into focus.
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Why Morales Will Likely Win
It’s easy to see why Morales will likely be re-elected; many Bolivians have benefited from his time in office. Thanks to government efforts, a recent report from the UN noted that Bolivia has the highest rate of poverty reduction in Latin America, with a 32.2% drop from 2000 to 2012. The GDP has grown steadily from 2009-2013, and employment rates and wages have also gone up, with a notable 20% minimum wage raise last year.
The Morales administration’s nationalization of various sectors in the hydrocarbon and telecommunications industry, among others, have led to an enormous rise in government funds, allowing for expanded state-initiatives in infrastructure and social programs supporting elderly people living in poverty as well as school children and pregnant mothers. Thanks in part to a literacy program introduced by Cuba called “Yes I Can,” Bolivia has become free of illiteracy, according to UNESCO.
The MAS coca policy, now underway with the notable absence of US agencies, has also been a success, with the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime reporting that Bolivia is doing a fantastic job controlling coca production (the leaf is used legally for medicinal and cultural purposes in the country) and curtailing the manufacturing of cocaine, all without the violent militarization of coca-producing regions that historically was the norm.
Major development projects have been initiated during Morales’ time in office, including most recently the country’s first wind farm, the launching of its first telecommunications satellite and continued improvement of Bolivia’s road infrastructure – only ten percent of the country’s roads are paved.