In Bolivia, protests, poverty and inequality have long been a part of everyday life. But since Evo Morales was elected president in 2006, he has transformed Bolivia with a radical new constitution, economic reforms and social policies. What Bolivians make of Morales depends on who you ask, but to the outside observer these changes add up to one of the most interesting chapters in Bolivian history.
The nationalization of energy and mining interests was applauded by Bolivia’s poor, but it has soured relations with foreign investors and some foreign governments. Bolivia has sought closer ties with Brazil, Russia, India and China (the BRIC powers) and has distanced itself more from the USA. While this has been welcomed in some parts of society, others, particularly in the Santa Cruz region, have reacted negatively.
Of the BRIC countries, it is China that has established the most powerful economic presence in Bolivia. China has lent Bolivia billions of dollars to fund the state-led transformation of Bolivia's energy and transportation infrastructure. In turn, China has become the principal contractor for projects such as the construction of new asphalt roads. The relationship is not without controversy, with tensions linked to issues such as the contamination of water sources by Chinese mining companies.
The government's hope is that with the world’s largest lithium deposits, and plenty of natural gas and minerals, Bolivia can continue to see good economic progress for the foreseeable future.
Conflict and struggle is a way of life in a country where historically you only got what you were willing to fight for. People protest against poor working conditions, mining operations that contaminate rivers, and roads that displace communities and affect ecosystems. Protests regularly shut down Bolivia’s roads and have a knock-on effect on the economy. Violence stemming from the ever-evolving drug trade is also simmering under the surface, throughout the region.
Moves to redistribute land and wealth have met with strong opposition from Bolivia’s resource-rich eastern region, where autonomy movements occasionally rear their heads. Despite this opposition over what some perceive as weak rule of law and widespread corruption, many still expect the numerous social entitlement programs sponsored by the current government and paid for with the growing income from mining, agriculture and gas exports to keep the revolution started by Morales moving forward.
Internationally, the Bolivian government is engaged in a political two-step that tries to balance foreign investment with national interests. At the heart of this is the desire to keep the wealth from Bolivia’s natural resources in Bolivia.
An improving economy has allowed for investment in social projects that have made a positive impact on poverty levels. The number of people living below the poverty line is down from 70% in 1999 to 39% in 2015 and for the time being all the progress indicators are moving in the right direction. However, whether or not these improving figures are sustainable in the event of an economic downturn remains to be seen.
These measures have succeeded in reframing Bolivia’s social structure. There is now a spark of self-awareness and hope that’s never been more evident among the nation’s indigenous majority. And indigenous people today, especially highlands groups, are playing a significant role in politics and policy. The role of women is also slowly evolving, as they step out of their traditional roles as mothers, wives and heads of private households, emerging as business people and community leaders. Bolivia is beginning to emerge from the shadows of colonialism and establish its own plurinational identity.
In 2014 Evo Morales was reelected with a majority of 60% (more than twice that of his nearest rival) giving him power until 2020 and providing him with a strong platform to continue his social development and empowerment policies. Seeking to extend his presidency beyond 2020 with a fourth consecutive term, in 2016 Morales sought the people's permission to revise the constitution to allow him to run. The referendum had seemed like a safe bet, but in a shock result, a no vote was returned. Commentators claim the balance was tipped by a scandal that emerged in the run-up to the vote, when it was revealed that his former girlfriend, Gabriela Zapata, had played a role in securing US$500 million in government contracts for the Chinese engineering firm she worked for.
Undeterred, in 2017 Morales got the permission he needed to stand for reelection through the courts, who overruled the constitution. As things stand, Morales looks poised to run for president once again in 2019.
Internationally, Morales fomented Bolivia's links with regional partners such as Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela. He has also angered the US, the traditional 'big brother' of South America, by cozying up to the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) powers, and through his open criticism of capitalist ideals. But the historic polarization in Bolivia hasn’t yet disappeared, and the conservative province of Santa Cruz is still his most vocal opponent, requesting more autonomy and occasionally threatening secession. The 'no' vote in 2017 was a rallying cry for the opposition.