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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Bolivia: A populist success story

In my last three columns I viewed the Trump phenomenon in the context of American populism, and argued that in 2020 only a left-wing populist can successfully challenge both him and the rigged economic/political system that bred the resentment he rode to victory. But I also argued that it isn’t sufficient to elect a president who really is dedicated to putting government to work for the majority rather than the super-wealthy few. Instead, we need a populist who trusts and energizes people to build decentralized and pluralistic power at the grassroots level. If populist leadership is symbiotic with a vital civil society, it remains democratic.

You have a right to expect me to provide a validating example of that last contention, so I offer Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

From 1971, when the Nixon administration helped Hugo Banzer Suarez overthrow the elected presidency of left-leaning Juan José Torres and establish a vicious dictatorship, until Morales’ election in 2005, Bolivia’s national government was controlled by global economic powers and a wealthy political class that profited from that control. Privatization at bargain prices of the nation’s resources, high indebtedness to the International Monetary Fund, woeful underfunding of public health and education — indeed, the whole package of neo-liberal formulae — prevailed. Between 1980 and 1992 the average growth in per capita gross domestic product was -1.6 percent; from 1993 to 2005 it was less than 1 percent. Since Morales’ victory that year, it has averaged 3 percent, the inflation rate is now 1.5 percent, and the build-up of international reserves has made foreign borrowing unnecessary. Despite nationalization of Bolivia’s large strategic industries, in 2013 Bolivia had the most foreign investment in South America as a percentage of GDP.

The nationalizations generated public revenues for a massive infrastructure plan that has been a crucial factor in economic growth. State transport and manufacturing initiatives have kick-started economic development in areas the free-market had never reached. During the 13 years of Morales’ presidency, Bolivia’s poverty rate, which had been 60 percent, has been reduced by half. In 2000, under 36 percent of primary school age children were enrolled in school; by 2010 the percentage had doubled and continues to grow. Though Bolivia still has no national health care plan, between 2006 and 2018 the Mi Salud program provided 16.4 million free health appointments, reaching the poorest and most isolated populations in the Andean and Amazonian regions.

Morales has delivered for his indigenous base, but they weren’t passive victims for whom he arrived as a savior. He emerged from the vibrant indigenous people’s resistance to privatizations and foreign control of resources. Civicus’ Civil Society Index Report on Bolivia using interviews conducted during the months leading up to Morales’ first presidential victory documented a very high degree of involvement by civil society that went far beyond merely voting. In the introduction, the national director of the Center for Peasant Research and Development, which along with Catholic Charities in Bolivia conducted the interviews, said that the survey indicated “the strength of social movements and civil society’s capacity to mobilise” (https://www.civicus.org/media/CSI_Bolivia_Report.pdf).

Morales may now be showing the tendency of populist leaders to seek lasting personal control. He has found a way to get around a constitutional ban prohibiting his running for a fourth term. Yet, I predict that the highly developed civil society that schooled him, elected him, and helped him initiate a just political order will serve as an effective check on any drift toward a leftist fascism, and sustain the movement after he leaves office.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.