The Promises and Challenges of Bolivia’s Socialist Government

Bolivia’s government entered 2013 on an optimistic note.  Socialist-oriented projects aimed at shoring up national independence and protecting indigenous rights seemingly were on track.  Now, however, the government is having to deal with emerging reports of official corruption.

Opinion surveys show that President Evo Morales, overwhelming victor in two presidential elections and one recall vote, enjoys a 64 percent approval rating.  As of early 2012, poverty had fallen from 61 percent of Bolivians in 2007 to 49 percent early in 2012.  Extreme poverty fell 20 percent during 2012.  Bolivia’s five percent economic growth rate for 2012 will repeat in 2013, say observers.  Exports are up, and Bolivia’s international monetary reserves reached a new $14 billion high.

Recognition of such achievements vies with acclaim Morales has garnered as an indigenous president heading an indigenous-majority nation, from his advocacy for environmental integrity, and from a protagonist’s role in efforts to reverse climate change.  Morales’ presentation on December 21, 2012 of a “Manifesto of the Island of the Sun” is a case in point.

Tens of thousands of indigenous people were waiting on that island in Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca as a facsimile of a traditional Indian sailing vessel approached carrying President Morales in indigenous regalia.  He began:

This island is where time began and history began with the sons of the Sun.  But then darkness fell with the arrival of foreign invaders.  [. . .]  [W]e proclaim the end of that age of darkness and ‘non-time’ and the beginning of the age of light.  [. . .]  Once again it is time for the peoples of the world, social movements, and all those who have been marginalized, discriminated against or humiliated to unite, organize, mobilize, become aware and rise up.

Morales offered “ten ways to confront capitalism and start building a culture of life.”  Among them were: rebuild democracy, transferring power to the poor; build human and social rights; “decolonize our peoples and cultures” to build a “communitarian socialism of living well”; and protect the environment.  He called for sovereignty over natural resources, food sovereignty, alliances against interventionism, and development of knowledge for all.  He seeks a “global institutional union of peoples” and “holistic economic development.”

The backdrop to this dramatic event timed with the winter solstice, however, was less enticing.  It turns out that prosecutors, judges, and the police have engaged in corruption throughout Morales’s presidency.  High officials are in jail and now some of President Morales’ own ministers are implicated.

The government announced on December 25 that two “Ministers of the Presidency” and a former “Minister of Government” are being investigated.  As of late November, a dozen judicial officials and prosecutors had been jailed, among them Fernando Rivera who was responsible for the 18-month jailing of U.S. citizen Jacob Ostreicher.  The Brooklyn native was accused of having relied upon drug traffickers to fund large land holdings and rice-farming operations.  His recent release came about through the intervention of actor Sean Penn and US congresspersons.

The confiscation and selling off of Ostreicher’s properties epitomizes the most prominent category of corruption.  Wielding new powers, officials have confiscated contraband, properties allegedly financed through drug dealings, assets of foreign corporations, and land delivered to the state under agrarian reform.  Truckers, managers, and other employees of those targeted have been implicated as accomplices.  Confiscated assets become ripe for profitable sell-offs after 15 days have passed during which time bosses and underlings are unable to demonstrate the legal nature of their activities.  And transnational corporations and even property-rich right-wingers eager to accommodate a potentially confiscatory left-wing government have gone along with handing selected assets.

According to Jorge Lora Cam, source of much of this information, official corruption is widespread.  The “Minister of Transparency” in August 2012 reported “8,000 ongoing judicial processes for corruption, though [so far] only 100 prisoners.”  The same ministry revealed in December 2010 that, “between 2006 and 2010, 71 accusations of corruption were received involving 568 functionaries.”  Lora Cam suggests officials of former regimes serving local and international oligarchs were well versed in corruption.  They were the model, he says, and their influence remains.

Meanwhile, the government continues with its socialist agenda.  On December 29 Morales announced nationalization of four companies controlled by Spain’s Iberdrola Corporation — two electricity distribution centers, one electrical services enterprise, and an investment company.  Bolivia’s National Electricity Corporation will operate these companies plus another nationalized in May 2012.  Morales cited high fees charged to rural customers as justifying the take-over.

Nevertheless, in a show of confidence in Bolivia’s socialist government, international bankers in October spent $4.5 billion on Bolivian bonds sold at low interest rates to finance infrastructure projects.

Foreign markets and foreign investment have been key considerations also as Bolivia’s nascent lithium extraction and processing industry gets underway.  President Morales was present on January 4 on the edge of the Uyuni salt flats in southern Bolivia at opening ceremonies for a pioneering state-owned lithium production plant.  Bolivia possesses large deposits of lithium, essential in the manufacture of batteries used in electric cars, cell phones, and laptop computers.

On the Island of the Sun, Morales denounced “this age of violence against human beings and nature.”  He called for “a new age — an age where human beings and Mother Earth are one.”  In regard to the here and now, Jorge Lora Cam calls for “the exercise from below of practices marked by solidarity, participation, transparency, and social control.  That’s the only way society can eradicate Mafioso groups and networks.  [Otherwise] the fundamental rights of the indigenous and people in general will be ignored.”

W. T. Whitney Jr., a retired pediatrician, is a Cuba solidarity activist and member of Veterans for Peace.  He writes on Latin American issues.

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