Bolivia’s Morales Struts His Stuff as Strategist and Adept Politician

– Recent referendum triumph affords Morales government more scope and additional clout
– The president works to find a balance between satisfying the resource-rich eastern provinces and fulfilling his socialist economic mission
– Morales differs greatly in terms of leadership style from close friend and political ally Hugo Chávez. This difference could help him to survive, and even thrive

A Successful Leader
As U.S. policy makers see it, Bolivian president Evo Morales faces two main challenges in the upcoming months, stemming from forces arising within his nation and coming from abroad. The first is to distance himself enough from his friend and close political ally Hugo Chávez sufficiently enough in hopes of building a different, perhaps more high-yield relationship with the Barack Obama administration. Despite constant comparisons with Venezuela’s President Chávez, Morales is beginning to show that the two men are not as one, neither in style nor substance. Kindred actions and often striking rhetoric coming out of La Paz, however, duplicate the increasingly predictable rash behavior that is being observed in Caracas. This manifests itself in such actions as the retaliatory ousting of the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors from La Paz after the U.S. unfairly retaliated against Bolivia’s so-called lagging drug performance.

But Morales may be mistaken in terms of prudence if he places too much store in Chávez’s ability to control his periodic anti-U.S. rhetoric, which almost always is more bark than bite. In other words, Morales’ job is to diversify the economic and political choices available to him and increase his ability to significantly influence oncoming events. The second challenge Morales faces is to instill and maintain domestic tranquility and to be able to continue to win over those who vote for him despite the serious corruption charges that plague his administration, and the shortcomings in the level of skilful public administration he is able to muster.

Referendum Triumph
The outcome of the January 25 referendum in the Andean nation will ensure sweeping new changes to Bolivia’s constitution, as Morales’ supporters resoundingly voted 61-39 percent in favor of empowering the country’s previously disenfranchised indigenous majority. The new constitution also includes provisions that allow for far greater government control of natural resources. The months leading up to the vote had been filled with continued fighting between Morales’ supporters and the opposition, located mainly in Bolivia’s resource-rich eastern lowlands. The new constitution will allow the government to have greater control over the profits of the country’s oil and gas-rich regions, prompting fear in eastern Bolivia that their revenues will be redistributed among the poor indigenous groups in the west.

Morales’ victory may be considered a mandate by some supporters, but the nation was too close to being split to risk being falsely optimistic. Morales’ electoral success is attributable to rural indigenous voters, who backed the referendum by approximately 82 percent to 18 percent, while only 52 percent of urban Bolivians opted in favor of the constitution and Morales’ side of the story. In spite of his personal triumph, Morales has been extremely humble in handling the situation’s aftermath. The president sensibly recognizes the deep divisions caused by some of his policies in recent months. Morales appears to be a genuine man of the people, legitimately concerned with making the necessary changes in order to lift up Bolivia’s indigenous, rather than being obsessed by the markings of his own personal power. Recently, in order to gain key changes to the national charter, Morales agreed to limit himself to only one more term as president, if reelected in 2014. This represented an extraordinary manifestation of personal denial.

Obstacles to Progress
While Morales’s referendum victory should be looked upon as an important stepping stone in realizing the social revolution that he and Chávez repeatedly have articulated, it has to be said that some of this support has abated in recent elections. In August, Morales won a recall referendum with 67 percent of the vote. When compared to the results of the recent referendum in which he received 61 percent of the vote, the president’s dominance has slipped. But despite the small erosion of support recorded between these two recent votes, Morales remains in a secure position of power. Rather than try to affect complete control over the opposition and to monopolize it, Morales has set more modest goals by announcing plans to meet with the prefects of the dissenting eastern region to achieve some form of compromise and accommodation. This move demonstrates that Morales will not ignore the voices of the minority in trying to achieve the goals of the indigenous and landless. Ever the strategist, Morales also understands that he needs unanimous consent from all of Bolivia’s departments before the new constitution can be implemented.

Yet Morales will have to be careful when trying to achieve his political goals, to not overstep his reach by alienating too many of his doubters. On January 31, Morales fired the head of the state oil company on charges of corruption. Santos Ramirez, former chairman of Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), is being investigated by Congress after a man was murdered in his house who was carrying $450,000 in what is thought to be bribe money. The case of Ramirez, who was the sixth head of YPFB in three years, and is alleged to have committed multiple acts of corruption, will only provide ammunition for Morales’ opponents to attack the moral rectitude underlying the president’s expansion of governmental control over national industries beyond the point that it can be easily managed.

Morales was quick to replace Ramirez with current planning minister and former energy minister, Carlos Villegas. One must wonder why Ramirez was still in such a powerful position despite being earlier charged with soliciting a bribe in exchange for granting a government contract to the Argentine-Bolivian company, Catler Uniservice. Nonetheless, it is now a matter of urgent importance that Morales restore the Bolivian people’s confidence in his administration, as corruption charges have plagued both his government and party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), posing a indictment concerning the rectitude of his rule.

Distancing Himself from Chávez?
Those who usefully compare Morales and Chávez may have good reason to do so. The Bolivian state has created a new daily newspaper that will undoubtedly echo the rhetoric of the president. Furthermore, Morales recently nationalized Chaco Petroleum, a subsidiary of British Petroleum, and kept the Bolivian army on standby alert in case any violent backlash developed. The nationalization of key industries also has associated Morales with other Latin American leftist heroes such as Chávez and Rafael Correa, who are prepared to use the power of the state to change directions in favor of public control.

Fortunately for Morales’ standing, he has maintained an air of calmness during this process, steering clear in recent weeks of the vehemently anti-American rhetoric that Chávez has failed to master. This relative political moderation in spite of the diplomatic overkills he has committed against the U.S. and Israel must be looked at as temporary indiscretions rather than as policy to be written in stone. Washington seems to be holding back on Morales, not being prepared at this time to break all links to Bolivia as it seems much more inclined to do when it comes to Venezuela. Morales’ newly found legitimacy in Washington’s eyes allows it to dream of trying to put Bolivia on a more orthodox track towards development and parity, as a recent statement from US State Department spokesman Robert Wood envisaged: “We look forward to working with the Bolivian government in ways we can to further democracy and prosperity in the hemisphere.”