Showdown in the Andes: Bolivian Election Likely to Shift Latin America Further to Left

Morales is an indigenous, coca grower organizer, and congressman with the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party. More than any other leading candidate, he represents the diverse demands of Bolivia’s social movements. He has promised to change current gas exportation contracts with multinational companies so that profits from the sale go to the neediest sectors of society via social programs in areas such as education and health care. His platform includes setting up micro-credit lending programs, cooperatively-run businesses and organizing a constitutional assembly to rewrite the constitution with the participation of diverse social groups. In a move which is unpopular in Washington, Morales opposes the military’s forced eradication of coca crops, an activity which is funded by the US and has resulted in bloody conflicts and human rights violations.

The other main presidential contender is Jorge Quiroga, who was President of Bolivia from 2001 to 2002 when he finished the term of Hugo Banzer, a former dictator.  He was educated in Texas, has worked as an IBM executive and believes in using troops and violence to combat protests. The unofficial favorite of the US Embassy in La Paz, Quiroga is expected to use a hard-line approach on coca eradication, continue with the privatization plan for the country’s gas and work with the US to set up a free trade agreement with Bolivia.

Possible Election Scenarios

Analysts in Bolivia expect Morales, who has consistently led in the polls, to win roughly 36% of the vote. This will put him in first place among a race between eight contenders, but it won’t be enough to secure the presidency. The Bolivian constitution requires that the winner receive more than 50% of the votes in order to become president. If not, congress decides between the top two contenders.

If the decision goes to congress, a series of last minute coalitions are likely to form. In order to win support among the divided political parties in congress, Quiroga is expected to ally with presidential contender Samuel Doria Medina, the owner of the Burger King chain in Bolivia. Morales may also attempt to ally himself with Medina, a deal which would secure the presidency for Morales, but would be unpopular among protest sectors and his own supporters. If he wins a majority by even one vote, Morales may lead protests demanding that congress ratify his victory. Even if Quiroga wins outright, protests against his presidency and subsequent policies are expected to ensue.

US military operations in neighboring Paraguay throw a complicating factor into the equation. Hundreds of US troops arrived in Paraguay on July 1st with planes, weapons and ammunition. Eyewitness reports from a journalist with the Argentine newspaper, Clarin, prove that an airbase exists in Mariscal Estigarribia, Paraguay, which is 200 kilometers from the border with Bolivia and may be utilized by the US military. Analysts in the region claim these US troops could be poised for intervention in Bolivia if Morales is elected. (1)

Bolivian Workers Union leader Jaime Solares has warned of US plans for a military coup to frustrate the elections. Solares said the US Embassy backs rightwing Jorge Quiroga in his bid for office, and will go as far as necessary to prevent any other candidate’s victory.

This set of possibilities indicates that even when the results are in on December 18th Bolivia may not know who its president is for some time to come.

Power From Below

Various social movements in Bolivia don’t see the elections as an opportunity for radical change. Some movement leaders argue that a Morales victory will only create smaller obstacles than a Quiroga administration.

"No matter which way you look at it, the elections are not the solution for meeting the demands of the population," said Oscar Olivera, a union leader who led the revolt against Bechtel’s water privatization in Cochabamba in 2000. He believes in the empowerment of the people over giving more power to the government. "However, elections are a space that has presented itself and which we, as autonomous social movements, are taking up in order to accumulate forces to pass over this bridge…we are preparing to enable ourselves firstly to recuperate all that is in the hands of the transnationals and secondly, to find the space for the political participation of working people." (2)

"We will not permit the right to assume control of the government," Olivera continued. "If Evo Morales wins by one vote, we will make sure that that vote is respected, as a bridge in order to make possible the demands of the population. But the right in this country will not return. If it returns, the scenario will be one of imposing the demands of the people by force and not via the democratic road that many want now." (3)

Complete Gas Nationalization on the Horizon?

The debate about what to do with Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, which are the second largest in Latin America, has resulted in numerous popular uprisings against the corporate privatization of the gas. Protestors demand that the gas be nationalized so that the profits can power a political project similar to what President Hugo Chavez helped create in Venezuela. Though Morales is riding the wave of this gas nationalization movement, it’s still uncertain how far he will go with a nationalization plan.

According to an interview conducted by New York Times Magazine writer David Rieff, when Morales speaks of nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas he isn’t referring to total expropriation of the multinational gas businesses in Bolivia. "Brazil is an interesting model" for cooperation between the state and the private sector, Morales said, "so is China." (4)

Carlos Villegas, MAS’s principal economic spokesman and a researcher at the University of San Andrés in La Paz, told Rieff, "The current contracts say that the multinationals own the resources when they’re in the ground and are free to set prices of natural gas and oil once it has been extracted." Morales intends to renegotiate these contracts and enforce a law passed last March which reasserts national ownership of resources.

Many Bolivians see the recuperation of the gas reserves as a way to reverse the trend of corporate exploitation which has bombarded their country. For decades, as foreign companies reaped enormous profits from Bolivian natural resources such as gold, rubber and tin, Bolivia struggled on as one of the poorest countries in Latin America. The movement to nationalize the gas is an attempt to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

"The population," Villegas explained, "is demanding to know why these resources haven’t lifted the country out of poverty. And they blame the privatization imposed by international lenders."

"We want the gas to be industrialized here in Bolivia," Teodoro Calle, a Aymara street vender from El Alto, told North American Congress on Latin America reporter Reed Lindsay in late October 2003. Calle had been shot in the leg by the Bolivian military while protesting against a plan to export natural gas to the United States. (5)

"Before, perhaps we agreed to everything, but not anymore," said Calle. "People know now what’s going on…. But the government wants to sell the gas abroad at the price of a dead chicken. That’s why we’re fighting. Every neighbor, every Bolivian, that’s why."

Sources of Instability

Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group in Washington, said "People [in Washington] talk about [Morales] as if he were the Osama bin Laden of Latin America." After a recent lecture Shifter gave at a military institution, two American officers came up to him and said that Morales "was a terrorist, a murderer, the worst thing ever." Shifter replied that he had seen no evidence of this. "They told me: ‘You should. We have classified information: this guy is the worst thing to happen in Latin America in a long time.’" (6)

On a plane to Paraguay on August 17th, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld discussed what he saw were the causes of rebellion in Bolivia, "Any time you see issues involving stability in a country, it is something that one wishes would be resolved in a democratic, peaceful way. There certainly is evidence that both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways." (7)

US officials have yet to offer any evidence to support these claims.

Recent events in Bolivia illustrate that widespread poverty and the growing political muscle of impoverished indigenous groups have contributed to the country’s unrest. The last five years in Bolivia have seen numerous citizen revolts over policies that were exported to the country from Washington. In April 2000 the residents of Cochabamba rebelled against water privatization pushed by the World Bank (the Bank chief is chosen by the White House), and carried out by the Bechtel corporation. In February 2003, thirty four Bolivians were killed during protests against an income tax hike imposed by the International Monetary Fund, (the US is the only single nation which holds a veto over the fund’s policies). In October 2003, over sixty Bolivians were killed in protests against a plan to privatize and export the country’s gas to California, a deal supported by the US Embassy in Bolivia.

These events suggest that a Morales victory will lessen the instability in the country by better-representing the political agenda of social movements and allowing for more political participation among marginalized groups. Morales’ attempt to respond to the demands of protest sectors has given him vast support among a discontented populace.

The fact that many of Bolivia’s social movements, as well as the Morales campaign, are well-organized, grassroots responses to neo-liberal economics and US foreign policy is disconcerting for the White House which, on December 18th, is likely to find itself one step further away from quelling the revolution in its own "backyard".

Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist in Bolivia and edits, an online magazine uncovering activism and politics in Latin America, and, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: Ben(at)


1. Benjamin Dangl, "Eyes on US Troops in Paraguay as Bolivian Election Nears", Upside Down World, 11-16-05

2. Federico Fuentes, "Bolivia: Oscar Olivera: ‘We are preparing ourselves for something big’", Green Left Weekly, 12-7-05

3. Fuentes

4. David Rieff, "Che’s Second Coming?", NY Times Magazine, 12-20-05

5. Reed Lindsay, "Exporting Gas and Importing Demoracy in Bolivia", North American Congress on Latin America, 11-05

6. Rieff

7. Benjamin Dangl, "Operation Latin American Freedom", Upside Down World, 10-16-05