A Radical Gives Bolivia Some Stability
As the United States continues to call Hugo Chavez a threat to regional stability, what they are really referring to is the election of like-minded bretheren like Evo Morales in Bolivia. But we know the truth is the US is not concerned about stability - as this NY Times article shows - it is concerned about the success of a model that successfully expropriated the profits of multinational oil companies for the benefit of the people.
By SIMON ROMERO
COCHABAMBA, Bolivia, Sept. 14 — Evening newscasts speak of a country on the verge of balkanization. La Paz and Sucre dispute which city should be the capital. Santa Cruz, in the east, clamors for autonomy. The governor of the province encompassing this bustling city in the Andes has called on President Evo Morales to resign.
But Mr. Morales, the first Indian to govern Bolivia since the Spanish conquest almost five centuries ago, knows a thing or two about unrest, having organized protests for years as the leader of the country’s cocaleros, or coca cultivators, who fiercely resist American efforts to eradicate their crops.
For all the worries that Mr. Morales’s radicalism would create economic and political turmoil in Bolivia, the reality of his tenure is that the country is relatively stable. Social divisions and poverty remain entrenched, but Mr. Morales has surprised many, including some in the business community, with his staying power.
When asked about Bolivia’s problems, he replies with an economist’s precision. “One of the most ferocious debates in my cabinet is whether we should spend part of our foreign currency reserves,” he said, explaining how these reserves had more than doubled since he took office in January 2006, to about $4 billion. In a nod to economic orthodoxy, Mr. Morales said, “I don’t want to for now.”
Bolivia remains South America’s poorest country, with about 60 percent of the population of 9.1 million mired in poverty, making such debates crucial. Yet the results of one of Mr. Morales’s policies in particular — the nationalization of the petroleum industry last year — has surprised even skeptics.
Feared as a radical move, the nationalization was in effect a renegotiation of terms with foreign energy companies that have stayed in Bolivia, attracted by the country’s bountiful natural gas reserves. Revenue from oil and natural gas climbed to 13.3 percent of gross domestic product in 2006 from 5 percent in 2004, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
That increase has placed Bolivia on its most enviable economic footing in years, with growth of about 4 percent expected this year. Economists also note that coca is lifting Bolivia’s economy, with traffic climbing to neighboring Brazil.
In a touch of irony, the urban upper classes, many of whose members remain explicitly critical of Mr. Morales, are benefiting from the newfound stability and economic vibrancy. With a cocalero in power, cocalero activists no longer shut down the main highway from Santa Cruz, enabling the province’s exports to reach important markets. Similarly, parts of the southern area of La Paz are prospering as builders rush to meet demand for comfortable apartment buildings. Here in Cochabamba, a new $6 million Cineplex, which seems plucked from suburban California, illustrates how investors are pouring money into new projects.
For now, Mr. Morales, dressed in jeans and tennis shoes, seems at ease after attaining the highest approval ratings of any president in recent memory. He shoos away advisers and bodyguards, preferring to conduct the interview alone. He jokes about efforts to improve his swing in frontón, a sport similar to racquetball that is beloved by Bolivians.
“We’re creating another way of doing government, but it has not been easy,” Mr. Morales said in halting and carefully enunciated Spanish as the sun rose above Cochabamba. “The challenges seem to arise every day.”