This Sunday, Evo Morales, leader of the leftist Movimiento al Socialismo, won the presidential election in Bolivia. He did it with an astounding 50% of the vote, leaving behind one of Bolivia’s recurring nightmares (that of the so-called ballotage) and more important, giving the new president the hope of a more stable Presidency than Morales’s predecessors. If that is the case, Morales’s presidency will be an immediate paradox as he played a key role in forcing-out of the Presidency both Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa.
Morales played a key role in the mobilizations that swept Bolivia at the beginning of 2005, and—as such—he can be blamed of pretty much the same misdemeanors or Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president who actively supporter Morales in his quest for the Presidency.
However, to the so-called “pundits” that immediately want to draw inaccurate comparisons between Bolivia and Venezuela it is important to remind them that the similarities that actually exist are more the function of similar institutional designs than the product of similar “cultures”. Both Bolivia and Venezuela were for many years Centralist republics, a feature that made both countries, as others in South America, prone to instability, that on top of the instability that is inherent to presidential regimes.
The fact that both Bolivia and Venezuela have been commodities exporting economies, with little or no ability to industrialize, just compounds the overall weaknesses of the presidential regime institutional design. To make matters worse, as far as the institutional design is concerned, Bolivia’s reliance on the ballotage system, a political pipe-dream cooked and long-time ago dropped by the French, put Bolivia—over and over—in extremely fragile situations since 1982.
One key difference that is necessary to keep in mind has to do with the processes of structural adjustment of the late 1980s are early 1990s. While Bolivia followed a rather brutal path of “neo-liberal” (neo-conservative in the U.S.) adjustment, in Venezuela nothing like that has ever happened, despite the whining and crying of Chávez and his Bolivarian Movement Fifth Republic.
Morales reaches the Presidency of his country facing mounting pressure to address the many problems inherited by the draconian economic policies pursued, with little or no success (besides cooling down the mammoth inflation rate) during the 1980s . His warning about changes in his dealings with the firms that invested in the exploration and exploitation of the vast gas fields in his nation already had a negative effect pushing up the prices of the product in the World markets.
He is already assuming that his presidency will have the kinds of cash flows that have allowed Chávez to become the leading voice of those who criticize the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as the main culprit for what often times is presented as a dark conspiracy, however they should know better. If—as they say—all the suffering is the IMF’s and WB’s fault, then we should see the exact same outcomes in all the countries when structural adjustment policies were pursued; the fact, however, is that there are important differences from country to country, and those differences are closely related to the specific policies pursued by the political leaders.
That is, however something that we will never hear from Morales and much less from Chávez who is the main beneficiary of the Bolivian election. Not only now he has a reliable partner, willing to reproduce and amplify Chavez’s anti U.S., and anti IMF, discourse. Moreales will do it with two features that Chávez neve has had. On the one hand, Morales brings an ethnic base that can resonate with the rest of Latin America that Chávez never had before. Second, unlike Lula in Brazil or Kirchner in Argentina, Morales will command a clear majority in a government that, with the gas revenue, can be rich as Venezuela’s.
For the U.S., Morales represents a challenge like never before. Not only he is close to Chávez, but he is also close to Castro. Cuba will then has a chance to expand its now narrow trade and, as such, will contribute to facilitate Morales’s decision to denounce or breach the contracts with the forms involved in the exploitation of gas, as such firms will be forced to choose between being at odds with the absurd trade embargo imposed on Cuba and those doing business with Cuba, or fighting a legal battle that is doomed in the Bolivian courts.
Morales will not have, despite the gas related income, an easy ride. On the contrary, the “rebel” province of Santa Cruz still seeks its independence from the rest of Bolivia and it is there where the bulk of the gas is, setting the stage for what will be an epic battle. Also, it is important to keep in mind, despite the current buzz about Morales's ethnic origin, that Alejandro Toledo, the Peruvian president, is also a pure Aymara, and that heritage provided little or no advantage to his troubled presidency.