Travel reports: Evo’s Road

Asking people in Bolivia what they think of Evo Morales, the current president, turns out to be less interesting than I thought it would be. In the past the country was very divided on the question of the country’s first indigenous president. There is a long history of deep racism in Bolivia and many people hate Evo for who he is – a man from a poor indigenous background. The racism here turns out to not be purely about skin colour but also about culture. Many self-described ‘mestizos’ have a high percentage of indigenous blood but if they behave in an appropriately European manner they can be forgiven. Evo was a poor llama farmer and coca grower (and as a kid he sold bottles of soda to bus passengers) and to many mestizos you don’t get much less civilised than that.

Meanwhile Evo was swept to power on a tide of grass-roots – mainly indigenous – activism that twice in the last ten years brought the country entirely to a halt. He and his party MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) have implemented some important changes in Bolivia, including outlawing discrimination and changing the constitution of the country to ensure indigenous people can never again be excluded quite so totally as they were in the past. He has also defended coca farmers against the US war on drugs, and although he is not the rampant socialist many of his opponents claim, he has forced gas and oil companies to hand over much higher revenues and used the money for important improvements in education, infrastructure and other necessities.

But I read an interesting thing about MAS before arriving: that it does not have many connections with the broader social movements in Bolivia. It was designed as an implement for placing indigenous people into the formerly pale national elite, and this it has successfully done. It is a party then that depends not on grass-roots support but on wooing the electorate like any other party. And while it has worked to make structural changes to Bolivian politics, it has always worked to ensure its own place in the structure.

Now we come to why it was so boring to ask people about Evo. About a year ago, in a move seemingly from nowhere, Evo cut the government’s subsidy on fuel. Prices shot up overnight, not just on fuel but on food and every other essential item, some prices almost doubling. Overnight, Evo made the poor people who voted for him poorer. Admittedly he made the rich poorer too, and you can argue that a subsidy that helps the rich is ‘inefficient’, but the people who voted for Evo could not afford those rises. There were massive streets protests and eventually Evo backed down and reinstated subsidies. The prices however stayed where they were. For this one mistake it is now difficult to imagine Evo being re-elected. He managed to piss off everyone in the country at once and anyone you ask about Evo will give the same answer: he screwed us. He may have done some good, but then he screwed us. Or from the middle class: he was an ignorant peasant and then he screwed us.

So why did he cut the fuel subsidy? Evo’s claim that he didn’t want to subsidise fuel smuggling sounded a bit weak. Was it because, as in Nigeria, IMF economists decided it was an ‘inefficient’ subsidy? But it seems it wasn’t even outside pressure that did it, or not directly. Allegedly the reason Evo cut subsidies was because of falling private investment in the state oil and gas company. That is, he did it to please international finance.

The MAS project has been a success, but what type of success is this? In the short term you can get some changes by putting new people into the elite. Reportedly this government works till 8pm at night where previous governments worked until 4pm. They are serious about changing things. But in the long run, as many people in the United States have discovered, it doesn’t much matter what colour your president is. He’s still the president. It is his role that is the problem, target as it is for everyone who already has money and power. It seems a shame that the architects of MAS didn’t think about flattening the elite rather than entering it, that they didn’t try to move power from the government to the grass-roots movements who supported them. Perhaps some of the people within MAS itself may begin to regret it too if they lose the next election.

In the satirical Bolivian film ‘Who Killed The Little White Llama?’, the narrator talks about Evo Morales only once, while standing in the middle of a typical unpaved Bolivian road. “Evo Morales is a first class president,” he says. “While we travel on these roads, he flies first class.”