On October 10th, Jaime Aparicio, former Bolivian ambassador to the United States, Kevin Healy, adjunct professor at George Washington and Georgetown University, and Alberto Vergara, Peruvian political scientist and Banting post-doctoral fellow at Harvard joined the Dialogue to discuss the outlook for Bolivia in light of the presidential elections. All three speakers agreed with mediator Michael Shifter’s characterization of the recent Bolivian elections as “lacking in drama and suspense.” As Vergara noted, with Morales’ approval rating at 75% after 10 years of incumbency, it is likely that voters will continue to reward Morales for bringing stability to Bolivia and re-elect him for a third consecutive term.
Aparicio, Healy and Vergara also concurred that pragmatism explains much of Morales’ success in office. Morales is particularly prudent: he has exercised fiscal discipline while juggling the demands of the conflicting segments of Bolivian society. In fact, the commodity boom has enabled Morales to simultaneously increase Bolivian competitiveness and invest in anti-poverty programs. Morales’ pragmatism is also evident in his exploitation of the “caudillo mentality.” For Aparicio, Morales has become a strongman who has anchored his power in Bolivia’s tradition of centralism. As Aparicio explained, “the idea that the state should provide for its people was already there.”
Healy also discussed what he termed a Bolivian “success story.” He explained that the progress Bolivians sense today is substantiated by positive results across all indicators of national growth. Extreme poverty has decreased from 59.9% to 45% from 2006 to 2011. Bolivia’s GINI Index also indicates a gradual decrease of inequality from 57.9 in 1999 to 46.6 in 2011, a reduction of approximately 20% over a dozen years. For Healy, Morales commitment to tackling the marginalization of indigenous populations, including Cholitas, has greatly contributed to alleviating deep poverty. Protective provisions in Bolivia’s new constitution have enabled Cholitas to become “the new face of Bolivia’s social and political inclusion.”
Despite Morales’ promotion of equality before the law, Morales has nevertheless undermined Bolivia’s constitution. The Bolivian Supreme Court’s sanction of Morales’ re-election for a third consecutive term skirts Bolivia’s term limits. Aparicio considers that this “submission of justice to political power” is going to be “one of the saddest and most unfortunate legacies of Morales’ rule.” But the weakening of the rule of law is not the only challenge that can be expected of Morales’ prolonged incumbency. With lower commodity prices and Latin American deceleration on the horizon, difficult times might be on their way. Adding to this predicament is the government’s lagging investment in education and neglect to establish a tax system. When Morales can no longer rely on the profit of extractive industries, lack of human capital and the absence of a precedent in tax collection could very well weaken the Bolivian government and leave it prey to the political clout of its clamorous civil society. Bolivia’s former Minister of Finance, Ronald MacLean Abaroa, who also attended the discussion, forewarned that the minute prices fall, “the fiesta will come to an end.” In less pessimistic terms, the economy, more than the next president, will strongly influence the future of Bolivian progress.