Bolivian Elections 2014: Morales Goes For The Hat-Trick


Bolivian Elections 2014: Morales Goes For The Hat-Trick
Yes, Big Evo is up for a third term in office, constitutional small-print be damned! In fact, though Bolivia’s constitution says you can only be president for two consecutive terms, the Supreme Court dubbed current President Morales’ third shot at the big time all legal and above board, thanks to the constitutional changes implemented in 2006 which (apparently) makes his first term not count. He’ll largely be facing down, among others, the DUC (Unity Democrat Coalition), a collection of opponents up in arms over the government’s programs of nationalizations, and fiery anti-US rhetoric that have been features of political discourse since Morales’ party, the Movement for Socalism (MAS), took the stage back in 2005.

Whether one agrees with the ever so slightly dubious court ruling or, like the milieu of divided opposition parties, one does not, seems almost insignificant at this stage. After almost a decade in power, there is a sense that Morales and the MAS have become part of the fabric of Bolivia itself, one equating the other and vice versa. This is not to project a hegemonic, one party state utopia on the poverty-stricken Andean nation, of course. More, it’s that Morales and his party seem unstoppable at the ballot-box, having stormed to two successive victories by healthy margins while enjoying more support than any other political movement by a country mile. A poll conducted by IPSOS in June gave Morales an approval rating of 73%, up 13 points from April and a figure to make virtually any G20 leader you might care to mention go weak at the knees with envy.

Evo (Original Image by RT) (en.mercopress.com)

His image and name are everywhere, and I don‘t mean in the megalomaniac, cult-of-personality, photo-opportunity sense (though, admittedly, this is hard to avoid thinking of when his face stares out at you from the 23rd billboard on the road from the Peruvian border into La Paz). Pro-Evo, pro-MAS graffiti is awash here in the highlands, splashed urgently on walls and houses, urging people to vote. The very idea of graffiti in favor of the current government seems almost alien to me, hailing as I do from the pessimistic shores of a sliding “Great” Britain, where apathy holds sway over such political fire (unless you‘re Scottish).

So Morales and his party are popular, far more so than those who‘ll be facing them down in October. Which is…who exactly? The Unity Democrat Coalition is, as you may have guessed, a coalition of the National Unity Party and the Democrats, led by National Unity leader Samuel Doria Medina. They are looking to take on the mighty MAS by appealing to the political center. Naturally, though, when a popular, now proudly socialist party is at the national helm, there is usually a challenge from the right. And in Medina they surely have the, ahem, right man for the job.

Doria Media is in many ways Evo’s opposite: the ying to his yang, snake to his mongoose, Ming the Merciless to his Flash Gordon. Indeed, next to Morales, the former trade union leader, he’s like a politician from another world altogether. Very much in the western, professional-politician mold, Medina was formerly educated in Bolivia and then the United States. He is a business graduate and economist by trade, who at one stage in his meteoric career led that organization so controversial in Bolivia: The World Bank.

Further similarities to his First-World counterparts that set him apart from Morales are to be found in his links to big business: he‘s a major industrialist who owns two fast food chains and is the biggest shareholder in (arguably) the country‘s biggest corporation SOBOCE, which makes cement. He’ll surely champion business and the private sector in his campaign, in contrast with Morales, who has consistently favored public services and a democratization of the economy through nationalizing key industries, like Bolivia‘s vast mineral and gas reserves. The two are, in fact, long standing rivals. Also on Medina’s lengthy CV is his previous candidacy for the presidency, having tried and failed twice to beat Morales at polls. He just wants the job so much that he’s willing to put himself through the slog of another grueling election campaign against the old, apparently indestructible foe.

It is now obvious that Medina chose the wrong years – 2005 and 2009 – to face down a candidate who probably has a better claim than any of this nation’s previous leaders to being a true man of the people. Morales is indigenous Aymara, the first indigenous president in South American history. Unlike Bolivia’s neighbors, the significant majority of the population is also indigenous, which holds sway politically. In 2005, he and the MAS were helped onto victory by this vast, nuanced majority, and by communities in desperate economic circumstances that responded to the party‘s universal, galvanizing message: Change. In 2009 the MAS was re-elected by a landslide.

Much of Bolivian society embraced Morales‘ promises to empower the poorest and disenfranchised, and on many accounts during almost a decade in power, many of his promises were realized. He introduced expansive legislation that helped combat the racism and exclusion the indigenous majority had historically faced: Civil servants were required to learn an indigenous language (which greatly helped with outreach), power was distributed through the nuanced regions of the country (we must now call Bolivia The Plurinational State of…by the way), and millions of hectares of land redistributed, largely from individuals to disadvantaged communities.

Add to that the official eradication of illiteracy under the MAS (it had stood at 16% in 2005), the balancing of higher education to a rate of indigenous entrance of over 50% and the slashing of extreme and relative poverty by between five and ten percent each, and one begins to realize why Big Evo and Co. are still courting such popularity that has come through years of delivering social development whilst in power. And of course, showing up to the UN and international conferences in llama jumpers doesn’t hurt either.

Why don‘t other Bolivian politicians follow suit? In terms of cool politicians, Evo is almost untouchable (though the Jose Mujica of Uruguay, an ex-freedom fighter who donates 90% of his wages to charity and successfully legalized marijuana last year, is a worthy contender).

Both these leaders are of branches off the same tree, presidents of the so-called Pink-Tide of center-left political dominance over the continent which, although threatened in some states like Venezuela these days, still seems to be the movement of destiny for early 21st-Century Latin America. For even a slight chance of ousting Morales, Medina and the DUC know they must either play to their own strengths or, as seems increasingly prevalent in elections worldwide these days, their opponents’ weaknesses. Their campaign thus far seems to be an attempt to balance both, though arguably favoring the latter.

Take their main campaign slogan and poster, for example. The tagline roughly translates as “A Bolivia for Everyone,” written beneath banners with Medina smiling out of them and a supposed cross-section of Bolivian society, from indigenous mothers to wealthier businessmen, surrounding him. This is, of course, an attempt to reach out to the indigenous majority that has not traditionally warmed to conservative politics. If they do so, they’ll pinch some votes that have been lacking for Medina in his previous half-baked assaults on the Presidency.

But the MAS is not unanimously supported. By favoring policies aimed spefically at the poorer classes, MAS have made regular opponents of the small but rising bourgeoisie in Bolivia that claims it is marginalized as a direct result of this “favoritism.” It’s no coincidence that Medina is focusing his campaign around the lands away from the North and West, for example, the region of Santa Cruz.

Richer than its highland counterparts (largely thanks to oil), Santa Cruz de la Sierra is a city where the country’s emerging middle class thrives; white headphones and sharp suits of disposable income abound here, in direct contrast with the rest of the country. As Morales began his term in 2005, Santa Cruz as a region became more and more opposed to the perceived junta of center-left politics and the sympathetic majority that was nigh-on unbeatable at the polls.

Medina, the former World Bank leader and economist whiz kid is still hoping his know-how in this super-important electoral battleground will win over some voters, particularly if he pushes the “nationalizing private enterprises will damage Bolivia´s rep for international business” line, which has been used against Evo before.

The indigenous majority will likely be the varied, crucial player in October´s election (Image by Indymedia Bolivia)

The problem for him is that MAS has done a pretty good job managing the economy, too, whichever way you look at it. The nationalizations have generated revenue for the government like never before, much of it spent on helping out the poorest as outlined above, but a huge chunk also kept aside in savings. They have grown the economy consistently, even winning official praise from those punitive, structural re-adjusters at the IMF as such. Growth stands to hit 6.7% this year, its highest for a decade (read it and weep, Western economies). The one ray of sunshine for Medina and the DUC is that in terms of intended votes, Morales’ support has dropped a bit since the last election, according to La Razon and global polling experts IPSOS (63% to 59%).

The three other campaigns hoping to rock the boat at the election, though with only limited support next to the two frontrunners we have analyzed, will be happy to tap into this sentiment if they can. Two of these other opponents hail from similar places occupied by the MAS on the political spectrum: Juan del Grando and the MSM (Movement Without Fear) are center-left and former allies of Morales, and indigenous leader Fernando Vargas champions indigenous rights and Pachamama (Mother Earth) environmentalism, fronting the Green Party.

The final player is Jorge Tuto Quiroga Ramírez, a former president who will be hoping that the mass of voters he needs to attract will remember his name or face during his brief and lackluster 2001-2002 term. Hailing from the center-right PDC (Christian Democratic Party), Quiroga Ramírez has inflamed the DUC and damaged its campaign, as the PDC will surely split the vote with the DUC.

With still around a month and a half to go before the first votes are cast, there is still time for the landscape to shift dramatically. After all, a day is a long time in politics. However, the latest polls attest to Team Evo’s continuing popularity and continuing dominance, as he possesses 50-60% of voting intention (depending on the poll), next to Medina’s 17%, while Grando and Quiroga hover around 4% each. This popularity was hard-won during MAS‘s rise to election back in 2005, and has been maintained for almost a decade since, a staggering achievement in a nation with such a history of political turmoil.

Life in Bolivia is still very hard for most, and poverty is still rampant. But Morales’ positive influence on the country is tangible and evident to many. If re-elected, the MAS has promised to extend the project they started 9 years ago. This will be just the incentive their legions of supporters need to carry them onwards.


San Pedro de Atacama: Welcome To The Driest Place On Earth

San Pedro de Atacama: Welcome To The Driest Place On Earth
My journey begins when I left the beautiful chaos of Buenos Aires soon after the World Cup finished, carried by the long exhalation of the city after the four-week fiesta that had enveloped the city. After a brief few days in Salta, where I discover the legend of the town´s local historic hero Guemes, I strike out at a bleary 7.30 AM for the Chilean border, and my eventual destination of San Pedro de Atacama, some 220 miles away.

Driving there from Northern Argentina is an experience as spectacular as it is surreal. North of Salta, you pass the famous rainbow-colored mountains that exhibit more hues in their rocks than there were Captain Scarlet characters (remember them?) Next comes a road that snakes perilously up the Andes, the bus lurching round each corner in a way that reminds you of a certain scene from The Italian Job. And we all know how that ended…sort of.

Luckily, the mild terror of this road morphs into more wonder, more ohhhs and ahhs, pretty fast. At the border post and across into Chile, the landscape becomes lunar, or Martian; weird, smooth shaped rock formations peer out of the plateau, and a perfect conical volcano looms into view, dwarfing our tiny bus.

Simon, the self-proclaimed “Scouse-African” (meaning that he is of Liverpool origin, now living in Cape Town, for the uninitiated) whom I’d met in Salta, is snoring loudly a few seats back from me. Perhaps it’s better to hibernate like this from the heady effects of altitude we’re put through during the crossing. Didier and I are reeling with headaches. When I spark up conversation with this cool, stubbly French professor at the border, and I find out he’s returning to San Pedro and eager to see how it might have changed in 9 years. He’s still full of awe for its splendor, and has stoked my growing excitement nicely.

San Pedro de Atacama (29/7/2014, OJJ)

The other two seem to have succeeded in achieving a cryo-sleep torpor for the final few hours, but I can’t tear my glance away from the window for longer than a few seconds; the mirage salt flats and the towering, eerie volcanoes are just too spectacular. We shudder to a halt in the tiny bus terminal, eventually, though, and the three of us set about locating accommodation.

It’s late afternoon, and on our way into the tiny town center we walk through a throng of sun-bleached people: Hardy locals, who peer through dust-proof sunglasses (see cult, mediocre sci-fi Pitch Black) and eager gringos like ourselves, clamoring for a room and the lifeblood of a working cash machine. After a while we stumble on a place typical for San Pedro: cool open air courtyard, adobe walls and rickety wooden furniture.

Later, chatting in my faulty Spanish to the welcoming mestizo sisters who run the hostel, I learn how the building was once just a simple family home. In their autumn years they’ve been forced to convert it into a money-making hostel in order to get by. The tourism industry is the latest gift from the desert, replacing the alpaca herds and salt deposits of ages past as the locals’ primary source of income, for better or for worse. It is resourcefulness at its best, and they’ve even got solar-powered showers. The hot water in the bitter desert nights is greatly appreciated.

We three spend the next couple of days exploring the staggering scenery, largely on bikes rented from a local tour company/internet café/sundries kiosk. Virtually every business here, and even many homes, offers a collection of the above to seemingly tap into the influx of visitors and their needs. You can now browse your WhatsApp while munching imported Mars bars and checking your tire pressure simultaneously. Well, almost.

Peddling across bumpy tarmac on the first ride out of town, we leave a billowing dust cloud in our wake. The red rocky landscapes looming around us have me feeling like I´m a Mario Kart character, or one of Wiley Coyote or Roadrunner (the former, presumably, given an innate lack of speed and inherent clumsiness I bring to larking about in the desert). Cycling and panting up our way up the rocky slopes, seeking the particularly superlative view at the top of a rocky outcrop, we decide we are polka dot-jersey-wearing Kings of the Mountain. Why not?  I don’t see any other contenders on this particular peak.

Author, attempting to look dramatic, San Pedro de Atacama (OJJ, 27/7/2014)

On arrival, the view takes our breath away, or at least would have, had we had any breath left. Shattered, we drink a landscape of the same cartoon-esque sculptured rocks, now among giant and distant lunar-like craters. The moon is clearly on everyone’s mind in this place, since they actually named the area near San Pedro Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon. It’s certainly the closest I’ve come to standing on an extra-terrestrial surface so far (I´m still holding out hope for that phone call from NASA). Spectacular, natural beauty.

Bizarrely, though, it’s the Looney Toons vibe that is evoked again in an official capacity as we reach the Valley of the Moon proper, this time with a rapidly speaking, dynamic, local Chilean to show us around. “Here we have the Wiley Coyote rock that everyone likes to stand on” she says, pointing to a perilously over-hanging formation that is begging for some ACME-based intervention of some kind or other.

As it is, the feature seems pretty sturdy, and the fellow travelers that abound are literally lining up to take the all-important Facebook-profile-selfie, or whatever it is. A bit of a weird thing to queue for; it´s been there for centuries! But to each his own, I suppose. On a personal level, looking at the jaw-dropping views of ancient dunes and salt-washed peaks before me is infinitely more pleasing than assessing a close-up of my own ugly mug with a two-way, touchscreen camera. No thanks, no thanks.

Next day we’re off peddling across the desert again, this time in search of beautiful salt lake hidden somewhere in the depths of the endless dry scrub and sand surrounding San Pedro. We´re directed by a Spanish cyclist we bump into, who is all too eager to divulge the route of a shortcut she knows. What could possibly go wrong? It’s another beautiful day. The sky is huge and hazy blue overhead, the volcano and its smaller little brothers perpetually on our shoulders, reminding us this is Chile and not Route-66. The road is very flat and very straight, almost like an artist’s demonstration of the vanishing point; the parallel curbs always meeting somewhere at the edge of our vision.

After hours of scything over the bitumen, we turn off and into the desert proper, surrounded by scrubs so dry they turn to dust underfoot and blow away. This new bumpy, sandy track exposes a terrible hangover from yesterday’s japes: Saddle-sore. I had no idea the agony it could cause! We cut a comical trio now, bobbing up and down on our bikes like Whack-a-Moles. Solemnly, I take the decision to lash my cherished Boca Juniors shirt to the saddle, which affords me a brief respite (sorry Roman!), and we push on, by sheer chance bumping into the earnest Spanish cyclist hours later, who now has her kids in tow. Her daughter is fresh as a daisy compared to our panting selves, heading at the lake like us, but from an altogether different direction: the mythical shortcut.

Our slightly sarcastic, somewhat miffed tone while chatting to her are generated only by an obvious lack of fitness and by legs screaming in protest at the easy route denied them by faulty directions. In informing us about the shortcut, the cyclist was only trying to help after all, and the angst soon evaporates when we reach the gorgeous Lago Cejar. It´s picturesque in the extreme, the perfectly clear salt lake reflecting the volcano backdrop in a mesmerizing mirror-image over waters part turquoise, part dark, deep blue. Of course, I’ve forgotten my camera, but in such a beautiful place it hardly seems to matter. I won’t be forgetting this sight in a hurry.

We sit tired and meditative for an hour or so before a herd of white tour buses appears on the horizon, another reminder of the tourism that’s expanding through this corner of the desert with every passing day. Not that us humans just spoil things out here. When Didier falls slightly behind on our way back, a ripple of anxiety between Simon and me prompts us to flag down the next vehicle that drives past. Without a second thought, the local Chilean Mapuche driver and his family cheerfully let me jump in the back of their red pickup, and we head back towards the lake, out of their way, until we find him still peddling away, grateful as we all are for this spontaneous generosity. People look out for each other as a matter of course here in the Atacama.

Valle de la luna (OJJ, 27/7/2014)

The population boom in and around San Pedro these days isn’t just a result of the tourism cash cow either, though you’d be forgiven for thinking this while walking the streets surrounding the main plaza. The desert has also offered up valuable practical gifts too, such as providing a location for cutting-edge astronomical research. The lack of humidity and light pollution make it just about the most perfect spot on earth for the professional stargazing community, who have constructed the planet’s most powerful radio telescope to date, ALMA (note how it brilliantly spells out the Spanish word for soul. They´re a clever bunch, these scientists).

But this astronomy lark isn’t just for the white-coated Sheldon-ites of this world. Just glancing up at night reveals a plethora of stars, not to mention a visible milky way, which drops your jaw. Didier and I are spellbound, and opt for a stargazing lesson on our final night in San Pedro. Our excitable and geeky host has us fumbling over telescopes to pin down initially blurry yet eventually stunning glimpses of the stellar stuff beyond our planet. He’s a multilingual Belgian who’s found his calling working out here: one among many who are flocking to ply their chosen trade in such a stunning location.

The glimpses of Mars and Saturn we get through the telescopes (after much cajoling) before the cold has us scurrying back into town are still seared into my mind’s eye, bright and clear and magnificent. It isn’t the final gem San Pedro has to offer, though. We meet Simon in a bustling, local bar complete with Wild-West swinging doors and an open courtyard heated by fire pits dotted around the tables. A Chilean duo are singing Latin versions of Marley covers, and we sate our thirst with tasty beer from the other end of the country (Chilean Patagonia, some 2,000 miles away to the South). It´s been thirsty work exploring the driest place on earth.