Juan Karita/AP
Bolivian President Evo Morales

Bolivia’s Morales Survives Recall, But Divisions Remain

August 12, 2008 01:41 PM
by Josh Katz
President Evo Morales held on to his job after a referendum vote this weekend, but opposition remains strong to the controversial president’s efforts to redistribute resources.

Morales Retains Power

On Sunday, August 10, Bolivia overwhelmingly voted to keep President Evo Morales in power, with unofficial results giving him the support of 60 percent of the population. That number tops the 54 percent Morales won in the December 2005 election.

“What the Bolivian people have expressed with their votes today is the consolidation of the process of change,” Morales said. “We are here to keep advancing in the recovery of our natural resources, the consolidation of nationalization, and the state takeover of companies.”

The recall vote tested the national support for the president, vice president and eight of the country’s nine state governors. Three of the governors lost the vote, two of whom were opponents of Morales.

The referendum pitted the socialist president Morales against four governors from affluent eastern states who have resisted Morales’s attempts to nationalize the country’s industries and redistribute resources to the poorer population, favoring instead more regional autonomy. Morales garners most of his support from the indigenous Amerindian population of the country’s western high planes, The Economist explains.

Some Morales Opponents Also Make Gains

While the results of the recall appeared to re-assert majority support for Morales, they were not a rebuke to the provincial governors either. In fact, the governor of Santa Cruz, one of the leading opponents of the Morales, retained his seat by about 70 percent of the vote, more than Morales’s margin of victory.

Opponents of Morales made their message clear in the weeks preceding the recall. Last week, the Santa Cruz mayor called for the military to overthrow Morales, and protesters have disrupted the president’s travel schedule by blockading airports.

Earlier this year, the Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija all voted in favor of autonomy in referendums considered illegitimate by the central government.

Nevertheless, with the victory, The Economist predicts that “Mr. Morales is now likely to call—and probably win—a separate referendum on a new constitution that would increase the role of the state in the economy, strengthen the powers of the president, weaken the judiciary and give some indigenous communities greater autonomy.”

Background: Evo Morales and Bolivia’s economic divisions

Morales has been a controversial figure since handily winning national elections in December, 2005, becoming the first indigenous Bolivian president. According to the BBC, “Wealthy urban elites, who are mostly of Spanish ancestry, have traditionally dominated political and economic life, whereas most Bolivians are low-income subsistence farmers, miners, small traders or artisans.” Indigenous people comprise two-thirds the country’s population, the largest such percentage in South America. Some charge Morales with dividing the country “along racial lines,” the Economist writes.

Bolivia boasts the second-largest natural gas reserves in the continent, and Morales put most of the energy industry in state hands in May 2006. Congress initially approved his measure to redistribute “illegally-owned” land in eastern provinces to the poor, but governors halted the plan.  Reuters writes that Morales has also “nationalized the country’s largest telecommunications company, Entel,” and, among other economic initiatives, “is trying to increase state revenue from energy and mining.”

Opinion & Analysis: A crucial election for Bolivia

Sunday’s election day was all-important for Bolivians. According to The Washington Post, “All vehicles, except certain registered cars, were not permitted on the streets. Restaurants refused to serve alcohol during voting hours. Voting is mandatory, and long lines formed at polling stations across La Paz, which revealed in microcosm the divisions at work in the country.”

In a recent column supporting the results of the referendum, Hugh O’Shaughnessy of the New Statesman charged Morales’ opponents with racism. “The reality is that up and down Latin America—from Chiapas and Guatemala to Ecuador and the High Andes—the original inhabitants of the region, after five hundred years of being enslaved and generally mucked about by the Europeans, are beginning to get their own back,” he argues.

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