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In Bolivia, the government under President, indigenous activist and peasant leader Evo Morales has launched a major redistribution of economic resources, land, and political power. Now the elite strikes back. With demands for regional autonomy (internal self-government), the opposition governors have declared political war on the government and the grassroots-based indigenous organizations the governing party is rooted in.

  • What are the characteristics of the change processes in Bolivia?
  • What kind of conflict is taking place in the country?
  • Is it going against civil war?

2: Change of regime

In December 2005, Evo Morales and the Socialist Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) came to power. The presidential election was historic from a democratic perspective. With Morales, Bolivia got its first president with an indigenous background. Although 60-70 percent of the Bolivian population identifies as indigenous peoples, none of the Bolivian presidents before 2005 identified themselves as indigenous.

With 54 percent of the vote, Morales also became the first directly elected president of Bolivia. All presidents from the first democratic election in 1982 to 2005 received less than 50 percent in the first round. Last but not least, turnout was historically high. About 85 percent used their right to vote.

The presidential election represented a change of course in Bolivian politics. The MAS government, led by Morales, joins the ranks of left-wing governments that have shaped parts of Latin America in recent years. Morales came to power with the promise of improving the situation of poor indigenous peoples who have been excluded from political and economic power ever since the Spaniards colonized the country in 1533.

Morales himself comes from poor backgrounds and was one of the many who moved to the valley of Chaparé to grow coca leaves after the mines in the highlands were privatized and thousands of miners were out of work. Kokablad, which has traditionally been used as a tea in the entire Andean region and has the same function as coffee, gave good prices on the national market in the 1980s. It was therefore profitable to grow the coca plant.

However, it did not take long before the labor situation of migrant workers was once again threatened. Since coca leaf is a key ingredient in the drug cocaine, there were strict restrictions on the cultivation of coca plants throughout the 1980s. The US-backed semi-military began patrolling the region and cracked down on further cultivation of the green leaf.

The coca farmers organized themselves in the national farmers’ organization Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores y Campesinos Boliviana (CSUTCB). It organizes poor indigenous peoples throughout the country and is in strong alliance with other Bolivian grassroots organizations, such as the women’s organization Bartolina Sisa and the indigenous organization Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia (CIDOB).

When it was opened for democratic elections by municipal authorities in the 1990s, Morales established MAS based on this peasant movement. Morales was the leader of the coca farmers’ association, and the new party received great support among the small farmers. MAS profiled itself as the party for the marginalized (excluded), and after a quarter, MAS gained status as a party for indigenous peoples and the poor. Since the majority of the population lives in poverty, there was enormous potential in the party project.

3: Redistribution of resources

Bolivia is characterized by extreme inequality . The richest tenth controls over 47 per cent of GDP, while the poorest tenth has no more than 0.3 per cent. Only a few African countries do worse in terms of inequality than Bolivia, as a country located in South America according to A2ZGOV. Since the presidential election in 2005, the government has implemented a number of reforms with the goal of redistribution .

One of the most controversial political changes is the nationalization of gas resources . In Bolivia, nationalization has taken the form of increased state control over the sector; the government has not expropriated property. With increased control over the resource, the government has negotiated better gas prices and increased the tax level considerably. Raw gas is the country’s most important export product.

By increasing the taxation of foreign gas companies from 18 to over 50 per cent, the government has provided significantly greater revenue to the public budget. Compared with the taxation of the oil and gas sector in other countries, such as in Norway where oil companies are taxed at up to 90 per cent, the tax level in Bolivia is still low.

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