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Pierre Beemans

I spent a couple of weeks in Bolivia last month, after an absence of almost 15 years (with the exception of a short visit six years ago). It was a delight to return to one of the most beautiful and fascinating countries in Latin America, rich in history, culture and social diversity. I could not but be impressed by the changes that had taken place. I spent as much time as I could talking to old friends, shopkeepers and students in La Paz and Cochabamba about what was going on in the country, as well as looking through magazines and newspapers. Much of the background information and factual detail in this article has been gleaned from these conversations with ordinary citizens as well as from the excellent website of the newspaper Pagina Siete.

The first thing I noticed on arriving in La Paz was the impressively new airport in El Alto. When I first flew in some 50 years ago, the airport and a small settlement constituted the only buildings on the high (4,100 m. or about 14,000’) dry Andean plateau (the Altiplano). Today the airport is surrounded by the bustling, hustling city of El Alto, home to much of the working class who commute to la Paz, and now to a growing class of small-scale industrialists and entrepreneurs.

The second thing I noticed, as we drove down the steep highway into the mountain-edged bowl where the city proper lies, was the network of aerial cable cars (the Teleferico) going up and down and across the city from El Alto to the suburbs of Obrajes and Calacoto some 3,000’ below. It has to be the most spectacular public transit system on the planet, built since 2014 at a cost (so far) of about US$700 million. Floating high above the city on the 10-person gondolas that run every minute or so along cables strung between 75m. towers gives a stunning perspective from the snow-covered peaks of Illimani and Huayna Potosi to the markets, bridges, churches, high-rises and crowded streets of downtown La Paz.

One can also appreciate the extent to which the city has sprawled up the steep slopes of the ‘bowl’ and overflowed onto the Altiplano. El Alto (pop. 1.3 million) is now larger than La Paz itself (1 million). In fact, one of the most striking changes in Bolivia is the shift over the past 25-30 years from a country that was 75% rural to one that is 75% urban. Santa Cruz, the capital of the eastern lowlands, has 3.2 million and is said to be the fastest-growing city in Latin America. Cochabamba in the central highland valley is over 2 million and Tarija, Oruro and Sucre are over 500,000 each. I was told that the rural towns and villages of the Altiplano and the mountains are being emptied as campesinos move to the cities and the more prosperous eastern lowlands.

On the streets themselves, one of the most noticeable sights is the proliferation of thousands of the privately owned micro-buses that jam the congested downtowns and provide most of the public transportation in Bolivian cities, carrying 10-20 passengers for very modest fares. A Canadian would not be surprised by the Toyotas, Nissans and Volkswagens, but Foton, JenBei, Golden Dragon, KingLong, Ankai, JoyLong, DongFeng, SunLong? These are not different models of one or two makes, they are some of the distinct Chinese manufacturers whose buses are ubiquitous in Bolivia. They illustrate vividly how China has become in little more than a decade the second largest importer into Bolivia after the USA.

On October 20, Bolivians will go to the polls and the likelihood is that President Evo Morales (Evo, as he is universally known) will be re-elected for a 4th term despite the term limits imposed by the new constitution his own party put in place in 2009. (A 2016 constitutional referendum to remove those limits was voted down, but the constitutional court judges installed by Morales conveniently agreed that term limits infringed on a basic human right to re-election.) In a country with the lowest per capita income in South America and a large, poor Quechua and Aymara population, Evo’s mass appeal as the first indigenous President plus the backing of the national labour unions, the coca growers associations and the agroindustrial elites will probably suffice to overcome the growing resistance in the cities to his rule.

Evo and the party he created (the MAS, or Movimiento al Socialismo) came into power in 2006 on a wave of popular reaction against what was perceived as a conservative regime dominated by urban economic elites who were selling the country out to the IMF, the USA and foreign capitalist enterprises. That perspective is open to serious challenge, but it was widespread enough to win Evo and the MAS an overwhelming majority. He wasted no time in consolidating that power by placing his supporters (qualified or not) in command of the judiciary, the police and the public administration.

Evo’s political base lies with the coca farmers, especially in the Chapare region of Cochabamba, and they have benefited significantly. In October of 2015 Evo inaugurated in the Chapare the second largest airport in Bolivia in the booming town of Chimore (pop. 21,000). Speculation abounds about the use of the airport, as not all flights are recorded. Since Evo’s election, the land dedicated to cultivation of coca has expanded enormously as well as the exportation of its raw and refined product. Land that was formerly dedicated to lesser value food crops in the semi-tropical highlands has been converted to coca to the extent that Bolivia, which was once self-sufficient in food crops is now importing fruit, vegetables, dairy products, even potatoes and quinoa from Peru and Brazil. Illicit and undeclared narcodollars are being laundered and reinvested in much of the real estate boom one sees in the major cities.

The new National Development Plan called for social programs to be financed by the export of oil and gas and foreign business were told that profits could not be taken out of the country but had to be reinvested in Bolivia instead. The private sector was subjected to much more regulation and over 60 state-owned enterprises were created to take up the slack and generate new revenues. The 2009 constitution restricted the size of individual landholdings to 5,000 hectares (a measure aimed at the large ranches and agro-enterprises of Santa Cruz and the eastern lowlands), and steps were taken to encourage more highland campesinos to move to those regions.

Not surprisingly, there was large-scale resistance to the Morales government in Santa Cruz and the other eastern and Amazon lowland provinces, led by the large ranching and farming interests. By 2009, there was a growing separatist movement in the region that exacerbated the traditional rivalry between Andean ‘collas’ and lowland ‘cambas’, and protests erupted in Santa Cruz and Tarija which had to be put down by force. Around this time, foreign investment began to taper off sharply and the global price for oil and gas declined. China has been the major exception, and the government is rumoured to be massively in debt to Beijing.

By 2016 it was clear to the government that the ‘new economic model’ was not working as well as expected. The most promising source of new export revenue lay in the insatiable demand by China and India for soya and beef (which Brazil and Argentina were already feeding into). In 2015 the government held the ‘Cumbre Agropecuario’, a high-level meeting with the agroindustrial interests of Santa Cruz and the ‘Oriente’, and yesterday’s ‘separatist agro-oligarchs’ became today’s ‘agro-entrepreneurial partners’. The agreement reached allowed national and foreign (mainly Brazilian) agroindustries to circumvent the property size restrictions and they were given the green light for large-scale expansion into the ‘bosque seco’ (savanna forests and grassland) of the Chiquitania and Robore regions east of Santa Cruz in order to massively expand production of beef and soya for export. (Bolivia expects to export 40,000 tons of beef to China in 2020 and hopes to reach 200,000 tons within a decade with an estimated value of US$900 million. Quinoa exports to China in 2018 and 2019 totalled 600,000 tons.)

The Cumbre Agropecuario agreement calls for 1 million hectares a year of new land to be brought into production for cattle ranching or soya over the next 10 years. (10,000,000 hectares is 100,000 or 38,600 sq. miles - almost twice the size of Nova Scotia or over 2.5 times the size of Belgium.) Both the large landowners and the 25,000 small migrant farmers who were allocated land in the Oriente were given permission to clear the land by burning the existing vegetation. Both the land and the financial assistance to the small farmers was conditional to their growing soya.

The result has been the forest fires that, driven by high winds and unseasonably dry weather, have raged out of control and consumed 4 million hectares of the Chiquitania and Robore so far this year. A similar phenomenon in Brazil has received more international attention, but the causes are largely the same. Efforts to control the flames have received little support, financial or material, from the central government despite international offers of assistance and outcries from national environmental groups. The loss of the ‘bosque seco’ in the Chiquitania and Robore will be an ecological disaster, as the region is a unique ecosystem, home to animal, plant and insect species not found elsewhere.

Even the normally docile national media have taken up the call for measures to address the fires. While most of the papers and TV stations are privately owned, few of them risk incurring the government’s ire (and the loss of access and advertising), especially if they criticize Evo himself or the MAS. Papers can find their supplies of newsprint delayed for bureaucratic reasons, journalists can find themselves harassed or even imprisoned and attacked. One courageous exception is the journal Pagina Siete, which stands out for the scope and quality of its reporting in general and its criticism of the government and the President himself.

Evo came to power democratically in 2006 amidst high hopes from many Bolivians and a generally sympathetic international community. Bolivia’s majority Quechua- and Aymara-speaking population constituted most of the poor rural peasantry and the low-income settlements that surround the larger cities, and they had traditionally suffered from discrimination and marginalization. Evo promised a new social, political and economic order that would right historic wrongs, bring integrity and efficiency to public institutions, and lift Bolivia out of its standing as South America’s poorest country.

There certainly have been improvements - the new roads, bridges and new buildings (not to mention the Teleferico) attest to that. Poverty has declined by 25% and the country has enjoyed a fairly stable period of economic growth despite the drop in its commodity exports. External debt has gone up by about 30% since 2007, but the amount owed in foreign currencies has quintupled. If commodity prices remain low, foreign investment does not pick up, foreign exchange reserves continue to decline and external borrowing continues to grow, the economic boom could come to an abrupt end.

On the other hand, corruption, government inefficiency and the democratic deficit do not appear to have changed significantly. Evo has been linked directly to a major scandal involving a questionable contract awarded to OAS, a Brazilian construction firm, through his friend the former Brazilian president, Lula da Silva. The personality cult that has grown up around Evo is being challenged by restless students, the urban citizens who voted against the constitutional referendum in 2016 and even the coca growers of the Yungas region of La Paz (complaining about being disadvantaged via the coca growers in the Chapare).

Will the election of October 20 change this situation significantly? By the time this piece is posted on, we should have a clearer idea.

Tags: Pierre Beemans