This week, exactly one year after Bolivia’s President Evo Morales was exiled in a coup, Bolivia elected another president from the same party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS). This election was much anticipated after the right-leaning interim presidency delayed the presidential election three times, causing mass protests in August that erupted both because of frustration with elections and with the increase in poverty since Morales’s forced exile. While the MAS candidate, Luis Arce, is presumed to be the winner of the election with a strong lead, there is still some concern that the Organization of American States (OAS) will accuse the election of being fraudulent, causing the same unrest and coup that occurred last year. But to understand the importance of this election, it is first essential to learn some of Bolivia’s history.
On January 22, 2006, Bolivia’s first indigenous president was inaugurated in La Paz. President Evo Morales began his first term with a speech honoring the recent deaths of cocaleros and indigenous people and denouncing colonialism, imperialism and neoliberalism. While he did not initially label his philosophy as socialist, he packed his cabinet with leftist thinkers and indigenous activists, whom he later replaced with more leftist politicians. In his first term, he announced a desire to nationalize mining, electricity, telephones and railroads, leading to Bolivia’s unprecedented economic strength, where Bolivia ended 2006 with zero fiscal deficit for the first time in 30 years. Bolivia also maintained one of the world’s highest levels of economic growth during the global financial crisis of 2008 and saw its literacy rate drop from 16%, the highest in South America, to zero by 2009, according to UNESCO. Much of his work as president in the first term also focused on equality for the poor, women, LGBTQ+ and indigenous people. He fought for these groups through wealth distribution, cultural projects, the requirement of civil servants to learn at least one indigenous language, and the establishment of Sexual Minority Rights Day. However, Morales dealt with great criticism and unrest for his controversial economic policies during much of his presidency. Middle-class Bolivians argued that their social standing had declined since his inauguration and felt frustrated with Morales’s lack of support and even trust for this class. Leftist activists protested the 2010 rise in minimum wage, arguing that it was lower than necessary. Morales, however, faced the most unrest when he ran for his fourth term in 2019 and the OAS published a report accusing him of election fraud, leading to pressure from Bolivia’s military to resign and leave the country. As the country suddenly transitioned to an interim presidency with the more conservative Jeanine Áñez, citizens became polarized, and protests and counter-protests erupted across Bolivia. Morales and his supporters still claim that his exile was due to a right-wing coup, largely encouraged by the anti-socialist ideology of the United States.
Luis Arce, the presumed newly elected president of Bolivia, serves as a fascinating continuation of Evo Morales’s presidency. Arce served as the finance minister in Morales’s government from 2006 until 2019, overseeing the nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry. His running mate, David Choquehuanca, represents the social aspect of MAS with his closeness to Bolivia’s many social movements and with his indigenous activism and advocacy for the “Good Living” philosophy. According to a Bolivia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, the MAS likely secured this vote because “the pandemic and the recession have taken a toll on people’s trust in the alternative to the MAS.”
According to NPR, the election this Sunday ran rather smoothly, despite the country’s nervous anticipation for violent unrest to the point of stocking up on food and other supplies before the polls opened. While Arce’s administration faces numerous challenges that Morales did not have to, such as the pandemic and its economic consequences, the clear-cut win for MAS despite its coup just last year represents a great victory for Latin America’s left. It also, in some ways, returned feelings of peace and sovereignty to the people of Bolivia and supporters of Morales who felt that other countries undemocratically intervened. Overall, this week’s election in Bolivia marks a historical moment and a rise in leftist ideology and anti-imperialism—a moment that will hopefully continue to be peaceful.