Evo Morales is easily Bolivia’s most recognisable figure. As President of the multinational country, he has been at the forefront of the late Pink Tide (marea rosa) of Socialist governments in the region. The most (in)famous, depending on your politics, was undoubtedly the late Hugo Chavez. But Morales also attracted headlines for his slightly more nuanced, yet fierce opposition of the post-Cold War, American-dominated order. A position that has earned his ‘Movement towards Socialism’ party three landslide general election wins in a row.
Yet Morales’ bubble burst last week when he lost a referendum on a constitution to allow him to stand for a fourth term. This despite arguably being the most popular and successful socialist leader in the region. The troubles for Latin American socialism don’t stop there: in Venezuela, Chavez’s successor Nicholas Maduro is facing a gaping economic vortex due to the low oil prices and let the majority in parliament slip to the opposition. Brazil’s leading Partido dos Trabalhadores is facing a corruption scandal. The ultimate scarecrow of ‘’post-neo-liberalism’’, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, was defeated in Argentina late last year.
The emergence of the Pink Tide has its roots in the reaction to perceived right-wing, and United States, dominance in the region. Several military coup d’états, facilitated by the fact that the military’s institutions were better run than the democratic ones, had struck a blow to Latin American democracy.
The most controversial academic reason was the perceived state of neo-colonialism in the region, exercised by the United States on grassroots industries. Indeed, it was the US’s policy on restricting coca plants in their latest battle on the ‘War on Drugs’ that lead to Morales’ rise to fame, as leader of the peasant union.
The idea of neo-colonialism has served as a basis for the revolutionary left since the fall of the Soviet Union. It basically consists of an ‘’update’’ on classical Marxism to our more globalised production system: Instead of bourgeois classes being internal to a state, they express themselves through the states themselves on a global stage. The result is that the USA ‘’owns’’ a huge amount of the factors of production in South America, and therefore reaps most of the rewards from any profit vis-à-vis international trade. In Bolivia though, the US’s intervention was peculiar: it consisted of restricting the production of coca as part of the ‘War on Drugs’. One such producer of the coca industry: Evo Morales.
Bolivia had been subject to some 187 coup d’états after the Second World War before Morales emerged as its democratically elected leader. For many, mostly native Indian Bolivians, Morales’ victory represented not just an opposition to the American meddling in the region, but a genuine democratic renewal after years of oligarchic dictators, the most brutal of which was General Banzer, whose achievements include a US-sponsored plot to turn Bolivia into a ‘White Flight’ country for some of the most extreme Apartheid South Africans in the 1980s, and personally overseeing the torture of his political opponents.
Morales’ victory was soon undermined by the richer eastern parts of Bolivia, who wanted to separate themselves from his government. Whilst Bolivia was on the brink of a civil war, Morales kicked out the US ambassador, accusing him of starting the conspiracy to overthrow the Socialist government.
Of course, it seems a throwback to the bygone era of the Cold War: Socialist ruler vs Big Uncle Sam and his local, questionable allies. But the demise of the Communist block has made this conflict more and more about reviving an older political narrative: that of native Amer-indians vs white colonialist. In Bolivia, for example, the coca plant abolition, imposed by Banzer when he somehow managed to be the first dictator elected in the late nineties (soon to be followed by Hugo Chavez), was seen as a purely anti-Amerindian action. The neo-colonialism then was not just of an economic or political nature, but of an ethnocultural one.
This ultimately constitutes the first failure of Latin American socialism: its inability to unite the peoples of its country across ethnocultural fault lines, instead playing an equally divisive role as its opposition. Morales was supposed to be the exception rather than the rule. Around the mid-2000s, before he was elected, he famously adopted a more “European” name to his party and broke up with the more violent elements of the Amer-indian resistance, such as Felipe Quispe.
The latter has labelled Morales’ policies, or Evonomics, as “neo-liberalism with an Indian face”, and there is some truth to that, looking at the results of similar economic policies in Venezuela. What you effectively have is, rather than a distribution of wealth across working class wages, a full round assault on the previous owners of capital in the region through state institutions. Venezuelan economics included price controls and maximum prices to ensure affordability of goods on such a wage. But the result is that the old oligarchs simply scaled back production to remain profitable. As one internet poster explained: “It’s almost trying to create a for-needs economy within the framework of profit maximisation, while normatively arguing for socialism, and that is bound to fail”.
The untimely death of Chavez exposed a deeper, yet all too familiar, breach in the ideological fulcrum of the Pink Tide: its emphasis on personality cults. It is hard to look beyond Evo in Bolivia or Lula in Brazil. But once chinks in the very human armour of these leaders are exposed, such as the latter Brazilian’s ongoing corruption case, it is difficult to endorse a movement that has relied so much on them. Morales’ attempt to extend his presidential term was rejected outright by a country all too familiar with the problem of personalist dictatorships.
The author is only ruthlessly critical of the Pink Tide in this regard, because he takes it so seriously: this was a genuine opportunity for an alternative system that could shift the disturbingly one-sided global political debate. But perhaps it is engrained in the South American psyche to always oppose a global status quo. Certainly the anti-‘yanki’ sentiment has shot up regardless of the left’s poll numbers tumbling down. Since the days of Bolivar, the man who provided Bolivia with its name and identity, the continent has always been struggling to achieve a certain measure of detachment from its brooding northern neighbour and old colonies. The conventional view, as well as those of the national leaders, is that the only way to achieve this sovereignty is an EU-style regional integration on an economic, then political level. But the only way such a ‘Bolivarian’ ideal would be a success is if they learn from the mistakes of the past, including that of the Pink Tide…