The sun shone brightly in La Paz, Bolivia on election day this past Sunday. The cars and buses that usually fill the winding streets were prohibited for the day in order to prevent people from voting more than once in different locations. As a result, the air was crisp and clear, and children played soccer in the open roads, bicyclists took advantage of the freedom, and families enjoyed picnics and games while street vendors sold barbecued beef and chicken. It was a day of voting, but for many people in La Paz, it was also a celebratory time with family. As we now know, the voters that day would go on to grant President Evo Morales a third term in office with roughly 60 percent of the vote.
I walked around La Paz throughout the day, visiting middle and working class neighborhoods across the city to interview voters on how they voted, or planned to vote, and why. The vast majority of the people I spoke with were enthusiastic about the Evo Morales administration and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) political party. For example, Maria Isabel Viscarra, a language teacher in the city had this to say:
“I voted for President Evo, because I am convinced that he is an excellent president. I’ve read through the history of my country many times, and I’ve seen that he is the best president in terms of the economy, education, development and other issues. With the previous governments the only thing they ever did was loot the country, and only look after their own personal interests. This isn’t the case with this government. This government is in function of the people, it is dedicated to creating an inclusive country, one without discrimination. Because here racism was very strong, and this racism is a legacy of colonialism, but now things have changed.”
It wasn’t a surprise that Morales and many members of his party won the election.
It wasn’t a surprise that Morales and many members of his party won the election. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere recently (see this article for the implications of the election and this look back on Morales’ time office), Morales was likely to win in part because of the success of his administration in lifting people out of poverty, empowering marginalized sectors of society with funding to school children, mothers and the elderly, and building new infrastructure and public works projects. The funding for such programs largely came from newly nationalized industries and businesses.
In addition, people continue to support the government as it marks a break from the neoliberal past when racist and oppressive right wing presidents typically ran the country. Now, with Morales representing the indigenous and poor majority of Bolivia, many voters continue to identify with their president. (To put this popularity in context, consider the fact that unpopular neoliberal president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada won the elections in 2002 with just 22.5 percent of the vote, compared to Morales’ approximately 60 percent on Sunday.)
However, serious criticisms of the MAS took the limelight in the lead up to the elections. For example, in recent months a movement grew momentum against sexist comments from political candidates and a wave of violence against women in the country. Outspoken critics from the left continue to critique the MAS’s emphasis on an extractive-based economy in mining and gas; while such industries have created funding for the government, they have also polluted the land and rivers, and displaced rural and indigenous communities. In addition, the Morales government recently passed a law which criminalizes protest against mining operations, and grants more water rights to miners than to local farming communities. In its drive for political hegemony, the MAS has also co-opted and divided some of the country’s social movements, leading to less autonomy and open criticism among grassroots activists.
Among opponents of the MAS I spoke with, views varied widely. Ivan Villafuerte, a lawyer in a middle class neighborhood in La Paz told me why he did not support the government:
“The government of Evo Morales, which is a government that has done positive things, has also done negative things. For example, one of the positive things is the funds they have reserved in the government. Some other positive aspects are the public works the MAS has constructed, for example here in La Paz the aerial cable car, and a new two-lane highway to the city of Oruro. And in regards to the negative aspects, nationally and generally, is the level of political persecution against the opposition to the government. The other negative thing is the MAS’s focus on the rural social movements in the country, without focusing sufficiently on the middle class in the cities; this government has not helped the middle class at all.”
Morales himself recently reflected on what is perhaps a growing pitfall of the MAS – its reliance on Evo as a central feature of its popularity, something the president has of course perpetuated and encouraged. However, after Sunday’s election he told the BBC that he heard a critique from a union leader during the campaign who told him, “Evo, you are really bad.” Evo responded, “Why bad?” The explanation: “Because you have eliminated the MAS. Here there are no Masistas, there are just Evistas.” Morales told the BBC, “This has me worried. Clearly, someone has to lead… I understand this Latin American way of thinking that everything is always about a single person, but I don’t like it.” Morales has said throughout the current campaign that he doesn’t plan to seek another term.
Among some of the people I spoke with on Sunday, Evo was the central focus of their support. As Yolanda Wachari, a street vendor in a working class neighborhood of La Paz explained:
“I hope that Evo stays in power for many years because he’s done so much for the people. I support the way Evo governs. He’s done a lot for our country. No other president has accomplished what Evo has accomplished. I am very happy that he’s our president because now there are more highways, we have our aerial cable car in La Paz and the indigenous universities. The majority of the poor people support him. He’s the only president that has remembered the poor people in Bolivia.”
I hope that Evo stays in power for many years because he’s done so much for the people
After Morales announced his victory, celebrations filled the Plaza Murillo in La Paz, with folk music playing late into the night. The blue and black colors of the MAS party mixed with the multi-colored Wiphala flag, representing the many indigenous groups in Bolivia. Members of the various campesino, workers and indigenous organizations that work closely with the MAS were well represented in the festivities.
As with any presidency, contradictions and challenges still abound; Morales just announced plans for a controversial nuclear power plant to be built in earthquake-prone La Paz. Abortion is still largely illegal in the country, and from January to September of this year 157 women were murdered. Toxic fields of soy are expanding in the eastern part of the country with the MAS government’s blessing. And some of the very indigenous and rural communities that government programs are meant to support are being displaced by extractive industries across the country.
Yet in the car-less, sunny streets of La Paz on election day, the enthusiasm for the government was palpable. Criticisms aside, MAS supporters that I spoke with shared the view that it would take time for the Morales administration to help recover the country from so many years of neoliberal robbery and exploitation. As music teacher Jorge Quispe Bustillos explained, “I believe that we need to continue with this government, because this process, this change, needs time for there to be real results.”