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BOLIVIA
All eyes on Evo
Mateo Ferrano
1/26/2006
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Enormous challenges await President Evo Morales.

Saúl Contreras Rojas drives one of the thousands of taxis that clog the streets of the Bolivian capital, La Paz, high in the Andes.

Along with a miniature Virgin of Copacabana, Contreras, 55, has posted to his dashboard wallet-sized photos of President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera, members of the Movement to Socialism (MAS).

"I am a member of MAS because I want change. Hopefully, Evo will do well in office because this country cannot tolerate more poverty and more of the traditional parties’ corruption," Contreras said.

 

A landslide

 

Like Contreras, 53.7 percent of the 2.8 million Bolivians eligible to vote, voted for MAS in the Dec. 18 election, an unprecedented result.

Originally from Orinoca, an impoverished town in the central mining department of Oruro, Morales, 46, began his political career 10 years ago as the leader of the coca producers in El Chapare in Cochabamba, where he founded MAS.

Morales began a five-year term on Jan. 22, becoming the Bolivia’s first president of indigenous decent, bringing with him a series of structural demands that have led to the fall of two presidents in less than two years.

"His grand victory and inflated expectations are two of Morales’ greatest enemies," said analyst Carlos Toranzo. "There are many people who are hoping for miracles in the short term."

Evo, as he is commonly known, has already begun to face the urgent demands from lobbying groups, social sectors and unions.

Almost immediately Bolivia’s new government must confront the demands of public school teachers, the Bolivian Worker’s Central, the National Unemployment Association (with 300,000 members), small businesses, retirees and health care workers.

The majority of these groups urge economic improvements, including a minimum wage of 1,500 bolivianos (US$187), which was one of MAS’ electoral promises. The current minimum wage is set at 450 bolivianos ($56).

Other pressing issues include nationalizing the country’s hydrocarbons, a solution to the ever-present land distribution conflict, an anti-drug policy, the definition of autonomous regions and the organization of a constitutional assembly.

 

Nationalization of gas reserves

 

A key facet of the MAS government, developed from the 10 proposals to "change the country," is the nationalization of the country’s hydrocarbons and the industrialization of gas "so that all the gas and oil that is extracted from our land is our property, not the multinationals’.’"

The Master Hydrocarbon Exploitation Plan will define the uses for all the country’s strategic reserves. For this to happen, a service providing regime will be established for the Bolivian government to determine the conditions for the hydrocarbons’ use.

"All of our natural resources must be handed over to the Bolivian people, whether it’s water, coca or gas," Morales said during his Jan. 22 inauguration. "A challenge for all Bolivians is to industrialize our resources as a way out of poverty."

In his tour to Belgium, Brazil, China, Cuba, France, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain and Venezuela after the election, Morales reiterated his decision to "respect investments" of the multinational companies that operate in Bolivia.

The Spanish oil company Repsol and the Brazilian Petrobras extract and export approximately 80 percent of Bolivia’s gas reserves. Morales was adamant in his declarations that "we do not want bosses, but rather, partners." The president-elect again stated that the country will recover control of its gas industry, although he said that "the Spanish and European business owners have nothing to be afraid of with this new government."

 

Gas reserves caused past unrest

 

Bolivia, with at least 50 trillion cubic feet of gas, is the continent’s second largest gas-producer, after Venezuela. Since October 2003, when more than 60 residents in the city of El Alto died in clashes against then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-97 and 2002-2003), the country’s gas reserves have become the trigger of civil unrest that worsened Bolivia’s institutional crisis.

Another pressing topic is a demand for autonomy, led by the departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando.

MAS intends to present Congress with the Law for Autonomy that is aimed at the "political and administrative decentralization of the republic so that the indigenous towns and the cities and regions are able to make political and financial decisions, and in the management of the natural resources in the name of the country, in a manner that is harmonious and reciprocal with nature."

A key part of Morales’ proposal for a new Bolivia is the constitutional assembly, so a bill was drafted that will need to be approved by two thirds of the Congress — 105 of the 157 lawmakers (130 deputies and 27 senators).

MAS’ bill includes a call for elections for the selection of 231 representatives to the assembly to debate and approve a new constitution within 120 days of the law’s passing.

Although MAS will enjoy a majority in Congress — 84 lawmakers — in order to approve the laws of autonomy and constitutional assembly it will inevitably have to negotiate with other political parties. PODEMOS has 56 lawmakers, National Unity, nine, and the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, eight.

"Morales, even with his great legitimacy, no matter what, will have to forge an agreement with the regions to create a viable government," Toranzo said.


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