What Evo Morales did for Bolivia

When I was a kid, and nobody knew what an asshole Scott Adams is, I loved reading Dilbert. I think part of it was that I spent a fair amount of time hanging out at the office where my dad worked, so office humor clicked with me. I’m bringing this up because as far as I know, a Dilbert strip was the first time I was made aware of the existence of Bolivia. Basically, Dogbert gets extremely rich, goes a little power-crazy, and “buys Bolivia”. In context, Bolivia was cast as poor and possibly backwards, like the fictional nation of Elbonia. Bolivia was a poor country, and that’s all there was to it.

I learned more as life went on, but it wasn’t until I heard Michael Brooks talking about Evo Morales on The Majority Report that I actually started learning anything about the country of Bolivia, rather than the comic strip stereotype. As with most South American countries, Bolivia has a large Native American population that has largely been kept out of power by the Europeans who made up the country’s government. It’s a story of colonialism, oppression, and genocide, and as with all such stories, the idea that Bolivia is “poor” was always a lie. The poverty experienced by the Bolivian people was in service to the enrichment of their rulers, and of capitalists on a global scale. Most recently, Bolivia has gained attention for its rich supply of lithium, and those watching events were quick to point at that the coup that removed Evo Morales from power in 2019 was likely tied to the decision to nationalize Bolivia’s lithium industry, and to focus on Bolivian manufacturing. That meant that rather than selling raw lithium on the international market, and then buying it back in products at a markup to enrich other people, Bolivia would make products in Bolivia, and sell those, thus keeping the profits from that industry within Bolivia. This would definitely cut into the profits of those people currently relying on cheap lithium to get rich off things like electric cars and house batteries, and so it wasn’t a stretch to assume that this coup, like many others around the world, was about preserving the wealth and power of the capitalist class. I think that this case is strengthened by evidence of ongoing efforts to prevent Morales’ MAS party from returning to power, following the bloody failure that was the brief Añez regime.

Edit: As was pointed out in the comments, it IS worth mentioning that Morales seeking a third term came after he had served two terms, and had championed a constitution limiting presidents to two terms.

I’m writing all of this as an introduction to a twitter thread I came across that I thought was worth sharing. Morales served as president of Bolivia from 2006 until the 2019 coup. At the time, I heard people saying that him being president for that long was “dictator behavior”, and evidence that the coup might be the sort of uprising we ought to support. I did not hear any clear answer as to why that wouldn’t also justify an uprising against Angela Merkel, who was Chancellor of Germany from 2005 to 2021. When there’s controversy surrounding a politician, people find things to hate, and find excuses to justify their hatred. That can make it difficult to figure out what’s actually going on. At times like that, I find it useful to look not at the rhetoric and claims being made, but at the material circumstances. What effect did the governance of Morales and the MAS party have on the people of Bolivia?

The answer to such a question is always going to be complicated, but I think this is one of those times where it’s safe to say that Morales’ government did good things for his country. This thread is a decent look at why people support him, and the MAS party more broadly:

There’s this weird phenomenon, where if people have a bad feeling about a particular politician, any bad things at all will be justification enough to condemn them wholly. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this myself, and I think it’s a destructive shortcut we take to avoid the work of learning more about the actual material situation in question. The system that the MAS party has started creating is not a utopia, but it seems to be a lot better than the hell-world capitalism has been creating.

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  1. JM says

    I think that Scott Adams and Evo Morales both are victims of their own success.
    Scott Adams been successful with Dilbert for so long that he lives in a bubble of his fans, creating an echo chamber of people who reflexively agree with him. This has caused his humor to drift towards being more mean and his politics to drift towards more strong beliefs about things he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does.
    Evo Morales is also a victim of his success. He did a lot of good things but got used to being on top and didn’t want to give up that power. He organized putting a new constitution in place that held his office to two terms and then took the matter to court when he wanted to run a 3rd time. He just looks better in history because the next president, Jeanine Áñez, was even worse.

  2. ockhamsshavingbrush says

    Small correction there: “Mutti” was german chancellor from 2005 to 2021, not 2015. Sorry for picking nits here….

  3. says

    I get the concern, and I share it. I think MAS would do better to run someone else with his support, going forward. But kindly note that the efforts to meddle with Bolivian politics continue, aimed at the party.

  4. says

    Shavingbrush – thanks for the correction! Fixing it now. I had the damned numbers in front of me, and I still wrote them wrong.

  5. Robert Zieger says

    Yeah, here’s my thing…As a political lefty and someone who admired Evo greatly, I very much think that he betrayed his people and his legacy by clinging to power. He would not be the first person with power to do this.

    The Bolivian constitution was utterly clear; a president can serve two consecutive terms. (Evo served three, though the first was under a prior constitution; admittedly a gray area.) He pushed a referendum that would allow him to run again. He lost. So his handpicked electoral court ruled that it was a “violation of his human rights” not to be able to run for another term. He ran and he won. (There have been allegations of fraud, but that’s unclear. Based on a lot of reading, I believe that the allegations were formulated before the results were released, which puts us into “coup” territory. And I’m not justifying that.)

    But…Evo Morales ignored his country’s constitution in order to maintain power. Angela Merkel is not a relevant example; the German constitution has no limits on terms. The Bolivian one did. American lefties ask yourselves–if Drumpf had won in 2020 and his 7 justice majority on the Court had ruled that he could run for a third term…would you be willing to accept this as his “human right”? Or would you be seeing it for what it was–a extra-constitutional power grab? Acknowledge it–Drumpf running for a Court-sanctioned third term would lead some of us to endorse civil war.

    We can’t have separate laws for our “friends” and our “foes”. Same rules apply.

    Evo lost his way and Bolivia and the MAS would be better served if he disappeared from the scene. He had twelve years to train his successors and make the continuation of the policies that he once cared most about (we assume) a reality. Instead, Evo mattered more to Evo than the country and its people.

  6. says

    Another fair point. I think, however, that it’s important to underscore the positive changes.

    The U.S., for an example with which I’m familiar, has engaged in inconceivable brutality and corruption, while nominally having regular, orderly transfers of power.

    I guess having that illusion shattered has made me less willing to go with how thing appear in a given moment. In the case of Morales, I think you’re more right than you are wrong, but in my opinion his grab for more power does not invalidate what he did prior to that.

    And I think it’s pretty clear that Anez was not an upgrade. That doesn’t mean that Morales was in the right, but it does make me reluctant to put much of the blame for the coup on Morales’ personal corruption, rather than larger geopolitical issues.

    The example of Lava Jato and Lula da Silva in Brazil comes to mind – if there’s not real corruption, they’ll just make some up. In the case of Morales, it WAS real, but it’s hard to know here that would have gone, and there seems to be ZERO leeway, specifically leaders of ostensibly left-wing countries.

    I also think that the outcome and goals matter. This isn’t true for everything, but there’s a degree to which the action itself is less important than the ideology and goals served by that action. I might support a hypothetical revolution in the United States, but certainly not one led by fascists. Storming the capital would affect me differently if it was part of a movement to bring about real democracy, rather than destroying the fragments of democracy we’ve managed to build.

    Violence is bad, but not all violence is equal, no? Killing or injuring someone in self defense is fundamentally different from killing or injuring someone because of who or what they are, is it not? That’s not to say that I’m OK with Morales holding on to power (not that it’s even a little bit up to me), but I think that the judgements we pass as individuals are influenced by the societies in which we live, and I’ve seen the results of a society that has “orderly transitions of power”, from Bush, to Clinton, to Bush, to Obama, to Trump, and during that time the level of corruption and authoritarianism has skyrocketed. It seems clear that an orderly transition of power is not the guarantee of rights and progress we thought it was, at least in the world as it currently exists. I’ve seen enough that I no longer trust in assurances that if we all just follow the rules, everything will be fine.

    I think there’s also a difference between seizing power, and deciding to run for election again. That’s not to say the public cannot be manipulated – propaganda DOES work – but as you said, there’s been no evidence of such manipulation, at least to my knowledge.

    As to what “we” would have done, that’s not clear to me. Bush stole the 2000 election with the help of the Supreme Court and nothing happened. The Supreme Court destroyed Roe v Wade, and we haven’t seen an uprising.

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