The Best Answer to Chaos in Bolivia Is Socialism


The Oct. 18 election may be the country’s best hope to stop its slide into authoritarianism.

Bolivia is moving ever closer to the edge of a military regime. At every turn since Evo Morales was ousted last November, the interim president, Jeanine Añez, has decided to take an authoritarian stancerather than a conciliatory tone, most recently against demonstrators demanding elections who blocked the country’s main cities.

Only free and fair elections, now scheduled for Oct. 18, but which are still far from certain, can get Bolivia out of its quagmire, which was brought on by Mr. Morales.

The country’s first Indigenous president, Mr. Morales could have left office with the stature of Nelson Mandela if he had accepted the results of the 2016 referendum on whether he could run for re-election, which he narrowly lost. Perhaps seduced by the trappings of power, he weakened the independence of the judiciary and concentrated power on himself, neglecting to nurture new leaders within his party and get rid of those suspected of corruption. Most recently, the Bolivian press has published reports that Mr. Morales had a relationship with a minor (he has argued that there is not enough evidence to legally prosecute him).

When Mr. Morales fled surreptitiously to Mexico in November, it was understandable that vast segments of Bolivian society wanted something new. However, rather than guiding the country to elections as soon as possible (which is what Ms. Añez had initially promised) and secure her place as an important figure in the history of Bolivian democracy, she initiated a series of sweeping policy directives. Most of these have gone disastrously awry, like the suspension of the new school year.

Elections have been pushed back four times since she took office in November, and Ms. Añez has only begrudgingly accepted the new October date. There has been an economic contraction of 5.6 percentThe Covid-19 crisis has been entirely mismanaged, and Bolivia now has more than 121,000 cases.

There have been frequent cases of corruption, including the arrest of a health minister in connection with the overpricing of ventilators for the treatment of Covid-19. Moreover, as Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic and Amnesty International have shown, there have been widespread human rights abuses, including restrictions to freedom of speech and excessive use of force, during Ms. Añez’s tenure.

A recent poll shows that Luis Arce, the economy minister under Mr. Morales and the presidential candidate of the Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, is still in the lead, with support of 26.2 percent of likely voters. In terms of party preference, the race is tighter with Carlos Mesa, a neoliberal former president, who follows with 17.1 percent. Ms. Añez and the extreme right candidate Luis Fernando Camacho, whose party has called for a state of siege and the closing of the Legislature, poll at around 14.4 percent and 12.4 percent, respectively.

Given the present mayhem, Mr. Arce, the only socialist running, is the best choice. Political commentators have argued that liberal democracy is the only acceptable political solution for Bolivia. But there are three reasons socialism should return to the country. This is especially the case owing to the possibility of Ms. Añez forming a coalition with the other right-wing parties, including that of Mr. Mesa, as some commentators have urged.

First, Mr. Arce is not Evo Morales. He is a technocratic, pragmatic and cosmopolitan leader. An economist educated in Britain, he was the principal architect of Bolivia’s economic rise under Mr. Morales, led by a nationalized gas industry. According to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the country experienced over 4 percent annual growth in the 13 years that Mr. Morales was in power, a quadrupling of the G.D.P., and more than a 30 percent decrease in extreme poverty. Mr. Arce is simply cut from a different cloth when contrasted to Mr. Morales’s populist persona.

The second reason is that Mr. Arce is most likely the only presidential candidate who would steadfastly defend the communitarian economic model of the MAS period in the face of neoliberal pressures to privatize industries. Bolivia’s lithium reserves are geopolitically strategic assets. With the Covid-19 crisis, Bolivia needs a new economic engine, one based on green energy, using new and sustainable lithium extraction technologies. International leaders in the lithium industry have backed Mr. Arce’s nonprivatization plan.

Third, despite the humiliating end of the Morales period, MAS still has the highest level of support among the Indigenous and working-class people of Bolivia; in other words, most Bolivians. David Choquehuanca, a vice-presidential candidate for MAS, is an eminent Aymara intellectual with vast foreign affairs experience, something that would raise the profile of Indigenous leaders in a time of growing awareness of racism in the Americas.

By contrast, the other parties seem unable to agree even on whether they should join forces against Mr. Arce. Mr. Mesa, who has remained largely silent over the last six months, already failed during his two years as president, when he took over in 2003 from Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a United States-raised businessman who tried to privatize gas with Mr. Mesa as vice president, with catastrophic social consequences. Known primarily as a journalist and historian, Mr. Mesa does not have the capacity to defend Bolivia’s lithium and generate long-term economic growth.

Rather than accept a rising wave of authoritarianism under an Añez administration, the international community ought to support fair elections for Bolivia by Oct. 18, ideally monitored by the United Nations, the European Union and the Carter Center. If that happens, a return to the relative stability and prosperity of MAS under Mr. Arce is a more promising path than either the neoliberal road of Mr. Mesa or a right-wing coalition route led by Ms. Añez.

Diego von Vacano (@diegovonvacano) is professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He is originally from La Paz, Bolivia.

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