In President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s indigenous majority finally has one of its own in charge. And he’s brought change. But he’s also angered much of the country, which is threatening to secede.
The following is a transcript of Mary Stucky’s radio report. To listen to this podcast, please click on the link above, starting at the time code 22:40.
Mary Stucky: Bolivia is South America’s poorest country. From the slums of Cochabamba in the windswept highlands, or Altiplano, to the tropical lowland jungles, Bolivia’s indigenous majority is still celebrating the election of Evo Morales as the country’s first indigenous president.
Roxana Argandona campaigned for Morales and remembers the excitement of election night:
Roxana Argandona (voice of interpreter): “We were all together waiting, listening to the radio to see if we were going to win or lose. And when we heard that Morales had won, we felt really proud. And we thought, ‘Well, Bolivia is finally going to change.’”
Mary Stucky: Things did change. Morales renegotiated contracts with foreign oil companies, raising six times more revenue for the government — money that’s earmarked for the poor.
While Bolivians applauded this move, neighboring Brazil was nervous. That’s because Brazil relies on Bolivia for much of its natural gas.
But relations calmed after Bolivia pledged to supply affordable gas to Brazil. And now, for the first time in 30 years, Bolivia has a budget surplus — and a lot of interest from investors.
Saul Escolera: “Right now I have in this office — look at all the pile of proposals. I have 22 project proposals that are worth, all together, $12 billion investment.”
Mary Stucky: Saul Escolera heads a government economic development agency, and says Bolivia is enjoying new economic clout in the region — from a $2 billion investment by an Indian company to build an iron ore plant to a Brazilian firm planning to invest $50 million in a high-tech biodiesel mill.
Next up: land reform. Morales pledged to seize land from the rich and give it to the poor.
Wilfor Colque Caceres is a leader in the MST, the Movement for People Without Land.
Wilfor Colque Caceres (voice of interpreter): “The vision of MST is to live in our settlements with our families in a dignified way.”
Mary Stucky: But rich land owners, mostly in the tropical east, are putting up a fight — reportedly arming themselves to defend their land.
And staging protests, like this one in Santa Cruz — where they’re so upset with Morales that they’re threatening to secede from the country. These divisions erupted in Cochabamba in January, when two people died in street battles.
Amanda Penaranda is a teacher in Cochabamba. Like many in the Bolivian middle class, she supported Morales at first.
Amanda Penaranda: “I say, ‘Oh, maybe it’s the change that we really need,” And I say, “Finally, we’re gonna have peace and work and everything will be fine.’ But now, I believe that we are in serious danger.”
Mary Stucky: Danger, says Penaranda, from the influence of Venezuela’s leftist leader, Hugo Chavez. Venezuela alone is giving almost 50 million to the Bolvian military, raising concerns that Bolivia is becoming a client state of Venezuela.
Cuba is also giving money and aid to the region. Not a bad thing, according to Roxana Argondona, if it means help with her country’s vast humanitarian needs.
Roxana Argondana: “These solar panels are donations from Cuba. We’re taking the solar panels to the communities where there’s no electricity, so that the men and women there can learn to read when it’s dark.”
Mary Stucky: Reading is one thing, jobs are another. Even though the economy’s growing, the money isn’t going to poor, unskilled workers.
Every day, there are long lines at immigration — people trying to leave the country for work. Jorge Alfonzo is heading to Spain.
Jorge Alfonzo (voice of interpreter): “I make $250 U.S. a month, more or less. Never more. There isn’t much work here, that’s the problem.”
Mary Stucky: It’s up to Morales to figure out how that growing economy can benefit the poor, says Bolivian economist Edgar Guardia.
Edgar Guardia: “I think still, right now, our best bet is still Evo. That’s the dilemma for this country. We don’t have enough, we don’t have a plan B.”
Mary Stucky: No plan B — that is, no plan B to hold the country together.