From the April 8, 2008 New York Sun
April 8, 2008
by Jaime Daremblum
There is an emerging mini-me of Hugo Chavez — Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia. And his country is starting to pay the price for it. Bolivia may end up not merely fragmented but wracked by bloodshed if Mr. Morales continues to emulate the senseless and destructive policies of his patron.
Mr. Morales has turned frequently to the Chavez playbook on "revolutionary" brinkmanship for policy guidance. From promoting a bespoke constitution, which removed inconvenient term limits, to undermining democratic institutions, to approving populist measures that hurt poor people the most, he has made all the moves favored by his role model.
Unlike Mr. Chavez, however, Mr. Morales faces open and at times violent revolt in his country. Since nationalizing the gas and oil industry in May 2006 — a May Day gift for the Bolivian people, Mr. Morales claimed — he has not come up with a fair way to distribute the new tax revenues. This failure, along with new regulations on coca growing and the president's unabashed attempts to exercise absolute power, has generated increasing unrest.
Mr. Morales is opposed by the senate which is dominated by the main opposition party, Podemos, and by the country's "departamentos," or regions, which are struggling to retain their autonomy as Mr. Morales seeks control for the center. In response to Mr. Morales's ruinous policies and disregard for their legal rights, four departamentos have announced their independence from the central government.
Like his mentor Mr. Chavez, Mr. Morales is not one to let niceties such as democratic checks and balances get in the way of his "revolutionary" agenda. Instead he simply rides roughshod over any opposition.
Constitutional norms were the first victim of his autocratic approach. Unable to obtain the two-thirds majority required to approve the new constitution he sought, Mr. Morales's supporters decided they could approve it with a simple majority. Of course, in order to do so, they had to convene in a military base and bar the opposition parliamentarians.
Then they called for a national referendum on the new constitution, hoping that appeals to the "will of the people" would paper over all the irregularities that had gone into producing the document. So great were these irregularities that in early March, Bolivia's top electoral court struck down the referendum as improper, and did so even though the court is dominated by Mr. Morales.
The second victim of Mr. Morales's approach was the autonomy of Bolivia's departamentos. To weaken them economically, the ruling party reduced their legal share of tax revenues under the pretense of creating benefits for the poor.
Another move to weaken the departamentos and consolidate central power came less than a month ago, when Mr. Morales, eager to push through a law outlawing any referendum on autonomy for the departamentos, simply found a way to hold the vote without the opposition present.
His scheme was to have Vice President García arrange to meet with the opposition, supposedly for the purpose of discussing differences over the draft constitution, and then, with the opposition safely occupied elsewhere, call for a vote.
Members of the opposition who tried to return to the building were not only prevented from entering, they were beaten by a mob of government supporters while police did nothing.
The departamentos are in no mood to tolerate this naked grab for power. Four of them — Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Beni, and Tarija — are continuing to work on referenda concerning their independence. The first referendum, for Santa Cruz, will be held on May 4, and the others will follow in short order.
Instead of trying to alleviate political and social tensions, the government is busy fomenting them. A few days ago Mr. Morales banned the export of cooking oil, a move really designed to weaken the business and agricultural sectors, which do not support the president. This ban led to road blockades — the country's favorite method of protest — at several key border crossings, and further disrupted Bolivia's economy, which depends heavily on those very departamentos most opposed to Mr. Morales's autocratic ways.
The ban on exporting cooking oil shows Mr. Morales to be a particularly adept disciple of Mr. Chavez, himself all too skilled at creating economic chaos and worsening the plight of the very poor through policies supposedly meant to help them.
In yet another attempt to emulate his mentor, Mr. Morales is cozying up to President Ahmadinejad. With Mr. Morales's typically skewed priorities, he has arranged to install an Iranian television station in the province of Chapare, even as he threatens to eject USAID officers. This comes at a time when an increasing number of Cuban and Venezuelan security agents and military personnel are in the country to assist Mr. Morales.
As Mr. Chavez's mini-me, Mr. Morales is playing a very dangerous game, and the losers will be his country and fellow citizens. Having picked the worst role model on the continent, Mr. Morales bears close watching by anyone who cares about democracy in Latin America.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and directs the Center for Latin American Studies.
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