Bolivian President Evo Moralesexpelled USAIDfrom his country on May Day — yet another example of deteriorating La Paz-Washington relations. However, more noteworthy (and not unrelated) was therecent Bolivian Supreme Court rulingthat permits Morales to run for re-election in the country’s upcoming 2014 presidential race. As he is likely to emerge victorious (an early March 2013poll puts his approval rating at 59 percent), this means that we will have more of President Morales for a while.
While not as vociferously anti-Washington as his Venezuelan ally and close friend, the late Hugo Chávez, Morales has had his share of diplomatic tensions with the U.S. government, of which the USAID incident is only the most recent.He declared in mid-Aprilthat he was convinced that Washington was attempting to stagea coup in Venezuelato overthrow the controversially elected new president, Nicolás Maduro. And in 2008 he expelledU.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg, as well asthe DEA. The expulsion of this anti-drug agency was a particularly sensitive issue: Bolivia is one of the top producers of cocaine in the world, most of which makes its way either to the U.S. or Europe.
Morales enjoys domestic support at the moment, demonstrating the long way he’s come from the2008 protests that erupted across the landlocked country. (The protests started as Morales planned to redirect gas revenues from resource-rich regions, like Santa Cruz, to poorer areas; deadly clashes spread throughout not only Santa Cruz but also to Beni, Pando and Tarija). During the unrest it seemed possible that either Morales could be toppled from power or Bolivia could split in half, as the aforementioned regions were flirting with secession. And it should be stressed that even today, Morales is not loved throughout his entire country. In mid-March, there were protests by the inhabitants ofOruro region, as they did not want a local airport to be named after the Bolivian head of state.
One factor in Morales’s favor is that the extreme disorganization of the opposition parties (a sharp contrast with their stronger counterparts in Venezuela). In an interview with the author of this commentary, a Bolivian journalist explained that he could not think of a candidate capable of mouting a serious challenge to Morales’s popularity. The decades of corruption, military rule, and generally poor governance seem to have finally caught up to the country’s traditional parties: in the 2009 elections, Moralesobtained 64 percent of the vote, with the closest opposition candidate, former Governor Manfred Reyes Villa, obtaining a meager 26 percent.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the opposition successfully united behind a candidate in the Beni region’s January elections, where the candidate of Morales’sMovimiento al Socialismo(MAS) party, formerbeauty queen Jessica Jordan, lost the governorship to the opposition’s Carmelo Lenz. An opposition victory in 2014 will require massive follow-through from a state-level wins.
While Morales’s anticipated victory in 2014 may be a just outcome (he does enjoy majority backing), it is arguably unhealthy for a democratic system to see a leader linger in power for too long (vide Venezuela). Even though he remains popular, the perpetuation of power for Morales and his MAS party may grant them a sense of greater license in going after domestic opponents, something hardly unknown in the region. At the regional level, with Venezuela’s Chávez gone, there is remains a leadership void to be filled among left-leaning governments (like the members of Chávez’s regional project, ALBA), particularly as it remains to be seen what kind of foreign policy Maduro may carry out. Morales seems inclined to provoke high-profile clashes with Washington. And regional leadership requires much more than that.