BY SARAH HANNERS-
In his most decisive victory yet, incumbent Bolivian President Evo Morales Ayma (Evo) and his Moviemiento al Socialismo (MAS) party dominated the polls in the national elections of October 2014, securing the Presidency with 61% of the votes. In a country whose Constitution permits Presidents to serve for two terms, Evo is over a year into his third one, and shows no signs of relinquishing the reigns.
Evo’s improbable rise to power as the first indigenous President of Bolivia has been widely-documented by the global press. His actions in office have provoked both applause and backlash, making him a polarizing figure at home and abroad. Since he took office in 2005, he has garnered much praise for his enactment of the so-called “Mother Earth” laws, for nationalizing Bolivia’s gas fields, and for reducing extreme poverty by more than 40 %.
Early in his presidency, he struggled to unite a country divided between the wealthier eastern lowland departments and the poorer highland eastern departments. The current state of affairs is a far cry from the tumult of 2008, when violence erupted throughout the country in response to Evo’s plan to redistribute royalties from taxes on gas to his other social welfare projects. This resulted in declarations of martial law and the deaths of dozens of Bolivian nationals. Apportioning part of the blame for the unrest on the United States, Evo’s government expelled the U.S. Ambassador in 2008. Evo would go on to further expel the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Needless to say, relations between Washington and La Paz have been strained in light of these events.
In a move that has the potential to place further tension on this relationship, Evo is seeking to amend Article 168 of the State Constitution by adding a provision that would allow him to run for re-election for a fourth term and remain in power until 2025, should the people so choose. The current text of Article 168 reads as follows: “El periodo de mandato de la Presidenta o del Presidente y de la Vicepresidenta o del Vicepresidente del Estado es de cinco años, y pueden ser reelectas o reelectos por una sola vez de manera continua.” Translated faithfully to the original syntax, it reads roughly as follows: “The term of office of the President and the Vice President of the State is five years and they may be re-elected only once continuously.”
The proposed amendment would actually allow a President to serve three consecutive five-year terms, and Evo’s camp argues that because his first term occurred prior to the adoption of the 2009 Constitution, it would not count towards the new three term limit. After a marathon session, the Legislative Assembly approved a bill that will be submitted to the Bolivian people for their vote on February of 2016. Evo is already Latin America’s longest-serving President, and if this vote passes, he will keep that title for many years to come.
Evo is not alone in his quest to extend his power. Evo’s mentors, Cuba’s President Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s late President Chavez, were well-known for their autocratic tendencies. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, another prominent socialist whom has been linked to Evo, has also been trying to change his country’s constitution to allow him to run for indefinite consecutive terms. Despite Evo’s ties to anti-American heads of State in the region, Washington has not publically tried to interfere with the Morales administration’s gambit for more time, even sending a delegation to attend Evo’s inauguration in January of 2015.
Though the Obama administration has made overtures to mend the U.S.-Bolivian relationship, future progress remains a big question mark, because it is unknown how the next administration will deal with Evo Morales. A lot will depend on whether or not the Bolivian government continues to respect the electoral process and the rights of its citizens to cast their votes freely and safely. The results from Evo’s proposed February 2016 referendum on article 168 of the Constitution will most certainly feature prominently in the next chapter of the U.S.-Bolivia relationship.