The Trap of the ‘Golden Decade’: Why Popular Riots Came as a Surprise to Latin American Elites

The political crisis in Bolivia seems to have become another link in the chain of mass protests that have swept Latin America in recent months. The genesis of the Bolivian protest is different from what happened in Chile or Ecuador, where economic reasons were at the core (broader ones than dissatisfaction with fuel and transport price hikes). Bolivia was an island of economic prosperity; all the main socio-economic indicators of Evo Morales’ 14-year rule were steadily improving, even his rivals in the presidential race recognised the merits of the native Indian president. 

However, one should not think that all that came as a surprise for the Bolivian government; it was preparing for protests or possible provocations, timed to coincide with the general elections on October 20. Therefore, the public indignation was not a surprise for it, rather the scale of the protest and the fact that its key allies, the trade unions (primarily the largest of them – COB, Central Obrera Boliviana) and the army, turned their back on Evo Morales. Incidentally, we may compare Venezuela’s army amid the crisis, where it remains a factor of stability for Maduro and the Chavists, with that of Bolivia, where the armed forces did not have a “genetic connection” with the authorities and maintained at heart the pro-American orientation they acquired while studying at US military schools. Therefore, the Bolivian military quickly forgot the recent embrace with Morales, advising (and essentially demanding) his resignation.

Despite all the differences in the manifestations of the current political crises in Latin America, they still have a common root cause: this is a scrapping of a previous social contract. During the so-called “golden decade”, in exchange for the continuous improvement of the quality of life of the citizens, the authorities demanded that they turn a blind eye to violations of democratic norms (as was the case in Bolivia), endemic corruption (Brazil) or growing inequality (Chile). The ruling elites have missed the moment when what they had to offer, both politically and economically, was hopelessly surpassed by the ever-increasing expectations of the population. This misunderstanding can be seen in the eyes of Evo Morales (who is in Mexico), who sincerely does not understand how doubts about the veracity of just a few percent of the votes could count for more than his striking, historically unprecedented economic successes in Bolivia. We can see the sincere bewilderment of Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, who acknowledges his inability to realize, that in a country that has achieved one of the highest standards of living in Latin America, millions of people can begin street protests due to a slight increase in underground transit prices.

Bolivian society, which has achieved “a cleaner democracy”, is now on the verge of a sharp civil confrontation, which would have been relatively unthinkable during 14 years of relative stability. The confrontation between supporters and opponents of the previous or current interim government has led to the risk of a full-fledged interethnic, interracial conflict, which could have unpredictable destructive consequences. Having felt its strength, the white European-descended population has demonstrated that it is out for revenge, tearing down the Wiphala flag, which symbolises the ethnic diversity of the country, and vowing to replace Pachamama (a local deity) with Christ. The date of the new elections has already been announced – January 19, but so far no figures are visible on the Bolivian political arena that could reconcile the two halves of Bolivian society – native Indians and whites. The history of the country has shown that reliance on the army and the police is not always justified; the crowd has already swept away their dense cordons more than once. This gives several analysts reason to believe that it is too early to talk about the end of Evo Morales’ political career. As has happened several times in Latin American history, after a while his electoral mistakes will be forgotten, and his ability to ensure balance between all parts of society and effectively manage the economy will be in demand again.

Valdai Club

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