Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bolivian Strife

Today I spoke to a former colleague in Bolivia who told me the office and the country are shut down again due to protests. The topic is still the relocation of the government from La Paz to Sucre, the same issue that was causing commotion in August. It’s sad and difficult to see to see such continued strife in a country that needs unity and economic growth.

Yesterday I watched a fascinating movie about Bolivia called Our Brand is Crisis. It’s about the 2002 Bolivian presidential elections. One of the candidates, Goni, who had previously served one term as President, hired a U.S. political consulting firm, GCS Consulting, to advise him on his presidential campaign.

I’d heard of Goni while I was in Bolivia, heard how he was raised in the U.S., became the President of Bolivia, then fled to the U.S. after protests that drove him out of office. I’d seen leftover signs of support for him, especially in the rural Cochabamba region, where his name was still spraypainted onto walls and bus stands. But I hadn’t much sense of what type of a person or a President he was, nor did I have any idea that a group of Americans was so involved in the election. It seems from the movie that Goni definitely could not have won without the assistance provided by this consulting firm. The nagging question remains – would it have been better for the country had he not won?

The methodology used by the firm was quite impressive – endless focus groups and careful statistical studies to read the mood of the people, to understand what they wanted, and to instruct Goni how to deliver. At the same time, they also worked to discredit Goni’s two main rivals – Evo Morales (currently the President of Bolivia) and Manfred. Through carefully constructed messages, they were able to help Goni win by just a hairline. The final results were Goni 22.5% of the vote, Evo Morales 20.9% and Manfred 20.8%. No one candidate received more than about a fifth of the vote, an indication of divisiveness even more powerful than that in America.

Evo’s campaign was unexpectedly helped by the U.S. ambassador at the time, Manuel Rocha, a man James Carville (one of the consultants) called an idiot. Rocha made the following speech shortly before the election, linking Evo Morales to Osama Bin Laden:

“It’s unbelievable but true. A few weeks ago Evo Morales claimed the US embassy threatened to kill him. This vile accusation is totally false, an absolute lie. The U.S. has threatened to kill one man: Osama bin Laden. Perhaps Evo Morales, with his tremendous lie..wanted to show his solidarity with that assassin and terrorist. Evo Morales also said in a speech…that if he is elected…he’ll stop the US anti-coca program..I want to remind Bolivians California will only buy your natural gas if Bolivia is not involved in cocaine. Citizens of Bolivia. Open your eyes. The future of your children and families is in your hands.”

Goni joked that perhaps Rocha was actually Evo’s campaign manager, since after that speech, Evo’s support increased. “It’ll make me happy if he keeps talking,” Evo said. In focus groups, people responded that the ambassador’s speech made them more likely to vote for Evo. “It brings out the rebellious part in us,” said one man. “So now because we’ve been attacked and because I feel rebellious, I’m going to vote for Evo Morales.”

I try to imagine an ambassador of any other nation making a speech to the American people before an election and telling them to open their eyes. I don’t think such a condescending tone would go over very well with the electorate.

So Goni won by a hairline, but his victory didn’t last long. His reputation for arrogance continued and people continued to feel he didn’t understand or represent them. I was surprised to hear that his Spanish was about as heavily accented as mine, which seems to make it difficult to integrate among one’s followers. He didn’t seem to really understand or care about the poor and was extremely reluctant to communicate directly with or move among the poor. Under pressure from the consulting company, he sent someone else out into the communities to listen to the people, but didn’t do it himself.

Within seven months, the government was in crisis. Goni wanted to sell natural gas via Chile, but the people were against it. They considered Chile an enemy since losing their coastline to Chile in the 1879 war. And Goni raised taxes on all salaries above 880 bolivianos a month (about $100 a month). The consultants thought the tax should have been raised only on salaries about 5,000 bolivianos a month (about $500 a month), which would have avoided making the very poor even more poor. And finally, the people didn’t see progress on the creation of jobs, which was the number one issue during the election.

These problems led to street blockages and protests, led by Evo Morales. Goni used troops to clear the streets, resulting in the death of about 100 people. Forced to leave office, his vice-president took over for 20 months, but didn’t have much more success.

In December 2005, Evo Morales was elected with 54% of the vote, a landslide not seen since Bolivia’s 1982 return to democracy.

Now of course, two years later, there is a lot of criticism of Evo’s policies (especially in Santa Cruz, where I was). It’s true there are real downsides to having a poorly educated national leader, for pandering to sentiments of the majority rather than promoting technically strong plans that will have actual impact. But I learned from the movie that the large, poor, indigenous Bolivian majority is not going to understand or support economic plans unless they are explained and sold to them. That any candidate who wants to hope for success in Bolivia needs to take these people seriously.

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