By Colin Burgon, Honorary President, Labour Friends of Progressive Latin America.
For the last decade and a half Bolivia’s President Evo Morales has been showing that a better world is possible for Latin Americans through a clear rejection of neo-liberal policies.
Bolivia closed 2018 with one of the highest economic growth rates in Latin America, at 4.7% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to official data. It is on course to be South America’s fastest growing economy for yet another year – and the beneficiaries of that growth have primarily been the poorest and most marginalised inhabitants of Bolivia.
The economic model championed by Morales is based on what is called ‘Social Community Production’, supported by a strong participation of the state in strategic sectors. This completely breaks with the neo-liberal economic strategy, exemplified in the IMF’s approach of slashing public investment and state subsidies.
Rather than privatise public assets and impose austerity, Morales has retaken control of key parts of the country’s economy from foreign corporations.
Through its nationalisation policies Bolivia has gained $31.5 billion in state revenue, compared to the $2.5 billion received during the previous decade of neoliberal policies.
These extra resources have been invested to modernise the country’s infrastructure and raise the standard of living for Bolivia’s poor and neglected people.
When Morales took office, 60% of the total population were living below the poverty line, but that figure has been slashed in half. Two million Bolivians, or one in five of the population, have been helped out of poverty. Extreme poverty has been cut from nearly 40% to 17% through a variety of state-funded social programmes.
Now, some 900,000 Bolivians over 60 years old get a pension. Disabled people and those incapacitated receive a monthly payment and guaranteed job placement in public and private institutions
Social programmes have also focused on people’s health and education.
When Morales became president, Bolivia had an illiteracy rate of 13%, but within three years the country was declared free of illiteracy, thanks to a mass literacy campaign.
In 2000, just 35,73 % of primary school age children were enrolled in school. Using revenues from the nationalised gas industry, 4,500 educational establishments have been built since 2006, benefitting mostly the rural poor. Bolivia is now is second to Cuba in Latin America in terms of funding education.
Healthcare has also been hugely improved through a tripling of its budget since 2006. The country now has 47 new hospitals, with a further 3,000 health centres being built. Life expectancy of Bolivians during Morales’ presidency has increased from 64 years to 71 years.
Between 2006 and 2018, Bolivia has provided 16.4 million free health appointments reaching the poorest and most isolated communities in the Amazonian/Andean regions.
Bolivians have also benefitted from 700,000 free eye surgeries, with the help of Cuban doctors, while infant mortality has been cut from 50 to 24 per thousand live births between 2009 and 2017, through health and nutrition programmes.
Morales’ latest healthcare measures will take these developments to a new level. In March 2019 he launched Bolivia’s new and free Unified Health System (SUS). This aims to expand health coverage to the 70% of the population who lack any form of insurance.
US$200 million will be allocated in 2019 to guarantee the SUS’s sustainability by improving its equipment, supplies, and infrastructure and increasing the number of qualified healthcare professionals and improving equipment, supplies and infrastructure.
Other achievements include the transformation of land ownership so that smallholders now control 55% of all land, and a large housebuilding programme for low income Bolivians.
Morales has also fulfilled his 2005 campaign promise to reform the constitution to give more power to the indigenous majority.
The new constitution redefined Bolivia as plurinational in all aspects of social life, granting new rights to the country’s 36 indigenous groups including making all 36 indigenous languages, together with Spanish, the nation’s official language. Within two years of its adoption, 90 of the 166 elected National Assembly representatives were drawn from their ranks.
Other progressive moves include the recent announcement of a package of measures to promote gender equality and curb violence against women and the continuing implementation of Bolivia’s programme to tackle climate change through developing its renewable energy resources to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.
But as Bolivia goes to the Presidential polls in October with Morales as the front runner, the Trump administration’s interventionist agenda in Latin America means there is growing unease that Bolivia is now in its sights too. Throughout Morales’ time in office, the US has been accused of seeking to destabilise the country through organisations such as USAID and National Endowment for Democracy.
The concern therefore is that the US may engage in further efforts to intervene into Bolivia ahead of the election – making it vital that the labour and trade union movement and other progressive organisations stand up for Bolivia’s right to determine its own future.
* You can sign a statement in solidarity with Bolivia at bit.ly/boliviastatement.
* Join Colin Burgon, Dan Carden MP, former Telesur English journalist Georgia Platman, Bolivian speaker Manuel Bueno and more special guests at a meeting on April 30 at 6.30pm at Unite, 128 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8TN on Bolivia, Evo Morales and the Transformation of a Nation. Tickets and more info at bit.ly/april30bolivia.