Bolivia: ten years of MAS

Ten years of the Movement Toward Socialism in government

Led by the government of Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Bolivia has undergone a profound transformation in the past ten years. The change is not just in the economic sphere, but in the shift of political power away from the traditional elite, the mostly white owners of industry and agriculture, and towards the majority, the mostly indigenous workers and campesinos.

Evo Morales emerged as a leader of coca growers in Chaparé province, who were fighting against US-funded eradication of their crops. He first ran as presidential candidate for MAS in 2002, and narrowly lost. At the next election, on 18 December 2005, Morales and MAS won with 53.7% of the vote, a previously unheard of majority in Bolivia. The previous five years had seen six presidents come and go as a result of constant political crises. It was during this period that mass struggles against neoliberal austerity - the Water War and the Gas War - paved the way for the MAS victory. 

Water War 1999 - 2000

The Water War was sparked by a 1999 agreement by the government of Hugo Banzer to privatise the water supply in Cochabamba province. This was made in order to meet privatisation targets set by the World Bank in return for $600m debt relief. The new owner, a consortium run by US multinational Bechtel, was guaranteed an annual profit rate of 16% over 40-years.

Workers and campesino organisations came together to form a Coalition for Defence of Water and Life. Over a period of six months they organised strikes and blockades, regularly bringing Cochabamba to a standstill. Key decisions affecting the movement were approved at open-air meetings attended by up to 50,000 people. 

The cancellation of the water contract as a direct result of the protests marked a turning point for Bolivia’s anti-austerity movement, showing that popular forces could defeat neoliberalism.

2003 gas wars

Three years later the then president, Sanchez de Lozada, was forced to resign after another huge uprising, this time against contracts to sell gas overseas that saw only 18% of the profits going to the state, and the rest to foreign multinationals.

In September 2003, in El Alto, a city of 750,000 indigenous people on the northern edge of La Paz, a civic strike blocked the main road into the city. By October there were severe shortages of petrol and food in La Paz. The Army fired on the blockaders with tanks and planes, killing 30 people over two days. In the end, miners successfully crossed army lines and marched on the presidential palace. Lozada was forced to flee the country along with several ministers. The political crisis was not resolved until Morales’ election at the end of 2005. 

Securing hydrocarbon resources

On May Day 2006, four months after taking office, Morales declared Bolivian gas the sovereign property of the Bolivian people. There followed a complete reversal in the relation between the Bolivian state and multinational companies. Bolivian troops entered 56 gas installations, preventing key documents from being removed so that the government could audit their accounts. Multinationals were given 180 days to renegotiate their contracts. The state’s share of profits from the largest oil fields rose to 82%, with a 60% share of minor deposits. The state took a 51% share in the country's two largest gas refineries, both owned by the Brazilian gas firm Petrobras.

As a result the total gas revenue received by the state during the first six years of the Morales government was around seven-times more than revenue for the five previous years. In 2011, in one year, the state received almost as much revenue as it did during the whole nine-year period 1996-2005.

Economic growth and rising living standards

The MAS government has invested gas revenue in strategic areas in order to diversify and strengthen the national economy. This, combined with strong gas prices on the international markets, has meant that the economy grew at an annual average of 3% over the period 2006-2014 (compare this to 0.9% during 1994-2005). Rather than multinationals being scared away by nationalisations, Bolivia currently has the highest rate of foreign direct investment as a percentage of GDP of any country in South America.

Public investment doubled between 2006 and 2014. A state pension has been introduced for the first time, as well as state benefits for families with young children attending school.  From 2005-2014, the real minimum wage increased by 87.7 percent. As a result, Bolivia’s poverty rate has reduced from 59.6% to 45% during 2006-2014 and is still falling.

Other achievements of this period were:

  • increasing access to potable water to 100% of the urban population and 90% of the rural population;
  • the construction of 40 general hospitals and four specialist hospitals;
  • a program underway to increase access to electricity for the entire population by 2025.

A new constitution

One of the first actions of the MAS government was to convene an assembly to create a new constitution guaranteeing key political and economic rights. This came into effect on 7 February 2009 after being approved in a referendum by 61.43% of voters with 90.24% participation, despite bitter opposition from the right-wing opposition.

Guarantees of the Bolivian constitution include:

  • restriction of private land ownership to a maximum of 5,000 hectares (12,400 acres);
  • possibility of recall elections for all elected officials;
  • judges are elected and no longer appointed by the National Congress;
  • legalisation of Coca as a traditional crop of Bolivia’s indigenous people.

Right-wing destabilisation and US interference

Bolivia’s ‘media luna’ (half moon) region refers to the crescent-shaped lowland areas in the east of the country. These five provinces have more resources, agricultural land and a richer (and whiter) population than the rest of Bolivia. Thousands of European fascists settled here after fleeing Yugoslavia and Germany at the end of the Second World War and fascist groups still operate there today. Unsurprisingly these regions are a stronghold of vicious right-wing resistance to the MAS government. In 2008 violent protests broke out in Santa Cruz, the richest of the media luna provinces, culminating in the racist lynching of 11 MAS supporters in the Pando Massacre. The right-wing were demanding secession from the rest of Bolivia and an illegitimate referendum was held that would have allowed Santa Cruz  to set its own international relations, immigration policy and taxes, as well as run its own police force. The real aim was to end the limited land reform that the government was carrying out. Similar protests and demands were being made in four other lowland provinces.

Subsequently proof emerged of US Agency for International Development (USAID) support for the violent protests. A US State Department cable released by Wikileaks and dated April 2007 discusses ‘USAID’s larger effort to strengthen regional governments as a counter-balance to the central government.’ This effort included more than $4m funding for media luna local governments and indigenous groups opposed to Morales. As the opposition protests intensified, the US made secret plans for intervention in the event of a coup against Morales, also documented by Wikileaks.

The right-wing protests were eventually held in check when the local indigenous population rioted against the separatist referendum, which was subsequently declared illegal under Bolivia’s constitution. Morales expelled USAID from Bolivia in 2013, for interference in Bolivian affairs.

International relations

Bolivia under Morales has become a powerful and important voice on the international stage. It is a strong defender of anti-imperialist principles, showing solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, condemning Cuba’s exclusion from the Organisation of American States and breaking diplomatic relations with the illegitimate Honduran government after the coup against Manuel Zelaya in 2009.


Central to Bolivia’s internationalism is ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas. Bolivia became the third ALBA member, after Cuba and Venezuela, in January 2006. Bolivia declared itself free of illiteracy after a literacy campaign, launched in 2006 with help from Cuba and Venezuela, taught 800,000 people to read and write. By 2009 444,000 Bolivians had received sight-saving operations through Operation Miracle, the Cuban-Venezuelan initiative to provide free eye surgery throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Thousands of Cuban doctors are still delivering basic healthcare in the poorest regions of Bolivia under the auspices of ALBA. Trade within ALBA has helped Bolivia to mitigate the effects of being expelled from the US-led Andean Trade Preference agreement after Bolivia cut diplomatic relations with the US and threw out USAID because of its funding of the Bolivian opposition.

Struggle continues

Militant protests have not gone away under Morales. In fact, the period 2009 - 2014 saw the most protests in Bolivia’s history. Protests range from demands for higher wages, to opposing planning projects such as the TIPNIS highway (see and more recently, the child labour law and regulation of the mining industry (see

Rather than using police or the army to put down protests, the MAS government has taken the approach of seeking dialogue and consultation with affected groups. For example, with TIPNIS, a proposed highway to be built through Bolivia’s Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), the government launched a mass consultation with 69 indigenous communities, 55 of whom subsequently approved the construction. This was despite political interference by the US, which directly funded of one of the indigenous groups opposed to the scheme - Eastern Bolivia Indigenous Peoples and Communities Confederation (CIDOB) - via the US National Endowment for Democracy, which channeled more than $7m to opposition groups in ALBA countries during 2013 alone (see

In the October 2014 election the Morales government was returned to government for the third time, with a commanding 61.36% of the popular vote. Morales was due to step down as President at the 2019 election but the Bolivian senate has now approved a crucial referendum to extend Presidential term limits, which will take place in February 2016.

Given its past form we can be sure that US imperialism has not stopped its direct support for opposition groups in the resource-rich eastern regions. The recent revelation of the US National Security Agency’s massive electronic surveillance of the PDVSA, Venezuela’s national oil company, is a rare glimpse of the kind of surveillance and sabotage that is going on all the time against ALBA countries.

The opposition election victory in Venezuela will have emboldened the right wing across Latin America and it is just a question of when, not if, the next coordinated campaign of destabilisation will happen in Bolivia. However, the government and its people know what is at stake and have their eyes open to the threat. The new leaders and organisations that have emerged among workers and the indigenous poor over the past fifteen years will defend the gains that have been won and block imperialism’s plans.

Hands off Bolivia! Long live Latin American unity!

Bolivia: MAS re-elected to ‘govern by obeying’

Evo Morales and MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) have won a resounding victory in Bolivia’s general election which was held on 12 October 2014. Morales got 61% of the vote, way ahead of his closest rival, the cement magnate Samuel Medina with 24%. MAS also won 117 out of 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, an increase of 13, giving it well over the two-thirds majority it needs to amend the constitution. This is MAS’s third consecutive election victory and it now has majorities in eight of Bolivia’s nine regions, including Santa Cruz, the stronghold of the right wing opposition and the focal point of violent protests by secessionists in 2008.

Bolivia’s GDP has tripled since 2005, from $9.5bn to $30bn; its international reserves have risen from $1.7bn to $14.4bn. Critics have tried to dismiss this as the mere result of booming gas prices, but without the renegotiation of contracts with gas multinationals in 2006, the vast majority of the extra gas revenue would have simply left the country.

Public investment grew to $3.78bn in 2013, six times the $629 million in 2005, boosting the domestic economy. This, along with a policy of investing in domestic industry (for example in the processing of gas into derivative products such as liquefied petroleum gas), is what really underlies the performance of the Bolivian economy – 5% growth this year, with an IMF forecast of 5.5% for next year.

Growth has not just benefitted the rich. The monthly minimum wage has increased from 440 bolivianos (about $63) in 2005 to 1200 bolivianos ($173) in 2013. The urban unemployment rate has fallen from 8.1% to 3.2% in 2012, the lowest rate of all of Latin America. Extreme poverty has declined from 38% of the population to 18%. Inequality is down: in 2005 the income of the richest 10% was 128 times more than that of the poorest 10%; by 2012 the ratio was down to 46:1.

Political revolution
As the author Federico Fuentes has pointed out, there has been a political revolution in Bolivia. MAS emerged through years of struggle in the streets, going back to the gas and water wars and beyond (see FRFI No Feb/March 2010) A startling fact of MAS’s second term in government (2009-14) is that it had the highest rate of protests for any government in Bolivian history. Rather than confront them head on, the Morales government has engaged with protestors, building consensus where possible and sometimes retreating. Morales himself calls this approach ‘to govern by obeying’. At the same time the protestors have not questioned the overall direction of the Morales government, whose very existence is a bulwark against the racism and neoliberalism of previous regimes.

Child labour law
Bolivia’s new Child Labour law is an example of this approach. It also illustrates how far Bolivia still has to go in ending poverty. Until now, the legal employment age in Bolivia has been 14. Despite this, there remain an estimated 850,000 child workers in Bolivia. In 2014 the MAS government proposed raising the legal age to 16 years old, but met with mass protests organised by the Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (UNATSBO).

The government worked with UNATSBO to draft a new law that actually lowers the legal age to 10 in ‘exceptional circumstances’. This means that the conditions under which under 14-year-olds work can be regulated for the first time. The new law stipulates that wages and conditions must be the same for children and adults. Children from 10 are only allowed to work if they are self-employed. Above 12, they can work for others if they have the written permission of their parents. Vice President Garcia Linera noted, ‘It would have been easy to pass a law that corresponds to international conventions but it would not have been implemented…[this] law takes as its starting point what we have today and charts out a realistic and viable path for changing the working situation of children.’

Challenges ahead
The vast majority of production remains under private control. In agriculture for example, significant steps were taken to redistribute land but the process has slowed since 2010. Earlier this year a confederation of farmers, rural women, indigenous peoples and intercultural communities called for a new agrarian revolution to combat a renewed land-grab, much of it driven by foreign speculation. This may bring renewed conflict with the landowners in Santa Cruz and other western states.

A further challenge is what will happen in the 2019 presidential election, when Morales will have served three terms and therefore will be required to step down. This is why the two-thirds majority in the National Assembly is important as it gives MAS the option of increasing or removing term limits, bringing Bolivia in line with the majority of countries in the world.

It is clear, however, that the economy and politics of Bolivia are undergoing a profound process of change that benefits the poor and indigenous majority and is pulling hundreds of thousands out of extreme poverty. In that respect it must be supported by socialists everywhere.

Sam Vincent

Bolivian elections - victory for Morales and MAS

Evo Morales President of Bolivia

Bolivia’s electoral court has confirmed the resounding victory won by Evo Morales and his party MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) in last Sunday’s Presidential and Congressional elections on 12 October 2014.

Morales won the presidency with 61% of the vote, way ahead of his closest rival, the cement magnate Samuel Medina (Democratic Unity -24%). MAS also won 117 out of 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, gaining 13 seats and ensuring that it has well over the two thirds majority it needs to continue its program of social investment and ‘Indigenous and cultural revolution’

This is the third consecutive election victory for MAS since it first came to power in 2005. Since then GDP has tripled, from $9.5bn to $30 bn and international reserves have risen from $1.7 bn to $14.4bn. Increased social spending has seen extreme poverty decline from 38% of the population to 18%. This has been made possible by a huge increase in State control of oil and gas profits. Multinationals used to keep 82% of profits and the state took 18%. Today that has been reversed.

MAS was elected on a platform of deepening the gains made so far. Pledges for the 2015-2020 term include:

  • a further reduction in the rate of extreme poverty, to 9% by 2020
  • the construction of 100,000 new homes
  • development of nuclear energy
  • an end to the importation of petrol (i.e. self-sufficiency through domestic oil refineries)
  • the expansion of the school curriculum to include more subjects
  • increasing access to potable water to 100% of the urban population and 90% of the rural population, and access to sewerage - 80% and 60% respectively
  • access to electricity for the entire population (by 2025)
  • the construction of 40 general hospitals and four specialist hospitals.

At the victory rally celebrating the election result last Sunday, Morales declared, ‘This victory of the Bolivian people in democracy is dedicated to all the peoples of Latin America and the world, who fight against capitalism and imperialism. This triumph is dedicated to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and all anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist presidents and governments.”

Bolivia, a key member of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas), continues to put human development at the centre of the struggle for socialism in Latin America.

Bolivia: TIPNIS consultation approves new highway – Dec 2013

On 7 December 2012 a 5-month consultation about a proposed highway to be built through Bolivia’s Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) came to an end. Of the territory’s 69 indigenous communities, 55 approved the highway, three communities rejected the proposal and 11 refused to participate in the consultation.

TIPNIS is an area of more than 1 million hectares of forest in the centre of Bolivia. It is home to 12,000 people living in 69 separate communities. In 2009 Evo Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government designated it ‘indigenous territory’.

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Bolivian elections – a defeat for imperialism / FRFI 213 Feb / Mar 2010

FRFI 213 February / March 2010

On 6 December 2009 the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) won a resounding victory in the Bolivian general election. Evo Morales took 64% of the presidential vote, with his closest rival, Manfred Reyes Villa, receiving just 26.4%. MAS won 88 out of 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 26 out of 36 seats in the Senate. In winning more than two-thirds of the Senate seats, MAS now has the power to complete agrarian reform, nationalisation and investment in health, education and infrastructure which have until now been blocked by representatives of the ruling class.

In spite of the opposition, during MAS’s first term the country’s gas and oil were taken under full state control. Contracts with multinationals were renegotiated and state revenues from hydrocarbons rose from 5.6% of GDP in 2004 to 25.7% in late 2008. This paid for increased social spending on health and education as well as regular payments for the poorest pensioners, families and pregnant women. Careful economic planning has avoided the worst effects of the global recession; since Morales came to power in January 2006, Bolivia’s currency reserves have risen from $2 billion to $8 billion and the economy has seen average growth of 5.2% – the highest in the last 30 years.

Since the December election, the government has proceeded with its plans for agrarian reform, in one instance seizing two ranches totalling 60 square miles. Under the new Bolivian constitution, approved by referendum in January 2009, the state can expropriate and redistribute land obtained by fraud, or which serves no economic or social purpose, or where there is evidence of forced labour. The government is now fighting in the courts to take over 143 square miles of land from five ranches in the Alto Parapeti region, where forms of serfdom still exist. MAS has already pledged to distribute 77,000 square miles of unused or disputed land to landless campesinos by 2013. Three quarters of this target has already been met.

In January 2006, Bolivia joined Cuba and Venezuela in ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas. Cuba and Venezuela were instrumental in the Bolivian literacy campaign, launched in 2006. UNESCO declared Bolivia free of illiteracy in 2008, after 800,000 people had learnt to read and write through the campaign. Cuban medical brigades are working among the poorest communities in Bolivia, and Bolivians have received 444,000 sight-saving operations through Operation Miracle, the Cuban-Venezuelan initiative to provide free eye surgery throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Trade within ALBA has helped Bolivia to mitigate the effects of being expelled from the US-led Andean Trade Preference agreement after Bolivia cut diplomatic relations with the US and expelled USAID (US Agency for International Development) because it was funding the Bolivian opposition.

At the international level President Morales is an important representative of anti-imperialism. He condemned Cuba’s isolation within Latin America and has repeatedly denounced the US blockade in the Organisation of American States and other international forums. While leading the Bolivian delegation at the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change, Morales also spoke out against the US attempt to impose a climate deal that protected imperialist interests. Subsequently he has called for a worldwide referendum on climate change, and is hosting an alternative international climate summit in Bolivia this year.

Sam Vincent