The End of Bolivian Democracy

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Elections scheduled for December 6 will mark the official end of the Bolivian democracy.A dictatorship that fosters the production and distribution of cocaine is not apt to enjoy a positive international image. But when that same government cloaks itself in the language of social justice, with a special emphasis on the enfranchisement of indigenous people, it wins world-wide acclaim.

This is Bolivia, which in two weeks will hold elections for president and both houses of congress. The government of President Evo Morales will spin the event as a great moment in South American democracy. In fact, it will mark the official end of what’s left of Bolivian liberty after four years of Morales rule.

While the U.S. and the Organization of American States have been obsessing over Honduras’s legal removal of an undemocratic president, Mr. Morales has been fortifying his narco-dictatorship. He’s also made friends with Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who will make another visit to La Paz tomorrow.

Mr. Morales is expected to win re-election easily, in part because in many areas that he controls voters will be escorted into polling booths to make sure they choose correctly. His party, Movement for Socialism (aka MAS for its Spanish initials), is almost certain to retain control of the lower house of congress and is likely to win the senate, which until now has been controlled by the opposition.

If this happens, Mr. Morales’s rule will be almost impossible to challenge. But this should not be interpreted as a national embrace of his politics. He will pull off his power grab thanks to a policy of terror against his adversaries.

Recall that in 2003, Bolivia had an elected president in Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Hard-left radicals didn’t like it when Mr. Sánchez de Lozada proposed the export of liquefied natural gas via Chile. They launched violent protests and blocked the nation’s highways. Their objectives to bring down the government coincided with the goals of the coca growers’ movement, which was led by Mr. Morales. It joined in the uprising.

When the president decided to use the army to escort supply trucks, clashes ensued. Mr. Sánchez de Lozada decided to leave the country as a way of defusing the violence, and the U.S. State Department told him that if he did not resign before doing so, it would cut off foreign aid. The president complied, providing, under duress, a legal patina for an illegal coup.

The terrorism had worked and there was nary a peep of protest from the international community. So it was used again to force the resignation of Mr. Sánchez de Lozada’s successor and the president of the senate. That meant new elections had to be called. Mr. Morales ran and won.

Upon taking office in 2006, Mr. Morales began using his office to persecute officials of previous governments. Some were jailed, others fled. He made sweeping changes to the judiciary and the electoral council. Any time there was an opposition challenge, his street thugs or his judges put a stop to it.

A constituent assembly was elected to rewrite the constitution, but MAS failed to win two-thirds of the delegate seats. Thus the assembly refused to adopt a text filled with antidemocratic articles and a re-election provision for the president. Again MAS, backed by the government, used force. In November 2007 it called the assembly to a military garrison, locked out opposition members, and won the vote. Three protestors were killed. A second vote required to ratify each article again excluded opposition members.

When it came to getting the document ratified by the senate, Mr. Morales called on the mobs once more. In March they surrounded the parliament building and threatened members. Opposition congressmen eventually gave in but claimed they had managed to salvage a few remnants of democratic capitalism, like property rights and private education. Yet those gains may well be transitory.

Besides the presidential “re-election” provision, the document also contains two other articles that are likely to devastate the democracy. One creates a special class of people deemed to have pure Indian blood, granting them special privileges including designated seats in the legislature. This gives Mr. Morales enormous political control. A second article allows him to call for a new constituent assembly to write a new constitution. And it says that it can be approved by two-thirds of “members present.” In other words, if he again fails to get the two-thirds vote he needs to ratify his plan, he will only need to repeat the practice of surrounding the meeting place and blocking his opponents from getting to the vote.

Mr. Morales is South America’s latest dictator, but he is not the ideological communist that many fear. He’s more akin to a mob boss, having risen to power by promising to protect the coca business. Now he has the capacity to do it.

Under his rule, coca cultivation is legal and he collects a licensing fee from all farmers, whose harvests are sold through a centralized market. MAS officials also regulate cocaine production and trafficking which now reaches down to the household level.

The booming business has made Mr. Morales popular. He may hate the U.S. and freedom but one thing is for sure: He understands markets.

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