With power consolidated, will Evo Morales take Bolivia to the center?

LA PAZ, Bolivia – Evo Morales has a license to do what he wants.

The socialist president of Bolivia overwhelmingly won a second term with 63 percent of the vote. His party also earned a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and two-thirds of the Senate seats in Sunday's election. He even made inroads in the eastern departments where opposition to his reforms has been the strongest.

But his government is still plagued by inefficiency, corruption and bureaucracy.

So with his power consolidated, two questions are on many Bolivians’ minds: Will Morales fulfill his promise to be “a government of dialogue” in his second term? And will he turn to the professional and middle classes for the technical expertise that his administration and the public sector agencies badly need?

The government’s socialist policies have had the most disastrous effects in the key mining and hydrocarbons sectors. Despite windfall revenues in the past two years from international oil and gas prices and the nationalization of the sector, a lack of investment and exploration has led to declines in both mineral and natural gas production.

“There is no doubt. The next government of Evo is going to try to be efficient in its administration,” said Jorge Crespo, a former minister and diplomat who served during several previous administrations.

Morales came to power after rising through the ranks of the coca growers unions in the Chapare region in Bolivia’s central highland valleys. He says he will continue to govern mainly for the nation’s poor and its indigenous campesinos who comprise some 60 percent of the population. But he also says Bolivia must industrialize its economy, and the government will need help to do that.

Much of the support for his party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), comes from rural and indigenous groups and unions where politics often takes precedence over pragmatism or productivity. However, in the eastern departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, Morales and the MAS still face strong opposition. Significantly, those are the areas that have become the country’s economic engine.

Despite MAS’s radical politics, Crespo and others say there is a need in the government ministries and agencies for professionally trained technocrats and others with expertise rather than political credentials.

“There is so much bureaucracy, such a lack of capacity,” said Rolando Calvimontes, a former national highway director and ex-mayor of Villamontes, in Tarija Department, where most of the country’s natural gas is located.

The mining sector, once the backbone of the mineral-rich country’s economy, has languished in recent years as at least 200 privately owned mines were taken over by members of MAS-aligned campesino groups. There has been virtually no investment in the state-run mining company, COMIBOL.

“Evo has just destroyed the mining industry,” said Charles Bruce, a Scot who has worked in Bolivia’s mines for 50 years and lost his mine to a campesino takeover two years ago.

In addition, the mining and hydrocarbons sectors are characterized by the graft, inefficiency and nepotism that are endemic throughout all levels of government here. The most visible example was the arrest earlier this year of Santos Ramirez as head of the state oil company, YPFB. Ramirez was a close confidant of Morales, and the No. 2 man in the MAS party. He is now awaiting trial.

Despite the global economic downturn, Bolivia’s economy is growing at a 3 to 4 percent rate largely because of massive government expenditures, foreign assistance and higher state revenues from natural gas exports. And there are two less talked-about factors behind Bolivia’s economic solvency: the cocaine traffic, which has grown each year since Morales took office in 2006, and what diplomatic sources describe as the off-the-books transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to Morales’ government from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Observers say that decisions Morales makes in coming weeks regarding cabinet changes and appointments to top economic posts will indicate the government’s intentions more than what he or other government officials say for internal consumption.

An early indication that the government is opening its doors to professionals and others in the middle class was the announcement several months ago that Ana Maria Campero, a former publisher of a La Paz newspaper and a widely regarded moderate, would run on the MAS ticket for senator from La Paz. Elected Sunday, she has said she wants to be a “bridge” between the “social movements” that comprise much of the MAS support and the middle and professional classes.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, a Trotskyite, met personally with groups of business leaders in Santa Cruz before the election. He said they were welcome to join the revolutionary process. The agro-industrial sector and hydrocarbons exports from Santa Cruz compose one of the strengths of the economy.

Most rural and poor Bolivians, many of them living in extreme poverty, thrill at the prospect of attaining a larger share of Bolivia’s riches and political power. They say Morales is only finishing the work of the 1952 revolution, when peasants and miners led by urban intellectuals rose up and defeated the army and the traditional oligarchy whose privileges it protected.

Predating the revolution led by Fidel Castro of Cuba by seven years, the 1952 revolution here was the second major 20th century revolution in Latin America after Mexico’s. The country’s indigenous majority was extended suffrage, land was redistributed and public education was brought to the rural areas. The nation’s tin mines, which had been in the hands of several fabulously wealthy “tin barons,” were nationalized. The reforms later were halted or reversed by conservative military and civilian governments that followed, but the 1952 revolution always has been a touchstone of legitimacy for political leaders of all stripes.

Despite his popularity, opposition to Morales’ government has been fierce and election rhetoric has made business groups wonder what the future will bring.

“Everyone is worried," Mario Kempff, who represents Hewlett-Packard, Cisco Systems and Microsoft in Bolivia, said just before the election. "That has its effect on a willingness to invest. There is a high degree of uncertainty.”