But 2,000 of the president's opponents have stopped eating
INSIDE the governor's palace in Santa Cruz, the walls are plastered with posters shouting “We would rather die than live as slaves. Two-thirds or nothing!” The floors are strewn with mattresses occupied by hunger strikers. They are among 2,000 fasters demanding that a constituent assembly rewriting Bolivia's constitution should approve each of its articles by a two-thirds vote of its 255 members, not the simple majority favoured by the left-wing government of Evo Morales in La Paz.
This may sound like an obscure procedural dispute. In fact it shows that Bolivia is dangerously divided. The fissures have widened since Mr Morales, a socialist of Andean-Indian descent, was elected president a year ago. And though Bolivia is a poor place with a population of only 9m, it has much natural gas and lies at the heart of South America. It is being watched very closely by the outside world.
Some see in Mr Morales a standard-bearer for a racially inclusive democracy in a region of notorious social inequality. He says his government heralds the end of 500 years of oppression of Bolivians of indigenous descent by whites and (mixed-race) mestizos, and of Bolivia itself by rapacious foreign powers. Others say a mestizo in a country with a mixed-race majority is using race as a political tool. In this view, he is following in the footsteps of his closest ally, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, using democracy to install an authoritarian regime and thus perpetuate his power.
This second camp includes the elected governors of four eastern provinces (known as departments in Bolivia), who fear that Mr Morales will use the constituent assembly to impose the values of the Andean-Indian communities on the entrepreneurial east. They say he would destroy the east's prosperity by introducing a “communist model” and its liberty by denying autonomy to the four departments, which voted for this in a referendum last July. They plan street protests to pursue autonomy with or without the government's blessing. The hunger strikers talk of secession and independence. Mr Morales has threatened to send in the army.
The two sides may yet pull back. There is fitful talk of a deal between opposition parties and Mr Morales's Movement To Socialism (MAS) on autonomy and the two-thirds rule. Easterners do not plan to challenge the army, which largely backs Mr Morales. Yet strife is likely to persist. “La Paz is another reality,” says Erich Fleig of the Pro Santa Cruz Committee, which leads the autonomy movement.
Mr Morales has the support of two-thirds of Bolivians according to opinion polls. But his grip on power has not been entirely secure. In October, 16 people died in clashes between salaried and freelance miners, the sort of incident that has toppled presidents in the past. Since then, he has scored political victories. He signed agreements with foreign energy companies over the “nationalisation” of oil and gas and rammed a land-reform law through Congress. Each such victory enhances Mr Morales's status as a liberator, preparing the way for the next one.
Will popularity create the political dominance that elections did not quite produce? Mr Morales wants the constituent assembly to “refound” Bolivia. It has declared itself to be sovereign over every other institution, but spent most of its four-month life so far arguing about the two-thirds rule and other procedural issues. The MAS has yet to produce a constitutional blueprint, but Mr Morales wants to apply Andean-Indian conceptions of communal rights to democracy and to the economy, as well as allowing presidents to stand for consecutive terms.
So far, Mr Morales has played largely by the rules. The MAS enjoys a majority in the lower house of Congress. It pushed land reform and a controversial military agreement with Venezuela through the Senate thanks to a boycott by much of the opposition. The sometimes quarrelling social movements that make up the MAS have provided rowdy pressure from the streets, marching to the Senate to press for land reform. Mr Morales “has a 99% chance of being a caudillo with democratic trappings,” says Walter Guevara, a political analyst. That is what worries the opposition.
In practice if not in rhetoric, Mr Morales has shown some respect for the laws of economics. He replaced an ideologue at the energy ministry with the more pragmatic planning minister, Carlos Villegas. He then signed a deal to export 28m cubic metres a day of natural gas to Argentina, an amount equal to more than half of current output, at a juicy price.
That tempted a dozen foreign energy companies to sign new contracts, which include surrendering gas to state-ownedYPFB. If Argentina keeps its promises, industry sources say, some of the companies may invest $3 billion to fulfil the contract. Nationalisation may carry a cost: Brazil's Petrobras, the largest investor, dropped plans to more than double its gas imports, but it is now reconsidering. The new contracts, which skim off more than half the revenue as tax, do not encourage further exploration, says José Magela Bernardes of the Bolivian Chamber of Hydrocarbons.
All told, extra money from gas should boost government revenue by 7% of GDP this year, though under current rules much of this will go to the departments of Santa Cruz and Tarija. In another move reminiscent of Mr Chávez, Mr Morales gleefully assigned the army to distribute some of the windfall to schoolchildren.
That does not seem to signal the start of reckless spending. Mr Morales has faced down pressure for sharp increases in government salaries and the minimum wage. Thanks to higher revenues, last year's public-sector deficit of 2.3% of GDP will be a surplus of better than 5% this year. The government plans to follow the example of Chile rather than Venezuela in establishing a stabilisation fund to save part of its gas windfall for leaner times.
Revolutionary or reassuring?
On the economy, the government tries to sound revolutionary and reassuring at the same time. “Peasants don't want socialism,” says Gabriel Loza, the head of a think-tank linked to the planning ministry. The government will play a direct role only in “strategic sectors” such as hydrocarbons, mining and electricity. It will help the private sector through a new development bank. Next year will be one of “strong investment” in non-oil sectors, says Mr Villegas, the energy minister.
But it will take many such years to transform a country where nearly two-thirds of the population is poor and half the workforce jobless or underemployed. As well as gas, the economy is benefiting from high prices for minerals, plus remittances and debt forgiveness. Local private companies are investing little. As a result, some 500 Bolivians a day are leaving. The government's obsession with controlling and redistributing land, gas and other natural resources misses the point, believes George Gray Molina of the UNDevelopment Programme in La Paz. It should encourage investment in export industries that add value to raw materials.
Between the vagueness of Mr Morales's intentions and the harshness of some of his tactics, his foes are not sure whether he is prepared to accept checks on his power. The government has filed criminal charges against all five living ex-presidents and other former officials. After hunger strikers in Santa Cruz were assaulted by MAS supporters, the interior minister said the victims were not entitled to protection because the strike is illegitimate.
The showdown will come in the gas-rich, grain-growing east, over the intertwined issues of autonomy and land. In Santa Cruz, people do not disagree that land should be expropriated if it is held illegally or is not fulfilling its “economic and social function”. But they say the government's plan to verify this every two years will discourage bank lending and they fear that expropriation decisions will be political. Unlike earlier reforms, the new law mandates distribution to communities, not individuals—proof of Mr Morales's collectivist tendencies, say opponents.
They worry, too, that land reform will be used to flood the lowlands with impoverished indigenous folk, tipping the ethnic and political balance. If Mr Morales distributes just a tenth of the 20m hectares (50m acres) he has promised, a million highlanders could head to the lowlands, says Miguel Urioste of Fundación Tierra, a think-tank. Thus will he “win the east”.
The champions of regional autonomy for the departments say that such a policy will promote good government and end excessive centralisation. Mr Morales prefers to reduce autonomy by distributing powers to regions and indigenous communities and to give Congress the right to sack governors. How hard will he push? That is what the hunger strikers are about to discover.