Bolivia History

Bolivia's First Indigenous President Asserts the Rights of the Native Population

Bolivian Indian activist Evo Morales of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) won 54% of the vote in Dec. 2005 presidential elections, becoming the country's first indigenous president. He carried out two of his three major initiatives in 2006: nationalizing Bolivia's energy industry, which is expected to double the country's annual revenues; and forming in August a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, which will ensure greater rights for indigenous Bolivians. His third major initiative is to legalize the growing of coca, which many Bolivians consider an integral part of their culture. In July 2007, Morales announced plans to nationalize the country's railways, which for the past 10 years have been run by investors from Chile and the United States. His controversial coca policy, his plans to limit foreign investment, and his close ties with the leftist governments of Venezuela and Cuba have predictably antagonized the United States. Morales has referred to himself as the “United States' biggest nightmare.”

On Dec. 9, 2007, Morales presented a new constitution to congress. The new chapter, which will give indigenous people more rights, recognize 37 official languages, and grant indigenous communities autonomy, was approved by 164 of the 255 constituent assembly members. The opposition boycotted the meeting, however, claiming that the document is illegal because it was not approved by the required two-thirds majority. Regardless of the opposition, the government plans to submit the document to a referendum in 2008.

On May 4, 2008, at least one person died and many were injured when clashes broke out in the Santa Cruz province after a poll was held in opposition to President Morale's government. The government strongly disapproved of the prosposed referendum, which would give more autonomy to the Santa Cruz province, including the ability to elect its own legislature, raise taxes for public works, and create its own police force.

On Aug. 10, 2008, President Morales won a recall referendum with 63.5 percent of voters supporting his administration. The recall vote was an unsuccessful effort to remove Morales from office by Podemos, an opposition party—Morales has garnered criticism from some lowland provinces for his policies, including the acceptance of financing from Venezuela.

On Sept. 10, 2008, President Morales ordered the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, to leave the country, accusing Goldberg of "conspiring against democracy" and encouraging rebel groups who were protesting in eastern Bolivia.

In November, 2008, relations between Bolivia and the United States deteriorated further—the U.S. suspended duty-free access for Bolivian exports and President Morales suspended U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operations, accusing its agents of espionage.

A new constitution that extended the rights of the indigenous majority, granted increased autonomy to the states, and allowed the president to run for a second five-year term was passed in a national referendum in January 2009 despite widespread protests.

In December, Morales was elected to a second term, taking more than 60% of the vote, well ahead of his conservative opponent.