Setting the Record Straight on Bolivia: Analysis from Jean Friedman-Rudovsky on February’s Referendum

Setting the Record Straight on Bolivia

                                         By Jean Friedman-Rudovsky

This past February, Bolivians voted on a constitutional reform that would have allowed Evo Morales to run for a fourth term as president. When all the ballots were counted, the “No” vote won by 132,509 votes, less than 3 percentage points. President Morales, rather calmly, conceded defeat.

I lived in Bolivia from 2005 to 2013 as the longest-tenured English language reporter during Morales’ presidency, writing mainly for Time Magazine. Unfortunately, U.S. coverage of the referendum missed the mark. The reporting fit all too neatly into a larger narrative of the waning “pink tide” of South American leaders. Evo Morales was depicted as a power-hungry dictator who would stop at nothing to extend his reign, and it would seem that the overwhelming majority of Bolivian people have rejected him and his policies.

Neither is accurate.

Evo Morales has been a wildly popular leader. His government won three elections by historically broad margins and he has had among the highest presidential approval ratings in the hemisphere. In part that’s because over the last decade, the lives of the country’s poor and indigenous majority have improved markedly. Morales successfully channeled Bolivia’s hydrocarbons revenue to the public sector, and doubled public investment as a percentage of GDP. Poverty was reduced by 34% from 2005 to 2013, while Bolivia’s economy grew faster than any in the region. Large increases in social spending and huge hikes in the minimum wage helped to greatly reduce inequality.

Beyond statistics, it’s the change in the lives of my loved ones there that speaks to me. My godson Luis was born the day Evo Morales was first elected: December 18, 2005. The trajectory of his indigenous Aymara family parallels the country’s decade of progress. When I first met his parents, in early 2005, they were renting a tiny apartment on crumbling cliffs leading to El Alto, La Paz’s poorer sister city. His father drove a taxi, his mother sold bootleg DVD’s and they barely made ends meet. Over the last decade, the couple started two small businesses that enabled them to buy land and build their own home in La Paz. Luis and his 13 year-old sister Nayeli went from a school with no internet connection and too few books, to classrooms with laptops online.

Why did Morales lose the referendum? The data provides important context: he was first elected President with 54% of the vote in 2005, last Sunday he received 49% while making a big ask of the public. Several Bolivian experts confirm that some of these swing voters favored term limits and democratic rotation, and that what likely tipped the scales were a series of scandals that broke right before the vote. Morales is an imperfect leader, but this referendum should not be read as a significant break in support of his policies or even a strong rejection of his leadership.

The other misrepresentation of the referendum, e.g., Morales’ “power grab,” lacks perspective. Many Americans treat term limits as a litmus test for democracy—at least when it comes to countries where people with brown skin those with white skin. But there are some undemocratic countries that have term limits (like the Central African Republic) and there are some highly functioning democracies (including Norway and Canada) that do not.

Bolivia is engaged in a complex process of emerging from chronic underdevelopment, instability, and near de-facto apartheid. Under Morales, Bolivia has become a more inclusive and stable democracy with a vibrant civil society, less dependent on foreign money and influence. It is important that the international community holds Bolivian leaders accountable to democratic norms, but it is not appropriate to project notions of how leaders should carry themselves nor apply strict lessons from the global north in foreign contexts. The characterization—widely published in the U.S.—that Morales was “undermining democracy” by asking voters to decide if he can run again and then respecting their decision, is a stretch. This is especially true in a U.S. presidential election year when questionable elements of our electoral system, including coin tosses, billionaire-backed campaigns and the influence of superdelegates, are on display.

I visited La Paz last fall. One Sunday, I rode the new public gondola system—a source of great pride for Bolivians—with my godson and his family. As we rode, Luis and Nayeli looked down at the teetering houses near where they used to live. We ate ice cream at the top, outside the shiny El Alto station perched on the edge of the city that’s eye level with snow-capped Andean peaks. The two kicked pebbles off the edge while pointing at the gondola lines crisscrossing in the sky.

Nayeli will vote in the 2019 elections; Morales will not be on the ballot. Whether or not that’s good for her family and nation, only time will tell. But like what Nelson Mandela meant for black South Africans and what President Obama is for African Americans, Morales has been for these kids. The generation of Luis and Nayeli’s indigenous grandparents were obligated by law to move off the sidewalk to let a white person pass. Now, my godson can envision being president.

When Morales steps down his legacy at home will not be of a strongman who tried to turn a fledgling democracy into his kingdom. Instead, his efforts to make Bolivia a nation in which a young people of Luis and Nayeli’s heritage and class will have a better chance to fulfill their potential will be considered his lasting contribution.

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky reported for TIME from Bolivia between 2006 and 2013. She is now a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia and a contributing editor for VICE Magazine.