March 27, 2007
"In our culture, there is a cosmic law. Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't be lazy ... in our culture, honesty is very important. I'm convinced still that it was that honesty that allowed me to arrive at the presidency."
That was Bolivian President Evo Morales in an interview during his first trip to the United States, last September.
Morales, an Aymara Indian, is the first indigenous president in South America in more than five centuries. He appears to be practicing what he preaches.
The workday for the president and his Cabinet begins at 5 a.m. and often goes past 11 p.m. There is no hint of corruption in the presidency, nor would it be tolerated. And as he passed his first year in office last month, the benefits of honest government were showing.
In the last year the government's revenue from hydrocarbons (mostly natural gas) has increased by more than US$340 million, an amount that - relative to Bolivia's economy - is about 70 percent bigger than our federal budget deficit. It has tripled in the last two years, and is expected to triple again over the next four years, due to the government's decision to re-nationalize the industry.
In the United States we don't usually associate nationalization with good government, but for a country that is highly dependent on natural resource exports it can make a huge difference for the public to get its share of the revenues from these resources, rather than having corrupt officials give them away to foreign companies. This is especially true if the government is committed to using these revenues to benefit the poor.
In Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, this includes 64 percent of the population.
The Morales government has been investing in the poor: for example, it has approved a program of free reproductive health services for women, is expanding health care to children and people over 60, and building rural clinics. More than 5 million acres of previously state-owned land have been distributed to people in the countryside, and the government has plans to redistribute an area the size of Nebraska.
Trying something different
These are all reforms that Morales promised in his electoral campaign, which he won with the largest margin in Bolivia's history of democratic elections. That is the way democracy is supposed to work: people vote for change, and they get it.
Not everyone sees it that way. Last month former U.S. Intelligence Chief John Negroponte (now a deputy in the State Department), stated that democracy is "at risk" in Bolivia.
And Bolivia's government is often portrayed in Washington in Cold War terms reminiscent of the 1950s: as part of an "anti-American" alliance of left governments - generally including Venezuela and Cuba - that we should be worried about.
This obscures what is really happening in Bolivia, which has little to do with any foreign countries but is a product of its own political process. The drafting of a new constitution, re-nationalization of the gas industry, land reform and the rejection of a U.S.-sponsored trade agreement are all demands that came directly - and very insistently - from the Bolivian people.
The Bolivians tried Washington's prescription for economic development for decades - and it failed miserably. Aside from the glaring inequality that is obvious to any visitor, the country's per-capita income today is less than it was a quarter-century ago. So now they are trying something different, and have put together their own national development plan.
But the government has maintained good relations with Washington and still sees the United States as an important trading partner. The Morales government has made mistakes - for example in dealing with movements for local autonomy in the wealthier eastern regions of the country.
But it appears to learn from its mistakes, and has avoided the repression deployed by its predecessors - the prior government killed dozens of people in the streets - even in the face of violent protests. It faces many daunting challenges, mostly in putting together an efficient and effective government at all levels and implementing a development strategy that can reduce the country's dependence on natural resources.
But honest government at the top is a good start, and worthy of respect.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.