They overwhelmingly draw their support from the indigenous peoples who make up the majority of the population with Evo Morales the first indigenous head of state in Latin America. MAS are a broad movement of socialists, environmentalists and trade unionists and are the nearest equivalent of a Red/Green Alliance in Latin America. For the past eight years they have pursued a strategy of ‘progressive modernisation’. This includes a programme of industrialisation, state intervention in the economy, social and political inclusion, environmental protection and ambitious social programmes.
In terms of foreign affairs they have regularly denounced American intervention in Latin America and are close allies of Cuban and Venezuelan governments. There have been two landmark achievements. The Hydrocarbon Law which nationalised large parts of the fossil fuel industry providing a Development Fund which diverts 50 per cent of income into government programmes. The second were radical changes to the constitution which strengthened democracy and transferred substantial powers to the hitherto largely disenfranchised indigenous people; ending what they described as the system of internal colonisation.
Since coming to power in 2006 the record of the government has been impressive. Key sectors of the economy have been nationalised, there have been huge investments in health, education and housing, poverty levels have been slashed while living standards have risen faster than any country in Latin America. All this while recording some of the highest economic growth rates on the continent fuelled by high levels of public expenditure.
In contrast to Venezuela where the Right forms a powerful and united block the MAS government has successfully divided and destabilised the opposition. This was not always the case. Five years ago a revolt took place in the wealthy opposition controlled Santa Cruz region which threatened to break away from the ‘Marxist terrorist regime’ in La Paz bringing the country to the brink of civil war.
The government faced down the challenge and has since managed to incorporate some of the right wing forces in a broad coalition for change. This has meant a watering down of some of the more radical aspects of its programme to accommodate these elements and to encourage foreign investment which is now at record levels.
The government’s declared aim is socialism although there is no timetable attached to this aim or strict definition as to what it means by socialism. At the moment it is defined as an economy where the state will play a central role but not exclusive role, the end of poverty and economic inequality, the creation of a society based on equality important in a country where ethnic divisions have featured strongly and the linking of the struggle for socialism in Bolivia to the Bolivarian struggle across Latin America.
Its strategy is to lock the country into a specific path of development by turning MAS from a broad based social movement into an institutional party of power that dominates the state at every level. This has raised some criticism including from sections of the left within MAS who are worried by some of the elements now flocking into the movement from the right, a business community many of whom have developed a new found enthusiasm for the government and the fear that MAS may turn from a vibrant grass roots movement into a one party state. Nevertheless overall developments in Bolivia will be welcomed by socialists throughout Latin America and the world.
One last thought—47 years ago, Che Guevara was murdered in Bolivia by the government on the orders of its pay masters in Washington. Today, Che Guevara and the Cuban and Bolivian fighters who fought with him have the status of national heroes feted by a government which claims to be the heirs of that movement. In fact Evo Morales sees himself as a leader very much in the mould of Fidel Castro who he described as the most important person in Latin American history since Simon Bolivar, Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez.
Whatever happens in the future the contrast with the pre-MAS period could not be sharper. A country characterised by appalling poverty, equality, exploitation and underdevelopment. A country lacking in the most basic services and infrastructure. A country ruthlessly divided on ethnic grounds ruled by a white elite based on violence and corruption and more concerned with satisfying their allies in Washington than the needs of their people.