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Why Bolivia's middle class feels left out by Morales

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2007



COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA

Like scores of his friends and family, Cesar Torrio, a lawyer in Cochabamba, voted for change – for Evo Morales in Bolivia's presidential election in December of 2005. "We all wanted change," says Mr. Torrio, "and Evo was the only one who could bring it."

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Now he shakes his head. "This is not what we wanted. He is re-creating a nation with just one identity."

President Morales, an Aymara Indian and former coca-leaf grower, ushered in a new era of hope in Bolivia, quickly becoming a symbol of the poor in his alpaca sweater and promising a new nation for the long-oppressed indigenous majority. Across Bolivia the indigenous celebrated the promises they had fought so long for: a new constitution, control of natural resources, and a shift away from free-market policies in a nation where two-thirds of the population still lives in poverty.

But the indigenous were not the only ones to rejoice. Thousands of middle-class voters, who were tired of the deep divisions in the country, reached out for a figure they likened to South Africa's Nelson Mandela. Analysts say that without their support, Morales could not have won 54 percent of votes.

Today, some of those voters are questioning their choice. While Morales remains a popular president, lawyers, teachers, police officers, and taxi drivers interviewed across the country claim he is governing for the indigenous only and say they disagree with his policies. Many are going to Spain. Others wonder where they fit within the "new Bolivia."

"It is impossible to understand [Morales's large mandate] if you don't see what the vote of middle class was," says Gonzalo Chavez, a political analyst at Catholic University in La Paz. "Many people feel like he is losing the middle. In Bolivia we don't have a huge middle class. ... but politically it is very important, and has a lot of influence in public opinion."

Morales has been able to bring hope to the indigenous, who make up 62 percent of the population but were often discriminated against just for speaking their native Quechua or Aymara. Now their identity and language is flourishing. They have hailed Morales's move to reclaim more revenue from its natural-gas fields, the largest in South America after Venezuela. While it has been marred by delays, a Constituent Assembly is rewriting the constitution to give more power to the poor. The effort is chaired by a Quechua-speaking woman.

"There is a huge sense of identity with him among the indigenous and rural," says Jim Shultz, a political analyst at The Democracy Center in Cochabamba. "He is the embodiment of their hope."

But some say it has come at the cost of alienating others. "He is just the president of some, not all of us," says Claudia Garcia, an elementary schoolteacher in Cochabamba. "He is always talking about the natives, but I consider myself native, too, because I was born here. If I'm not native, then what am I?"

Jose Pimentel, a congressman from Morales's party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), denies that the president is excluding the middle class. The problem, he says, is that the middle- and upper-classes do not need the same level of attention or resources that the poor do. "What they need is economic stability," he says. "And Morales is providing that."

According to the government, for example, per capita income has increased by 8 percent in the past year. High prices for tin, oil, and natural gas have created a favorable macroeconomic picture. Economic growth was 4.5 percent last year.

If elections were held today, Morales would likely still win. His approval rating in February stood at 64 percent, according to the polling firm Equipos Mori. Right now, says Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, "Nobody would beat Evo."

But Mr. Chavez says that Morales's support overall has fallen by 10 percentage points from this time last year, and analysts say most of that decline comes from the middle class. Unemployment, registering around 8 percent, he says, has remained the same since Morales became president, but that is due in part to the fact that so many Bolivians are emigrating from the country, particularly to Spain.

The Spanish Embassy in La Paz, according to local reports, estimates that some 200,000 Bolivians currently reside in Spain. That is more than a 10-fold increase in the last five years.

Taxi driver Richard Villca is one of those packing. He plans to leave for Spain by next month. He supported Morales at first, especially his move to renegotiate contracts with foreign energy companies. But he says Morales favored loyalists over competent managers. "His government is full of people who don't know what they are doing," he says. "Things aren't going to get better here."

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