The Capitalistic Socialism of Bolivia’s Evo Morales

The worst enemy of humanity is capitalism … If the entire world doesn’t acknowledge this reality, that the national states are not providing even minimally for health, education and nourishment, then each day the most fundamental human rights are being violated”.[1]


Evo Morales, the recently re-elected President of Bolivia, has established something of a reputation as a hard-hitting, radical socialist & anti-imperialist crusader. Having just won a historic third-term with over 60% of the popular vote, as well as his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party maintaining its majority grip on the legislature, the international media have been clamouring to hail him as the perfect example of a 21st century socialist and popular leader.[2] Bolivia, under Morales, has seen a reduction in extreme poverty from 38% in 2005 to 24% in 2011, the introduction of redistributive measures (such as the Juancito Pinto programme, which provides $28 a year to families who send their children to school) and the nationalisation of oil, telecoms and electricity (thus ensuring the benefits of which flow to the redistributive state rather than shareholders).[3] At the same time this has been coupled with a 126% surge in per-capita GDP, a consistently well-controlled and stable inflation rate and the accumulation of proportionately (to GDP) the world’s highest amount of international reserves ($14 billion, equal to 17 months worth of imports).[4] Consequently Morales has somewhat oddly found himself as the doyen of the international left at the same time as winning plaudits from the despised organisations that the left would regard as the institutionalisations of hegemonic Western neo-imperialism: the IMF and the World Bank.[5] This curious marriage of supporters is a consequence of Morales’ astute political posturing: he has successfully combined a socialist rhetoric with a sly continuation of the capitalist model he berates.

Sans titre

Perhaps the most immediately visible manifestation of this is illustrated with another historic act courtesy of Morales –his legalisation of child labour from the age of 10 (with Bolivia consequently earning one of its more dubious achievements of becoming the first country in the world to legalise such practice).[6] The exploitation of child labour is an endemic problem within Bolivia – in 2008 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that 850,000 children (28% of all those under the age of 14) were employed in what was then an illegal practice, with the figure now rising to above 1 million (20% of the entire workforce).[7] The rationale behind the legalisation, as articulated by one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Adolfo Mendoza, was that “rather than persecute [child labour], we want to protect the rights and guarantee the labour security of children.”[8] The bill thus made it compulsory for working children to attend school and supposedly ensured that the new ‘stringent’ regulations could now be enforced since it was no longer an underground issue.

However this ‘implementation’ has meant a mere 78 inspectors for the entire country’s 1 million children in labour.[9] 70.9% of the children work within physically demanding agricultural jobs, and a further 7.9% work in the even more strenuous industrial sector (which includes mining).[10] The children consequently end up going to school (if they go at all) ill-prepared, tired and without having done the study necessary to earn the grades to secure the jobs that would help break the cycle of poverty in adulthood.[11] Evidently, the right of a child to enjoy a childhood is not as important as the ‘right’ of a child to sell their labour for a meager wage (which consequently also undercuts the wage of the already under-paid adult workforce). The radical socialist rhetoric that effuses sound-bytes about principles and base standards has not been followed through with the case of children in Bolivia. Rather than focusing upon triplicating its ratio of international reserves, (an act which in itself betrays the neo-liberal capitalistic nature of Morales’ administration’s economic priorities) the money could have been spent increasing the Juancito Pinto programme so that no family with children would be economically compelled to send their children to work. By legalising the exploitative practice, as Human Rights Watch has pointed out, Morales has risked legitimising and further normalising a custom that now will be even more difficult to eradicate.[12]

Morales’ capitalistic disposition may be further exposed via a brief structural analysis of the economic foundations upon which his administration has steered the country to winning praise from the IMF and World Bank. The Uruguayan political ecologist, Eduardo Gudynas, has contributed to exactly such a perspective with his intervention on how the Bolivian government is the epitome of the ‘new extractivism’ sweeping centre-left governments within the region.[13] Central to this practice is the obsession with endless accumulation and expansion of natural resources – in Bolivia’s case the mineral and agricultural resources that have proved to be the backbone of its recent economic success (due largely to the unprecedented boom in commodity prices).[14] With striking parallels to Bolivia’s orthodox neo-liberal past, huge multinational corporations (MNCs) are central to the extension of this extraction across the nation, albeit even if some of these new operations are ‘joint-ventures’ between state-owned companies and MNCs as well as higher royalties being demanded. Gudynas elucidates how Bolivia may thus be characterised as a ‘compensatory state’ i.e. a country that depends on the revenues skimmed from the profits of the MNCs and whose legitimacy depends upon the mediocre redistribution via cash-transfer programmes to the desperately poor.[15] The underlying root causes of the class structure remain unaddressed. Indeed core to this process is the essentially capitalistic prioritisation of maintaining the security of private property rights and juridical environments whereby multinationals can continue to accumulate profits – a far cry from the radical socialistic rhetoric of Morales.

This is epitomised by a closer scrutiny of the state of the mining industry within Bolivia. Despite the initial headline-grabbing nationalisation of the Huanuni mine, Vladimir Díaz and Kirsten Francescone have highlighted how Morales has a clear track record of consistently favouring privately owned mines to state-controlled ones. As of 2010, Bolivia has 6186 workers within the state-owned mining sector; in contrast, the ‘co-operatives’ employ 65, 828 workers, with a further 7297 employed in large/medium sized private mines.[16] The term ‘co-operative’ itself clouds the exploitative structure of the mines (as well as bearing scant resemblance to the Western co-operative concept). The Bolivian co-operative mines are a highly socially stratified affair – the ‘socios’ are the collective mine owners, each of which hire ‘peones’ to mine the area to which they have the rights.[17] The ‘peones’ receive none of the benefits of co-operative membership, and are exploited in conditions reminiscent of the bloody colonial past – they are not paid monthly salaries, rather they are paid according to what each miner extracts.[18] Often having to use rudimentary tools and machinery in mines largely sapped of their once abundant resources, the ‘peones’ work in highly hazardous environments with minimal safety protection.[19] One would therefore expect a ‘radical socialist’ such as Morales to swiftly be eliminating such a cruel form of exploitation. On the contrary he has encouraged the growth of co-operative mines through reducing royalty payments, taxes and tariffs whilst at the same time pushing forward a new mining law with the intention of attracting increased sums of investment from MNCs.[20]

Evidently, the socialistic rhetoric of Morales does not apply to the majority of Bolivian miners, or indeed to the one-third of Bolivian children deprived of a childhood. Rather than fulfilling the promises he makes in his bombastic speeches, Morales leaves the fundamental root causes of poverty as well as the social stratification of Bolivian society unaddressed. The core of his economic policy is dependent upon the notion of a ‘new extractivism’ coupled with a ‘compensatory state’ – one that skims the profits of MNCs and symbolically redistributes it to the very poorest. Whilst it is laudable that poverty has consistently been decreasing under Morales, it is nonetheless a sad fact that just under half (45%) of the population continues to live in poverty.[21] This is despite a charismatic popular President whose party controls the legislature on a ‘radical socialist’ mandate and as such have near-free control over economic measures. Yet arguably the core economic structure of Bolivia (albeit with the exception of the nationalisation of certain industries) remains the same from its orthodox neo-liberal past. Its rigid fiscal conservatism in stockpiling international foreign reserves and prioritising budget surpluses at almost any cost is a further case in point. The answer therefore to Evo Morales’ rhetorical question in his most recent re-election victory speech “how much longer will [Bolivia] continue to be subjected to … the capitalist system” is consequently immediately apparent: so long as Evo is in power. [22]


[1] Morales, Evo. Speech to the United Nations meeting on Climate Change, September 24, 2007.






[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.




[12] Ibid.






[18] Ibid


[20] Ibid