Introducing...Luis Arce Catacora
The bespectacled, 57-year-old Arce swept to power in Bolivia on 18 October 2020 as the presidential candidate of the leftist Movement for Socialism (MAS). His total vote share – over 55 per cent – surprised even the most ardent of MAS partisans. His closest competitor, the old political warhorse of the centre-right Carlos Mesa, failed to top 30 per cent.
All this proved to be much to the chagrin of Latin America’s neoliberal Lima Group (led ironically by Canada) and the Luis Almagro-led Organization of American States, which had helped orchestrate the 2019 coup that led to the removal of former president Evo Morales on suspect electoral fraud charges. It is hard to overestimate the importance of Acre’s victory at a time when conservative forces from Bogotá to Brasília have been organizing a full court press to turn back the continent’s pink tide with some success.
Arce, who studied at the University of Warwick in Britain, was the economy minister under the government of Evo Morales for the entirety of its 14-year existence and made sure the boom in Bolivian commodities benefited the poorest, mostly indigenous, citizens. Under his watch extreme poverty dropped from 38 to 15 per cent of the population. He also oversaw Bolivia’s nationalization of hydrocarbon, telecommunications and mining companies, as well as the creation of the Bancosur (Bank of the South).
A low-profile and modest man, Arce tends to eschew the ‘balcony politician’ style often taken on by Latin American leaders across the political spectrum. He has also successfully refuted the accusation that he is merely a ‘stand-in’ for Morales, whose controversial attempt to manipulate an unconstitutional third term opened the door for a seizure of power by Jeanine Áñez, backed by the Bolivian military’s high command.
But a year of Áñez’s rule marked by regressive economic policy, authoritarian assaults and a pattern of insults to Bolivia’s indigenous majority (including the burning of the Wiphala flag by racist demonstrators in conservative Santa Cruz) proved more than enough for most Bolivian voters. Despite ample potential for violence, the MAS leadership showed tactical sophistication in managing to avoid major street confrontations between its supporters and the well-armed military.
A major lesson of Arce’s victory is the resilience of the MAS and how in the end it did not require a high-profile leader such as Evo Morales to rebound. This has allowed Morales to step back and Arce to proclaim that the former president ‘will not have any role in our government’. The landslide victory at the polls is a testimony to how deeply the desire for change and social justice is rooted in Bolivia. Unlike the besieged government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Bolivia’s version of the Bolivarian Left has eschewed the heavy hand and is much better placed to deliver for the country’s poor campesinos.
The future will not be free of trouble but the strength of MAS and Arce’s own track record of committed integrity mean he should also avoid the fate of neighbouring Ecuador’s Lenín Moreno and keep Bolivia’s economy from crashing on the neoliberal rocks. Moreno, who had been vice-president in the Bolivarian government led by Rafael Correa, swung sharply to the right despite winning the presidency with a promise to maintain and deepen the reforms initiated by Correa. His cutbacks and privatization policies (including removal of popular fuel subsidies) brought tens of thousands of Ecuadorians into the streets to protest.