A certain part of the US population likes to throw around the word “socialist” a lot, often without knowing what it even means.
In most cases the word is used to describe the situation that the government does something, especially if that action has something to do with necessary distributions of money. Or, if it is some dictatorial action, it is labeled “communism”.
In fact I have heard even Germany described as a socialist country so often that I now use that term mockingly whenever a US citizen thinks something is bad in his country, like: “In my socialist Germany it would be illegal to screw you that badly!” or “In socialist countries like Germany you would not need to sell your home to get a cancer treatment!”
But the inflationary use of that word is troublesome in many aspects so I wanted to have a closer look at one question: How is life in a socialist country today (compared to e.g. a “capitalistic” one)?
The answer is surprisingly hard to give. First of all: What is a socialist country? (Or, often used as synonym, communistic?)
For nearly 30 years now we do not anymore have the big Eastern Block around the Sowjet Union, who described themselves as communistic (but never were). The same applies to the area where I live in – Eastern Germany – which called itself “real existing socialism”, but was a real existing party-oligarchic-dictatorship.
We don’t have those countries to look at. The closest to that historical Communistic Block is today’s China, and that is a bad example. For one, it is again not a socialist bottom-up country but an autocratic top-down government, and the economy looks more like a crony-capitalism based model mixed with dictatorial state-ordered economy (like switching off factories so they don’t pollute the Olympic Games(tm)).
For socialists the core morals are equality, justice and solidarity, and while I can’t say much about the latter in China, the first two are certainly not universal in China.
The only other historical remnant of the communistic time is Cuba, and that is an even worse example. Cuba is a true dictatorship and worse (for our purpose), the island has been economically isolated by the US and US-led countries. You can’t objectively judge who is the better racer if you take away all cars from one team…
There are other countries with dictatorship and economic isolation, but they are hard to look at because they are too poor or too restrictive for broad, open internet. And of course, their “capitalism” is often pure crony-capitalism, and that would be unfair to compare to socialism (but maybe fair to the historical communistic countries).
But we are lucky! There is a current-time socialist country that is not isolated economically and that is not only socialist by name but indeed by actions.
The name of the country: Bolivia.
The name of the president: Evo Morales. Morales is a very important person, so I start with a bit of history.
Morales is the leader of the party MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo – Instrumento Político por la Soberanía de los Pueblos). So we are lucky here, they describe themselves as socialists.
The first big election result of the MAS was in 2002, when it reached second place with 21% of the votes. This election was already under the banner of anti-neoliberalism (stop of privatizations of state or communal firms) and in part anti-americanism, like in the demand of the stop of the dangerous “war on drugs” that the US led and which often was just a war against the indigenous people.
In 2005 there were new elections, which became a fight between the neoliberals and the “anti-american” side which opposed the economic-political model that the US embodies.
The cores of Morales’ campaign were:
- Nationalization of the natural gas industry, as per 2004 referendum, through new contracts.
- Land that is unused because of speculations should go to the state.
- A new constitution.
- Fight against corruption and government structures that allow corruption.
- Austerity in most areas, to put that money towards education and health of the broad masses.
MAS won the elections with this decidedly socialist agenda and Morales became the first indigenous president of Bolivia.
The new constitution was enacted in 2009 and Morales and his MAS were re-elected two times with more then 60% of the votes.
As per the new constitution, new autonomous institutions were created, for example the state company for oil and gas and the state mining company in the economic sector. Most interesting though is the Defensoría del Pueblo that gives the people legal help, especially in cases of abuse of office. I don’t know about any similar construct anywhere in the world.
In the index of economic freedom the country is on place 168 of 180, which for some is the only indicator for socialism they need. So here again, the current Bolivian government calls itself socialistic, has a socialistic agenda and is “socialistic” in economy ranking.
I just want to make that point crystal-clear because the results will surprise the “part of the US population” I mentioned above.
A Story of Success
With the nationalization of the oil and gas industry, now the majority of the profit goes to the state. With that Bolivia has financed social programs and halved extreme poverty from 32% to 17% of the population in just a decade. The life expectancy, which rose from 40 years to 59 years in the time of 1950-2000, has increase to 68 in the year 2015.
The economic growth for 2017 is estimated to be 4% (2016: 4,1%), one of the highest in South America, while the unemployment rate is the lowest on that continent with just 4,1%. The inequality between the richest 10% and the rest has decreased from 128 times to 37 times.
This likely played a big role in an important record for the country: political stability. In the history of the country the presidents (or in a lot of cases more correct dictators) on average didn’t even last two years, often removed violently by the next short-time “president”.
In contrast to that violence, the elections were not only quite peaceful, the 12 years have also seen an unprecedented amount of 47 plebiscites.
This is in line with the new constitution that describes Bolivia as a plurinational, participative and community oriented democracy (yes, extremely social-ist here, too).
The societal centerpiece of Morales politics is the de-colonization. The indigenous people, who amount to 60% of the population, have been prevented from participation in economy and politics for 500 years.
In the 12 years of Morales’ government, they have claimed their country back. There is even the talk of a “new economic elite” of the indigenous Aymara (Morales is one, too). They can now not only go through the streets in their traditional clothes without getting attacked, they now also build colorful houses, called “Cholets” (more about that topic here. Their wealth (money in bank accounts) has 4-folded in the years between 2004 and 2012.
Surprisingly(?) even the old elites, the white owners of vast amount of lands, have admitted that under Morales everything got better and everyone won – even those for whom the prior dictator(s) was a close, personal friend.
That does not mean that they like the rise of the indigenous people, though.
Darker Days Ahead?
Since 2015 the international drop on prices (mainly oil and gas) have decreased Bolivia’s export income by 23% and put the budget to -13%. (Which, in absolute terms, is still only 2 billion US dollar dept, less then a US presidential election campaign.)
If the prices don’t go up again fast, that puts quite a damper on the scope of projects that can be financed. It is also a leverage point for the old white elite to get rid of the first successful indigenous president.
The next election is in 2019, and Morales does not want to step down (even if he should according to “his” own constitution). What happens then is totally in the open. We can only hope it will not result in a fall back to dictatorial or indigenous-supressing times.