As featured in Edition 37, available here.
By MAXIMILIAN BACHMEIER
WHO IS HE?
“We have reclaimed democracy” rejoiced Bolivia’s new leader Luis Alberto Arce Catacora, following his landslide win in the presidential elections in October 2020. Born into a middle-class family in the capital city of La Paz, the 57-year-old started out working for the Bolivian central bank for nearly two decades. After serving as the country’s Minister of Economy and Public Finance from 2006-2019, the UK-educated economist eventually ran for president in 2020 and led his socialist party ‘MAS’ back to power. His promise to rebuild the country is oriented towards the Bolivian motto: ‘La unión es la fuerza’ – Unity is strength.
Arce, who took a hiatus from his engagement at the Bolivian central bank to graduate from the University of Warwick with a Masters degree in Economics, had a profound impact on Bolivia’s economy. During his 13-year tenure as finance minister, key industries such as hydrocarbon, mining and telecommunications were nationalised. The revenues from these state-owned enterprises were in turn reinvested to support small businesses and fund poverty alleviation programmes. As a result, extreme poverty dropped from a staggering 38% in 2005 to 15% in 2017 while the country averaged an economic growth rate of roughly 5% per annum.
DEAR MR. PRESIDENT
Following his ministerial accomplishments, Luis Arce secured the win for his party ‘Movement for Socialism’ (MAS) in the 2020 presidential elections with 55% of the votes opposed to his main competitor’s 29%. Although his opponent, conservative Carlos Mesa, as well as right-wing interim president Jeanine Áñez were quick to accept the election results, not everyone was happy with the outcome: only three days before Arce’s official inauguration in November, unknown culprits launched a dynamite attack targeting his party’s campaign headquarters. Luckily, the president-elect survived the detonation unharmed and was ultimately sworn into office in the presence of King Felipe VI of Spain.
Contrary to his mentor and pre-predecessor, left-wing strongman Evo Morales, Luis Arce is viewed as more of a mild-mannered character. This fits the public image of the bespectacled economist who – despite his nickname ‘Lucho’ – many consider a pragmatic technocrat rather than a social warrior. In spite of Morales’ function as MAS party leader, Arce affirmed the former “will not have any role in our government". The new president further promised to leave ideological matters aside when dealing with politicians both domestically and abroad. It is this level-headedness that might prove valuable governing a chronically unstable country.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Although he already announced to serve no longer than one term in office, Luis Arce’s impact in these five years could be a long-lasting one. Besides its rich natural gas deposits, Bolivia disposes of the planet’s biggest reserves of lithium, a metal crucial to satisfy the world’s never-ending thirst for batteries. Arce’s plan of unlocking his country’s potential by sustainably exploiting those reserves might bring unbeknownst wealth to one of the poorest regions in South America. At the same time, a successful democratic-socialist government would be a powerful political symbol beyond a continent that’s riddled with autocrats.
Image: Flickr / UNCTAD