In Bolivia's Upcoming Presidential Election, Migrants Won't Just Watch From the Sidelines

By Jelena Kopanja, FI2W contributor

A 2008 campaign poster supporting President Evo Morales' changes to the Constitution - Photo: Chupacabras/Flickr

Campaign posters in Bolivia in 2008 supported President Evo Morales' changes to the Constitution. (Photo: Chupacabras/Flickr)

At Pike Pizza, a Bolivian restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, Bolivian patrons enjoy some of their country’s delicacies like salteñas, or the refreshing peach beverage, mocachinchi. These days, the conversation can often turn to why it is important to have the right to vote from abroad for Bolivia’s next president.

Bolivians will go to the polls on December 6 to elect a new president. The incumbent, leftist President Evo Morales currently leads his two more conservative rivals in public opinion polls. For the first time ever, Bolivians living abroad will be able to cast their ballots in the upcoming general election.

For Bolivians living in the United States, Argentina, Brazil and Spain – the four major destinations for Bolivian migrants – the right to vote was cemented in the new constitution passed earlier this year. Rodolfo Henrich Arauz, a representative of the Bolivian National Electoral Court, sees this as a victory after almost two decades of struggle for what he considers a fundamental right.

“The Bolivian people have to participate in political, economic, social and cultural life with the country. We live outside of the country, but we belong to the country, wherever we are,” he said.

The relationship between migrants and their homeland are varied and complex. They can feel homesick and nostalgic for the place they left behind. Money they send home makes important contributions to the local economy. But opinions about their home government can be laden with distrust. People looking for better opportunities abroad may consider the lack of the same in their native country a consequence of a neglectful state.

“Many governments face quite a sharp sort of learning curve in terms of building trust with their diasporas,” says Kathleen Newland, the director of Migrants, Migration and Development and Refugee Protection Programs at Migration Policy Institute, “especially if the diaspora originates in a refugee flow, or people who have left as a result of a major change in government. That government needs to exert a lot of effort on behalf of the diaspora to get them to believe that there is a true partnership,” says Newland.

And as the diaspora’s importance to home-country development increases – through contributions of not only remittances but skills, knowledge, innovation and even new attitudes – so does its leverage.

“One thing many diasporas really expect, or even demand of their countries of origin is the ability to vote in home country elections, and the ability to become dual citizens,” says Newland.

The number of Bolivians living abroad who can vote is limited to 211,000, or 6 percent of the registered voters in the most recent national election. The cap for the Washington DC metro area was lowered from 34,471 to 17,000 after low registration turnout. The limit in Spain, however, was increased because of much greater interest.

Bolivian emigration to Spain is more recent and their ties to their homeland are stronger, explains Arauz. Also, their Bolivian documents – a prerequisite for registration – are in order, unlike in the U.S. where many migrants have legal residency or citizenship and don’t need Bolivian papers.

These stronger ties may explain why Morales, who is campaigning for re-election, came to Madrid in September. Some 7,000 Bolivians came to hear him speak. His speech focused on legalization of the estimated 150,000 undocumented Bolivians living in Spain.

Bolivian migrants in the U.S. are also concerned about their immigration status, says Arauz. They fear that unfavorable bilateral relations between Bolivia and United States could adversely affect them in the future.

The migrant vote has caused some controversy in the electoral campaign in Bolivia, as one candidate complained of possible manipulation. But Marco Jimenez, who has lived in the United States for 17 years, believes that the size of the migrant vote is too insignificant to make a difference in the general election.

His main concern for Bolivia is education. With good education and job opportunities there will be no more emigration, he says. He also hopes that the migrants’ new right to vote from abroad it will make it possible to bring attention to some of the community’s local grievances, such as inadequate services at the embassy.

And while Jimenez will vote to exercise his right, he is more interested in what happens in his adopted home, the U.S. “My sons are here, I have my life here. In the end, from the moment we left our country, the government and everyone forgot about us. It is this country that took us in, that helped us.”

“This is the country that gave me all I have.”

AboutJelena Kopanja
Jelena Kopanja is former Feet in 2 Worlds contributor. She is a graduate of New York University’s Global and Joint Studies Program, with concentrations in Journalism and Latin American Studies. She was born in Bosnia, from where she brought her love of good coffee and baklava. Prior to her graduate work, she was involved in immigrant communities as an ESL volunteer instructor and an interpreter for Spanish and Bosnian.