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New Bolivian president slashes own salary

President Evo Morales cut his salary in half and declared no Cabinet minister can collect a higher wage than his own, with the savings to be used to hire more public school teachers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Evo Morales cut his salary in half and declared no Cabinet minister can collect a higher wage than his own, with the savings to be used to hire more public school teachers.

The move followed a campaign pledge to tackle political corruption and restore honesty to the government of South America’s poorest country. But critics called it a propaganda ploy that will do little to help the needy.

Five days into his leftist government, Morales announced Thursday his salary would be $1,875 a month and that his Cabinet would also have their salaries capped at that figure.

“I ask for (the ministers’) understanding and efforts to try to meet this demand, not for Evo but for the people,” Morales said.

He said the savings would be used to hire more teachers, adding: “We need 6,000 new teachers and there is only money for 2,200.”

Morales’ predecessor earned $3,900 a month. The yearly savings of $24,300 is about enough to pay the annual salaries of seven experienced teachers, rent a middle class apartment or buy a new Ford Focus in Bolivia.

Street protests by teachers, miners, and Indians ousted two of Morales’ predecessors since 2003, uprisings fueled by indignation against wealthy elites.

Pledged to take on corruption, poverty
In December, voters elected Morales by a landslide after he promised to tackle corruption and poverty. He was inaugurated Sunday.

Restaurant waiter Jose Maria Oropeza applauded the cuts. “It’s a good sign that he’s putting his salary on the line so that the country can begin improving, and not only his salary, but all the Cabinet ministers,” Oropeza said Friday.

But he said daunting problems remain.

“The poverty rate here is high and no one can deny that. But with this government, I hope that things will start improving,” he said.

Critics said the salary cuts were a superficial gesture that would not begin to address Bolivia’s deep-seated poverty.

Ruben Costas, governor of Santa Cruz in the country’s eastern business hub, called the cuts “demagoguery,” saying good leadership and social programs matter more than the president’s paycheck.

In addition, some officials complained they might not be able to maintain homes in far-flung districts while working in La Paz.

Since taking office as Bolivia’s first Indian president, Morales has also overhauled the armed forces and announced an investigation into a decision last October to let the United States destroy 28 of Bolivia’s Chinese shoulder-launched missiles.

“Morales is acutely aware of the symbols, both in terms of the indigenous identity of the country and by setting the standard for cutting salaries,” said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

“But now the test is, ‘Can he follow through?’ ... Ultimately, he will face real decisions,” Shifter added.

Showing political savvy
Other leaders have introduced salary cuts. In January 2002, Ecuador’s President Lucio Gutierrez took a 20 percent voluntary pay cut to $5,120 monthly. A year earlier, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo announced he would cut his pay to $12,000 a month after critics denounced a plan for an $18,000 monthly salary. Protests were so loud he had to cut it again to $8,400.

Riordan Roett, professor of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said Morales’ media-savvy steps showed he was a “much more assertive chief executive” than many thought.

He noted that Morales began by naming a Cabinet heavy with Indians, social leaders and women, then shook up the military, promoting officers who will be loyal to the new leader.

“These two events, coming with the salary issue ... (are) decisions that play out very well in the streets with the poor,” Roett said.

But bigger issues are yet to come, including implementation of Morales’ promise to nationalize Bolivia’s natural gas reserves.

“He has done things in the short term that will bolster his support, by moving on salary cuts,” Roett said. “The next thing, now will be the energy issue and that’s the critical question ... and an important sign of how radical he will be.”