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The Consent of the Governed: Country Studies - Bolivia

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 3 Political Rights, 3 Civil Liberties (Partly Free)


Bolivia is the 28th-largest country in the world and the fourth-largest in South America, at just under 1.1 million square kilometers. The population, however, is small at approximately 9 million. Between 56 and 70 percent of the population is ethnically indigenous, or Indian, with the largest groups being the Aymara and Quechua. The remaining population is white or mestizo (mixed race). While Bolivia possesses rich soil and resources, including some of the largest natural gas reserves in the Western Hemisphere, it is South America's poorest economy, ranked at 149th in the world for nominal GNI per capita ($1,100) in 2006. In the entire Western Hemisphere, only Haiti and Nicaragua are poorer. Bolivia's PPP GNI per capita was 153rd in the world ($2,890), and its nominal and PPP GDP figures were $11 billion (101st) and $28 billion (93rd), respectively.

Bolivia is a constitutional democracy that has enjoyed 25 years of civilian rule. However, it has had a complex political history since achieving independence in the early 19th century.

While Bolivia has some tradition of democracy, it has also been marked by periods of harsh dictatorship and unstable rule. Until 2005, the country's political leadership, whether democratic or dictatorial, was white and, to a lesser extent, mestizo. After he forced the previous two governments from office by organizing massive street protests, Indian and peasant leader Evo Morales won the presidential election in December 2005, becoming the first indigenous president in Bolivia's history. Looking to Bolivia's previous radical governments as a model, Morales is carrying out a platform ostensibly based on the interests and traditions of the indigenous population. This has included oil and gas nationalization, legalization of coca, and diplomatic alignment with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.


Pre-Columbian Civilization and the Spanish Conquest

It is now believed that the Bolivian highlands were inhabited at least 12,000 years ago, and the development of farming communities has been dated to around 3000 BC. One of the great ancient Andean civilizations, based at Tiahuanaco near Bolivia's Lake Titicaca, flourished for several centuries before falling into decline after AD 1000. The Aymara-speaking people who lived in the region were conquered in the 15th century by the Quechua-speaking Inca empire.

Francisco Pizarro, Diego de Almagro, and Hernando de Luque led the Spanish discovery and conquest of the Inca civilization in the early to mid-1500s, moving south from Spanish bases in what is now Panama. The conquest extended Spain's control over much of western and central Latin America, including the area of Bolivia, which was dubbed Upper Peru. Among the main discoveries was the Inca silver mine at Potosi. The area remains rich in silver and other natural resources, which have played a dominant role throughout Bolivia's history.

Spanish colonial rule was based on a system of large estates and other economic holdings (encomiendas) for exploiting the silver and later tin mines. These were largely worked by the indigenous population at minimal or no pay. As the representative of the Spanish monarch, the governor dispensed the mines' riches to a privileged elite of Spanish descendants, who came to preside over Bolivia's economic, social, and political life after the end of Spanish rule in 1825.

From Bolivar to Bolivia

Upper Peru was liberated from Spain in 1825 by the revolutionary forces of Simon Bolivar, who had already freed a swath of Spanish territory extending north to Venezuela. Bolivar oversaw the writing of the country's constitution, and his top lieutenant, Antonio Jose de Sucre, became the first president. The new republic was named after Bolivar in part to convince him not to unite it with Peru. Sucre was forced from power in 1828, and a new president, Andres de Santa Cruz, stabilized the economy and organized the country's internal affairs. However, his ambitions to create a confederation with Peru led to warfare with the two countries' neighbors, and he was defeated by Chilean forces in 1839.

From Generals to Radicals

After Santa Cruz's ouster, Bolivia experienced 40 years of erratic rule by a series of "caudillos," or strongmen. In the War of the Pacific with Chile in 1879, Bolivia lost the mineral-rich Atacama region, its only point of access to the sea. At this time, the Conservative Party, which advocated a quick peace to include mining concessions, and the Liberal Party, which rejected peace and criticized Bolivia's dependence on foreign mining interests, were formed. A more liberal constitution was adopted in 1880, establishing an active bicameral legislature while continuing to restrict the vote to a small minority based on property and literacy qualifications. Several decades of stability followed, although power changed hands by force; the Liberals seized control from the Conservatives in 1899, and the new Republican Party took power in a 1920 coup. But disastrous losses in the 1932–35 Chaco War with Paraguay led to a military seizure of power in 1935. The change in leadership halted Paraguayan advances and led to an armistice, but also unsettled Bolivia's system of elite democracy. A series of leftist and nationalist military governments proceeded to take control of Bolivia's natural resources and introduce land reform. Efforts by conservative elements to reassert themselves in government in 1947–52 failed to stem the lasting influence of the nationalist Left.

Consent of the Governed

The 1825 Bolivarian revolution was a revolution for the few. For 125 years, the Aymara and Quechua Indians as well as much of the mestizo population were dispossessed, while Bolivia's politics and economy were governed mainly by a small population of wealthy whites. It is only in Bolivia's modern history, beginning with the 1952 revolution, that consent of the governed can be considered more fully.

The 1952 Revolution

In 1952 the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR), a leftist party formed in 1941 and led by Victor Paz Estenssoro and Hernan Siles Zuazo, seized power by force.

Victor Paz Estenssoro
It had ruled from 1943 to 1946 and won elections in 1951. But after an intervention by the military prevented it from assuming office, the MNR relied on armed civilians and portions of the security forces to take control. Backed by peasants and workers, the new revolutionary government nationalized natural resources, enacted land reform, and abolished property and literacy requirements for voting, thus establishing universal suffrage for the first time. While influenced by nationalist and Marxist movements, the MNR government strongly espoused democracy and did not adopt the repressive features of other leftist revolutions in the hemisphere.

Military Dictatorship Returns—and Democracy Is Restored

A military coup overthrew Paz Estenssoro after his reelection in 1964. Bolivians then lived through 18 years of intermittent military dictatorship and arbitrary rule in which essential constitutional provisions were suspended. Democratic politics were restored in 1982 following a national strike and protest movement. Siles Zuazo, one of the original MNR leaders, was elected president again, and Paz Estenssoro succeeded him in 1985. Paz Estenssoro faced an economy with 10–12 percent annual drops in GDP and hyperinflation at 24,000 percent. He carried out a program of economic reform involving stringent budget and monetary policies, cuts to basic social services, and privatization of state enterprises. Paz Estenssoro brought the economy back to health, leading to positive economic growth for much of the 1990s, but many MNR supporters felt betrayed by his actions.

For 125 years, the Aymara and Quechua Indians as well as much of the mestizo population were dispossessed, while Bolivia's politics and economy were governed mainly by a small population of wealthy whites.

Coca Eradication and Historical Exclusion

In 1997, General Hugo Banzer, a conservative former military dictator, was elected president. His government inflamed social tensions by working with the U.S. government to eradicate coca cultivation. The eradication campaign brought a number of issues to a head that had been simmering since Bolivia's independence in 1825. The history of political exclusion of the Aymara and Quechua Indians was reflected in their poor economic conditions. Until 1952, some 85 percent of the land had been held in large estates, while the Indians, representing up to 70 percent of the population, worked in a sharecropping system in which the right to till land was exchanged for obligatory labor. Land reform provided Indian peasants with small plots, but they remained subsistence farmers and adopted coca cultivation, which had traditional uses, as a cash crop. The eradication program struck at indigenous farmers' livelihoods as well as at those involved in cocaine export.

The Weakness of the Presidential System

No Bolivian presidential candidate had garnered more than 50 percent of the popular vote since the 1952 revolution, and according to the constitution, Congress decides the contest in such cases. In practice this has meant that frequently the president has no clear mandate to govern. The weakness in the system became evident with the 2002 reelection of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who received just 22 percent of the popular vote. He was forced to resign in October 2003 after a series of protests against a proposed income tax increase and a plan to export natural gas through Chile. Bolivians harbored resentment toward Chile, in part because of the outcome of the War of the Pacific in 1879. Sanchez de Lozada's constitutional successor, Vice President Carlos Mesa, was unable to muster political support for his administration. He resigned in June 2005 amid demonstrations demanding full state control over the energy industry and congressional delays in establishing regional autonomy and forming a constituent assembly.

The December 2005 "Revolution"

The demonstrations were organized by a new radical party, MAS (Movement Toward Socialism), led by Quechua peasant leader Evo Morales, which harkened to the original platform of the 1952 revolution and that era's MNR government. In leading massive street campaigns, Morales wove together the themes of defending coca production against U.S. pressure, redressing the historical exclusion of the indigenous population, and asserting national and popular sovereignty over natural resources. Debate over the latter issue, which had dominated politics for much of Bolivia's history, was reignited in part by the recent discovery of rich reserves of hydrocarbons, including the continent's second-largest deposits of natural gas (after those in Venezuela), accompanied by a boom in silver and tin mining.

In the December 2005 presidential elections, Morales won a landmark victory by securing an outright majority of the popular vote, largely on the basis of support from previously excluded peasants and workers. It was the first time in decades that a presidential election did not have to be decided by Congress. Morales also became the first indigenous president in Bolivian history.

Since the election, Morales has kept true to the MAS platform, pursuing the nationalization of natural resources, renegotiating extraction contracts with foreign firms, adopting land reform and progressive taxation, and defending the coca crop against eradication demands by the United States and some Latin American countries. In October 2006, Bolivia's national energy company, YPFB, signed new contracts with foreign companies, forcing them to pay a majority of their revenues in the country to the state. This was expected to help quadruple the government's energy revenues over a four-year period.

To achieve his aims, Morales has participated in a "politics of conflict" with a number of constituencies and regional leaders who oppose him. He has also redirected Bolivian foreign policy away from ties with the United States and toward a new alliance with Cuba and Venezuela. But unlike those countries, Bolivia has not expressed outright hostility to the U.S. government. Morales has also made efforts to combat cocaine production and trafficking even as he promotes the cultivation and legal uses of coca. His most important political initiative, however, is the 2006 formation of a constituent assembly, dominated by MAS, that will rewrite Bolivia's constitution.