Bolivia: between a rock and a hard place.

Author:Nicholls, Peter
Position:2002 election - Behind The News 2

After a fleeting appearance in the world press last July (2002), the reporting of the recent election in Bolivia is likely to fall out of focus until some suitably newsworthy item gives it some prominence. Next time it could be a far more dramatic story. As one of those reports in The Economist suggests in its title, 'Progress or Collapse', Bolivia's future politics and the economy are finely balanced between a fundamental redrawing of political boundaries alongside an economy that has staked its future growth on the success of gas exports. (The Economist 10 August 2002).

As if to underscore this tension, the election results from 30 June last year resulted in a tight finish with no clear winners. Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the new president, won with just 22% of the vote. Sanchez de Lozada was president between 1993 and 1997 and is a wealthy and experienced politician from the well-established centre-right Revolutionary Nationalist Movement. He only narrowly beat two other 'anti-system' candidates, Evo Morales and Manfred Rey. The 20.5% vote for Evo Morales, the socialist-inclined leader of the coca workers union was especially remarkable, since he won many more votes than the candidates of most other established political parties. In the 1997 election he had achieved just 3% of the vote. Many see the interference of the US ambassador in these elections as playing a significant part in galvanising support for Morales, the son of peasant Aymara Indian farmer. However, such an explanation fails to recognise the steady growth of 'anti-system' sentiments in Bolivia and the growing unwillingness of indigenous people to vote for traditional politicians. The political landscape does indeed appear to be on the move.

This report tries to capture some of these recent political and economic changes to the country and argue that after years of neo-liberal reforms the contradictions of these policies are starting to emerge in stark new forms, causing concern in Washington as to where the social dynamic in Bolivia may be leading. The rural peasantry and urban working class are increasingly unwilling to support traditional political parties since these have failed to stem growing poverty and inequality, and are looking far more radical ways in which to exert pressure on the political system and shape the future direction of their country.

Interventions and aid

Bolivia has a long history of external threats and interventions. Among the poorest countries in Latin America, it has waged war with several of its neighbours, most recently in the disastrous Chaco War with Paraguay in the 1930s. Earlier, in the 1880s, it lost its access to the Pacific Ocean, following the War of the Pacific with Chile. It also lost territory to Brazil in the north. These events have together left a sore which still impacts on policy making today. As recent commentators on the future of democracy in Bolivia have indicated, 'Bolivian nationalists had never forgotten nineteenth-century intrusions and annexations by both these neighbours and were highly sensitive about any risk--however speculative--of what was referred as polonizacion' (referring to partition of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century)'.

But warring neighbours apart, it is the US that has continued to cast the longer shadow over Bolivia. Like most Latin American countries, the US sees South America as its' 'backyard', an area where it prefers to set the rules. These 'rules' are reflected in the long history of interference in Latin America. In Bolivia, us intervention can be traced back well into the last century and in the Second World War, Bolivia attained a key strategic importance as its main source of fin. More recently US influence was starkly represented through the impact of the Cold War which, according to Crabtree and Whitehead (2002), 'polarised politics and destabilised civilian government all over South America. In Bolivia it contributed to the 1964 military coup and fuelled the subsequent cycle of instability. An example was Barrientos' recourse to US military help to defeat Che Guevara's guerillas in 1967'.

With an overriding concern to curb communism, the US used aid to encourage reforms that helped guarantee its interests. In the years after the nationalist 1952 revolution in Bolivia, aid flows represented 30% of government income in the 1960s, providing an important source of leverage. In Bolivia's case, this first meant propping up the post-revolutionary MNR (Movimento Nacionalista Revolucionario) governments, then a series of right-wing military dictatorships. It also meant counteracting the influence of the left-wing union movement and other strong local identities. The expedition of Che...

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