COHA in the Public Arena

A Brief Recent History of Bolivia and the Rise of President Morales

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Political Affairs, 24 January 2009
Original source: Council on Hemispheric Affairs

From Rightist Chaos to Leftist Constitutionalism: The Institutionalization of Bolivian Populism
A Historic Moment

Since the start of the new millennium, popular movements in Bolivia have learned to mobilize en masse to form a united front of class and ethnicity to oust two presidents and reject a third candidate. Bolivians have also elected one of their own, who without strong middle class and mestizo support, probably would not have won. Evo Morales, a full-blooded Aymaran indigenous, became Bolivia’s first native president in December 2005 with 53.7 percent of the vote, an unprecedented majority in a country where support from a quarter of the electorate is considered respectable. He took office in January 2006 and has since acted to change the internal structure of the country to reflect the ambitions and interests of those social movements which are intent on rallying behind him.

On October 21, 2008, Bolivia came one step closer to holding a referendum that eventually could have the potential to shape the country for generations to come. On that date, January 25, 2009, Congress approved when the vote would be staged to determine whether or not the country adopts a new constitution. The proposed draft is designed to redress centuries of structural oppression and humiliation faced by Bolivia’s indigenous and working class majority. A second vote would be staged on the referendum on whether to hold a second referendum which was also approved on the same day regarding whether to deal with the unresolved issue of limiting excessive and disproportionate land ownership. People will be given the choice between capping future individual landholdings at levels of either 5,000 or 10,000 hectares.

If it passes as expected, the new constitution will furbish a profound improvement for social progress for those, like the indigenous, who were previously disenfranchised in the country. The new structure would mean the consolidation and institutionalization of Bolivia’s indigenous nationalist movement, composed of workers’ unions, indigenous communities, and popular interest groups across the country. Such a feat has only been made possible because of Morales’ political grouping “Movement towards Socialism” (MAS) ability to harness the momentum of Bolivia’s current social movements towards the political advancement of his cause. As a result, Bolivia now stands ready to implement dramatic social reforms, which have been hundreds of years in the waiting.

A Land Divided

Bolivia has experienced a history of biased development and political corruption that continues to haunt the current MAS administration. As a result, the country has a long legacy of mobilization and activism. Until 1982, it had experienced more coups than it had years of democratic governances. Today, political instability continues to reflect the status quo. This is exemplified in the fact that although technically democratically elected, there have been six presidents in the last eight years. This high turnover can, in part, be attributed to the fractured state of Bolivian society, which is divided along geographic, ethnic, ideological and class-based lines.

Bolivia’s indigenous comprise almost two-thirds of the national population, yet historically have been relegated to the periphery of Bolivia’s civic, economic and political institutions. The two largest indigenous groups are the Quechua, comprising 30 percent of the total population, and the Aymara, another 25 percent. These communities live predominantly as subsistence farmers in the Cochabamban valley and the western highlands of La Paz, Oruro and Potosi respectively. This population ranges from poor to extremely destitute and routinely have been excluded from authentic political, economic, and social processes throughout much of Bolivia’s history. The situation east of the Andes, meanwhile, is quite different. There, a wealthy minority, largely of European descent, has partitioned the country’s best agricultural land and natural gas reserves for their own benefit. A system of elite control Bolivia’s leading businesses, media outlets and traditional political parties, while these residents in the east enjoy a higher standard of living than most South Americans.

The stark contrast of rich and poor Bolivian society is certainly not a recent phenomenon and neither is resistance against the status quo. To appreciate Bolivia’s recent ongoing turmoil, it is important to understand the specific facets of social movement and protest in the country as today’s trends are certainly in part shaped by the successes and failures of years past.

Domination and Resistance

The first major phase of social protest in Bolivia started in 1780 as an indigenous movement against Spanish colonial rule. In August of that year, Tupaj Katari led an insurgency in the Potosí department which sparked a chain of local movements that soon spread unrest across the western altiplano and beyond. Indigenous militias, aided by their intimate knowledge of the land and backed by popular support, were successful in clearing the Spanish from the countryside. However, when it reached the edge of the city of La Paz, the indigenous uprising failed. Katari led a five month siege on La Paz, the stronghold of colonial power, yet was unable to take control. He was ultimately captured in 1781, and the Spanish retained control of the country until 1825, when Bolivia’s independence was declared. This early insurgency set the pattern for subsequent Indian risings. They fought for communal sovereignty and cultural recognition and were led by a strong and charismatic figure. Although the main movement was able to mobilize the countryside en masse, it ultimately failed because it was unable to forge any urban allies.

Over a century and a half later, a different type of social movement broke out. In 1952, an urban insurrection was formed by organized labor, students, intellectuals, and a progressive middle class under the leadership of Víctor Paz Estenssoro. The latter had been elected president on the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) ticket, yet was prevented at the time from assuming power by the incumbent government. The MNR was a quasi Marxist political party committed to nationalize Bolivia’s mining industry and combat international imperialism. The 1952 uprising was a movement of class consciousness that soon succeeded in placing Estenssoro in power. This was in marked contrast to Katari’s earlier rebellion, which fought in vain for indigenous sovereignty, and while he never succeeded because he lacked support in urban areas, the MNR ultimately failed because it did not address the institutional barriers that excluded the indigenous, on a defacto basis, from civil society. Moreover, Katari was unable to maintain any sort of rural support and neglected to forge close ties among the campesino and alliances with the miners.

In 1964, at the start of his third term, Estenssoro was overthrown by a military coup, followed by nearly two decades of coups and right-wing military dictatorships. However, not all was lost during this time in terms of social activism. In 1973, an indigenous revolutionary group known as the kataristas issued the ‘Manifesto of Tiwanaku,’ a radical document that merged peasant class consciousness with indigenous ethnic consciousness and identified both colonialism and capitalism as responsible for continued exploitation. The kataristas were able to forge alliances with the working class, petty merchants, and the non-indigenous peasantry, forming a powerful alliance between otherwise disconnected groups. Such alliances would set the pattern for successful social movements in the future.

“Transition” in the 1980s

The kataristas led a series of mass mobilizations in the late 1970s, and procedural democracy was restored in 1982. In that year, the Democratic Popular Unity (UDP) ticket, a loose coalition of 20-odd leftist and non-aligned political parties and movements, was elected to power with the goal of resuming the nationalist project of the MNR 30 years prior. However, the UDP proved unable to maintain any sort of collective unity, which became the Achilles’ heel of 20th century social movements in Bolivia. Debt and hyperinflation ravaged the country and internal rifts, combined with active opposition forces, crippled the UDP until it folded its reformist attempt and called for early elections in 1985.

The subsequent regime was headed by former MNR president Paz Estenssoro, who now was bitter in his old age. With the help of Planning Minister and future President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the 78-year old Estenssoro “set out to dismantle whatever remained of the revolution he had forged three decades earlier.” In a manner similar to Augusto Pinochet, and persuaded by the same ‘Chicago Boys’as in Chile , Estenssoro implemented a harsh series of austerity measures drafted by students of Jeffrey Sachs, who was then at Harvard University. In the process, the power and profits of key resource industries were concentrated in the hands of an elite minority of owners in the eastern lowlands and abroad. The political left, still stymied by the failures of the UDP, was unable to present any sort of formidable resistance or alternative model, and the social safety nets that had previously addressed Bolivia’s social crises, at least on a surface level, were all but vanquished.

The result was the best and worst of free markets. Inflation rates dropped from a whopping 8,170 percent to a more manageable 9 percent within a year. Meanwhile 35,000 factory workers and 20,000 miners lost their jobs due to privatization. This, combined with the worst El Niño in 200 years, coincided with a downturn in global tin prices. The cost of commodities in Bolivia soared, the middle class slipped into poverty and thousands were forced to relocate in search of work. According to journalist Benjamin Dangle, the displacement of Bolivia’s once-radical, now-unemployed working class served to “spread the embers of the fire around Bolivia.” The effect of this was that the most ardent opposition to the country’s ruling political elites was no longer limited to a particular region or industry; but rather was diffused throughout the country, along with their nationalist sentiments and honed union labor organizational skills. Many went to look for a new life in the city, namely El Alto and Cochabamba, while others went to work on the plantations in the eastern lowlands. Meanwhile, most militants of the displaced workers resettled in Bolivia’s central regions to work alongside indigenous cocaleros (coca growers). Among them was a young Evo Morales.

The Emergence of “Indigenous Nationalism”

Coca farming attracted a sizeable portion of out-of-work campesinos because it offered steady employment and relatively high wages. Not long after, coca became one of Bolivia’s most profitable exports and supported entire regional economies through the influx of cash and the jobs which it created. Coca would be flown out of the Chapare in light aircraft by Colombian cartels to foreign destinations, where it was processed into cocaine. The next stop would be to the United States where a frenzied consumer base avidly awaited its appearances. The US responded to its growing consumer problem with the ‘War on Drugs,’ which was international in scope. Instead of addressing demand at home, the northern behemoth opted to target suppliers of cocaine, as well as growers of coca.

Eradication however, was not well received by indigenous communities, which historically had depended on the social and economic value of coca. The plant is relatively easy to grow, and its leaves are used to remedy the burdensome effects of heavy labor at high altitude. According to current president and cocalero leader, Evo Morales, citing the economic stimulus and the sense of collective identity it provides, coca is “the backbone of quechua-aymara culture.” Accordingly, eradication efforts by the US Drug Enforcement Agency during the ‘coca zero’ campaign were not well received. Cocaleros perceived eradication as an attack on their indigenous culture and way of life, and strongly resisted it. Former miners experienced in unionization and aggressive resistance campaigning a way of mobilizing the frustrations of indigenous cocaleros into a formidable social movement. As momentum grew, the power of the cocaleros was consolidated to form a new political movement that eventually became the current political party: the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement towards Socialism – MAS). The MAS was created to be the political conduit to the coca growers’ union and other, mostly indigenous peasant social movements. Under the leadership of Evo Morales, MAS would later gain national prominence as a viable political alternative to the existing order.

However, not every Bolivian displaced by neoliberal processes went to grow coca. The city proved to be an equally popular choice, and new liberal policy contributed to the near doubling of Bolivia’s urban population. The country’s regional control points – La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz – took in displaced farmers and workers. El Alto, a poor suburb of La Paz, grew substantially, and would prove particularly important, due to its proximity to the capital. This process of urbanization would prove critical for the successes of Bolivian social movements. It allowed for the crossing of indigenous groups with the proletariat on a grand scale, and instead of breaking down traditional ties within specific groups, allowed for solidarities to be forged between groups around a shared sense of exclusion and marginalization. The radicalism and organizational skills of the working class became infused within the collective identity of the indigenous masses to create a sense of ‘indigenous nationalism’ in urban centers which paralleled that of the coca regions. The U.S., as the leading proponent of neoliberalism and coca eradication policies, was branded as imperialist, and vast regions of frustrated Bolivians were able to unite under the same cry.

The growth of this common identity coincided with increased opportunities for political empowerment. In 1993, Sánchez de Lozada became president and enacted the Law of Popular Participation (LPP), which decentralized state power to provincial and municipal levels. From a conservative standpoint, the LPP was meant to create a new space for the opposition by working to incorporate social movements into the mainstream. It was believed that disharmonies and internal power struggles for electoral support would consume the energies of social movements, and perhaps weaken them in the process, creating a stable environment conducive to foreign investment. For some time, the LPP worked as planned. Whereas social movements did achieve some gains – the coca growers’ union won municipal seats in the Cochabamba area in 1995, and six peasant leaders (including Morales) were elected to congress in 1997 – such progress was slow. The new minority leaders were hampered by internal disputes and powerful pundits faithful to the old social order. Otherwise, the status quo was maintained. The empowerment of local political structures demonstrated adherence to “democracy and good governance” by the Bolivian government which was well received by international investors. The LPP provided, however, a foundation from which social movements would legitimately challenge the hegemony of traditional ruling forces in the new millennium, and made real the potential for the “democratic revolution” espoused by Morales.

A Breaking Point

Government violence and mismanagement occurred during the Cochabamba Water War in 2001, and the Water and Gas Wars between the La Paz police and the military in 2003. These events elevated social movements and affiliated political parties to a position of national prominence. In late 1999, President Hugo Banzar, under pressure from international lending organizations, granted control of Cochabamba’s water utilities through a concession to the US-based Bechtel, and rates subsequently were to increase by as much as 200 percent. An ad hoc resistance group, the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life, protested with marches, strikes and roadblocks. Banzar ordered 1,200 military personnel to regain control of the city; in the ensuing conflicts one person was killed and hundreds injured. In response, 100,000 citizens – including factory workers, farmers, cocaleros, peasants, unionists, former miners, students, intellectuals, civic organizations, neighborhood associations, and environmentalists – converged on the city’s central square where the government realized it had to cancel the concession. Although the Water War was regional in participation, it became the first crack in Bolivia’s neoliberal developmental model. This crack was blown wide open in 2003 during the September and October Gas War , in which protestors from the La Paz suburb of El Alto and elsewhere resisted the export of gas by pipeline through Chile, a historic rival. In October 2003, scores of protestors were killed by government forces, and Bolivia’s once-limited pockets of resistance exploded onto the national scene. More than 1,000 members of the middle class, mostly white urbanites, conducted a series of hunger strikes in solidarity with the indigenous protestors, who organized marches, strikes, and road blockades. Although the October protests were enough to oust President Sanchez de Lozada from power, both the Water War and the Gas War made it clear that social movements were not enough to create the structural reform that Bolivia demanded. True, the insurgents and demonstrators were enough to paralyze the function of the state temporarily, but without a long-term alternative model, they ultimately lost their momentum. A new political map that prioritized the demands of the protesting social groups was desperately needed.

The Institutionalization of MAS

In every advanced society, the fate of workers, the jobless, and the poor hinges on the capacity of progressive political forces to harness the agency of the state to reduce economic inequality, bridge glaring social gaps, and protect the most vulnerable members of the civic community from the unfettered rule of capital and the blind discipline of the market.
–Loic Wacquant, Review Symposium 2002.

In 2002, MAS achieved important gains within the political arena. For the first time, the party expanded beyond its mountainous origins to the lowland Amazonian jungle of Chaapre. MAS candidates won seats in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, and Morales lost the presidential race by only 1.6 percent. The formal advance of MAS into the political arena reflects its ability to mobilize a variety of protest groups into a common cause. Historians identify the 2002 election results as a “clear sign” that social movements “were tilting the balance of political forces” in Bolivia.

Once in opposition, Morales proceeded to play the political arena so as to advance his party. According to Petras and Veltmeyer, “The line taken by Morales and the MAS executive [following the 2002 election] is very different from the revolutionary line of mass mobilization taken by Morales not that long before as leader of the cocaleros.” He began to advocate for change and reform from within the system, applying “parliamentary rather than mobilizational pressure.” Indeed, Morales took a conciliatory position to the administration of Carlos Mesa, the successor of Sanchez de Lozada. He supported many of Mesa’s moderate proposals, and only disagreed when popular support demanded that he do so. Morales went to the extreme to distance himself from his radical origins. He even ceded his leadership position of Bolivia’s various revolutionary movements to his old adversary, Felipe Quispe. As his prominence grew, Morales gave up some of his old tactics, such as mass rallies and roadblocks, for a more subtle approach: the ballot-box.

There are, of course, difficulties in transforming the energy of social movements into electoral victories. In modern politics, every vote counts equally, and the voice of one lone protestor is reduced to scarcely better than the murmur of a normally disengaged voter. Knowing he had widespread support among rank and file indigenous voters, Morales shifted his attention to the middle class during the 2005 presidential election, which turned out to be a very significant move. He sold his party as the only one that could tame social turmoil, reminding frustrated middle class voters that the only organizations which had proven capable of destabilizing Bolivia’s government were in fact a part of MAS. Indeed, Petras and Veltmeyer list a multitude of social movements in which MAS, “without a doubt,” carries significant political influence.

Evo Morales as President

The 2005 presidential election had an 85 percent voter turnout, the highest Bolivia had ever seen. Winning 53.7 percent of the vote, Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president, the only candidate ever to be elected with a majority of the vote and the first winner with origins outside the traditional political system.

Legitimacy brings with it certain responsibilities and drawbacks. As president, Morales is called on to represent all Bolivians. He must satisfy the far left, from which he receives his most ardent support, by making good on the full range of his electoral campaign’s social and economic promises. In addition, however, Morales must appease the more conservative flanks of the opposition which controls practically every privately owned money-making venture in the country not controlled by the State. In fact, Morales has been far from moderate; he reclaimed ownership of Bolivia’s hydrocarbon industry in 2006. Few presidents on the left have made meaningful concessions to the political right, but Morales has, at times, maintained a hard-line approach in government negotiations with labor unions and increased coca eradication efforts in certain regions. Most notably, Morales ceded certain major concessions of his draft constitution in order to set the right to agree to a date for staging the referendum. Such actions have outraged many radical groups, including militant miners’ organizations and cocalero unions. The cocaleros, where Morales got his start, remain firmly with Evo, even though some believe that this represents a step backwards for Bolivia’s social movements, as well as providing the potential for much needed reform that will weaken the left. According to Petras and Veltmeyer, “participation in electoral politics is designed to weaken and demobilize revolutionary movements; every further step in electoral politics is a step backwards or away from … the popular movement.”

The fact of the matter is Morales holds a position far more powerful than most social movement leaders could ever dream of. He is president of a country rich in natural gas, he has widespread support in the legislature’s lower house and has the approval of the electorate on a scale never before envisioned in the country. As a leader in a country where most are out of work, Morales has had an incredibly difficult path to achieve political preeminence. He and his party have gone through stages of necessary radicalism and a movement away from militancy. As with any minority opposition group, MAS in its time has made ties with a variety of actors in seeking increased numbers to support its cause. In the 1990s and 2000s, Bolivians harbored a sentiment of ‘indigenous nationalism’ and sustained a common voice that was against neoliberal policies imposed by the US. Morales and MAS best articulated the shared vision of Bolivia’s primary social movements, and transformed their popular support into key electoral victories. It is to be expected that sacrifices and concessions are required along the way of institutional progress. Morales has sacrificed his most polarizing alliances as bargaining chips to reach a consensus with political foes to neutralize their power and gain hegemonic control for his own side, but this has cost him.

The goal is a new constitution. Although MAS has ascended within Bolivia’s political framework and Morales to the top of its structure, the people, ideas, and movements that the party represents have not yet been institutionalized. This cannot happen until a new constitution is promulgated which is aimed at redressing Bolivia’s uneven development over the years. The country’s social, economic, and political structures demand reform in order to include the entire populace. Whether or not the proposed constitution will be able to accomplish this, if it passes, is a matter for the future. What is clear is that the potential for change exists in the proposed document because the movement became institutionalized once it entered the political process. Morales has followed the most pragmatic route to success of this goal – turning the angst of Bolivia‘s indigenous and working class majority into support at the ballot box. His rise in popularity from three years ago, 54 to 67 percent, as seen in an August 2008 recall vote, has given him the de facto mandate to proceed with reform as planned. The combined ability to mobilize social agents, court the middle class, and negotiate with the traditional aristocracy has made MAS more effective than any of its revolutionary counterparts. In the past it had worked as a social movement by knowing how to act outside the law, and then later succeeded as a political party by knowing when to work within the law. By doing so, MAS is now favored to change the law and to revolutionize the nation’s political structures.

The primary roadblock in Bolivia’s future is an amalgamation of business interests operating under the auspices of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee. SCCC is a powerful grouping of a minority class in the country’s largest and most economically significant city. The group effectively leads the opposition against the government. Gabriela Montano, a government representative in Santa Cruz, has accused the Civic Committee of operating a campaign to de-legitimize the government so as to weaken its ability to enact desired reforms. This can be understood as recognition on behalf of MAS’s opposition that the institutional route taken by the leftist party is working and is most likely to win out

The rich and well placed are scared that their wealth will be expropriated through legal means, and some have turned to advocating violence. Radical youth groups act as de facto street gangs fighting for turf against the ruling political movement. Following August’s contentious recall referendum, the young thugs went on a rampage. In city centers across Bolivia’s eastern region which represents a conservative stronghold, they vandalized, burned, and took over government buildings. They also blew up a gas pipeline going to Brazil, and stoked a climate of fear and polarity across the country. On September 11, a paramilitary band loyal to Leopoldo Fernández, prefect of the Pando department, shot and killed at least 18 peasant MAS supporters. Morales authorized the use of force, a power the leader of a social movement does not wield, and declared martial law in the region. This contrasts sharply to October 2003, when the notorious Sanchez de Lozada ordered martial law against the protests which MAS had helped instigate.

The outrage provoked by the continued violence against MAS has helped to ensure widespread support for pro-government forces. The improper use of state violence in 2001, and especially 2003, opened the door for a new party like the MAS to surface and enter the national political arena. Middle class voters, tired of instability and desiring reform, gave the party an unexpected boost on election day in 2005. The more recent violence once again has rallied support for the MAS, both domestically and abroad.

Similar to his legitimate use of military force, Morales’ institutional positions give him near universal support from the international community that he would not have received as the leader of a confrontational social movement. The calls for autonomy from the eastern departments and the violence to which they led in Pando have worked counterproductively throughout the international community, in Morales’ favor. In light of these challenges to the government, leaders from across Latin America, Europe, and Asia reaffirmed their support for the democratic processes of the current administration. By backing Morales, elected foreign officials are not only supporting their own democratic systems. Indeed, many scholars identify international support for Morales, and the condemnation of the violence committed by the opposition, as the primary reason why the opposition had been weakened enough to set a date for the national referendum on the draft constitution.


Over 10 years ago, Evo Morales and the MAS party made the choice to enter the political arena to advocate the social change they desired. This institutional route to national reform caused Morales and his MAS to lose some allies on the party’s fringe; but it also has provided the opportunity to enact real and lasting change. The driving force behind Morales’ administration has been the implementation of a new constitution, which will be voted on in a matter of hours. The January vote marks a critical moment in Bolivia’s history, one which could overturn forms of structural oppression and exclusion, and transform society for generations to come. To reach this point, Bolivia has endured a long history of social unrest and protest. A series of economic and political liberal reforms in the 1980s and 1990s led to the amalgamation of existing social movements and the formation of some new ones. Extreme cases of repressive government violence in struggles over basic resources served to mobilize these forces en masse and draw to them the support of some of the middle class. Different social movements representing varied interests and shaped by different pasts were brought together because of, and in response to, government policy and mismanagement under Sanchez de Lozada. In this case, geographical concerns of displacement, migration, urbanization, resource management, government militarization and other controversial issues taken together help explain the current revolutionary epoch in Bolivia. Now a formidable political party, the MAS has emerged from the chaos of broad social unrest and now represents much of the thrust of Bolivia’s social movements in the political arena. The movement, having secured at least short term power, now looks to implement reform that would institutionalize the fundamental changes sought by social movements around the country and make them permanent.