I believe Bolivia has some challenges ahead to restore and retain democracy. Many countries experience different trends and variations of political phases, Bolivia is no exception. Democracy is a term that is thrown around so loosely nowadays. The definition and concentration of democracy have been skewed and can even be said watered down. Looking at Bolivia, this is a country that has been going through different phases of polarization and depolarization over the recent years. How did they come into depolarization? Who are their actors, and what systems are used to acquire political power? I will look at Bolivia in a broad spectrum, at face value. That way we can identify some trends, historical data, and predict where Bolivia is headed.
It started with Evo Morales. He has been one of the most recognizable faces in Latin America. With humble beginnings, it is easy to spot that he had the potential to represent the middle class and the natives of the country. There are so many factors that influenced the social unrest. Morales was the leader of the Coca grower’s union. Even though coca is used to grow cocaine in modern terms, it has a spiritual and religious role in the indigenous communities. Morales fought against US pressure which built credibility. He eventually strengthened his movement for the Socialist Party and was elected president in 2005.
Morales became the first indigenous president that represented mostly indigenous people. At this point from the surface level, democracy was at its pinnacle. The president created a universal pension system, Renationalized Oil and Gas, and developed cash transfers that incentivized school enrollment. Nationalizing gas and oil in Bolivia is a big deal. Natural gas is one of the main energy sources and export products. In 1994, the national gas sector was privatized. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on what region of the world we are referencing. Morales nationalizing their resources in 2006 could be a sign of solidarity and the countries best interest, while others may believe that this could be a red flag, signaling diffusion rather than cohesion. When you think of authoritarian regimes, one of the first thoughts that come to mind is the military. You will have some dictator-type actor, using the military to do the deeds of the country. Evo Morales ordered the military to occupy Bolivia gas fields and gave foreign investors a six-month deadline to comply with demands or leave. This will set off tensions in any country and democracy. Chatter starts rumors, and the word on the streets was Evo was turning into another Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro. What makes matters worse, Morales met with Castro and Chavez in Havana to sign a socialist trade agreement. Some things that would confuse the average citizen were Morales’s actions like expanding government food distribution and scaling up the construction of hospitals, schools, and infrastructure. On the other hand, from a regional standpoint, he also ousted the DEA, USAID, and the US ambassador. This severed the relationship with the US of course, but it protected the cocaleros in a way no other politician would ever think of doing. I believe this was a smart move on his part politically, especially considering what he was trying to accomplish. Looking at some of these things that were done, you could arguably say that he was doing everything to the benefit of the people, the country, and help sustain a liberal democracy. GDP quadrupled, poverty rate slashed in half, but all that goes well doesn’t guarantee it ends well.
On the other hand, countries can become depolarized, some quicker than others. Bolivia was polarized due to economic displacement, curtailing democratic processes, and a decisive leader whose decisions affected Bolivians in a bad way. “You have a conflict between a constitutional national power and a de facto regional power that can only be resolved by constitutional force, “said Heinz Dieterich (Romero 2008). Some of the decisions that were mentioned earlier can come off as being very divisive, especially the eradication of the US presence in Bolivia; But isn’t this how democratic erosion starts and conceals itself? polarization is soon to follow. In 2019, Morales refused to accept aid to fight the Amazon fires that left millions of acres of Bolivian forest scorched. He has been slow to address the environmental issues that plagued the country. The young man that used to be a union leader started adopting a new lifestyle. He bought private jets worth millions, suffered allegations of rape, fathered two children from separate women, which one of them had a scandal involving 500 million USD of contracts with China (Hagen-Smith, 2020). We have seen corruption throughout regimes and presidencies. When a scandal involving money surfaces, it bleeds corruption. This led to an on slaughter of attacks, one of them accusing Morales of undermining Bolivian Freedom and democracy. In 2015, the government closed access to public records and contributed to a polarized media environment. It is like what we have in the US between Fox News and CNN. To make matters worse, the government rewarded media supports with massive advertising packages. This creates extreme polarization and division in the country. The slow but steady backsliding creates monsters out of the characters controlling the wheel. The biggest act would be extending the term limits of the president. In 2015, the MAS controlled the legislature and called for a referendum to let Morales run for a fourth term. This led to the rejection of the motion, and outside investigations into the 2019 election. It was a close race, and people accused him of meddling. The organization of American States investigated the election, and Bolivia chief of armed forces made a public announcement for Morales to resign. To protect his creditability and reputation, Morales resigned, and fled to a safehouse in his political stronghold.
So where do we go from here? We saw the rise and fall of political power, depolarization and polarization. It started with the proposed new constitution from Morales that passed in 2008, then to follow up with arrangements with the private sector and business to squill the disgruntled people of Bolivia. This led to the rise of Jeanine Anez. She has been a fierce right-wing critic of Morales over the years and does have some creditability in the political world; but as you would guess, this will cause civil unrest during this process. Crowds gathered and burned houses of politicians, demonstrators have been killed, and instability is making matters only worse. Anez is only the interim, but she replaced a lot of the military leaders, and is trying to get the country back on track. The United States recognizes Anez as president, but the rest of the word is divided (Wemer, 2019). March 7th, 2021, in a landslide, the people elected the same MAS party that backed Morales when he was president. Is the MAS back up to their old tricks again? (Forster et al.) The Bolivian people truly have the obligation to create and sustain true democracy. Knowing what to look for and being an active participant in the election process is the best way to lift democracy and push the country forward. Looking at the past 14 years should only help the Bolivian people to act and create a better world.
Hagen-Smith, Z. (2020, September 2). The world’s most divisive country: What’s happening in Bolivia and how we got here. Crossfire KM. Retrieved November 23, 2021, from https://www.crossfirekm.org/articles/the-worlds-most-divisive-country-whats-happening-in-bolivia-and-how-we-got-here.
Bolivia reflects the deep polarization crisis in Latin America. Atlantic Council. (2019, December 2). Retrieved November 23, 2021, from https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/bolivia-reflects-the-deep-polarization-crisis-in-latin-america/.
A growing crisis in polarized Bolivia – The New York Times. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/15/world/americas/15iht-15bolivia.16145006.html.
Forster, C., Forster, C., Editors, Corbyn, J., Abdul-Jabbar, K., Stipe, M., Salvatierra, A., Fabricant, N., Johnson, C., & Rogatyuk, D. (n.d.). Last week’s Bolivian elections showed the right is up to its old antidemocratic tricks. Jacobin. Retrieved November 30, 2021, from https://jacobinmag.com/2021/03/bolivia-elections-right-wing-salvador-romero.