October 19, 2010 § 2 Comments
Who lives there?: 11 million people. Roughly 50% are of Amerindian origin, 35% are of mixed Mesitzo origin and 15% of primarily Spanish origin. 60% are Catholic with agnosticism and indigenous Inca-derived beliefs the largest other religions. There are small but economically significant groups of Middle Eastern and Japanese traders, and a very small but distinct group of Afro-Bolivians: the descendants of slaves brought from Africa in the 18th century.
Whilst currently a landlocked country, Bolivia has never quite come to terms with its loss, to Chile in 1879, of a stretch of the Atacama desert that gave it a coastline (famously the hopelessly outnumbered Bolivian General, when asked to surrender the shoreline shouted, “Surrender? Your grandmother should surrender, you ****” and was promptly shot dead). Bolivia keeps a 5,000 strong navy just in case they ever get it back, many Bolivian maps will still show the area as Bolivia, and once a year there is a “Day of the Sea” in which Bolivians march through their cities carrying cardboard battleships.
How does the system work? (the theory): Bolivia has an executive President elected by a possibly unique arrangement. There are direct first past the post elections for all Bolivians over the age of 18. However if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote then the combined legislative votes to select from the two highest placed candidates. Terms are for five years.
The legislative is bicameral and the houses have almost equal power – although as it is larger the lower chamber has more say in electing the President. The lower chamber, the Chamber of Deputies, has 130 seats elected by top-up PR: 70 elected directly with 60 top up seats. Seven of these seats are reserved for listed indigenous groups. The upper chamber, the Senate, has 36 seats elected by d’Hondt PR in four member seats. Terms are of five years duration.
Local government has just been considerably strengthened in Bolivia. Bolivia is split into nine departments which directly elect governors by first-past-the-post and have a great deal of autonomy. At a lower level cities and towns have directly elected mayors and councils with significant revenue raising powers. Municipalities can also vote to become autonomous indigenous municipalities which enjoy a higher level of freedom.
How does the system work? (the practice): Bolivia only escaped from the last of its military dictators in 1982, but since then it has been a free fair democracy, with the transfer of power having been peaceful. However, whist the mechanisms for democracy may function well, the behaviour of the protagonists is less exemplary. Bolivia is deeply polarised between two camps: one left-wing, primarily Amerindian, primarily poor, primarily western, and one right-wing, primarily European, primarily rich, primarily eastern. Clashes between the camps are almost always violent and elections almost always take place under a cloud of accusations and assassinations.
Rioting by the left forced the president to resign in 2003 and 2005 and rioting by the right nearly did the same in 2008. The current government’s policy of continuing with its left-wing platform but giving the east substantial autonomy to satisfy the right has only been partly successful – the difficulties of changing the constitution and squablling over where the capital should be a cause of much friction.
How did we get here?: Bolivia was one of six countries liberated from the Spanish by Simon Bolivar, one of three that he was president of, and one of two that was named after him (the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is the other). It had a turbulent first century and by the 1970s was effectively a failed state with the CIA backed military juntas and left-wing guerrillas fighting for control of the country (Ernesto “Che” Guevara was fighting for the latter when he was executed by the former here in 1967).
By 1981 Bolivia was in the position of having had three different military dictators within 14 months. The dictatorship thus discredited, Bolivia transferred to Democracy – and has been remarkably successful. The economy was repaired, elections were held effectively and the country got back on track.
However, the rapid liberalisation of the economy allowed much of the fruits of progress to go to privatized, and often foreign owned, companies and rarely to the poor. Chronic poverty was still a major problem, particularly amongst the Amerindian population – who in any case felt marginalised and unrepresented. Bolivia’s enthusiastic participation in the war on drugs did not help either – many Amerindian farmers made a living growing coca and felt they were being singled out.
The result was a growing indigenous left-wing movement which brought down the President in 2003 and 2005 and in 2005 culminated with the election of Juan Evo Morales Ayma as Bolivia’s first ever Amerindian leader. Since then he has enacted a platform of nationalisation, poverty reduction, devolution and redrafting of the constitution to respect Amerindian’s rights.
In 2009 Morales narrowly won a referendum which gave him the power to stand again – and to have his way on constitutional reforms which saw much power decentralised and much business nationalised.
Famous for his firebrand confrontational rhetoric, multicoloured jumpers and left-wing views, “Evo” is often compared to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. However, whilst not a saint, he doesn’t have anything like the authoritarian tendency or love of his own voice of Chavez. He has even shown himself able to make unlikely alliances, ending over a century of animosity with Chile with a firm friendship with President Sebastien Piñera. Morales, Bolivia’s first left-wing leader since the restoration of democracy, was at the side of Piñera, Chile’s first right-wing leader since the restoration of democracy at both the latter’s inauguration and the freeing of the Chilean (and one Bolivian) miners. Morales is also an absolutely disgraceful footballer:
Who’s in charge?: Evo won the last elections, in 2009, by what, in Bolivian terms, constitutes a landslide. He won 64% of the vote for President to the second placed candidate’s 30% and won a two-thirds supermajority in both houses: his Movement for Socialism winning 88 of the 130 Deputies and 26 of the 36 senators.
The centre0right parties all merged into a new group the snappily named “plan progress for Bolivia – national convergence”. They only got 37 deputies and 10 senators.
Two tiny parties picked up deputies. The Social Alliance – a Potosi based regional party – got 2 seats and the National Unity Front – a centrist third party – got 3.
Opposition to Morales is largely based in the regional governments in the east of the country – and in particular the department governors. There are also associated businessmen and some fairly violent right wing civil groups.
Support for Morales comes from the Amerindian Movement, the Coca growers movement and the Trade Union Movement.
What does it look like?: Bolivia has quite a varied geography – you can have any terrain you like as long as it is high. As well as very high mountains, there are significant desert areas, forested areas, arable areas and the world’s largest salt flats.
What are the issues?: Morales’ reforms are the biggest issues. Concerns about Bolivia becoming a Socialist Dictatorship are a little hysterical, but there are concerns about the lack of democratic opposition and the effects the reforms are having. There are concerns around human rights abuses on both sides. Overall the decentralisation and Amerindian representation reforms have been well received – but concerns remain about the effect of nationalisation (the economy, already the worst in South America has not been kick started as was hoped).
Another area of concern is relations with the USA. The USA were the main losers of Morales’ nationalisation campaign as many of the petro-chemical and hydrocarbon businesses targeted were US owned. In addition there is a severe difference of opinion about the growing of coca. To Morales (a former coca farmer) and to most Amerindians, coca is a harmless plant which, when chewed, gives a gentle buzz and, when turned into tea or granola bars, forms the backbone of the Amerindian economy. To the US government coca is an evil plant which must be eliminated before it is turned into Cocaine in a lab.
A good source of impartial information is: The Bolivian press is mostly free, although the Government has attempted to interfere on occasions. Reporters without borders rate it as one of the freest presses in the region but point out that reporters still often self-censor on sensitive issues. Bolivia Times is a website that consolidates English-language news about Bolivia
A good book is: The academy still hasn’t quite caught up with Morales’ presidency but there are some good books about his rise. Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia talks about this in general terms, whilst El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citizenship in Andean Bolivia (Latin America Otherwise) takes a more-readable case study approach.
When are the next elections?: Elections for the legislative will be in 2014.