Bolivia, a landlocked country in the mountains, historically has been the poorest country in South America. It is the most indigenous country of Latin America, with 61% of the population identifying themselves as pertaining to one of several original nations of the region.
In accordance with the norms and patterns in the development of the modern world-system, Bolivia has played a peripheral role in the world-economy, supplying raw materials for the core nations on a foundation of cheap labor. Systems of forced labor were imposed following Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, which included the indigenous nations of present-day Bolivia. During the course of time, first silver, then tin, and then natural gas and petroleum were extracted and exported to the industrializing economies of the North
From the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, Bolivia’s peripheral function in the world-economy existed alongside autonomous indigenous communities, which were agricultural societies with communal forms of land ownership. As the world-economy expanded, it increasingly consumed indigenous land and autonomy, such that by 1930, the indigenous lands comprised only one-third of national territory, and the numbers of landless peasants exceeded the number of persons living in indigenous communities.
Bolivian mine workers, peasants, and factory workers formed a popular movement during the twentieth century, resulting in a government committed to the developmentalist project from 1930 to 1985. As was the case generally in Latin America, the project was forged through an alliance between the popular sectors and the national bourgeoisie. It made some concessions to popular demands and provided some protection for national industry, without threatening the interests of foreign corporations.
Beginning in 1985, the neoliberal project of the global powers was imposed in Bolivia, resulting in the elimination of the modest protective measures for the people and for national industry that were put in place from 1930 to 1985. In the 1990s, mass mobilizations emerged, protesting specific measures that were part of the neoliberal package. From 2000 to 2006, the popular movement intensified, with mass mobilizations, road blockings, general strikes, work stoppages, and hunger strikes, culminating in the resignation of the president in 2005 in the midst of a generalized chaos.
As the renewed popular movement unfolded in the period 1990-2005, new political parties were formed, and they were effective in undermining popular support for the traditional political parties that had cooperated with the imposition of the neoliberal project. One of the parties was the Movement toward Socialism (MAS), a federation of social movement organizations and unions, founded in 1995. Its principal leader was Evo Morales, an indigenous coca farmer who had been born and raised in a poor town in the Bolivian high plains and who emerged as a leader in the coca farmers’ union. Proposing a constitutional assembly and the nationalization of the natural gas and petroleum companies, Morales won the presidential elections of December 18, 2005.
The newly-elected government of Evo Morales immediately sought to put into practice an alternative economic model based on control of the natural resources of the nation and the establishment of national sovereignty. Seeking to break the core-peripheral relation, it followed a vision of an autonomous development that responds to the demands of the popular movement, which includes indigenous organizations, peasant organizations, unions of workers in the petroleum and gas industries, professionals, and small and medium sized businesses.
In accordance with his campaign promise and a fundamental popular demand, Morales convoked a Constitutional Assembly, which assembled to begin the formulation of a new Constitution on August 6, 2006. Although confronting various maneuvers by the opposition, the new Constitution was approved by popular referendum on January 25, 2009, with 61.4% of the vote. The new Constitution recognizes the autonomy of the indigenous communities, and thus it establishes the Plurinational State of Bolivia. The Constitution establishes a maximum extension of land of 5000 hectares for personal property; it guarantees access to health services, education, employment, and potable water as constitutional rights; and it prohibits the establishment of a foreign military base in the country.
The government of Evo Morales renegotiated contracts with natural gas and petroleum companies, resulting in a great increase in state revenues, which are used to develop a variety of social programs, including programs in literacy and credit for small farmers. The Morales government has initiated a land-reform program, beginning with the appropriation of land that was unproductive or that was fraudulently obtained, a common practice during the era of the neoliberal governments. And Bolivia became the third member of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), joining Venezuela and Cuba.
By 2007, a counterrevolution had taken shape, formed by the owners of the large estates, large-scale businesspersons, leaders of the traditional political parties that benefitted from the previous political-economic order, and transnational corporations. The US government has provided financial support to the counterrevolution. But Morales and MAS have been able to maintain political control.
In 2009, Evo Morales was re-elected president of Bolivia with 64.22% of the popular vote. MAS won a majority in the National Assembly, including a two/thirds majority in the Senate. MAS won control of six of the nine departments of the country and 228 of the 337 municipalities.
Along with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Evo Morales has emerged as one of the charismatic leaders in the new political reality that has been forged in Latin America, which has challenged not only the neoliberal project but also the structures of the neocolonial world-system. Reflecting this reality, Bolivia served in 2014 as the President of the G-77 plus China, and Morales led an anniversary commemoration in which the presidents adopted a declaration, “Toward a New World Order for Living Well.” In a subsequent post in this series on the Third World project, we will discuss this declaration, which is an indication of the international leadership of Evo Morales, and which echoes historic declarations of Third World charismatic leaders before international fora during the period 1948 to 1983.
Moldiz Mercado, Hugo. 2006. “Crónica del proceso constituyente boliviano” in Contexto Latinoamericano: Revista de Análisis Político, No. 1 (Sept-Dec), Pp. 10-22.
__________. 2008. Bolivia en los tiempos de Evo. Mexico City: Ocean Sur.
__________. 2008. “Bolivia: la recta final” in Contexto Latinoamericano: Revista de Análisis Político, No. 7, Pp. 15-27.
__________. 2010. “Revolución democrática en Bolivia,” IX Conferencia de Estudios Americanos, Centro de Investigaciones de Política Internacional, Havana, Cuba, November 19, 2010.
Puente, Rafael. 2010. “Bolivia: la nueva Constitución, meta y punto de partida” in Contexto Latinoamericano: Revista de Análisis Político, No. 12, Pp. 19-26.
Stefanoni, Pablo. 2007. “¿A dónde va la Bolivia de Evo? Balance y perspectivas en un año de gobierno” in Contexto Latinoamericano: Revista de Análisis Político, No. 3 (April-June), Pp. 82-90.
Key words: Bolivia, Evo Morales, MAS, socialism