Bolivia’s political ferment: revolution and recall

About the author
John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University's Centre for Latin American Studies.

The results of Bolivia's "recall referenda" on 10 August 2008 - which passed judgment both on President Evo Morales and on a number of local prefects opposed to his rule and in favour of regional autonomy - gave some satisfaction to all sides. The president himself (and his vice-president, Alvaro García Linera) according to preliminary figures received 67% of the vote - considerably more than the 54% who had helped them to a landslide victory in December 2005. Moreover, two prefects were voted down (in La Paz and Cochabamba) who had identified themselves with the opposition.

John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University's Centre for Latin American Studies. He is the author of Peru under Garcia: Opportunity Lost (Macmillan, 1992), Fujimori's Peru (ILAS, 1998), and Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia (Latin America Bureau, 2005). He is the editor of Making Institutions Work in Peru: Democracy, Development and Inequality since 1980 (Institute of the study of the Americas, London University / Brookings Institution, 2006)

Among John Crabtree's articles in openDemocracy:

"Evo Morales's challenge" (25 January 2006)

"Peruvians prepare to bite back" (4 April 2006)

"Peru's chessboard" (18 April 2006)

"Peru: the institutional deficit" (23 May 2006)

"The return of Alan García" (6 June 2006)

"Alan García's second coming" (28 July 2006)

"Bolivia: the battle for two-thirds" (18 September 2006)

"Peru: outing the NGOs" (22 November 2006)

"Latin American democracy: time to experiment" (30 April 2007)

"Peru: dilemmas of power" (8 June 2007)

"Bolivia: a tale of two (or rather three) cities" (18 September 2007)

"Alberto Fujimori's return: a political timebomb" (28 September 2007)

"Bolivia's controversial constitution" (10 December 2007)

"Santa Cruz's referendum, Bolivia's choice" (30 April 2008)

"Bolivia's democratic tides" (1 July 2008

However, the results also show that the prefects of the lowland departments who had previously spearheaded a campaign for autonomy in defiance of the central government in La Paz also increased (at least marginally) the numbers on which they too were elected in 2005. The opposition victory was clearest in the eastern department of Santa Cruz where the prefect, Rubén Costas - who now calls himself "governor" - was ratified in office by nearly 67% of the vote. Santa Cruz has taken the lead in asserting its autonomy from La Paz and in rejecting the text of the new constitution, drafted by a constituent assembly in 2006-07 (see "Santa Cruz's referendum, Bolivia's choice", 30 April 2008). Some 60% of cruceños also voted "no" to Morales continuing as president; as did 60% of those in the small but gas-rich department of Tarija close to the frontier with Argentina.

This mixed outcome is not quite what the supporters of Evo Morales and his ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) had anticipated as recently as May 2008. At that point, opposition members of Bolivia's (upper-house) senate passed a bill that had been approved in the (lower-house) chamber of deputies in December 2007; under its terms, the president and vice-president would submit themselves to the judgment of the electorate even before their terms of office expired - but at the same time, the bill required Bolivia's recalcitrant prefects to do the same. In the calculation of Bolivia's leaders, the senators' decision provided Evo Morales with the opportunity he needed to rally his supporters against those who stood (and stand) in the way of approving the country's new constitution (see "Bolivia's controversial constitution", 10 December 2007).

Thus the events of 10 August mean that the main lines of polarisation that have dominated Bolivian politics since Morales's election are left entrenched; and the long stalemate over implementation of a new constitution, among other reforms, seems set to continue.

An ascendant regionalism

The regional divide between Bolivia's highland west and lowland east has a long history, but previous governments in La Paz have consistently maintaining a centralised administrative system and refused to cede to pressure for devolution. Before 2005, the office of prefect was a presidential appointment, charged mainly with upholding law and order at the local level. The Movimiento Revolucionario Nacionalista (MNR) - traditionally the country's main party - fiercely resisted decentralisation, fearing that the country's already fragile unity would be placed at risk.

In 2005, faced by Morales's victory at the national level, opposition leaders - including, in a twist of history, those of the now much-diminished MNR - were swift to realise that local politics could be fruitful terrain for acquiring the political initiative. The election of prefects turned a bureaucratic post into a springboard for regional leadership. By contrast, the now ruling MAS was slow to realise this potential. When selecting its candidates for the 2005 elections, it gave little importance to the prefectures, and chose to select its best people for ostensibly more important posts in the senate and chamber of deputies. In part-result, it won a mere three of the country's nine prefectures.

This cost the MAS dear. The most potent source of opposition to Morales has come not from national parties or their leaders but from those prefects who have managed to identify themselves as champions of local interests. This much became clear in May-June 2008 when the prefects of the so-called media luna (half-moon) departments - the lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando - held referenda to approve "statutes of autonomy" (see "Bolivia's democratic tides", 2 July 2008). These were first unveiled in December 2007 as a defiant response to the new draft constitution, which the opposition minority in the constituent assembly refused to ratify (a stance exemplified by its boycott of the assembly's final sessions). The statutes adopted an extreme form of devolution, deliberately designed to gainsay the constitutional text as approved by MAS members and their allies.

A contested constitution

The constitution seeks to redraw the political map of Bolivia, giving greater powers to indigenous organisations that have always tended to be marginalised politically (see Jon Bright, "Bolivia: a national clash over multiple worlds", Fride [Madrid], 4 August 2008). Evo Morales, as Bolivia's first fully indigenous leader, is particularly identified with the drive towards building a more inclusive society. Constitutional reform formed a key point of the so-called "October agenda", a list of social demands that accompanied the popular uprising in October 2003 that ended with ousting of then-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

Among the many changes anticipated by the draft constitution is the creation of a system of local autonomies that provides for indigenous self-rule in those parts of the country where indigenous groupings form a majority (see "Bolivia: the battle for two-thirds", 18 September 2006). This is a particularly sensitive point in areas like Santa Cruz where the structure of landowning pays little heed to ethnic rights. Such autonomies, as well as stronger municipalities, threaten to challenge the traditional dominance of regional elites. The MAS government also has promised to introduce land reform into lowland parts of Bolivia, at least for those areas where private landowners fail to use their land for productive purposes.

The wording of the new constitution also reflects its authors' stern critique of neo-liberal political economy, in that it confers more powers to the state at the expense of the private sector. For example, the state is given powers to regulate the use of natural resources (particularly in hydrocarbons extraction, mining and agriculture) in contravention of the pro-business ethic of the lowland elites. These elites also resent government plans to use economic rents to finance social programmes elsewhere in the country. Before the referendum, the prefects of Santa Cruz and elsewhere in the media luna even went on hunger-strike in protest against the government's use of gas-rents to finance an old-age pension at the expense of their own local spending plans.

Perhaps most important of all, the opposition fears that the new constitution will enable Morales to remain in power for years to come. Once approved in a (yet to be scheduled or held) referendum, a promulgation of the new constitution would be followed by the holding of fresh presidential elections. The draft constitution removes the existing barrier on immediate re-election (a change that has already been implemented in several Latin American countries in recent years). This would allow Morales to stand for a second consecutive term, which in the event of victory would extend his mandate (which currently lasts until December 2010), potentially for another ten years.

A regional scorecard

The process of reform in Bolivia is being followed with close attention in the rest of Latin America, as well as further afield. Bolivia may be exceptional in some ways, but in others it shares problems common among its regional neighbours. Bolivia is one of the region's poorest countries, as well as one of its least developed and most unequal. In all these respects, the country's predicament has echoes elsewhere in Latin America.

Bolivia's outright rejection of neo-liberal formulae sends a strong message to those countries adopting more conventional policies. Its experiments in constitutional reform are being closely watched, as are the problems facing the government in dealing with regional pressure-groups. The interest expressed by the Organisation of American States (OAS) in trying to broker a consensual solution in Bolivia reflects the real concerns of other states.

The countries most immediately concerned about Bolivia's economic and political instability are probably Argentina and Brazil. They currently rely on the supply of Bolivian natural gas to meet their domestic energy requirements. In the past, Argentina and Brazil have vied with one another for influence over Bolivia, though under the current respective and left-leaning (albeit with different emphases) presidents - Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva and Cristina Kirchner - the two countries have both sought to overcome policy differences with the Morales administration and collaborate.

Elsewhere in the southern cone, the Morales government has come closer than any of its predecessors to restoring normal relations with Bolivia's traditional adversary, Chile; the longstanding dispute over Bolivia's access to the sea (lost in the "war of the Pacific" of 1879-84) has been eased, and the resumption of diplomatic links after a break at ambassadorial level in 1978 is no longer unimaginable.

Evo Morales's closest ideological ally - the ailing Fidel Castro in Cuba excepted - is President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who has provided Bolivia with significant economic and military backing. Bolivia is a key member of the Chávez-inspired Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) grouping of Bolivarian states, and thus has a particular importance for Caracas. But this does not mean that - as Morales's opponents like to affirm - that Bolivia has simply become a pawn in Venezuela's strategy of confrontation with the soon-departing George W Bush administration in Washington. True, Morales repeatedly criticises the activities of the United States; but nationalistic responses in Bolivia are hardly a cause of surprise in light of the country's history and especially from a president who was (and still is) a leader of the country's coca farmers.

A negotiated solution?

Also in openDemocracy on Bolivian politics and social struggles:

Nick Buxton, "Bolivia in revolt" (8 June 2005)

Nick Buxton, "Revolutionary times in Bolivia?" (16 December 2005)

Andreas A Tsolakis, "Evo Morales's project: the limits of nationalism" (14 June 2006)

Isabel Moreno & Mariano Aguirre, "Bolivia: the challenges to state reform" (15 September 2006)

Ivan Briscoe, "Evo Morales: the unauthorised version" (16 January 2007)

The post-referenda fallout presents Bolivia's leaders with testing challenges. Both the government and opposition leaders say they are interested in negotiation to reach a settlement of the unresolved disputes. Their actions tend to belie their words, but the referenda pose anew the question of whether a negotiated solution to Bolivia's constitutional impasse is possible (see "Divided we rule", Economist, 11 August 2008).

For its part, the Morales government emerges from the recall referendum strengthened. The president, with 63% of the electorate behind him, will feel that he has a powerful mandate to continue to press for approval of the constitution. The next step would be to hold the referendum on which final approval of the text hinges. On the basis of the 10 August results, it seems likely that the majority of electors would vote "yes" in as much as the constitution is closely identified with the figure of the president. In an interview published on 9 August, Alvaro García Linera refused to be drawn on the constitutional- referendum issue, but made it clear that the government would pursue its mandate and would seek to sanction any who used illegal means to oppose it.

But the opposition has its own cards to play. The ratification of the four media luna prefects, plus the election in the department of Chuquisaca on 29 June 2008 of the opposition prefect Savina Cuellar (who was not subject to a recall referendum), will give the opposition added confidence to try to block the constitution and to push ahead with their own autonomy agenda. The fact that the law as it stands permits referenda only once a year gives the opposition a ready legal argument to that end; and the opposition majority in the senate will surely seek to block any attempt by the government to change the law in this respect.

The tussle is therefore set to continue, effectively preventing the Evo Morales government from activating its overhaul of the Bolivian political system. The patience of both sides will be sorely tested over the next few months, but neither side will want to be accused - internationally or domestically - of overtly breaching Bolivia's already stretched legal norms.