No peace for La Paz


Bolivia’s deep divisions are explored against the backdrop of its constitutional revolution in Unresolved Tensions


Unresolved Tensions: Bolivia
Past and Present

Edited by John Crabtree and Laurence Whitehead
2008, University of Pittsburgh Press
309 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

WHEN political opponents of Bolivia’s president Evo Morales in the oil- and gas-rich east dismissed as propaganda his announcement in December 2008 that the country had become “illiteracy free” according to Unesco standards following a 30-month campaign to teach hundreds of thousands of people how to read and write, it was a measure of the extent to which divisions overshadow even modest and symbolic social gains.

This might, of course, have something to do with the fact that the “Yes I can” literacy campaign, which has helped more than 800,000 Bolivians, was designed by Cuba and paid for by Venezuela – loyal allies of Mr Morales and implacable foes of his detractors in Bolivia and the US.

But set against the president’s ambition through the proposed new constitution to bring genuine and enduring change to his ethnically divided nation – where illiteracy is as much a synonym for the marginalisation of the indigenous poor as it is a product of inadequate public education – it was yet one more sign of the stiff resistance mounted by richer and whiter sectors of society to any hint of change that seeks to empower the country’s indigenous people.

Exit polls following a referendum on the new constitution on January 25 showed that voters had backed the new charter setting out greater rights for the indigenous majority and allowing the president to run for re-election. Proposed constitutional changes include a chapter dedicated to Bolivia’s indigenous groups that includes recognition of 36 distinct Indian “nations”; greater state control over natural resources such as gas and the redistribution of revenues from gasfields in the eastern lowlands to poorer parts of the country; and limits on the size of large landholdings.

Yet the rejection of the new constitution in some regions controlled by Morales’ right-wing opponents suggests that the country is as divided as ever. Merely to get to this stage it had taken two and a half years to draft the new document’s 411 articles, a process mired in disputes.

Unresolved Tensions edited by John Crabtree and Laurence Whitehead summarises with clarity and candour the momentous issues that have formed the core of debates about change in this Andean nation since the landslide electoral victory of Morales in December 2005, debates which seem to come to a head in the constitutional debate.

Based on papers presented to a conference in 2006 about Bolivia’s prospects under Morales, it brings together the foremost experts on this country to explore the major themes of conflicts that have plagued it with problems of governability. As Crabtree points out in his introduction, in spite of the margin of victory for this former coca grower in 2005 and the shift in power that this entailed, his electoral legitimacy has done nothing to resolve the lack of consensus.

Ethnic emblem

Unresolved Tensions examines six themes that encapsulate discussions about Bolivia’s future: ethnicity, regionalism, state-society relations, constitutional reform, economic development and globalisation.

Morales’s election itself was emblematic of the new salience of ethnic issues in Bolivian politics, which have rightly or wrongly become dividing lines with little common ground between the new president’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and the opposition. The divergence of views is captured well in the choice of contributions by Xavier Albó, an anthropologist, who looks at the rise of ethnic politics and its relationship with neoliberal reforms since the 1980s; Carlos Toranzo, who, with a defence of mestizaje, challenges the idea that Bolivia is essentially an indigenous country; and Diego Zavaleta, who concludes that Bolivia is primarily indigenous, but that this in fact tells us very little about attitudes and allegiances.

Regionalism in Bolivia has become a prominent focus of political analysis since the electoral victory of Morales, whose supporters often argue that, by campaigning for autonomy, people in the east are simply trying to avoid dealing with his government and responding to a deeply-rooted racism. Yet as Unresolved Tensions highlights, current disputes deriving from regionalism have complex historical and economic antecedents that say as much about the longstanding aspirations of central government as they do about ethnic demographics.

A key theme in the section on state-society relations is what might be considered a relatively new phenonomen in Latin America born of democratisation and the recent political ascent of marginalised groups. Contributors to Unresolved Tensions weigh up the balance between democracy and participation on the one hand and the rule of law on the other. They ask, for example, to what extent the latter has served as a device to merely entrench elite intransigence against the hitherto excluded?

The acrimonious debate on reform forms the backdrop to the section on constitutionalism that highlights both the country’s long constitutional tradition but also the clear shortcomings in representational politics that successive constitutions have failed to redress. The section on economic development highlights the dilemmas posed by Bolivia’s economy and the difficulties of reconciling capital-intensive exploitation of the country’s natural resources with the need to create employment and spread the benefits of growth. The final section on globalisation examines the unique international and Latin American context determining Morales’ room for manoeuvre when it comes, in particular, to reversing the neoliberal policies of the past.

Alongside these themes determining current debates on Bolivia’s future, a nagging question raised by Whitehead, that embraces both the substantive constitutional reforms that the country has just voted on but also more symbolic dimensions of change such as the “Yes I can” literacy campaign, is the extent to which what the new president is trying to do is truly Bolivian or is, in fact, a product of external influences, not least that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

It is this issue perhaps more than any other that has been the fodder nurturing political antipathy towards Morales in Washington. The issue of national authenticity is important because Venezuela, and Cuba have undoubtedly maintained close executive links with the Bolivian administration and offered it support in many areas, raising questions about the suitability of Morales’ programme for a country that has had a very different historical trajectory to its northern peers.

Yet Whitehead urges caution when assessing this critique based on the relative novelty of the so-called “Chávez model” and its uncertain long-term impact outside Venezeula. He writes:

“Over the long run, the different structure and context of politics in the three countries makes it unlikely that Evo’s Bolivia can be too tightly aligned with either Venezuela or Cuba. As concerns the first of these, there can be no comparison between the established oil wealth of Venezuela and its related geopolitical ambitions, and the more modest and underdeveloped hydrocarbon resource base of Bolivia, a country still landlocked and lacking external presence… It is hardly necessary to add that the differences are even more profound in comparison with Cuba. The centralization, the internal discipline, the curbing of market activities, the national security priority, and the ideological control that have long characterized postrevolutionary Cuban politics are all features diametrically at variance with Bolivia’s political experience.” [pp. 260-261]

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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