A Victory for Democracy: Bolivia
Author: Cletus Gregor Barié and Caty Luz Zárate
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 09/20/2004
Bolivia: The silent transition towards a more a participatory democracy
Is Hugo Chávez a dictator or a national hero? The revocatory referendum of August 15th , 2004 affected the world and induced a wave of commentaries and interpretations. For years, the turbulent political events in the country of the Orinoco River have been monopolizing the headlines of the international press.
What about Bolivia? The recent presentation of the definitive results of the referendum on gas policy was registered almost with indifference by the commentators. Good news are no news as journalists use to say. Although the popular revolt of October 2003 violently sent Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (two times president: 1993-1997 and 2002-2003) away, political analysts now do not seem to be interested in the peaceful transition.
Bolivia, two times at the edge of the chaos
Friday, October 17th , 2003: Bolivia has no government. Public spaces like the San Francisco Square in La Paz belong to the indigenous peoples, peasants, miners, grassroot neighborhood organizations and producers of coca-leaf. La Paz, seat of the Executive, has been cut off for 10 days; other great cities like El Alto, Cochabamba y Oruro are paralyzed. When the Minister of Defense Carlos Sanchez de Berzaín issues the order to repress mobilizations in El Alto with a rain of bullets and grenades, the slogan “No gas exports to Chile!” turns into the forceful outcry: “Goni, go away!”.
Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, popularly known as “Goni”, from now on for a great part of the population turned into a public enemy, the incarnation of a “fatherland-seller” and a persecutor.
The negative identification of the President with foreign interests even seemed to be proved by his foreign accent. Goni passed part of its childhood in the U.S.A. and his linguistic proficiency in Spanish is rather limited. The violent days finish with a balance of 60 persons dead and 400 wounded.
On October 17th surrounded by his closed friends, the President flees to Miami. On the way he announces his resignation via fax: “the democracy is under siege of corporative, political and trade union groups, which do not believe in it and use it according to their convenience (…). When putting my resignation to the consideration of the Honorable National Congress, I do it with the firm conviction that the acceptance should not proceed, since an elected president cannot be retired democratically by pressure mechanisms and violence, which is illegal (…). It is my duty to advise that the dangers, which threaten the country, are still intact: the disintegration of the nation, the authoritarianism of labor corporations and trade unions, and the fratricidal violence”.
The way is free: Any popular leader could advance towards Murillo Square in La Paz-City, enter the presidential Palace and “establish a government of the masses” or a “military junta”, according to prevailing discourses. Nevertheless, even the most radical leaders, as Roberto de la Cruz (Regional Workers Union of the El Alto) and Jaime Solares (Bolivian Workers Union) prefer the constitutional succession and accept a transitional government under the authority of Vice-president Carlos Mesa. The Bolivians do not want to put at risk the young democratic institutions, which
they just reconquered in 1985:
The new Bolivian Left has not had, at least until now, a programmatic project of power-taking, nor does it aspire a possible union dictatorship, as the left movements proposed in the 70s. On the contrary, the same leaders of social movements spread the idea that the resignation of Sanchez de Lozada should lead to a constitutional succession (Chávez, 2003: 9).
In July 2004 the panorama has changed. The new President Carlos Mesa, an outstanding journalist and historian, is reaching indices of popularity up to 60 per cent–the highest ones in Latin America. The agenda assumed by Mr. Mesa leads to three commitments with economic and social implications: A binding referendum on energy policy in Bolivia, a new Hydrocarbon Law and a Constituent Assembly. The hydrocarbon policy, especially the use of the greatest gas reserves available in Latin America (54.9 TCF, Trillion Cubical Feet) will be determined by the response of
the Bolivians to five questions in a binding referendum about the property of hydrocarbons and the strategic use of this energy resource to compensate for the lacking access to the sea for more than a century (Figure 1).
The complexity of the questions and its multiple interpretations immediately cause the reactivation of the radical speeches. Some leaders of the most traditional and corporative left, like Jaime Solares (Bolivian Workers Union), Felipe Quispe (Unique Confederation of Peasants of Bolivia) and Óscar Olivera (Association of the Gas, an organization that originated in the fight against the privatization of water supply in Cochabamba in 2000) express their rejection of the referendum, which they consider not consequent enough. Their announcement of an active boycott, mainly in the highland zones, consisting of burning election bullets, marches and spontaneous blockades, is followed by violent days.
Few days before the implementation of the Referendum, the intense official campaign has not managed to deactivate the opposition of popular organizations, which, even though fragmented, express their voice in favor of the nationalization of hydrocarbons (Stefanoni, 2004a:8).
At July 18th, 2004, the day of the referendum on the hydrocarbon policy, Bolivia again is at a point of crisis. The centrifugal forces put in danger the accomplishment of a new democratic mechanism of consultation. Carlos Mesa has publicly announced that he would leave the presidency if he did not obtain the necessary support: “The referendum is the policy that the government puts to consideration of the country. If I lose, I will resign” (quoted in Stefanoni, 2004b). The political options are diminishing: The traditional parties, which were excluded from the government of
Carlos Mesa, have lost credibility. The memories of the successes of February 2003 are still in the memory of the people: During a confrontation between Police and Army in La Paz, an infuriated crowd plundered the headquarters of traditional political parties, like the National Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, MNR); Revolutionary Movement of Left
(Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria, MIR) and National Democratic Action (Acción Democra’tica Nacional, ADN). The non-traditional parties, which have more popular and indigenous supporters, like the Movement for Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo MAS) and Pachakuti Indigenous Movement (Movimiento Indígena Pachakuti, MIP), still lack a coherent political program and their leaders, occasionally, practise an authoritarian leadership style.
Nevertheless, the day of the referendum the Bolivians themselves spoke out in the ballots and surpassed the indices of voting in total America, taking a forceful step in the transition towards direct democracy. 2.678.518 people expressed their opinion in the referendum, which represents 60 % of the citizens with the right to vote (CNE, 2004). The first three questions were widely supported, which indicates that the Bolivians wish a deep reorientation of the hydrocarbon policies and a greater participation of the State in the exploitation of these resources:
The declarations and threats of the leaders were just boasts, and once again they didn’t consider the real mood of the masses that do not want to return to the confrontations of October. The active population (to differentiate from a majority of population that we can call passive, as it always happens in political life) is clearly in favor of searching first solutions in a pacific and legal way (CEDIB: 2004).
Once again, Bolivia overcomes an impasse of lacking governability. 1,9 million peoples (representing 92 % of the valid votes) have declared themselves in favour of the recovery of hydrocarbon property for the Bolivian State. But the possibility of gas export through Chile in exchange for an access to the sea received negative votes (Yes: 58.8%; No: 45.2 %). The slogans and motivations of the October movement consequently were ratified retroactively. On the other hand, the electorate did not give to Carlos Mesa a blank cheque, and it was cautious in the strategic use and the export of these resources. The differentiated vote (“Yes” to the first three questions, “No” to the last two), also promoted by the MAS (Movement to the Socialism), indicates that the voters understood the referendum as an instance of consultation on subjects, not as much on persons:
The referendum that has taken place in Bolivia was clearly about the definition of public policy. All referendums that come from the Executive authority have a certain character of a plebiscite, that means, that the figure of the president is questioned. This point was not the most important in the Bolivian case, but to define the policy of using energy, and for that reason, to add to its complexity, there were five questions. In the case of Venezuela it was a very specific thing, it was a clear and concrete plebiscite in which it was to be decided if one supported the President Hugo Chávez or not, if his mandate was revoked or people allowed him to continue until 2006. I think that there is no parameter of comparison (Ricardo Peace, quoted in Cortéz, 2004: 12).
The dynamics of conflicts in Bolivia
Until a few years ago, Bolivia seemed to be an island of peace in the middle of storms. Still, at the beginnings of the 1990s, the Peruvian, Argentine and Paraguayan were envious of the Bolivian index of security in the big cities, the political stability through the pacts of the political parties, their peaceful reforming policy and the decentralization (expressed, for example, in the successful Law of Popular Participation of 1994). An historical account of violent manifestations in the last two decades by UNDP (United Nations Development Program) illustrates the increase of the social violence at the end of the 1990s of last century (Figure 2).
The study of all forms of protest in Bolivia is still in an initial phase, and the different dispersed investigations, of which some are difficult to obtain due to the lack of a national system of libraries and bookstores, still have not been assembled to construct a general panorama (cf. investigations in course of John Crabtree of the University of Oxford, of CERES in Cochabamba, and CEB – CEPAS/CARITAS, 2001; Barié, 2004c).
Nevertheless, we will attempt a preliminary understanding of the conflict cycles: It seems, on the one hand, that the policies of economic reform, initiated with the stipulation of a controversial Supreme Decree 21060, initially did not hit a visible resistance of social actors, especially the (until then omnipresent) Confederation of the Workers of Bolivia (COB). The implementation of neoliberal policies that imply, among others, the dismantling of great state companies like COMIBO (Corporación Minera de Bolivia, Bolivian Mining Corporation), ENTEL (Empresa Nacional de Teléfonos, National Company of Telephone), YPFB (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales de Bolivia, Fiscal Oil Bearing Fields of Bolivia) LAB (Lloyd Aero Boliviano, Bolivian Aerlines) happens with the assent of great part of the political and intellectual groups:
In Bolivia–within four years and in a democracy—we did the things that took almost three times as long in Chile under iron dictatorship (…) No measure was adopted to take ahead a process of productive transformation. In fact, Bolivia was condemned to its traditional role of seller of raw materials: before it was silver, rubber, quinine, tin; now it is natural gas, gold, wood (Cortés Hurtado, 2003: 4).
Nevertheless, the macroeconomic and social effects of economic reconstruction shook the country almost ten years later. The reformist package designed and executed during the first administration of Sanchez de Lozada (1993-1997) was a true time bomb. The dissolution of the great corporations (trade unions and state holder enterprises), the privatizations, and the reform of pensions–all these measures affected the atomizaton and fragmentation of Bolivian collectivities. The miners, which were resettled in 1985 (under the responsibility of the Minister of Planning and Coordination, Sanchez de Lozada), today constitute great part of the population marginalized in El Alto. The people most harmed by the first administration of Sanchez de Lozada were doubtlessly peasants and native peoples of the Bolivian plateau. Many of them immigrated to “El Alto”, where they survive in a situation of extreme precariousness. The commercial liberalization
affected the small agricultural producers, causing an increasing erosion of prices.
A key element of the social conflict in the nineties is the greater (internal and external) pressure to eradicate coca plantations. This drastically diminishes the income of coca producers, which are generally indigenous and from the Highlands. The substitution programs for farming production in the subtropical regions of the provinces Chapare, Carrasco, Tira (Cochabamba) and Yungas (La Paz) failed, since the international prices for alternative products as banana are rather unfavorable for small and medium scale production. According to the National Institute for Statistic (INE), 58.6% of the 8.5 million Bolivians are poor, in the countryside even 90% (cf. Escobar de Pabón, 2003 y Morales, 2004)
The “War about Water” 2000 in Cochabamba was the emblematic indication of new forms of social fight in the times of neoliberalism: Dynamic movements with concrete vindications on strategic resources, like water, coca, hydrocarbons and soil, and with the fast configuration of alliances and blocks. From 2000 onwards, Bolivia has entered a spiral of violent protests, which involve every time more sectors: water users, coca growers, miners, educators, police, indigenous, farmers, pensioners, borrowers, unions, sellers, employers.
Bolivia is a country characterized by social explosions , not by clear phases of ascent and reduction of mobilization. Certainly, the fragmentation of the society is quiet visible. People have taken refuge to more elementary corporation identities and present extremely particular lists of demands (Verdesoto and Ardaya, 2004: 6).
The actors of conflict (related to the state and from sectorial and civil organizations) use a certain ritual routine to approach conflicts. Until recently, one could observe a tendency in the government administration to centralize the attention of the conflicts at the highest level (Ministries, President), and to sign agreements without legal and financial backing. On the other hand, regional and local authorities have not assumed sufficient possibilities of managing the conflicts appropriately, nor do they take advantage of spaces for public dialogue, deliberation, agreement, supervision and social control, foreseen by the Popular Participation Law. The social actors frequently operate a scheme of coercive negotiation, validated in the context of dictatorships and populistic leaderships, which no longer respond adequately to the present situation, in which the Government has fewer margins to act and strong budgetary limitations.
The negotiations between state and civil actors have entered a auto-destructive cycle with a logic of imposition and scorn of the other. The sequence of bulky petitionary sheet, passivity of the Government, means of pressure, violence, signature of agreements without possibility to accomplish leads to the total loss of prestige of negotiations and agreements as forms to solve disputes, and, at last cause total crises of governability, like the one of October 2003. Since that time, the Government has made concerted efforts to break the injurious scheme of negotiation and to recover credibility and confidence (cf. Figure 3).
The extremist views: two Bolivias?
The social agitation of the last decade has deeply influenced national and international opinions. Under the impact of constant blockades, extremist discourses and actions of social groups, which made use of the civil society to achieve their particular aims, a deep pessimism has spread amongst political analysts: Bolivia, according to these opinions, turned an economically nonviable, politically unmanageable country, which is ethnically divided and regionally fragmented:
In the more coherent nation states of the Third World, culture and religion seem to constitute the main referents of identity. Bolivia seems to be an exception: it is difficult to find something that all the Bolivians share. From the affective and symbolic point of view (where it is difficult to make a mistake) it could be said that there is no such feeling of “We, the Bolivians”, without which, as we know, there is no “Bolivian State”. “So clear is it”. … we do not have nation state, not even in our dreams; therefore, it is not possible to pretend putting patches to what is only a illusion (Medina, 2004).
From a conservative viewpoint, the analyst Mark Falcoff, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute, even announces the end of Bolivia:
As recently as late April, the lobby and lower floors of the congressional office building were demolished by a suicide bomber, and the successor regime led by Sánchez de Lozada’s former vice-president Carlos Mesa is attempting to buttress its shaky legitimacy through a series of tawdry gimmicks. These include attempts to govern without parties; denying natural gas to Chile, Bolivia’s hated neighbor; threatening to overturn long-standing contracts with international energy companies; and brandishing a plebiscite which may well take the country–or at least an important part of it–outside the world economy. Republics do not normally commit suicide, but Bolivia may be an exception. If current trends continue, we may witness the first major alteration of the South American political map in more than a hundred years (Falcoff, 2004).
Nevertheless, it seemed that many analysts were seduced by a certain sensationalism – or by the speeches of some leaders. For example, Felipe Quispe (Unique Union Confederation of Peasants of Bolivia) constantly attracts public attention with sarcastic declarations: “What do we have to do with Bolivia? Bolivia is bad in soccer, in policy it means to be the champion of corruption. Bolivia always lost its wars. Where wins Bolivia? We will rather speak of the Kollasuyo… ” (in Reason 21/07/2001). Kollasuyo, Ansituyo, Chinchaysuyo, Kuntisuyo were parts of Tawantinsuyo, the empire of the Incas.
The dichotomizing visions are, nevertheless, surpassed by anthropological studies which describe a multiplicity of spaces of contact and intercultural coexistence (see PNUD, 2004 and del Álamo, 2004). It seemes then that the Bolivians have advanced in the construction of multiple identities and the gradual construction of a multicultural nation, which is still searching for a national project and a basic agreement on minimum rules of coexistence:
In spite of tremendous efforts and historical sacrifices, the construction of a nation state in Bolivia has until today been complicated and unfinished. The incomplete dominion on the territory, the restricted construction of a national imaginary–who could articulate and include the Bolivian cultural diversity–and the absence of a political institucionality socially shared are the outcomes of a work in progress (PNUD, 2004: 100-101).
Conclusion: The silent transition
When assuming presidency in tumultuous circumstances, Carlos Mesa defined the meaning of his Government: “I understand that my obligation today is to preside over a government of historical transition” (quoted in Interforum Magazine, 2003). The Bolivian President has promoted a true transition: A constitutional reform, which introduces elements of direct democracy and allows for the postulation of independent candidates in municipal elections, the systematic depolitization of public posts, the ratification of reasonable and realistic agreements (which reconstructs the confidence in negotiation), the rejection to the old practice of “buying” leaders, the revision and reformulation of the Hydrocarbon Law. With the support and the technical assistance of different organizations, like GTZ (Germans Technical Cooperation), O.A.S. (Organization of American States), UNETE (an independent Foundation directed by an activist for Human Rights, Ana Maria Romero) and UNDP (United Nations Development Program), the Government has developed active policies of analysis, evaluation and prevention of conflicts. The consequent application of theories of transformation of conflicts in public administration is an exceptional case in Latin America. The everyday tasks of the political administration have changed:
During the previous government coalition between the traditional parties (MNR, MIR, NFR) the Palace of Government was turned upside down. Even in the corridors were writing-desks and all the rooms were constantly full of politicians making calculations and speculations, trying to accommodate their favoured persons and their projects. (…)Now things have changed a lot. More than one hundred people who “worked” in the Palace were dismissed, many rooms are empty and quiet, in the offices there is only the personnel who occupies them, however… Thanks to Carlos Mesa, the Palace of Government seems to be a working place (gatoencerrado, 2004).
Strangely, the tightrope walker Carlos Mesa receives strong critics from extreme political directions: For Robert Ruiz, president of the Civic Committee of Tarija, who represents the export industries, “the Government is kidnapped by social movements” (quoted in various, 2004). For the leftist intellectuals Walter Chávez and Alvaro García Linera the President “tries to recompose neoliberalism, with some make-up” (Chávez and Garci’a, 2004: 1).
Yet, there is still a long way to go. The great national subjects are just being discussed within the pre-constitutional process (cf. Figure 4): the coca leaves production, soil distribution, collective indigenous rights, racism and interculturality, use and property of nonrenewable natural resources. Although slowly and with many steps, the country is experimenting a deep transformation that implies the gradual reconstruction of credibility and governability, and the thorny transition from a formal democracy to a more participative and inclusive democracy.
Bio: Cletus Gregor Barié has a degree in Latin American Studies at the National University of Mexico (UNAM) a master in Human Rights at the International University of Andalusia (Spain), and he specialized in Indigenous Rights (ENAH, Mexico) and Conflict Management (DED, Germany). Since 2000 he works in programs for the international development cooperation in Bolivia, focused on the transformation of social conflicts and intercultural relationship. Recently he published the 2ond edition of his investigation Indigenous Peoples and constitutional rights in Latin America: a panorama, edited by the Inter American Indigenous Organization (see the full text of the book: http://gregor.padep.org.bo). Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Caty Luz Zárate has a master in Human Rights at the International University of Andalusia (Spain) and is a specialist in conflict transformation. She worked for years in Colombia with governmental and not-governmental organizations in the construction of peace constituencies and the resolution of conflicts. She was an advisor of the Episcopal Commission (CEPAS-CARITAS) in Bolivia and international observer in the Referendum about hydrocarbon policy. At the moment she is the trains Bolivians in negotiation and conflict management, as part of the Program Systems of Prevention and Resolution of Conflicts of the Organization of American States (OAS-UPD). She just published Herramientas básicas para el manejo y resolución temprana de conflictos (Tools for the management and early resolution of conflicts). Mail: email@example.com.