Bolivia Conflict History
Head of State: Evo Morales, January 2006-
Bolivia’s history since independence from Spain 1825 marked by political instability and civil unrest; wide income and power disparities in Latin America’s poorest country have created culture of militant protest. For much of history, indigenous Quechua (30%) and Aymara (25%) peoples have been subjected to white (15%) and mestizo (30%) ruling minority, with long-running disputes over access to land, natural resources and wealth derived from them. Also destabilising: no access to sea – lost in 1879-1883 war with Chile – and cultivation of coca bushes, whose leaves are still marketed for traditional uses by indigenous populations in the highlands, but that are also a major source of world cocaine.
Traditional parties faded 1930s-1940s following territorial losses to Paraguay in Chaco war (1932-1935) and creation of Mineworkers Federation of Bolivia (FSTMB) 1944 and Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) 1941. MNR leader Victor Paz Estenssoro took power April 1952; instituted universal suffrage, increased indigenous political access, brought majority of mining industry under state control. Additionally MNR supported agrarian reform spearheaded by indigenous peasantry, taking control of large private estates, sometimes forcefully. General René Barrientos overthrew government 1964, though agreed to maintain agrarian reforms.
Palace coups switched military leaders until democratic rule returned with election of Hernán Siles 1982, forced out 1985 amid declining economy. Paz Estenssoro returned 1985 and instituted widespread liberal reforms, pursued by successors Jaime Paz Zamora (1989-1993) and Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-1997), who privatised most of the gas industry.
General Hugo Banzer, who had won power in 1971 coup, elected president 1997, faced stiff resistance to U.S.-supported coca eradication policy. New wave of popular uprising began in Cochabamba city’s April 2000 “Water War”: protests at rising water prices after purchase of city’s water system by Bechtel subsidiary. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada elected for second time in 2002; approval rapidly fell with announcement of new income tax perceived as unfair to poor – subsequent violence in La Paz left some 30 dead in February 2003. Announcement Bolivia would sell gas through Chile, amid wider economic discontent, led to general strike September 2003 and blockade of La Paz. Government brought out military, at least 80 killed; president toppled October 2003. Vice-President Carlos Mesa appointed president.
Alleged coup attempt failed January 2004. Mesa resigned June 2005 following early-2005 demonstrations demanding Constituent Assembly, increased regional autonomy and nationalisation of gas industry. Interim President Supreme Court Chief Eduardo Rodriguez called December 2005 presidential, congressional elections. Evo Morales, indigenous leader of leftist Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), Chapare region coca growers (cocaleros) leader, promising to empower excluded indigenous majority, elected president December 2005 in landslide first-round victory; inaugurated January 2006.
In indication of left-wing shift, Morales quickly moved towards natural gas sector nationalisation May 2006; initial disputes but main investors later agreed to sell majority stakes to state and renegotiate contracts. While Morales established Constituent Assembly (CA) July 2006 to increase indigenous influence and reform state through creation of new constitution, eastern lowlands departments voted for greater autonomy; MAS party failed to gain two-thirds majority needed for full control of CA. Deep disagreements over drafting of the constitution led to CA extension until December 2007, while protests over moves to restore “full capital” status to Sucre caused CA to cease September until reconvening November in Sucre military base.
CA approved new draft constitution in December but opposition, virtually excluded from vote, rejected new text as illegal and illegitimate. Political crisis continued 2008 due to eastern departments’ autonomy drive, fuelled by new pension bill cutting departments’ share of gas revenues, a bill Morales later imposed. Even though National Electoral Court rejected call for autonomy referendum in March 2008, four opposition-controlled departments (Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija) all voted overwhelmingly in favour of increased autonomy in separate referendums May-June 2008. Recall referendum (referendum revocatorio) for president, vice-president and departmental prefects held on 10 August 2008. Morales’s mandate was confirmed with 67.4% of vote, while three of nine prefects, two from opposition, were recalled. Political controversy and violent demonstrations over constitutional referendum continued; culminated in Pando department in early September when at least 20 were killed, most of them Morales supporters, in clash with Pando autonomists. UN- and OAS-mediated talks between government and opposition led to compromise on new constitution text in Congress in October; Morales agreed to stand for reelection only once in 2009, renouncing to possible 2014 term.
New charter approved in 25 January 2009 referendum with 60% of vote, though four opposition departments overwhelmingly voted against. Political situation has remained highly polarised since, focusing on controversial new electoral law, alleged corruption within MAS government and state oil and gas company. Preliminary results show Morales re-elected with 60% of vote in 6 Dec presidential elections, and MAS party obtained two-thirds majority in new National Assembly body; opposition still heavily fractured, largely failed to unite under single candidate during campaign.
Links between Venezuelan President Chávez and Morales increasingly have taken on regional and international dimension, not least because Chávez promised to intervene in any coup attempt against Morales. Morales was re-elected leader of largest coca farmer union in March 2006 despite indicating he would quit. Move antagonised U.S., which continues to demand stronger action to eliminate coca growing; Morales expelled U.S. ambassador and cancelled cooperation with U.S. DEA in November 2008 over alleged interference in internal Bolivian affairs. La Paz persists in unsuccessful attempts to have coca leaf taken off the UN list of prohibited substances; 12,000 hectares of coca crops in Bolivia are already legal today while Morales government-backed voluntary eradication programs have been unsuccessful to curb increasing illegal crops.
Updated December 2009