New Internationalist

Country Profile: Bolivia

November 2013
Victor Ara [Related Image]
Indigenous leader Victor Ara. © Vanessa Baird

A miner, pick in one hand, rifle in the other, adorns many main squares of Bolivia’s highland mining communities, symbolizing the country’s tradition of radical social movements. Although the size of the mining unions is today much reduced, the miners’ legacy lives on in strong social movements in both the rural and urban spheres. It was these that galvanized support for the presidential candidacy of Evo Morales in 2005, and again in 2009. Morales had previously been a leader of the coca farmers who, influenced by the miners’ radicalism, had been a key element of the resistance to neoliberal reforms in the 1990s.

Eight years on from his original election, and with every chance of winning the forthcoming 2014 presidential contest, Morales has brought big changes to this, one of Latin America’s poorest and most unequal countries. In 2006, he reasserted state control over Bolivia’s natural-gas industry, its main source of export and tax revenues, increasing the amount of tax paid by foreign companies. The same year, he initiated the rewriting of the constitution with a view to extending the political and social rights of its majority indigenous population, long marginalized by mestizo élites. The new constitution came into force in 2009.

Under Morales, Bolivia has sought to assert itself on the international stage, too, not only reducing the profile of foreign companies in the economy but also standing up to the pressures long exerted by Washington to eradicate coca, the raw material for cocaine. In 2008, following indications of US complicity to remove him, he expelled both the US ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from the country. A close confidant of both Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba, Morales signed up to the Venezuelan-led ALBA grouping, while seeking to forge new alliances at the global level with countries critical of the US.

Vanessa Baird
At more than 4,000 metres above sea leve, El Alto is probably the highest and largest open-air market in the world. Vanessa Baird

Leftwing nationalism has a long history in Bolivia, originating in the early years of the 20th century. It erupted in 1952 with the so-called National Revolution, leading to the nationalization of the country’s mining industry, a radical agrarian reform and the introduction of universal suffrage. Morales, who grew up in poverty in a highland indigenous peasant community, has sought to build on this tradition, while linking it more explicitly to the struggle for indigenous rights.

His government, however, has had to face significant domestic opposition. In 2008, he had to face down the threat of secession from élites in eastern Bolivia fearful that the government’s revival of the 1950s agrarian reform would lead to their losing huge private estates. Then, in 2011 and 2012, he had to confront dissident social movements, fearful that the government’s develop­ment plans would trump commitments to indigenous rights and preservation of the environment. A 600-kilometre march from Trinidad in the tropical lowlands to the seat of government in highland La Paz to protest against plans to build a road through an indigenous preserve cast into doubt Morales’ much-vaunted commitment to indigenous and environmental ideals. Rifts also emerged between social movements and within them.

Still, with the country’s economy flourishing since 2006, its exports booming and its once-chronic fiscal deficit transformed into surplus, the government has been able to increase social spending and boost public investment. Poverty levels have declined, particularly because of an increase in employment. Subsidies paid to vulnerable populations – the very young, the elderly and nursing mothers – have also had significant impacts, especially in rural areas. Meanwhile, deep-rooted ethnic and gender divides appear to be being bridged, with previously marginalized indigenous people (especially women) playing a key role in the affairs of government.

By John Crabtree.

Country Profile: Bolivia Fact File
Leader President Evo Morales Ayma.
Economy GNI per capita: $2,040 (Peru $5,500, United States $48,450).
Monetary unit Boliviano.
Main exports Natural gas (49%), minerals (33%). Despite attempts to diversify exports and to industrialize raw materials, the economy remains highly dependent on volatile international prices.
People 10.1 million. Annual growth rate (2001-12) 1.7%. People per sq km: 9 (UK 253).
Health Infant mortality 39 per 1,000 live births (Peru 14, US 6). Lifetime risk of maternal death: 1 in 140 (US 1 in 2,400). HIV prevalence rate 0.3%. Healthcare is free, but deficient in poor urban neighbourhoods and most rural areas – and standards are lower than in neighbouring countries. Huge differences exist between the public and private healthcare systems.
Environment Environmental degradation is a growing problem, especially land erosion caused by cash-crop agriculture (soya) in the lowland east and mining pollution in the highlands. Peasant agriculture suffers from unpredictable conditions due to climate change.
Culture According to the 2012 census, 40% self-identify as ‘indigenous’. Of these, the largest ethnic groups are Quechua (46%), Aymara (42%), Chiquitano (3%) and Guarani (2%).
Religion Officially at least, the large majority of Bolivians are Roman Catholic, although religious observance is much less common than this would suggest. As elsewhere in Latin America, there is a fast-growing presence of evangelical churches and other protestant sects.
Language Almost all Bolivians speak Spanish, though for many it is a second language. The main indigenous languages are Aymara and Quechua.
Human development index 0.675, 108th of 186 countries (Peru 0.741, US 0.937).
Country Profile: Bolivia ratings in detail
Income distribution
Has traditionally been among the most skewed in Latin America but poverty alleviation in recent years has helped reduce social divides.
Life expectancy
67 years (Peru 74, US 79). The lowest rate in Latin America, yet life expectancy is improving thanks to better nutrition and healthcare.
Position of women
Men have traditionally dominated politics and society in Bolivia, but this is changing fast. Women have played an important role in social movements. The cabinet has aimed for gender parity but has not always succeeded.
Literacy
The overall literacy rate has improved significantly to 97.5%, according to the 2012 Census. But the literacy reflected in these figures is often very basic.
Freedom
There are no significant curbs on political freedom, although senior opposition leaders (some accused of corruption) have chosen to live abroad. There is no significant censorship of the press, despite claims to the contrary.
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality is legal, though often frowned upon socially in this fairly conservative society. Transgender is unusual but seems to be tolerated.
NI Assessment (Politics)
First elected in 2005, re-elected in 2009, Evo Morales is likely to be re-elected in 2014. Morales is a popular leader with strong legitimacy. His support is particularly striking in rural parts of the country and in poor urban areas. The opposition to his government is weak and fragmented. Several opposition leaders have opted to leave Bolivia, claiming to be the victims of persecution. Petty corruption is widespread, but Morales has sought to take a stand against it. Human rights observance is relatively high.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 467 This column was published in the November 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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