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Country Profile: Bolivia

Victor Ara

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.

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.

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled 2004

At a glance

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  • Income distribution
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  • NI Assessment (Politics)