Tech Central Station

Bolivia: Democracy under Siege

Bolivia's democratic gains are in danger. During the last four years, divisive regional, ethnic, and economic antagonisms have challenged the country's democratic institutions almost daily. Increasingly, demands from various groups—ranging from the secessionists of the wealthy Santa Cruz region to peasant and Indian groups—have resulted in violent street demonstrations.

On two occasions so far, these have brought down elected presidents. The current leader has been under constant threat of removal. On December 18, however, Bolivians will vote for a new president and Congress, changes that some hope will bring stability to a political system historically characterized by its instability.

Pivotal Elections

The hopes placed on the upcoming elections might be upset by the inescapable reality that Bolivia has one of the highest rates of poverty in the Hemisphere, affecting 63 percent of its 8.8 million inhabitants—a proportion that reaches almost 80 percent in the rural areas. This stark picture contrasts with the potential riches of Bolivia's vast reserves of minerals and natural gas. Poverty and a long-fed frustration with political leaders who do not deliver on their promises of a better life have nurtured a swelling disappointment with democracy.

Desperate peasants and shanty-town dwellers have taken instead to the streets to voice their demands. In the process of blocking roads and unleashing havoc in the big urban centers, they have become easy prey for populists and demagogues. Meanwhile, the route to the ballots is being sown with more dangers and more uncertainty for all Bolivians.

In order to cope with the mounting problems afflicting this Andean nation, whoever becomes president will require a solid mandate and strong support from a commanding block of the legislature. From what opinion surveys currently indicate, such an ideal outcome does not look likely or even feasible. Most polls suggest that neither of the two leading front runners for president—coca growers' leftist chief Evo Morales and conservative former president Jorge Quiroga (2001-2002)—will muster the required 50 percent of the votes needed to win the first round. If the elections confirm this situation, Congress will have to choose from among the top two vote-getters. A large cast of parties representing very divergent regions and interests will then scramble to form allegiances with sufficient congressional muscle to choose the new president.

These are the rules established by the Bolivian Constitution. Given what we have already learned about Bolivia's politics, however, it is realistic to ask whether the losing candidate—together with his party and his allies—will accept the result. Furthermore, recent history shows that the runoff in Congress will most probably harden existing divisions to the point of fatally weakening the new president who, after all, will not be directly elected by the people.

A Rocky Road

This is more or less the script of what happened to Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a former president (1993-1997) who was appointed by Congress after defeating Evo Morales by a slight margin in the elections of June 2002. From the start, Sanchez de Lozada, known as "Goni", became overwhelmed by escalating regional demands and, to a larger extent, by the never-ending diktats of coca-growers and trade unions led by Morales.

Looking at the street mobs under his balcony, Goni went to Washington and requested financial help in excess of $100 million from the Bush administration, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. He hoped to channel these funds to programs that would mitigate social needs aggravated by the expanding unemployment attributed to his economic reforms and coca eradication efforts. Unfortunately, Goni's pleas were rebuffed. As social unrest continued throughout the country, he attempted to curb the turbulence by dispatching the army to crush demonstrations and eliminate road blockades in the capital city of La Paz. The military's intervention provoked instead a renewed cycle of violence that forced the president to resign and flee to the Untied States on October 17, 2003.

Sanchez de Lozada was replaced by Vice President Carlos Mesa, who of late had been publicly criticizing his then president. Alas, Mesa's deeds did not earn him a honeymoon with the street mobs. In vain he attempted to placate Morales and his followers and called for a national referendum to decide on new rules for the exploitation of Bolivia's huge reserves of natural gas, the second largest in South America after Venezuela's.

Mesa eventually met the same fate of his predecessor, resigning on June 5, 2005. He was succeeded by Chief Justice Eduardo Rodriguez, who until that point was a highly respected figure. The esteem in which Rodriguez was held dissipated when he assumed his new position. Constant threats of removal have since limited his ability to govern.

Coup Fever

To be fair, the unstable political climate of today's Bolivia may look mild compared to what this nation experienced before democratic rule was reinstated in 1982. Until then, Bolivia had a turnover average of one president per year. Nevertheless, the specter of the scary past tends to reemerge today thanks to the bellicose stance of Morales' camp and the open support he receives from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, hand in hand with Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Morales is a populist with frightening economic ideas. His political base comprises Indian groups (he is an ethnic Aymara), resentful coca growers, and trade union bosses bent to exert authoritarian rule over workers. As the electoral competition has become more pointed, spokespeople of Morales' Movement toward Socialism party (MAS) have called for rejecting any adverse results of the election. One such operative, Senator Roman Loayza, a rural chief of MAS, went as far as actually describing to reporters the plans to take over the government in the event of a loss, with the help of police and army elements loyal to his group. On December 5, 2005, the attorney general announced that a criminal investigation had been launched into the alleged plans for a coup.

Unholy Alliances

Probably the greatest concern in Washington and other capitals with regard to Morales is the company he keeps. Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro are not exactly paradigms of democracy. Nonetheless, Morales does not make a secret of his close friendship with both. US officials point to intelligence reports on Cuban and Venezuelan agents inside Bolivia's military and police commands as well as at the head of grassroots organizations. If Morales wins, many pundits in Washington believe that a dangerous anti-American and undemocratic axis would take hold in South America and the Caribbean.

Morales, however, is not a sure bet in the upcoming elections. Neither is his main rival, Jorge Quiroga, who commands wide respect and strong support from the business community. The United States does not hide its preference for this academic from Saint Andrews in Austin, Texas. In the latest polls, after the margins of error are accounted for, Quiroga remains in a dead heat with Morales.


If, as expected, the election moves to Congress, the final result may ultimately depend on a dark horse: Samuel Doria Medina, a wealthy businessman, who is running third behind Morales and Quiroga with a smaller, though decisive, number of votes in Congress. Given the affinities they share, Doria Medina looks poised to throw his congressional support to Quiroga, thus assuring a second blow—after the previous bout with Goni—to Morales' presidential ambitions. Obsession with such a scenario is the source of all the coup talk voiced by hotheads of the MAS party.

Besides an armed takeover, one other undemocratic nightmare looms large in Bolivia's election, one that intensified recently when Venezuela's ambassador in La Paz, Azael Valero, showered praise on Morales, in front of the press, as an "anti-imperialist" leader.

Enthusiastic backing from Chavez, underlined by the diplomat's outburst, fuels fears that the real plan Morales and his people have in mind is to develop a dictatorship under the trappings of democracy along the lines of Venezuela's Bolivarian Republic. The belief held by some that Morales will turn out to be another Lula—the Brazilian populist president—must take a back seat to the very real influence Chavez and Castro have in embattled Bolivia. Obviously, in the upcoming elections, there are too many kingmakers—all of whom keep Bolivia's fragile democracy under siege.