Wind of democratic change in Bolivia

Saturday 6 March 2004, by Susan HARVIE

Four months after the popular rebellion in October, the new government of Bolivia has so far failed to propose realistic solutions to any of the serious problems facing the country. At the same time, the official opposition in parliament, the party of indigenous union leader, Evo Morales, is transforming Bolivian democratic practice forever.

In the national elections in 2002, the Bolivian popular movement almost elected one of their own as President of Bolivia. Indigenous union leader, Evo Morales, running on an explicit anti neo liberal economic platform, missed winning the presidency by only 1.5 percent of the popular vote. His party, the Movement toward Socialism - Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People (MAS - IPSP) won 20 percent of the seats in the Bolivian parliament. In October 2003, the same popular movement, finally fed up with the worsening poverty caused by nearly 20 years of neo liberal economic policies and the refusal of the President to negotiate with their democratically elected representatives, went into the streets and forced the now ex President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to resign and flee to safety in Miami.

The repression of the 14 month government of the ex President cost 173 Bolivian lives and more than 400 wounded. It also left an official national unemployment rate of almost 20 percent. In El Alto, the epicentre of the popular rebellion in October, unemployment is estimated at nearly 75 percent. In spite of the cost in blood and misery, the popular movement decided to defend democracy and support the succession to the Presidency of the then Vice President, Carlos de Mesa, as provided for by the Bolivian constitution.

Four months later, the new government has failed to propose realistic solutions to any of the serious problems facing the country. The popular referendum on the ownership, sale and industrialization of natural gas, the catalyst of the October rebellion, has already been postponed for at least a month from the promised date at the end of March. In addition, the other issues which sparked popular anger remain unresolved: among them, government corruption, reform of the Petroleum Law, redistribution of land to the peasants and indigenous peoples, the economic crisis, the policy to eradicate coca, the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) and the rising levels of unemployment, poverty and illiteracy.

This situation poses a serious dilemma for the Bolivian popular movement. Should the popular opposition forces return to the offensive, possibly bringing down another President and risking a military coup? Or should they fight for negotiated solutions to the nation’s problems and to defend and strengthen democracy? Some popular leaders are calling for renewed nation wide general strikes in opposition to the government’s inaction. On the other hand, the popular base of the MAS is calling for negotiated solutions backed up by massive popular demonstrations and marches and based on specific proposals developed by the MAS.

Many in the popular movement have come to believe that their traditional strategy of confrontation alone is no longer effective but that it must be combined with a strategy of negotiation on the basis of specific positive proposals for change backed up by massive popular support. In order to implement their strategy, the MAS has been quietly transforming Bolivian democratic practice, particularly in the countryside. The transformation is based on the very successful model developed by the peasant union of which Evo Morales is Executive Secretary.

Most of the MAS candidates for municipal and national elected offices have been democratically "elected" by their communities before the actual election takes place. In this process, dubbed "semi direct democracy", MAS candidates for elected offices are neither nominated nor approved by the political party. They are elected in democratic community assemblies and held accountable by these assemblies once they are elected. The actual election then becomes little more than a formality since, in the minds of community members, they have already democratically "elected" their representatives in the community meetings.

By the time of the last municipal elections in December 1999, less than two years after the formation of the MAS, the "semi direct democracy" method of nominating candidates was gradually being adopted in other parts of the country. As a result of the national elections in 2002, tens of thousands of Bolivians previously marginalized by a process which was centrally controlled by the political parties were finally able to participate through their own traditional community and union structures in a truly democratic national electoral process. Even though the MAS did not win the last national election, it did win an important victory which has changed Bolivian democratic practice forever. The country’s indigenous peasant majority has forced open the doors of the Bolivian parliament and, for the first time, they have made themselves at home in an institution previously reserved for the economic and political elite who are almost exclusively of Spanish descent. Traditional dress has finally taken its place beside the suits and ties that were once the exclusive dress of the Bolivian parliament and, for the first time, there is simultaneous translation in the four major indigenous languages.

This process of "semi direct democracy" under which MAS elected officials report regularly to their popular base is also beginning to enable the party to mobilize massive popular support, not only in opposition to government policies, but in support of positive alternative proposals. Many Bolivians are becoming less willing to continue to put their lives on the line simply to oppose unpopular government policies. "We want to fight for positive proposals, instead of always just fighting against bad government policies". In Bolivia, this sentence is like a refrain to almost every conversation.

The transformation of Bolivian democratic practice remains a work in progress, particularly in the cities where traditional community and union structures are weaker. In the process, the MAS, its leadership and its base are learning how to combine their traditional role as an opposition social movement with their new role as a political party representing the social movement with positive proposals for governing the country. The experience will show whether they have the necessary capacity, understanding, proposals and political will to, as a resolution of the last MAS National Congress put it, "construct a more equitable, unified, inclusive and participative Bolivia".

Susan Harvie, special collaboration

The author is a consultant in international development and she recently returned from Bolivia.


Vous avez aimé cet article?

  • Le Journal des Alternatives vit grâce au soutien de ses lectrices et lecteurs.

    Je donne

Cet article est classé dans :

Partagez cet article sur :

Articles du même auteur


Vent de changement démocratique en Bolivie

Articles sur le même sujet


La crise au Sénégal : 3 constats

Je m’abonne

Recevez le bulletin mensuel gratuitement par courriel !

Je soutiens

Votre soutien permet à Alternatives de réaliser des projets en appui aux mouvements sociaux à travers le monde et à construire de véritables démocraties participatives. L’autonomie financière et politique d’Alternatives repose sur la générosité de gens comme vous.

Je contribue

Vous pouvez :

  • Soumettre des articles ;
  • Venir à nos réunions mensuelles, où nous faisons la révision de la dernière édition et planifions la prochaine édition ;
  • Travailler comme rédacteur, correcteur, traducteur, bénévole.

514 982-6606