Bolivia Table of Contents
Pérez Velásquez Street, La Paz
Courtesy Inter-American Foundation (Kevin Healy)
In 1989 Bolivia celebrated seven consecutive years of civilian rule. Considering the nation's history of political instability and turmoil, the longevity of the current democratic period marked a significant achievement. Clearly, democracy did not come easily to Bolivia; only when other alternatives were exhausted did the country's political leaders accept representative government.
Between 1978 and 1982, seven military and two weak civilian governments ruled the country. Coups and countercoups characterized one of the darkest and most unstable periods in Bolivian history. The unsolved dilemmas of the MNR-led revolution, worsened by decades of corrupt military dictatorships, accounted for Bolivia's convoluted transition to democracy.
The 1952 Revolution sparked the transformation of Bolivia and initiated a process of state-led development that envisioned a harmonious pattern of capitalism and populist redistribution. State capitalism, however, proved to be more compatible with exclusionary, military-based rule than with the populist politics of the MNR. In fact, the inability of the MNR to control the demands for greater redistribution by organized labor, led by the COB, culminated in the MNR's overthrow in 1964.
Conflict between labor and the state deepened under military rule. With the exception of the Juan José Torres González period (1970-71), military governments repressed organized labor to implement state capitalist development. As a result, over the next two decades class conflict was exacerbated. State capitalism (see Glossary) had been incapable of improving the living standards of the majority of Bolivians, and the economy was still heavily dependent on a single export commodity. Under the government of General Hugo Banzer Suárez (1971-78), the health of the economy rested on excessive foreign borrowing.
A second objective of the revolution had been to institutionalize a political model that could both incorporate the masses mobilized by the MNR and provide access to state jobs for the middle class. Although it attempted to emulate Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional--PRI), the MNR failed to subordinate labor, military, and peasant groups to the party structure. Instead, the party was held hostage to the interests of factional leaders who eventually conspired with the military to overthrow Paz Estenssoro and the MNR. The military made several attempts to institutionalize a new political order, including a Soviet-like Popular Assembly (Asamblea Popular) in June 1970 and a corporatist legislature in 1974. Like the MNR, however, the military also failed to create an alternative model of politics.
In short, the failure of the revolution and the subsequent military regimes to accomplish political and economic objectives led to the deepening of cleavages that sparked the revolution in the first place. By the late 1970s, Bolivia was a country torn apart by regional, ethnic, class, economic, and political divisions. This was the context in which the transition to democracy was to take place.
Data as of December 1989