Focus On

bolivia, evo morales
Dado Galdieri/AP
A security agent fixes the presidential sash of Bolivia's President Evo Morales, left, as
Morales and his Defense Minister Walker San Miguel watch a parade commemorating the
183rd anniversary of Bolivia's Army. (AP)

Focus on Bolivia

August 15, 2008
by Isabel Cowles
Bolivia is a fertile country rife with internal conflict. The country has a long history of political upheaval. Today, its burgeoning coca trade furnishes much of South America’s cocaine exports. The current president, Evo Morales, is Bolivia’s first native-born head of state. A major platform in his campaign was a pledge to be America’s “worst nightmare.” Morales maintains strong ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro, both outspoken enemies of the United States.

A Brief History

Originally home to the Tiwanaku (Tihuanaco) civilization and then the Inca, Gonzalo and Hernando Pizarro began the Spanish conquest of the highland then known as the Altiplano in 1532, defeating the local population in 1538. Independence from the Spanish was eventually achieved in 1825. Simón de Bolìvar drafted a constitution and the country was officially named Bolivia. After achieving independence, Bolivia experienced many changes to its government and constitution.

During the 19th century, “the temptation to wholesale corruption was always strong, and honest reform was hard to achieve,” the Washington Post explains. In the following century, efforts for positive change were “overshadowed by military coups, rule of dictators, and bankruptcy.” Conflicts between the conservative and liberal parties, the military and miners largely responsible for Bolivia’s booming tin industry, were ongoing and virulent.

Recent Developments

The current President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, is the first indigenous citizen ever to be elected to Bolivia’s highest office. Morales ran his campaign on the platform that he would become “the United States’ “worst nightmare,” Democracy Now reports. Morales did not support the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, saying that it would enslave Latin Americans and foster corporate America. Morales maintains close ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and former Cuban President Fidel Castro—both outspoken adversaries of American government.
Morales has been locked in conflict with regional governors, who object to Morales’s plans to nationalize industries and redistribute resources to the poor. In an attempt to resolve the standoff, there was an August 10 recall referendum; but when all of the votes were counted, both Morales and many of the governors remained in office.

Bolivia and its Andean neighbors are considered an international threat because of their high levels of coca production. According to a 2007 survey by the United Nations, “the total area of land under coca cultivation … in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru was 181,600 hectares, a 16 percent increase over 2006—and the highest level since 2001.” A solution to the problem may lie in investing in Bolivian jobs: “Coca cultivation … rose in regions such as La Asunta and the Yungas de La Paz, which have seen little investment in development. At the same time, regions like Alto Beni that have received support for alternative livelihood schemes have been able to reduce coca cultivation.”

Perspectives on Bolivia

Bolivia also faces an ongoing internal conflict over the location of its capital. Residents of Sucre, Bolivia’s former political center, have proposed that the capital be officially returned from its current location in La Paz. “One million protesters recently flooded the center of La Paz to oppose Sucre’s campaign, reflecting the strength of Mr. Morales’s political base, and the resistance to Sucre’s ambition,” The New York Times reported in 2007. Nevertheless, “supporters of Sucre’s proposal … have already won a victory of sorts by making their campaign the most polemical project in an assembly convened here to rewrite Bolivia’s Constitution, distracting delegates from proposals that would accelerate Mr. Morales’s challenges to Bolivia’s light-skinned elite.”

Evo Morales’s decidedly populist agenda is in line with many of the reforms Venezuela’s President Cesar Chavez has made. According to the Associate Press, “Morales does not deny Chavez’s influence. He flies around Bolivia in military helicopters on loan from the Venezuelan president and implemented last year's gas nationalization with the same U.S. lawyers Chavez uses for his own government takeovers—with Chavez footing the bill.” However, “most of the reforms championed by Morales … spring from Bolivia's own turbulent history. And while its policies are similar, Bolivia—poor, largely indigenous and landlocked—may see far different results than its oil-rich mestizo sister on the Caribbean.”

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