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Bolivia Modern History

A military coup in 1964 was followed by a period of undemocratic rule. During the 1970s repression increased and all parties and unions were banned. After a period of new coups and economic crisis, democracy was restored in 1982. But the situation remained politically, socially and economically unstable. Growing gaps and disputed gas recovery led to violent mass protests in the early 2000s. In the wake of the riots, farmer leader Evo Morales was elected president in 2005.

The military coup in November 1964 (see Older history) became the beginning of almost two decades of undemocratic rule. With the support of the United States, the miners' union and Marxist student movements were fought.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Bolivia. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

After several military coups, General Hugo Bánzer took power in 1971. He initially ruled with the support of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), but from 1974 parties and trade unions were banned and human rights violations increased. The economy grew, but this was largely through foreign loans, while investment in industry was neglected.

Growing resistance within the country and pressure from the United States forced Bánzer in 1978. A chaotic period followed when several elections were held and several coups followed. The military regimes brought the country near the ruin. The United States, which has long been a close ally, became increasingly critical of the lack of democracy and the regime's involvement in the rapidly growing cocaine trade.

In 1982, the military saw itself forced to relinquish power. To the president, Congress named the winner in the last election, held in 1980. It was Hernán Siles Zuazo, a veteran who returned after being the second president of the Revolution in 1956-1960. Siles Zuazo now led an outbreak group from the original MNR, called MNRI ("Left MNR"), and had support from the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) and the Communist Party.

Contemporary History of BoliviaDebt crisis and neoliberalism

Despite the government's left wing, the economic crisis soon forced austerity. Strikes broke out and the country ended up in an acute debt crisis. The government lost its majority in the congress and paralyzed. When galloping inflation was at 25,000 percent and 70 per cent of export income went to pay off the external debt, Siles Zuazo was forced to announce new elections.

The 1985 election brought Siles Zuazo's revolutionary comrade, President Victor Paz Estenssoro to power. The MRC leader, who had previously pursued a left-wing policy, was now pushing neoliberal reforms to get the economy organized. The government announced a state of emergency in order to be able to make cuts, which not least shocked the previously allied country organization COB (Central Obrera Boliviana).

The new right stamp was formalized when the MRC signed a "pact for democracy" with the former dictator Bánzer's right-wing Nationalist Democratic Action (ADN). Inflation declined and the economy showed some recovery.

The price for this was paid to the workers, the peasants and the middle class. Unemployment rose as unprofitable state companies were wound up and cheap foreign goods knocked out domestic production. Social and political unrest followed in the wake of the collapse of the tin market in 1985, when 25,000 miners became unemployed.

In the protection of exemptions, neoliberal policy was further pursued under the following governments led by MIR's Jaime Paz Zamora (1989-1993) and MR's Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-1997). Meanwhile, military assistance from the United States to the fight against the cocoa growers encountered violent reactions among small farmers. Corruption spread, and many high-ranking people were revealed to be in contact with the koala forces.

Bánzer's return

The harsh economy and constant corruption scandals paved the way for Hugo Bánzer in the 1997 elections. Many longed for the form of stability that prevailed during his dictatorship in the 1970s. His right-wing party ADN formed a coalition government with several other parties. When the cancer patient Bánzer was forced to resign in 2001, Vice President Jorge Quiroga Ramírez took over. Bánzer died without having been brought to justice for the human rights crimes committed during the dictatorship for which he was accused.

During the Banzar government, more and more organized resistance emerged on several fronts. Cocoa growers in the Chapare region, many of them former miners who lost their jobs, objected to the attempts to eradicate the crop. The cocoa growers were led by an Evo Morales who belonged to the Aymara people.

Another Aymara leader, Felipe Quispe, organized roadblocks and other actions against government policy. An attempt to sell the Cochabamba municipal water company to a foreign company triggered the so-called water war. After months of riots, the government was forced to back down.

The 2002 election meant that Sánchez de Lozada returned as president. He won after a second round of elections, which was then held in Congress, over the Evo Morales. After the election, the economic crisis deepened and social unrest increased. The dissatisfaction and a fiery conflict between the police and the military contributed to the violence in La Paz that claimed more than 30 people's lives in February 2003.

The 1990s discovery of huge natural gas reserves provided Bolivia with new and growing export earnings. But they also reinforced the political conflicts. The opposition to the government came increasingly towards the plans to build a pipeline through Chile to sell natural gas abroad. Indigenous peoples and the country's organization COB demanded that the country's own energy needs be met, and that the raw material should be refined (turned into liquid gas) in Bolivia.

Gas war and mass protests

That the pipeline would go through Chile aroused anger for historical reasons (see Foreign Policy and Defense). The so-called gas war escalated in September 2003 when mass demonstrations were conducted in several cities. In many places the roads were blocked off. La Paz was besieged, and after a few weeks food and fuel shortages arose. When the military again attacked protesters in October, some 70 people were killed and over 400 injured.

Shortly thereafter, Sánchez de Lozada departed and fled the country. Vice President Carlos Mesa took over as president. He promised a referendum on gas exports and a review of the constitution. Concerns were suppressed, and the 2004 referendum contributed to the reorganization of energy policy (see Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment).

In the spring of 2005, protests rose again, mainly in La Paz and the twin city of El Alto. The driving force behind demonstrations and roadblocks was Evo Morales and his party The Movement for Socialism (MAS), which called for social justice, legalization of the cook and the stateization of the entire oil and gas industry. In La Paz, the presidential palace and congress building were surrounded by crowds, and in June 2005 President Mesa resigned.

Morales becomes president

The result was a new election in December, and now MAS candidate Evo Morales won with over half of the votes already in the first round of elections. Morales, who promised to nationalize the natural gas industry, increase the influence of indigenous peoples and develop a new constitution, received massive support from small farmers who objected to the eradication of coca cultivation in collaboration with the United States. But he also managed to attract parts of the middle class by fading down the most radical leftist rhetoric. MAS also managed to secure its own majority in the Chamber of Deputies and became the largest party in the Senate.

The new government took office in January 2006. Among the ministers were miners and representatives of both indigenous people and business. Bolivia made a marked turn to the left, when the neoliberal policies that dominated for three decades were abandoned.

Morales explained that natural assets would become state-owned. In May, the military was ordered to occupy oil and gas fields. The foreign power companies were allowed to continue their operations, but under new conditions (see Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment). The redistribution of land that the President also promised began in June (see Agriculture and Fisheries).

Increased regional self-government

Another election promise was fulfilled when a so-called constituent assembly was appointed by the voters in July 2006, with the task of drawing up a proposal for a new constitution. MAS got just over half of the seats in the congregation, while the other members were mainly right-wing politicians. Sharp contradictions soon became apparent and led the opposition to boycott the assembly in protest of the voting rules.

Voters also had to decide on increased self-government for the country's nine ministries. Demands had long been placed on greater autonomy in the four rich departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando in the east, where the country's oil and gas reserves exist. Here, too, the proposal won, while Morales' camp, which was dominant in the five western ministries, opposed it. In total, 58 percent of voters rejected the proposal for increased autonomy.

The interconnected conflicts on the new constitution and on the question of the ministry's autonomy made the political situation increasingly explosive. An underlying contradiction was the distribution of revenues from the oil and gas industry. The deep divide between regions and people groups soon seemed to threaten to break up the country. Street protests, strikes and riots occurred throughout the country.

Violent clashes broke out in Cochabamba in early 2007, between Morale supporters and people loyal to the ministry's Governor Manfred Reyes Villa. Cochabamba is located in the middle of Bolivia and constitutes a borderland between high and lowlands, both geographically and socio-culturally.

A majority of the department's residents - including many coca growers from the Chapare region - had voted with the Highlands region in the referendum on self-government, but the governor belonged to the right-wing opposition and had the support of landowners and industrialists. When a couple of people were killed and government buildings were set alight, the military set in, and the riots erupted.

Pact for national unity

Work on the new constitution continued, but the contradictions persisted. In November 2007, a majority of the Constituent Assembly adopted a final proposal. But almost the entire opposition boycotted the meeting when the decision was made. The opposition felt that the constitutional proposal was too colored by Morale's policy and would give too much power to the president.

In protest of the proposal, Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija and Pando declared self-government. The situation seemed urgent. In an effort to unite the country and move forward in the constitutional process, President Morales and the governors of the four outbreak ministries entered into a "pact for national unity" in January 2008.

The four ministries held a referendum on increased autonomy on their own initiative. The voters said yes, but the central government in La Paz declared the votes illegal. As a result, Morales announced a national referendum in August, about the Bolivians' confidence in the country's president, vice president and governors in eight of the nine departments (the ninth was newly elected).

Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera received support from just over 67 percent of voters. The governors of the four most opposition ministries also received the support of the people to remain. Only two governors were forced to step down, including Reyes Villa in Cochabamba.

After gaining people's confidence, Morales announced the planned referendum on the proposal for a new constitution, triggering new violent demonstrations in the eastern ministries. The unease culminated when a group of Morales supporters were killed in Pando. The government sent military, proclaimed state of emergency and allowed to arrest Governor Leopoldo Fernández, who was accused of ordering the assault. Then the situation calmed down.

New constitution

Now Morales and the opposition agreed to start a dialogue to resolve the conflict and stop the violence. An agreement was reached after Morales promised not to stand for re-election more than once. The settlement meant that a referendum on the constitution would be held in January 2009 and new elections in December the same year.

In the referendum, just over 61 percent of voters said yes to the constitution. The turnout was over 90 percent. The new constitution, which came into force in February, meant strengthening the rights of indigenous peoples, increased state control over the economy, increased self-government for the ministries and the possibility of direct re-election of the president (see Political system).

In the 2009 election, the opposition was led by the then-formed Right Alliance Progress for Bolivia-National Assembly (PPB-CN), whose leader Manfred Reyes Villa received just over a quarter of the vote in the presidential election. The opposition was alarmed by the ruling party's MAS dominance, which allowed it to enact laws and amend the constitution on its own, without regard to other parties. But PPB-CN was in principle dissolved before the 2014 elections.

 
 

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