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Contemporary Bolivian history


19th century

During the presidency of Mariscal Andres de Santa Cruz, Bolivia enjoyed the most glorious period of her history with great social and economic advancement. Santa Cruz got involved in internal Peruvian political problems and succeeded in unify Peru and Bolivia into a confederation the Confederacion Peru-Boliviana. As Santa Cruz openly declared the Inca Empire to have been awoken his state was perceived as a threat to regional power balance and a menace to countries on forme Inca territory. The War of the Confederation broke out and different wars against almost all its neighbors were fought during this period with sound victories against its enemies but maybe the turning point took place on the fields of Paucarpata where the Confederacion Peru-Boliviana lead by Santa Cruz forced the Chilean and Peruvian rebel armies to sign the peace treaty know as the Paucarpata Treaty which included their unconditional surrender; later this treaty was discarded by the Chilean parliament. The rebel Peruvians and the Chilean army set of to a new war against Santa Cruz, defeating the Confederation on the fields of Yungay. This was the turning point on Bolivian history after this moment for nearly 60 years, coups and short-lived constitutions dominated Bolivian politics.

Going through a vicious economic and political crisis Bolivia's military weakness was demonstrated during the War of the Pacific , when it lost its seacoast and the adjoining rich nitrate fields to Chile. An increase in the world price of silver brought Bolivia a measure of relative prosperity and political stability in the late 1800s.

During the early part of the 20th century, tin replaced silver as the country's most important source of wealth. A succession of governments controlled by the economic and social elites followed laissez-faire capitalist policies through the first third of the century.

Early 20th century

Living conditions of the indigenous peoples, who constitute more than half of the population, remained deplorable. Forced to work under primitive conditions in the mines and in nearly feudal status on large estates, they were denied access to education, economic opportunity, or political participation. Bolivia's defeat by Paraguay in the Chaco War (1932-1935) marked a turning point. Great loss of life and territory discredited the traditional ruling classes, while service in the army produced stirrings of political awareness among the indigenous people. In 1936 the Standard Oil was nationalized and the state-owned firm Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) created. From the end of the Chaco War until the 1952 revolution, the emergence of contending ideologies and the demands of new groups convulsed Bolivian politics.

The Bolivian National Revolution

Standing alongside the Mexican Revolution, the Bolivian National Revolution is one of the most significant sociopolitical events to occur in Latin America during the 20th century. The Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) emerged from the ashes of the Chaco War in 1941 as a middle-class political coalition eschewing marxism for a vague nationalist ideology better suited to Bolivia's social reality. The MNR participated in the military-civilian regime of Gualberto Villarroel (1943-46) but was deposed in 1946 by the mining oligarchy and the Partido Izquierda Revolucionario (PIR). Its members fled into exile and spent the next six years organizing. The party intiatied a brief but bloody civil war in October of 1949, but was defeated and once again, exiled. The MNR emerged victorious in the 1951 elections, but the results were called fraudulent by the opposition, and its right to the presidency was denied. On 9 April 1952, the MNR led a successful revolt and set into motion the Bolivian National Revolution. Under President Victor Paz Estenssoro and later, Hernan Siles, the MNR introduced universal adult suffrage, carried out a sweeping land reform, promoted rural education, and, in 1952, nationalized the country's largest tin mines. What is especially significant about the Revolution is that, for the first time in Republican history, the State attempted to incoporate into national life and Aymara and Quechua peasants that together constituted no less than 65 percent of the total population. Although the policies pursued by the MNR were largely corporatist and assimilationist, it marked a significant turning point in Bolivia's contested history of indigenous-state relations.

Military Rule

Twelve more tumultuous years of national reform left the country bitterly divided and in 1964, a military junta overthrew President Paz Estenssoro at the outset of his third term; an event that many assert brought an end to the National Revolution and marked the beginning of nearly 20 years of military rule in Bolivia. Many scholars have looked to the CIA in explaining the November 1964 coup, but an increasing number of declassified U.S. documents refute the claim. Towards the end of Paz's second term, Barrientos--a popular, Quechua-speaking General--had succeeded in co-opting the peasant unions formed in the wake of the 1953 agrarian reform, establishing the Pacto Militar-Campesino (PMC). Throughout the 1960s Barriento leveled the peasant unions against labor unrest in the mines. The 1969 death of President Rene Barrientos, a former member of the junta elected President in 1966, led to a succession of weak governments. A coup was led by the military, only to see a countercoup led by leftist Juan Jose Torres. Alarmed by public disorder, the military, the MNR, and others installed Col. (later General) Hugo Banzer Suarez as President in 1971. Banzer ruled with MNR support from 1971 to 1974. Then, impatient with schisms in the coalition, he replaced civilians with members of the armed forces and suspended political activities. The economy grew impressively during Banzer's presidency, but demands for greater political freedom undercut his support. His call for elections in 1978 plunged Bolivia into turmoil once again.

Elections in 1978, 1979, and 1980 were inconclusive and marked by fraud. There were coups, counter-coups, and caretaker governments. In 1980, Gen. Luis Garcia Meza carried out the "Cocaine Coup" with support from Argentine military, in particular from the special forces Batallon de Inteligencia 601 headed by General Guillermo Suarez Mason, who later went on to train the Contras in Nicaragua, as well as help from mercenaries Klaus Barbie, a former Nazi extradited to France in 1983 where he was convicted of crimes against humanity for his role during Vichy, and Stefano Delle Chiaie, an Italian neofascist terrorist. The Meza government was notorious for human rights abuses, narcotics trafficking, and economic mismanagement. This led to a breakdown in relations with the U.S., which under both the Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations refused to recognize Garcia's government due to its drug ties. [*] Later convicted in absentia for crimes, including murder, Garcia Meza was extradited from Brazil and began serving a 30-year sentence in 1995.

Transition to Democracy

After a military rebellion forced out Garcia Meza in 1981, three other military governments in 14 months struggled with Bolivia's growing problems. Unrest forced the military to convoke the Congress elected in 1980 and allowed it to choose a new chief executive. In October 1982 -22 years after the end of his first term of office (1956-60)- Hernan Siles Zuazo again became President. Severe social tension, exacerbated by economic mismanagement and weak leadership, forced him to call early elections and relinquish power a year before the end of his constitutional term.

In the 1985 elections, the Nationalist Democratic Action Party (ADN) of Gen. Banzer won a plurality of the popular vote, followed by former President Paz Estenssoro's MNR and former Vice President Jaime Paz Zamora's Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR). But in the congressional run-off, the MIR sided with MNR, and Paz Estenssoro was chosen for a fourth term as President. When he took office in 1985, he faced a staggering economic crisis. Economic output and exports had been declining for several years.

Hyperinflation had reached an annual rate of 24,000%. Social unrest, chronic strikes, and unchecked drug trafficking were widespread. In 4 years, Paz Estenssoro's administration achieved economic and social stability. The military stayed out of politics, and all major political parties publicly and institutionally committed themselves to democracy. Human rights violations, which badly tainted some governments earlier in the decade, were no longer a problem. However, his remarkable accomplishments were not won without sacrifice. The collapse of tin prices in October 1985, coming just as the government was moving to reassert its control of the mismanaged state mining enterprise, forced the government to lay off over 20,000 miners.

Although the MNR list headed by Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada finished first in the 1989 elections, no candidate received a majority of popular votes and so in accordance with the constitution, a congressional vote determined who would be president. The Patriotic Accord (AP) coalition between Gen. Banzer's ADN and Jaime Paz Zamora's MIR, the second- and third-place finishers, respectively, won out. Paz Zamora assumed the presidency, and the MIR took half the ministries. Banzer's center-right ADN took control of the National Political Council (CONAP) and the other ministries.

Paz Zamora was a moderate, center-left President whose political pragmatism in office outweighed his Marxist origins. Having seen the destructive hyperinflation of the Siles Zuazo administration, he continued the neoliberal economic reforms begun by Paz Estenssoro, codifying some of them. Paz Zamora took a fairly hard line against domestic terrorism, personally ordering the December 1990 attack on terrorists of the Nestor Paz Zamora Committee.

Paz Zamora's regime was less decisive against narcotics trafficking. The government broke up a number of trafficking networks but issued a 1991 surrender decree giving lenient sentences to the biggest narcotics kingpins. Also, his administration was extremely reluctant to pursue coca eradication. It did not agree to an updated extradition treaty with the US, although two traffickers have been extradited to the U.S. since 1992. Beginning in early 1994, the Bolivian Congress investigated Paz Zamora's personal ties to accused major trafficker Isaac Chavarria, who subsequently died in prison while awaiting trial. MIR deputy chief Oscar Eidwas was jailed in connection with similar ties in 1994; he was found guilty and sentenced to 4 years in prison in November 1996. Technically still under investigation, Paz Zamora became an active presidential candidate in 1996.

The 1990s: Gonzalo 'Goni' Sanchez de Lozada's rule and the Gas War

The 1993 elections continued the tradition of open, honest elections and peaceful democratic transitions of power. The MNR defeated the ADN/MIR coalition by a 34% to 20% margin, and the MNR's Sanchez de Lozada was selected as president by an MNR/MBL/UCS coalition in the Congress.

Sanchez de Lozada pursued an aggressive neoliberal economic and social reform agenda. The most dramatic change undertaken by the Sanchez de Lozada government was the capitalization program, under which investors acquired 50% ownership and management control of public enterprises, such as the Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) oil-corporation, telecommunications system, electric utilities, and others. The reforms and economic restructuring were strongly opposed by certain segments of society, which instigated frequent social disturbances, particularly in La Paz and the Chapare coca-growing region, from 1994 through 1996.

In the 1997 elections, Gen. Hugo Banzer, leader of the ADN, won 22% of the vote, while the MNR candidate won 18%. Gen. Banzer formed a coalition of the ADN, MIR, UCS, and CONDEPA parties which hold a majority of seats in the Bolivian Congress. The Congress elected him as president and he was inaugurated on August 6, 1997.

The 2000 Cochabamba protests

Between January and April 2000, a series of protests took place in Cochabamba against the privatization of the municipal water supply that was being pushed through on the recommendation of the World Bank and of the International Monetary Fund. In response, the Bolivian government declared martial law, and the repression made several victims. Protest leaders were arrested and radio stations shut down. However, after continuing protests and civic pressures, the government finally rolled back the privatization on April 10, 2000, while Bechtel, owner of the Aguas de Tunari subsidiary, fled the country. It tried to depose a lawsuit requesting $50 millions before the ICSID (International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes), an international court dependent of the World Bank, arguing that it had, on its part, respected the contract. However, in January 2006, following an international campaign against it, the multinational firm accepted to drop the courtsuit. The Bolivian state had already paid $1 million in legal expenses Bechtel vs Bolivia, The Democracy Center, URL accessed on 14 March 2007 .

The 2002 presidential election

President Hugo Banzer resigned in August 2001, due to lung cancer. He was succeeded by his vice-president, Jorge Quiroga. In the 2002 elections, Sanchez de Lozada ran again, and narrowly beat NFR's Manfred Reyes Villa and the cocalero and indigenous leader Evo Morales of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, in an election claimed to have been tainted by clear signs of electoral fraud.

Several days before Bolivians went to the voting booths, the U.S. ambassador, Manuel Rocha, warned the Bolivian electorate that, if they voted for Morales, the US would cut off foreign aid and close its markets to the country. Morales nonetheless received nearly 21% of the vote, putting him only a couple points behind Sanchez de Lozada.

The Bolivian Gas War

Strikes and blockades first erupted in September 2003, with several deaths and dozens of injuries in confrontations with the armed forces. The Bolivian people, in particular the Aymara living on the Altiplano, protested against a state project to privatize the national gas company and sell natural gas to California via Chile. Bolivia has got the second largest gas reserves in South America after Venezuela.

Sanchez de Lozada resigned under pressure from protesters, fleeing the country to the United States and his vice-president, Carlos Mesa, took over with a promise to address the demands of the protesting majority. However, he resigned on 7 March 2005 in face of mounting protests, unable to resolve the crisis.

In May-June 2005, Mesa tendered again his resignation. In a hastily convened session of the Parliament in Sucre, Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze, President of the Supreme Court, became president on the night of June 9, 2005. Political agreements were reached to modify the Constitution, and allow the full renewal of Parliament, simultaneously with a Presidential Election, on December 4, 2005.

The 2005 election and the Evo Morales administration

The deterioration of the political system contributed towards the rise of a loose confederation of indigenous social movements, the MAS and others parties, with the head of the MAS, Evo Morales, a former cocalero, as leader. In the elections of December 2005 Evo Morales and MAS obtained a comfortable victory reaching 54% of the electorate's votes, becoming the first Native Bolivian president in history.

In March 2006, president Evo Morales announced the increase of the minimum wage by 50%. However, six Bolivians workers in every ten are part of the informal economy, thus limiting the extent of such a legally mandated increase in wages.

On May 1, 2006, Evo Morales announced that he had signed a decree nationalizing most of Bolivia's natural gas fields, which many indigenous Bolivians had demanded for years. Federal troops were sent in to occupy the gas fields and take back control from foreign companies that same day. Many were operated by Petrobras, Brazil's largest energy company, and this political development was expected to strain relations between Morales and Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. On October 29, 2006, the Morales government signed agreements with eight foreign gas firms including Petrobras, to give the Bolivian national gas company a majority stake in the gas fields, bringing the nationalization to completion.

See also

History of Bolivia

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