Hesitant Democratization

The Development of Bolivian Democracy as Shaped by Perpetually Unmet Needs

Lorien D. Johnson
18 May 2006

PLS 205: Comparative Politics –
Dr. Gabriel Ondetti
Missouri State University

Bolivia took significant steps toward securing a democratic tradition in the last decades of the twentieth century and through its entrance into the twenty-first. The improvements made do not yet signal, however, a lasting system of democracy. Bolivia is a nation trapped in a cycle of perpetually unmet needs. Political instability reaps no rewards, and a weak rule of law provides no course for developmental improvement. The fundamental political tactics employed by its political leaders and impassioned masses remain firmly within the historical pattern of deep discontent, the flawed pursuit of an ideal, and a frustrated political collapse.

Bolivia’s progress towards democratization in the late 1970s and early 1980s is often hailed, but was rather a development of limited and perhaps short-lived improvement. The progress of the period was born of its socio-political history, and failed to sustain a life outside of that historical cycle. Years later, the presidential election of 2005 brought the election of Evo Morales, leader of the Movimiento al Socialismo, to the Bolivian presidency with the clearest electoral majority experienced in Bolivia since the alleged restoration of democracy in 1982 (A Leftist Landslide: 2005). The circumstances and tactics that promoted his election, coupled with Morales’ actions since taking office in 2006, indicate a continuation of classic Bolivian political behavior.

Political Cycle of Unmet Needs

Abraham H. Maslow proposed in 1943 a psychological hierarchy of needs (Maslow 1943). These five needs were divided into two broad categories: basic needs and higher needs. Maslow’s basic needs include those that of physiological provisions, safety, love, and esteem. His higher need was of actualization. Actualization, and its sub-categorical manifestations, is the ultimate human goal and is therefore the driving motivator for all other actions. Motivated to achieve actualization, humans attempt to fulfill their basic needs. The political manifestation of actualization is democracy. Amartya Sen deemed democracy a universal value, that which has “intrinsic importance in human life”, an “instrumental role in generating political incentives”, and a “constructive function in the formulation of values” (Sen 1971).

The universality of democracy as a higher need, a motivating value, takes different shapes due to varying cultures and histories. Robert A. Dahl identified two key components of democracy: contestation and participation. Only the full and secure provision of both components could create a true democracy. Howard J. Wiarda emphasized that democracy in Latin America possesses a definition, and subsequent implementation, that differs significantly from the democracy of western culture. Dahl’s definition of democracy is procedural, dependent upon whether the political system maintains its two key components. Latin America, however, finds “democratic legitimacy” from “several sources” (Wiarda 1995, 130). A Latin American political regime that achieves power through traditionally undemocratic means may achieve democratic legitimacy by carrying “out what their own populations viewed as democratic programs after their seizures of power (Ibid.).” These definitions and components of democracy are profoundly present in the history of Bolivia as the motivating higher need that drives political pursuits.

The people of Bolivia are particularly aware of their many unmet basic needs. They also recognize democracy as a higher need that they strive to achieve. With this knowledge, Bolivians have historically considered democracy the panacea to all of their unmet needs. When any democratic political action is taken and the remaining human needs are not quickly resolved, Bolivians become frustrated with the lack of conclusive progressive. This results in two general courses of action. If a populist government of the left is in power, then political and social interest groups grow restless and their support becomes fragmented, which weakens the government. That weakened government is then susceptible to a political conservative coup that is sensitive to the middle and upper classes’ higher need of actualization. Alternatively, if a conservative government is in power, the lower classes (labor and indigenous) use political and violent demonstration to ultimately institute a leftist government that will aid their basic needs. Each course of action reverts to the inability of government to adequately meet both the basic and higher needs, and the cycle begins anew.

The militaristic history of Bolivia contributes to the perpetuation of this cycle. Military juntas of both leftist and conservative ideologies dominated throughout much of the twentieth century. Military power provided governments with the particular ability to limit democratic contestation. When demonstrations of contestation rose, either in the form of violent protest or political support of an alternative party, the militaristic governments responded with force to limit such options. The democratic events of the late 1970s and early 1980s were the culmination of the twentieth century’s manifestations of the militarized political cycle of unmet needs.

History of Democracy in Bolivia

On 21 July, 1952, universal adult suffrage was granted to Bolivian citizens aged twenty-one years or older and married citizens were eligible to vote at the age of eighteen. Literacy tests and property restrictions were also removed from suffrage accessibility. The reform was a significant expansion of democratic participation in Bolivia. The suffrage reform was instituted by the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), the then-leading political party. Victor Paz Estenssoro, founder of the MNR, said of the reform,

“Democracy, in its profoundest sense, signifies government of the majority for the majority. […] [G]overnment originating in the votes of the majority, which consequently represents the ideals and serves the interests of the majority. […] Universal suffrage […] has established the only means capable of guaranteeing the functioning of a true democracy (Alexander 1958, 81).”

Prior to this legislative reform, no more than six percent of the Bolivian population was granted access to electoral participation (Morales 2003, 144). With the reform in place, many indigenous people were granted the right to vote. The change in suffrage access allowed a wave of indigenous voting to become a more direct political voice. The newly franchised voice of the indigenous population cried out for the provision of their basic needs, and when these needs were not swiftly met the support for the MNR began to fragment.

As the party fragmented due to the immense indigenous vote and the MNR’s continued failure to supply the promises to supply basic needs, military leaders found the desire and opportunity for extended control. The lack of organized political support from the indigenous voters left the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario weakened. In 1964, vice president General Rene Barrientos Ortuno led a coup to overthrow the MNR. Tightly controlled elections in 1966 installed Barrientos as president (Morales 2003 167).

Barrientos spoke fluent Quechua, one of the two primary indigenous languages in Bolivia, and thoroughly integrated himself with the rural, indigenous communities of Bolivia. To this end, he initiated the Military-Peasant Pact. The Pact agreed to provide military protection of agrarian reform in exchange for loyal support for the military and defense from “leftist subversion” (Morales 2003, 169). The intention was to limit the extent to which the peasants were willing to support political groups of the left. This Pact was implemented further by the personal allegiance given by rural leaders to Barrientos and the military, rather than to the government of Bolivia or a leading political party. This relationship excluded competing political parties and repressed labor unions to the point of detriment, and Barrientos found his leadership in question. He responded by removing most contestation, first by the establishment of a single, official state party, and later through military rule (Morales 2003, 171). The clear violation of the middle and upper classes’ higher needs for democratic actualization weakened Barrientos’ administration. As he tried to coordinate his public support from those sectors of society, the indigenous peasants began to realize the fragile nature of their influence.

Despite his efforts, the harsh and exclusive leadership of Barrientos led to violent unrest. Che Guevara became active in leading a violent guerilla uprising of disgruntled labor participants. Guevara was unskilled in and unprepared for Bolivian warfare, and was defeated. The military leadership of Barrientos’ regime was temporarily strengthened, but the labor uprising was not fully quieted. Bolivians were ill at ease, and the accidental death of Barrientos in 1969 led to multiple regime changes between conservative and leftist movements, leaving “the country in a vacuum which was not to be definitively sealed for over two years” (Dunkerley 1984, 156).

Hugo Banzer Suarez ultimately succeeded in achieving a firmer hold on the political system of Bolivia in 1971. A conservative, he allied himself with the leadership of the United States and Brazil, and attempted to “demobilize and control the popular sectors” (Morales 2003, 187). He limited political dispute by ceasing elections and depoliticizing the military. “The compliant nature of the Banzer government in its relations with the U.S. and Brazil was complemented by its severe treatment of dissidents inside the country” (Dunkerley 1984, 206). Although his freer international trade policies benefited the upper classes, the lack of democratic actualization wounded his support. The internal economic controls prevented the benefits from reaching the lower classes. As a result, neither sectors’ needs were met by Banzer’s government.

Banzer’s stern regime, legacy of human rights violations, and a wounded economy led to his forced resignation in 1978. The swift influx of political parties and leaders created intense and dubious elections in 1978 and 1979. The election of 1978 was the first Bolivian election in twelve years. Unfortunately, “the fraud was so blatant that it defeated its own purpose” (Dunkerley 1984, 247). Frustration with the results led to an attempted coup, and subsequently to the election of 1979. Yet again the election was inconclusive, and Congress could not resolve the issue. The military entered the conflict as well, which led to a fifteen day massacre known as the “Massacre of All Saints” (Morales 2003, 192). The people of Bolivia responded with a national labor strike.

Lydia Gueiler Tejada was elected by the Bolivian Congress as interim president in 1979. Ultimately, “the military had lost its political dynamism and the organized working class was still too disorientated to provide a coherent alternative” (Dunkerley 1984, 251). The historical cycle of militaristic and leftist political powers had decayed to an extreme extent. One last individual, General Luis Garcia Meza, was unwilling to admit political defeat. When the election of 29 June, 1980 brought a high level of participation but no again clear majority, Meza attacked.

General Meza remained in power for just over one year, and his regime was incredibly conflicted (Dunkerley 1984, 292). Meza committed extensive human rights violations until extreme political action and a democratic outcry forced his removal from office. Following a sequence of political upsets, the Bolivian Congress affirmed the results of the 1980 election. Once Meza was permanently expelled in 1982, a “democratic era finally dawned” (Wiara and Kline 2000, 338). In 1983, Hernan Siles Zuazo of the Democratic and Popular Unity party became the first legally elected civilian president of Bolivia (Morales 2003, 194). The year of 1985 held the election of Victor Paz Estenssoro to the Presidency, which was the first “peaceful transfer of powers between opposition political parties” in the history of Bolivia since Independence. The cause for democracy had progressed, but democratization was yet incomplete. The cycle of reoccurring political revolts had paused as the people of Bolivia actively sought a new and stable approach to achieve their higher need for democratic actualization. The democratic achievement was tentative, however, as their basic needs for survival had not yet been resolved. New trials for their democracy would shortly emerge.

Modern and Future Bolivia: Tentative Democracy

The Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS, first achieved significant political attention in Bolivia during the elections of 2002. Its presidential candidate, Evo Morales, was the close second for the presidency. MAS had been gaining support in anticipation of the election. The MAS platform is anti-imperialism and is specifically opposed to United States intervention. The platform states that “[I]nternal colonialism has failed in the construction of a modern nation state. […] The Andean and Amazonian cultures have triumphed over the foundations of Western culture” (Johnson 2006) During an interview in 2003, Morales stated that “capitalism is the enemy of the earth, of humanity and of culture. The US government does not understand […] [b]ut we will defend our proposals, our way of life and our demands with the participation of the Bolivian people” (Dangl 2003). Morales later referred to a dependencia relationship between the United States and Bolivia, by referring to the “U.S. government’s efforts throughout South America to eradicate coca as a strategy to keep Bolivia subservient to outside control” (Reel, Making Exploitation, 2005).

Evo Morales and the MAS gained political power through the use of protests, at times peaceful and at times violent. Morales said in 2005, “As long as people don’t have employment, health, education and housing, and until we nationalize our national resources, then protests will continue to be a force for change” (Reel, Bolivia, 2005). Prior to the election of Morales to the Bolivian Presidency, Rev. Sperandio Martinelly, who works in Morales’ home region, claimed that, “More than anything, I think people participated in the roadblocks because they were forced. People have told me that if they don’t show up once, MAS fines them. If they don’t show up three times, they get their land taken away. This is what Evo is like now. He used to listen. Now he’s like a dictator” (Ibid.).

Morales’ rise to political office was hastened by the indigenous peoples’ basic needs, and particularly as an outgrowth of two factors: the frustration regarding coca growth , and the 2003 and 2005 Bolivian Gas Wars. The United States has worked in conjunction with multiple Bolivian governments to limit the growth of coca. The laws and strategies used to this end have been disproportionately damaging to the poorest communities and cocaleros (growers of coca) of Bolivia. The political insertion of the U.S. into domestic agricultural policy, despite the international impact of that policy, created significant anti-American sentiment throughout the indigenous and other lower classes.

Immense resources of natural gas were discovered in southern Bolivia during the 1990s. Recent calculations of the resources reached $250 billion of proven gas (Grim 2005) Desperate to meet their basic needs, Morales’ MAS protested and rioted in October 2003, demanding the nationalization of the gas resources. The protests led to the eventual resignation of the Bolivian president, and his replacement President Mesa quickly promised a referendum on the gas question. In July of 2004 the Gas Referendum was held, in which a majority of the voting population (with 40% abstention) supported the future nationalization of gas (Hylton 2004). When only partial-nationalization policies were passed, MAS again led protests that resulted in the forced resignation of President Mesa on the 6 June, 2005. In December of 2005, Morales received an extremely clear majority in the presidential election.


Evo Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo have used the anti-U.S. sentiment and the peoples’ desire to meet their basic and higher needs to political advantage. The question of Bolivia’s future democracy remains unclear. The December election was, by all accounts, free of fraud and full of active participation. However, the use of intense protests that used both peaceful and violent methods indicates a willingness to use threatening means of political advancement.

Morales is a champion of indigenous rights and needs. A follower of Marxist political and economic principles, he considers it necessary to limit the economic means of the middle and upper classes through domestic and international policy. Following this policy approach will leave his administration vulnerable to the same needs demands of the upper classes that previous leftist governments have encountered. In order to sustain his power, Morales must moderate his policies. Moderation, and its slowed pace towards reform, risks the continued frustration of the lower classes. If Morales’ base support is too weakened, his power will fall under threat.

The Movimiento al Socialismo, and Morales, must act with care and restraint so as to avoid a violation of the Bolivian democracy. Morales seems particularly at risk due to his increasingly close relationship to Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Both Castro and Chavez, to differing degrees of visibility, have significantly limited democratic contestation in their respective governments. The protection of democracy in Bolivia will require a passionate internal devotion. Bolivians have struggled with the frustrations of their unmet needs, and a balance has yet to be found. The history of Bolivia issues many warnings, but few clear answers. Democracy in Bolivia is tentative, but is still dearly treasured in its multitude of forms.


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