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Bolivia - Introduction

WhipalaBolivia, surrounded by possibility, limps along as South America's poorest, least developed and most politically unstable country. All countries have their myths and dreams, which lend ballast to national identity and inform national vision and hope. But some countries rely more on such stuff than others do. This can probably be traced to unfulfilled promise, frustrated expectations and the sense that plain reality falls short. Dreams are therefore required as compensation.

As one of the hemisphere's poorest countries, yet paradoxically surrounded by a wealth of natural resources and untapped potential, Bolivia is a prime example. Beyond providing psychological solace for its seemingly intractable problems -- poverty and starkly uneven development in particular -- Bolivia's dreaming crosses a critical threshold, and serves a yet more ambivalent function. By distracting leaders from real-life challenges -- such as the need for jobs, almost always the top priority on any bottom-line list of local demands -- it often blinds them to the prosaic, essentially pragmatic steps that in most cases are best suited to confront them.

Bolivian culture has been defined by its geographical layout, the predominant indigenous population and the mix of ancient traditions with European cultural elements that were imported during the period of Spanish colonialism. The amalgamation of all these elements have produced a rich and varied culture unlike any of the rest of the world. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Nonetheless, it has great geopolitical importance in South America due to its geographical position at the center of the continent and its potential impact on the stability of the entire region. Bolivia has been for centuries one of the countries with the largest indigenous population in the area. Almost half of the population identifies with the native peoples -- mainly the Aymara and Quechua -- who consider the moderate use of coca leaf as a sacred element in their culture.

Politically, Bolivia is a very complicated country, with on the one side Morales┤ ┤Movement to Socialism┤ and on the other the capitalist entrepreneurs in the Eastern Lowlands. Bolivian history before the 1952 National Revolution was marked by the development of divided regions, each with an own highly developed culture and identity. Geographical obstacles such as mountains, desserts and forests, had consequences. Since independence in 1825, society had been dominated by the white, Spanish-speaking, Europeanized elite, which controlled economic and political power and exploited the Quechua and Aymara speaking peasants. The mestizo and usually bilingual urban lower classes, lower middle class, and rural freehold farmers occupied an uneasy intermediate position.

Bolivia is prone to social unrest that includes violence and disrupts transportation and distribution networks.The majority of civil disturbances were related to domestic issues, usually workers pressuring the government for concessions by marching or closing major thoroughfares. Over the year 2011, there was little to no political violence targeted towards foreigners. The dependence of commerce on a few key thoroughfares in the country makes interdepartmental commerce vulnerable to protests and blockades. During the last quarter of 2011, several major interdepartmental thoroughfares were blockaded for a total of 15 days.

The rate of conflict grew substantially in 2011 as various protestors pressed the government for resources, or to stop certain infrastructure projects. There were on average 15 strikes, protests or demonstrations each month in La Paz. While protests and blockades are frequent, they only periodically affect commerce. Less than a half-dozen conflicts in La Paz directly affected distribution of essential services or travel in and out of the city for periods greater than 24 hours during 2011.

While today's Bolivia is not the Bolivia of 1952, the demands of Bolivia's indigenous majority remain largely unchanged. The populist rhetoric of the 1950's is the core of Morales' campaign. Land distribution, nationalization of natural resources (this time hydrocarbons), and social inclusion are the big issues, just as they were over fifty years ago. As in the '50's, the Bolivian state is weak, and people are ready for drastic change.

Regionalist visions are the strongest in the ┤media luna┤, the eastern low-land part of the country which has the shape of a half moon. The departments of the half moon are Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija. Though regionalism revolves around claims of deeply rooted historical particularity, it also thrives on accomodations with transnational sources of wealth and power. One reason regions are demanding autonomy is the difference between what they contribute to the state and what they receive in return. In the case of Bolivia┤s richtest region, Santa Cruz, it contributed 42 percent of the country┤s tax revenues but receives just 22 percent of public expenditure in 2007.

The view of La Paz is that much of the East┤s wealth is ill-gotten, and its businessmen are unpatriotic. The ideological part of Bolivia rejects the globalised and Westernized world vision of modernization. This part of Bolivia admires the indigenous Wiphala flag, the flag of the seven colors of the rainbow, more that the Bolivian flag. Who believe in the state of Kollasuyo, the indigenous state, founded on indigenous customs, habits and community laws, which takes as its basis the Ayllu and totally rejects the structure of Western liberal democracy that involves economic liberalism, the dominance of market laws and private property. The Ayllu is structured around a system of community life where there is no money. Barter is used and community members are looked after following the principle of solidarity.

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