Bolivia - Politics
1997-2005 - Political Instability
There had been democratically elected governments in Bolivia since 1982 following decades of political instability and military coups. Since then, the military played no significant part in Bolivian politics, but political instability continued to slow the country's development. As a result, over there had been a gradual rejection of traditional political parties and a swing towards the left.
In the 1997 elections, Gen. Hugo Banzer, leader of the ADN, returned to power democratically after defeating the MNR candidate. The Banzer government continued the free market and privatization policies of its predecessor. The relatively robust economic growth of the mid-1990s continued until regional, global, and domestic factors contributed to a decline in economic growth. Job creation remained limited throughout this period, and public perception of corruption was high. Both factors contributed to an increase in social protests during the second half of Banzer’s term.
Rising international demand for cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s led to a boom in coca production and to significant peasant migration to the Chapare region. To reverse this, Banzer instructed special police units to physically eradicate the illegal coca in the Chapare. The policy produced a sudden and dramatic 4-year decline in Bolivia’s illegal coca crop, to the point that Bolivia became a relatively small supplier of coca for cocaine. In 2001, Banzer resigned from office after being diagnosed with cancer. He died less than a year later. Banzer’s U.S.-educated vice president, Jorge Quiroga, completed the final year of the term.
In the 2002 national elections, former President Sanchez de Lozada (MNR) again placed first with 22.5% of the vote, followed by coca union leader Evo Morales (Movement Toward Socialism, MAS) with 20.9%. The MNR platform featured three overarching objectives: economic reactivation (and job creation), anti-corruption, and social inclusion.
A 4-year economic recession, difficult fiscal situation, and longstanding tensions between the military and police led to the February 12-13, 2003, violence that left more than 30 people dead and nearly toppled Sanchez de Lozada’s government. The government stayed in power, but was unpopular.
Trouble began again in the so-called “Gas Wars” of September/October 2003, which sparked over a proposed project to export liquefied natural gas, most likely through Chile. A hunger strike by Aymara leader and congressional deputy Felipe “Mallku” Quispe led his followers to begin blocking roads near Lake Titicaca. About 800 tourists, including some foreigners, were trapped in the town of Sorata. After days of unsuccessful negotiations, Bolivian security forces launched a rescue operation, but on the way out, were ambushed by armed peasants and a number of people were killed on both sides. The incident ignited passions throughout the highlands and united a loose coalition of protestors to pressure the government. Anti-Chile sentiment and memories of three major cycles of non-renewable commodity exports (silver through the 19th century, guano and rubber late in the 19th century, and tin in the 20th century) touched a nerve with many citizens. Tensions grew and La Paz was subjected to protesters’ blockades.
A series of confrontations occurred between military and police forces and protesters. Large numbers of protesters were blocking major highways, preventing travelers from returning to La Paz, and threatening the capital’s access to gas and presumably other needed things. Over two months, during the course of police and military operations to restore order, some people were killed and more were injured. Violent confrontations ensued, and security forces under the intentionally killed 67 and injured over 400, primarily members of Bolivia's indigenous Aymara communities.
On 17 October 2003, large demonstrations under the leadership of Evo Morales forced Sanchez de Lozada to resign. Sanchez de Lozada fled to the United States in 2003, after riots and clashes with security forces resulted in the death of 60 people, known as the “Black October massacre” ending de facto his presidential term. The United States granted him asylum, while the Bolivian government was still demanding the US extradite him.
Vice President Carlos Mesa Gisbert assumed office and restored order. Mesa appointed a non-political cabinet and promised to revise the constitution through a constituent assembly, revise the hydrocarbons law, and hold a binding referendum on whether to develop the country’s natural gas deposits, including for export. The referendum took place on July 18, 2004, and Bolivians voted overwhelmingly in favor of development of the nation’s hydrocarbons resources. But the referendum did not end social unrest. The year 2005 saw further political instability with the resignation of President Carlos Mesa, who had taken over from Goni. In May 2005, large-scale protests led to the congressional approval of a law establishing a 32% direct tax on hydrocarbons production, which the government used to fund new social programs. After a brief pause, demonstrations resumed, particularly in La Paz and El Alto. President Mesa offered his resignation on June 6, and Eduardo Rodriguez, the president of the Supreme Court, assumed office in a constitutional transfer of power. Rodriguez was appointed with a specific mandate to hold general elections within 6 months. Rodriguez announced that he was a transitional president, and called for elections within 6 months.
Elections took place on 18 December 2005. Evo Morales won the presidential election with some 53.7% of the valid vote (although voting in Bolivia is obligatory, 21.72% of the voting population either did not vote or cast null/blanc votes).
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