Bolivia in the 1980’s

Bolivia in the 1980's

Eleven presidents, of which only two elected, and numerous coups d’état give the synthetic picture of Bolivia after 1974. Formal democracy has always been fragile and parties, although very numerous, have had little representation. The main actors until 1982 were the military and the trade union. The Armed Forces, in whose bosom every senior officer feeds the ambition to become president, have often played a hegemonic role, in the absence of a strong bourgeois class. In these phases it was the COB (Central Obrera Boliviana) – which gathers workers, peasants, students and employees – the only organization with resistance capacity.

With 50% of the employed still working in agriculture, a strong mining nucleus, a state that became an entrepreneur in 1952, the Bolivia experienced, at the end of the seventies, a serious crisis linked to the decline in foreign financing and the fall in the prices of pond. The national product recorded negative growth rates while inflation, at acceptable levels until 1981, went to 2177% in 1984 and 11,291% (20,000% according to unofficial estimates) in 1985. Only since 1986 has this trend reversed. until the two-digit annual rate is brought back. At the same time, the illegal trade in coca, of which the country supplies 50% of world consumption, gained in importance. For more than a decade there have been strong suspicions of connivance at all levels of the state and military apparatus in its traffic. For Bolivia 2007, please check

Characterized by a climate of repression and the illegality of parties and trade unions, the presidency of H. Bánzer Suárez was shaken, starting in 1977, by the mobilization of the workers’ movement. Forced to allow the return of political and union leaders, Bánzer called elections for June 1978. The numerous fraud against the UDP (Unión Democrática y Popular), led by populist leader H. Siles Zuazo, and the wing of the MNR (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario) which was headed by V. Paz Estenssoro, made it essential to cancel the consultation. On 21 July General J. Pereda Asbún, who had failed to legally win, became president following a coup. In November another coup d’état replaced him with General D. Padilla. After a march for democracy and a general strike, new elections were held in July 1979 and saw the victory of Siles Zuazo. Complex parliamentary negotiations led the President of the Senate W. Guevara Arze to the highest office, pending further consultations. In November, Colonel A. Natusch Busch came to power, who had the support of some parties but unleashed a ferocious repression. Popular resistance limited the experiment to just 15 days. The military returned to the barracks but conditioned the choices of the interim presidentL. Gueilers Tejada. The austerity measures adopted unleashed intense social unrest which ended with some changes to them. In July 1980 the elections saw the advance of the left.

To prevent the constitutional outcome, a coup brought General L. García Meza to the presidency. The first months were of violent repression, with arrests and killings (by paramilitary groups) of politicians and trade unionists. Foreign debt grew out of all proportion. In September 1981 García was replaced by General C. Torrelio Villa, who freed the currency market and started hyperinflation. In July he was replaced by General G. Vildoso Calderón. In September 1982, a general strike for a return to democracy convinced the military to respect the election results of 1980.

The rise to power of Siles Zuazo in October coincided with the worsening of the economic crisis: caught in the grip of foreign debt, tax evasion, corruption and inefficiency of the public administration, natural disasters that devastated the countryside, deepening the shortage of goods and accelerating the rate of inflation, opposed by the international financial system, the government had no room for maneuver, especially as the social unrest grew in intensity.

The popular movement, aware that the return to democracy had been achieved thanks to its action, did not intend to pay the prices of a crisis hitherto associated with military management. The cyclical difficulties, however, made an investment policy in the public sector impossible. Faced with the absence of significant changes and plans to restore the economy, protests followed one another, conditioning the government and culminating in the 18-day general strike of December 1984. Faced with attacks from various fronts, Siles accepted the request made by members of the COB to shorten his mandate by one year.

The elections of June 1985 marked the defeat of the left (1/4 of the votes compared to 1980). Bánzer won the highest number of preferences, closely followed by Paz, who was chosen by Parliament as president. The agreement between the two was formalized in October through the Pact for Democracy, which also served to define the distribution of power. In May 1986, a new electoral law took space away from smaller parties. Economically, a few days after his election, the leader the revolution of 1952 enacted a series of liberal-style measures, recommended by the International Monetary Fund, which drastically reduced the role of the state in the economy and reintroduced strict market laws. The maneuver gave significant results but with very serious social costs. The COB reacted with a series of strikes which were defeated by resorting to a state of siege and the deportation of trade unionists.

In the second half of the 1980s there was an attempt to channel political life into the institutional system, eliminating those real and somehow alternative powers that had characterized Bolivian reality for decades. This was possible due to the weakening of the COB which, after having represented the main strength in the fight against dictatorships, played a leading role in the disintegration of the Siles regime.

In reality, the historical primacy of the trade union over the party provided the former with a great capacity for obstruction, feeding illusions of pan-syndicalism that did not translate into propositional vocations. The victory of the conservative front was the mirror of the crisis of the left and of the union, whose difficulties also depend on the decline of the mining sector (its traditional strong point) and on the reduction of production activities in favor of the coca economy. Beyond the observation that the parties do not yet seem to show signs of renewal, anchored as they are to caudillism of the individual characters, the drug problem constitutes the main crux of a possible political evolution. US suggestions to destroy plantations appear unrealistic in a country where 200,000 farmers depend on them, earning an above average income from them.

The drug phenomenon (3 billion dollars a year against 4 of GDP) has attracted the progressive attention of the government. In 1986, a plan was launched to eradicate the cultivation of 50,000 hectares of coca, a plan that failed also due to the lack of financial support from the United States for alternative development programs in the affected areas. All this while the social situation of Bolivia recorded symptoms of sharp deterioration in the five-year period 1985-89 due to the neoliberal policy that caused a 37% decrease in real wages, while unemployment rose to 20% and underemployment to 60%..

The presidential elections of May 1989 saw three people paired, around 23-25% of the votes: Bánzer (ADN), G. Sánchez de Lozada (MNR) and J. Paz Zamora (MIR). Since none of the candidates obtained an absolute majority, the Parliament chose, in August, Paz Zamora, who had received the lowest number of votes. Founder in 1971 of the Guevarista MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionária), a fierce opponent of Bánzer until 1985, Zamora had experienced hiding and imprisonment in the 1970s. His movement carried out a profound doctrinal revision by shifting to social democratic positions and entering the Socialist International. Zamora’s rise to the presidency is the result of an agreement with Bánzer that led to a coalition government and the equal division of ministries between ADN and MIR. The government of the country is believed to have remained de facto in the hands of Bánzer, who is headed by the most important ministers. The presence of Bánzer (compromised with drug trafficking) and his men seems to weaken the fight against coca, which with the help of the USA led to the destruction of 6500-8000 ha in 1990. It is estimated that there are 100,000 ha on coke.

Bolivia in the 1980's