- Bolivia’s Silent Revolution
Students of Latin America have long viewed Bolivia as the land par excellence of political instability and military coups. The violence that accompanied the country’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s enhanced this negative image, and nearly obscured from memory the extended periods of peaceful civilian government that Bolivia has enjoyed, first from 1880 to 1930, and then again from 1952 to 1964. The years from 1978 to 1982 were a time of severe political turmoil, economic catastrophe, and state disintegration. Two constitutionally chosen provisional governments were overthrown, and no fewer than five military governments held power. “Bolivianization” became a byword for political and social decomposition.
The reversal of this dismal course was accomplished in no small part because of lessons learned during the failed 1982–85 administration of President Hernán Siles Zuazo, who had twice before served as Bolivia’s chief executive and who acceded to the office for the third time in 1982 when the military handed power back to the Congress that had been elected in 1980. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Bolivia underwent a political and economic sea change—a silent revolution, really—that laid the foundations for a redefinition of the state and the erection of a distinctive political system. The change, moreover, not only greatly enhanced governability and political stability, but made these conditions self-enforcing in ways that could not even have been imagined at the start of the transition process.
As Scott Mainwaring has pointed out, Latin American politics often [End Page 142] features a “difficult equation” in which presidentialism is uneasily coupled with fragmented multipartism and proportional representation (rather than with a two-party, majoritarian system, as in the United States). 1 The resulting immobilism has perennially cast a shadow over prospects for democratic institutionalization in the countries of the region. Bolivia, happily, seems to have found a way to escape the pattern of noninstitutionalization leading to delegative democracy that Guillermo O’Donnell discerns in Brazil, Peru, and Argentina. 2
Although Colombia and Venezuela experienced coalition governments at various times from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s and Chile has had them as a result of preelectoral bargaining since the return of civilian rule in 1989, the case of Bolivia remains unique in the region. Although not yet mature enough to be available as a model for imitation, Bolivia’s system of interparty bargaining, postelectoral coalitions, consensual practices, and congressional election of the chief executive promises to have profound implications for the theory and practice of representative democracy in Latin America. Bolivia’s economy has now gone from “basket case” to “showcase” after the successful implementation of structural adjustment reforms in a democratic setting. Inflation went from 25,000 percent in 1985 to 96 percent a year later, and then subsequently plummeted to 3 percent. The GDP, which had begun falling in 1978, grew 2.7 percent in 1987 and about 3 percent in 1989. The national budget deficit, equal to more than a quarter of GNP in 1984, fell to 3 percent by 1988. Exports recovered to $813 million in 1989, after falling as low as $500 million in 1985. Bolivia’s polity has not yet attracted as much attention—scholars usually cast it as an anomaly if they discuss it at all—but that may change. 3
Bolivia’s years of dramatic and conflict-ridden transition were also years of great learning leading to institutional reforms. These reforms in turn set the stage for an increase in consensualism and a decrease in the prevalence of confrontational politics. Although confrontation has not disappeared, a number of major issues have been resolved by two-thirds votes of both houses of Congress, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
After assimilating the hard lessons of the Siles Zuazo years and their failed left-wing populism, Bolivia began to turn itself around. The first step was the successful implementation of the market-based New Economic Policy (NEP) starting under the administration of President Víctor Paz Estenssoro (1985–89). This was all the more remarkable because Paz Estenssoro and his Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) had...