- Cycles of Reform: Placing Evo Morales’s Bolivia in Context
In October 2003, a wave of popular protests forced the resignation of Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Suddenly, Bolivia became illustrative of the limits of neoliberalism and the rise of new social movements. The rise of Evo Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party and his 2005 election as the country’s first self-described indigenous president confirmed this view and triggered an explosion of scholarly interest in Bolivian politics. Studying the political, economic, and social transformations unfolding in the country, many cited Bolivia as an example of the “left turn” in Latin American politics, while others saw in Bolivia an illustration of the transformative potential of social movements when coupled with indigenous politics.
Although anthropologists and cultural studies specialists had long shown interest in Bolivia, this burst of scholarly attention from political scientists was a [End Page 229] welcome change. With the exception of the late Donna Lee Van Cott and a handful of others, few paid much attention to Bolivia’s political developments after the flurry of excitement around the transition to democracy in the 1980s.1 The new generation of research is beginning to bear fruit in the publication of two single-authored books on political economy, Andreas Tsolakis’s Reform of the Bolivian State and Jean-Paul Faguet’s Decentralization and Popular Democracy, and a collection edited by Adrian Pearce, Evo Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia. Together, the three volumes place Bolivia’s political transformation in context by examining the historical processes that preceded the rise of Morales and the political and economic environment within which his government continues to operate, as well as the broader implications and consequences of the new MAS government. They situate Bolivia within a “historical institutional” perspective (though many authors would not describe their own work this way) that sees the state as a central arena and/or unit of analysis.
In contrast to the triumphalism that frequently accompanied works with a focus on social movements, these books underscore two important realities: First, even prior to the election of Evo Morales the Bolivian state had undergone significant socioeconomic and political reforms that had significant tangible and beneficial results. Second, Morales and his MAS party have had to maneuver within domestic and international contexts that not only created new opportunities but also imposed constraints that help explain why Bolivian policies remain generally consistent with those of previous governments. All three books also emphasize that the election of Morales and the coming to power of his MAS party is a critical juncture in Bolivian politics with significant implications for domestic development and international relations.
A good place to start is the country’s political economy. After all, despite dramatic changes in Bolivia’s domestic politics and foreign relations, the underlying realities of the country’s economy remain unchanged. The extraction of mineral resources—particularly natural gas, but also traditional mineral resources, which saw a recent resurgence—continue to define the country’s economy. Moreover, unlike Argentina, Brazil, or even Chile, Bolivia lacks the economy of scale necessary to sustain industrial production. As one Bolivian economist pointed out, the basic extractivist economic model remained little changed from 1952 through 2009, despite significant ideological differences in governments.2 The reality is that so long as the country continues to depend on mining exports as the primary engine of development, any Bolivian government—including the MAS government led by Morales—remains trapped in the structures of dependent development.
Both Tsolakis’s Reform of the Bolivian State and Faguet’s Decentralization and Popular Democracy address...