Popular Participation Bolivian Style: Decentralizing Economic Power

Article excerpt

When President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the author of the 1985 draconian neoliberal reform which curbed Bolivia's hyperinflation, took office on August 6, 1993, few were willing to concede that his ambitious Plan de Todos (Plan for All) would succeed. One of the principal pillars of the plan was the notion of "popular participation," an innovative proposal to restructure Bolivia, Criticized by the opposition and highly praised by the international community, Sanchez de Lozada plugged along with his plan. In the past two years, while the rest of his Plan for All appears to have been bogged down, "popular participation" has begun to permeate all levels and corners of Bolivian society.


Following a massive media blitz on April 21, 1994, President Sanchez de Lozada succeeded in securing congressional approval for the revolutionary and controversial Popular Participation Law (PPL). The PPL divided Bolivia territorially into provincial sections, thereby putting the country under the political and administrative control of 308 newly created municipalities, which were endowed with provisional boundaries. The new municipal boundaries replaced 1,100 local governments.

Each municipality is now responsible for infrastructure and development related to education, health, irrigation, sports, culture, and local roads. Municipalities receive coparticipation funds (!.e., central government-controlled tax revenues) to fulfill these needs.

The law provides for the legal recognition of urban barrios and rural communities as Organinaziones Territoriales de Base (Territorially Based Organizations or TBOs) and establishes oversight boards known as romiles de agilancia (vigilance committees). These comittees are charged with planning projects and overseeing municipal governments. The PPL provides government funds and redistributes political power to the local level. According to World Bank economist Vicente Fretes-Cibis, "Other countries are now trying to decentralize, but Bolivia is the ioneer."


Bolivia's history of confrontational politics has frequently stood in the way of democratic governance. Social groups have relied on direct action protest, such as hunger strikes, blockades, work stoppages, marches, and takeovers of public buildings. Years of such behavior have led civil society to rely on these tools as the most significant form of political participation, eclipsing parties and the electoral arena. Since the transition to democracy in 1982, political parties on the national level have repudiated these methods, but local leaders and labor unions continue to rely upon these tactics to contest government action, especially the imposition of austerity measures and counternarcotics policy.

The stated goal of the Popular Participation Law is to improve the standard of living of the poor and traditionally marginalized sectors by incorporating them into the decision-making process, thereby curtailing direct action politics. A secondary goal of the PPL is to stamp out still existing traces of authoritarian behavior and replace it with a participatory democracy based upon consensus politics on al 1 levels of society, and government.

According to the 1992 Census, 70.5 percent of the Bolivian population is classified as poor, including 95.1 percent of the rural population. Bolivia has the lowest life expectancy (61.8 years in 1994), the highest infant mortality rate (81.4/1,000 in 1994), a population with the least years of schooling (4), and the worst human Development Index (122) of South America. Worse yet are indicators of internal inequality. For example, infant mortality in 1992 in urban areas was 62/1,000 compared to 100/ 1,000 in the rural areas; 81 percent of urban dwellers had access to potable water in 1992 compared with only 19 percent of rural population is 37 percent illiterate. Intraregional inequality and internal differences in standard of living have prompted migratory flows, both international and rural-urban in nature. …