Fighting for Prosperity: Reflections on the Crisis and Politics of Poverty in Bolivia*
McNeish, John-Andrew, Ibero-americana
After five years of protest in which many protesters and police have been killed or injured, public building burned, roads blocked, and two national presidents ousted from power, the national elections in 2005 mark what many in Bolivia hope is an end to political unrest and a return to peaceful democratic process. It must be realized, however, that these are uneasy hopes that are tempered by conflicting concerns and expectations. The successful campaign and winning of the presidency by the Movement for Socialism (MAS) and its controversial leader, Evo Morales, have generated new questions both in and outside the country about the direction and viability of the country's new government. While the new government is celebrated by popular and principally marginalized sectors of the country's population for its pledge to secure for social spending, larger profits from the nationalization of the ownership of the country's oil and gas deposits and to end the war on drugs in the country's coca growing regions, foreign donors and interests look fearfully at the possible wider regional ramifications of the new administration's "left-wing" program for political change. As such, it is clear that although the fighting in the streets has stopped, serious political and social conflicts over what constitutes prosperity and democratic government remain in and beyond Bolivian borders.
In this paper it is my aim to outline and discuss these political and social differences. By drawing on continued research in the country since 1997 and a range of secondary media and academic sources I will demonstrate that these differences are at the root of recent political conflict, and a cause of the continued growth of poverty in the country. As such the paper refers back to key events in a longer political history in Bolivia that starts at the beginning of the 1990s. This is a history in which, in contrast to Bolivia's contemporary image as a country overwhelmed by conflict, it was previously characterized by the World Bank and other international organizations as one of the world's "good practice" examples of participatory democratic reform and pro-poor policy. In looking more closely at this history we see the introduction of reforms that transformed the economy and political structures, and that ostensibly sought to secure social justice in the country. At the same we also see a rising gap between rich and poor and an increasing number of people and civil society organizations that are not only dissatisfied with their level of political representation, but lack the opportunity to take part in and directly influence key aspects of political and economic decision-making.
I highlight here the conditions responsible for creating such a gap between policy and practice. I also argue that while this situation can be explained as a result of structural incapacities and internal prejudices in national politics, its persistence must also be connected to a series of prejudices and contradictions within international development policy and institutions. A key aim of this paper is then to underline, to a greater extent than existing academic writing, the role of conservative policy thinking in generating the frustrations that spilled over in the form of protest. I highlight that within and beyond Bolivia there exists a political culture that while praising democratic participation, multiculturalism, and pro-poor reform, in practice acts to limit and discredit the generation at the grassroots of initiatives aimed at these goals at the local and national levels. I argue that it is because of the conservatism of thinking at both the national and the international levels that whilst many voices and alternatives could be heard in contemporary political debates in Bolivia, too few of them were listened to until protest and recent elections forced the leading parties from power.
I further outline what these voices and alternatives are, and in making these observations seek to further echo the cosmopolitan warning that "[w]e cannot both want democracy, on the one hand, and yet, on the other, rule out certain choices, on traditionalist grounds, because of their 'foreignness'" (Sen, 2004:53). …