Bolivia: When Democracy Spills into the Streets

Source: The Democracy Center

Here is the question I most get from outside observers to Bolivia these days: Will the violence, such as that in Sucre last month over the ‘we want to be the capital" issue, escalate to a point that it overtakes everything else? Is Bolivia headed toward civil war?

I think it would be a good thing if everyone calmed down a bit and looked at the current situation here from a broader perspective.

Bolivia, whatever else one thinks, is going through a historic political transformation that was and is inevitable. It has been – for decades or centuries, pick your starting point – a nation in which a majority that is indigenous and impoverished has been governed politically and economically by a small minority that is different in almost every respect. If you want to see the contrast in a nutshell, think Jorge Quiroga vs. Evo Morales. There is a pretty wide gap between a US-educated, former IBM executive married to a blonde Texan and a coca-growing former llama herder who never set foot in college. I’m not disparaging one or the other, just noting the difference.

It was inevitable that one day political leadership would pass from the old elite to a new majority, and so in December 2005, with Evo’s landslide victory over Quiroga, it did. That raised high hopes among those new to power and deep fears among those losing the power they were accustomed to.

Since that election, the real question in Bolivia has been this one: Can a political transformation as profound as this one be contained within the four walls of standard politics or will it spill into the streets? And it if does spill into the streets, will it overwhelm the ability of standard politics to secure a working compromise and way forward.?

When political conflict has spilled into the streets, as it did here in Cochabamba in January or did in Sucre more recently, newspapers and Blogs alike become filled with declarations that the end of democracy is near. But is that so?

First, anyone who anticipated that Bolivian politics would ever stop being played out in the streets is really foolish. People taking to the streets to press their political demands is an integral part of Bolivian culture. While street politics is mostly associated with the left, the right has shown its willingness to play the same game as it challenges Morales. Frankly, a nation with an abundance of street politics is probably a lot more democratic than a nation with an abundance of political apathy.

Second, a good deal of the street protest since Evo’s election is about various political forces using ‘street heat’ to strengthen their negotiating hand in the regular political process. Those who took to the streets to demand a 2/3 vote on all issues before the Constituent Assembly (the full constitution already being subject to a 2/3 vote) did so not to oust the government but to pressure it. Morales and MAS are now organizing big street actions of their own in Sucre for next week. Much of this can be interpreted as muscle flexing by political rivals, still basically committed to resolving the conflict through dialogue – hopefully.

It is also worth noting an interesting study on Bolivian conflict released last week by Fundacion UNIR in La Paz. Researchers there combed through 15 years of Bolivian newspapers and calculated the number of political and social conflicts under each of the most recent Presidential administrations. Under the Morales government, the figure came in at an average of 26 conflicts per month.

That sounds extraordinarily high, but it is actually a lower level of conflict, according to UNIR, than under Carlos Mesa (51 per month), Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in his second term (34 per month) and Hugo Banzer and Jorge Quiroga (29 per month). Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in his first term had the lowest level of conflict (13 per month). UNIR concluded that the current conflicts also last a shorter period than under previous governments and, at the moment, do not pose a threat to democratic governance.

So how will we know when crowds on the street signal something more than muscle flexing or democracy by other means? How will we know if it represents the abandonment of regular politics and Bolivia falling into the dangerous territory of the unknown? I think there are two ways Bolivia could turn this way.

That abyss could come if one or more of the major political forces involved – be it the opposition or the government – decides it has more to gain by abandoning ‘regular politics’ than the risks that abandonment involves. It is still hard for me to believe that either side is so stupid to believe this. Conspiracy theorists (who seem to abound these days) should keep in mind that both Evo and the opposition benefit a good deal from stability and have a good deal to lose from chaos.

The other way street conflicts could threaten democracy is if the stalemate among the players on the inside becomes so stuck that people lose hope and patience in the process. That is the risk that political leaders are playing with here, on both sides.

In word, democracy has many defenders here in Bolivia. Everyone from the civic committee of Santa Cruz to the highland Aymara proclaim that they are defending democracy. Democracy, however, is also supposed to be a process by which we are able to resolve our differences in peaceful ways. Whether all sides here are committed to that aspect of democracy is the question that remains unanswered.

The Democracy Center, based in Cochabamba Bolivia and San Francisco California, works globally to advance human rights through a combination of investigation and reporting, training citizens in the art of public advocacy, and organizing international citizen campaigns. If you like the Blog, consider becoming a subscriber to The Democracy Center’s free e-newsletter by sending us an email at

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