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Volume 63 / Social Sciences

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS: BOLIVIA


JOSÉ ANTONIO LUCERO, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Temple University

BOLIVIA GREETED THE 21ST CENTURY with waves of popular mobilizations and great political uncertainty. The triumphalism of the mid-1990s concerning market and political reforms has given way to a dramatic sense of crisis and contention. The material reviewed here reflects this transition and the importance of the year 2000 as an inflection point in Bolivian political history. Works published before 2000 seem antediluvian artifacts of an earlier, relatively stable political system; works post-2000 reflect the anxiety and energy unleashed by a series of social "wars" over water, natural gas, and neoliberalism.

The works reviewed for this volume of HLAS address the following general concerns: political decentralization, social movements and contentious politics, political parties and democracy, and the role of women in politics. Most are academic works but some are primary documents providing the voices of important political protagonists.

Decentralization continues to attract great attention. Unlike much of the scholarship of the 1990s, the majority of the more recent work is negative and critical in tone, though in different ways. Moving in one direction are those who object to the municipal bias of decentralization and urge that greater attention be given to departmental governments (items #bi2005002102#, #bi2005002053#, and #bi2005002100#). Heading in a different direction are those who suggest that the reforms have not been participatory or democratic enough and urge that more be done to address clientelism and institutional weakness (items #bi2005002109#, #bi2005002097#, and #bi2005002058#). In a third, more radical direction go those like Alvaro García and Felix Patzi, who see decentralization laws as yet another form of domination and neocolonialism (items #bi2005002084# and #bi2006003801#, respectively). For a particularly balanced view, see the work of Gustafson (item #bi2006003800#), who explores the tensions in both state projects and in social responses to them.

Overall, there has been growing scholarly concern over the increasingly contentious nature of Bolivian politics. There are many works that see the Cochabamba Water War of 2000 as the first of many battles against neoliberalism, followed by conflicts over the exportation of natural gas, and more generally the "neoliberal model." The massive protests that removed presidents from office in 2003 and 2005 are seen by some scholars as democratizing and decolonizing forces (items #bi2005002084#, #bi2005002091#, #bi2006003801#, and #bi2006003850#). Others see these protests as threats to democracy, governability, and development. These scholars suggest that the "new left" is really a nostalgic and dangerous throwback to old corporatist times and that the radical vision of democracy is an inherently anti-liberal form of politics (items #bi2005002093# and #bi2006003803#). A particularly interesting view of these dynamics is presented in the study coordinated by Quintana on the unstable role of the police in Bolivian politics (item #bi2005002062#). Though there are various ideological differences, much of the scholarship is of high quality and provides especially rich materials on the role of indigenous people in politics. Van Cott, for instance, uses the 2002 election to illustrate the political strength of indigenous people and the dramatic changes in the party system (item #bi2005002214#).

Political parties and elections themselves represent a large area of scholarly production. The 2002 election was less remarkable because of the candidate who won, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who returned to power, than for the candidate who came in a close second, cocalero leader and MAS candidate Evo Morales. His near victory accompanied the collapse of traditional parties like those of Hugo Bánzer, Carlos Palenque, and Max Fernández (all deceased). The 2002 election marks another important inflection point, one that is still being actively theorized. A particularly helpful synthetic work is by Calderón and Gamarra (item #bi2006003764#). The embattled executive is in need of great scholarly attention, though two works provide historical treatments of the Bolivian presidency (item #bi2005002083# and #bi2005002103#). The most notable element in both volumes is that Carlos Mesa, the president removed from office by protests in 2005, is a contributor. One imagines he has more to contribute to this debate now, after his fall.

Finally, there is a small, but important body of literature on the role of women in politics. The best contribution is that of Velásquez and her colleagues who offer a nuanced and ethnographic view of local women officials (item #bi2005002078#). They show how informal rules and norms can often undermine the intended empowering effects of formal rules like electoral quotas for women. Greater analytical and theoretical attention should be placed on the role of gender, as opposed to the role of women, in Bolivian politics. A clear understanding of such social constructions as gender, race, and ethnicity will shed light on the ongoing reconstruction of citizenship in post-multicultural and post-neoliberal Bolivia.


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