The Promises and Limitations of Revolutionary Change in Bolivia: A Book Review of Evo’s Bolivia

Marc Becker

Reviewed: Evo’s Bolivia: Continuity and Change, by Linda C. Farthing and Benjamin H. Kohl. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014).

Linda Farthing and Benjamin Kohl recount in their new book on contemporary Bolivia the story of a rural community that voted almost in its entirety for president Evo Morales but complained that subsequently nothing had changed. Yes, a community member acknowledged, they now had a road, a clinic, a school, electricity, and cell phone coverage. But visa restrictions meant that fewer tourists arrived than before Morales took office, which reduced their income from the sale of weavings. 

This story is representative of a theme of promises and limitations of revolutionary change that runs through the aptly named book Evo's Bolivia: Continuity and Change. While some scholars such as Jeffery Webber are highly critical of the shortcomings of the Morales administration and others such as Federico Fuentes ardently defend the government, Farthing and Kohl attempt to balance the gains of the Morales administration with the restrictions of making the necessary profound changes to society. They conclude that over the short term realizing the long-term objections of radicalized social movements remains difficult. Nevertheless, they argue, “the chaotic and often contradictory Morales administration” is definitely preferable to “a return to business as usual under global neoliberalism” (161).

Farthing and Kohl do not hesitate to acknowledge the achievements of the Morales administration, nor do they shy away from criticizing the failures of the government. A list of the major achievements indeed are impressive: a new constitution, a significant redistribution of land, poverty reduction, education reform, literacy campaigns, expansion of medical services, industrialization, and environmental legislation.

At the same time, government failures have led to growing critical voices on the left complaining of a concentration of power in the hands of a few leaders, corruption, and a failure to break from an extractive economy.

The issue of continuing reliance on the logic of an extractive economy carries a particular political currency in Bolivia. In his classic work Open Veins of Latin America, Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano employs the image of the exploitation of the incredibly rich silver veins in Potosí draining the wealth out of the country. The result is the familiar resource curse, with a colony such as Bolivia with the richest natural resources in the world becoming the poorest South American country. Capitalism excels at under-developing peripheral economies.

Farthing and Kohl argue, as many others have, that it simply is not possible to break from “five hundred years of an extraction-based economy in under a decade” (159). While everyone acknowledges that profound transformations are exceedingly difficult, labor leaders such as the late activist Domitila Barrios de Chungara and Aymara leaders such as Felipe Quispe question whether the government is even attempting to engage in fundamental structural changes that would move the country away from the logic of neoliberalism. The face of the government has changed, these critics charge, but the behavior and mechanisms of managing the state has remained the same.

What a post-extractive government would look like remains a highly contentious issue. Bolivia’s Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca has talked about how a capitalist economy is based on “living well” through material accumulation, but counterpoised to this is an Indigenous alternative of “living better” that responds to a different logic. His proposal has led to much talk in recent years of the “buen vivir” or “vivir bien,” with its linguistic counterparts “suma qamaña” in Aymara and “sumaj kausay” in Quechua.

Farthing and Kohl devote an entire chapter to the topic of buen vivir, but what this cosmological shift would look like remains unclear. Farthing and Kohl frame the issue in terms of wealth transfers and increased access to education and health. Some people talk about the buen vivir in terms not unlike standard discussions of sustainable development, and others treat it as a synonym for socialism.

Some Indigenous critics charge that both capitalism and socialism are predicated on the values of modernization that require the exhaustion of natural resources. In Bolivia, these debates most visibly came to the surface with the government proposal to build a road through the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). What difference does it make, these critics charge, to have a socialist government if the end result is the same: the destruction of the planet in pursuit of economic growth.

Other than for some fringe elements and intellectuals sitting comfortably in their ivory towers, few people want to return to a primitive existence or voluntarily give up the benefits of modernity. Happiness in and of itself is not a sufficient replacement for material comforts. Slogans and vague ideas of decolonization are no replacement for the implementation of substantive policies that address these pressing issues.

How to engage in a fundamental transformation of an economy without triggering disruptions and conservative reactions that would lead to a collapse of the entire political project is a conundrum that has long plagued the left. Farthing and Kohl depict the Morales administration as a transitional stage that will lead to more profound changes. Even so, disillusionment among Morales’ social movement base with his political project continues to grow even as his personal popularity remains very high.

In Evo’s Bolivia, Farthing and Kohl engage in a probing analysis of these pressing issues that are critical to the survival of our planet. The result is a successful, thoughtful, and compelling book that is written in a fluid and accessible style. The narrative is interspersed with interviews the authors conducted across Bolivia. As a result, the book achieves an admirable balance of providing an excellent entry point for those with little background in Bolivia as well as key insights for scholars and activists with a long history in the country.


Marc Becker teaches Latin American history at Truman State University. He is the author of Pachakutik: Indigenous movements and electoral politics in Ecuador (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011) and Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador's Modern Indigenous Movements (Duke, 2008); co-editor with Kim Clark of Highland Indians and the State in Modern Ecuador (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007); and editor and translator with Harry Vanden of José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011).

Republished from Upside Down World

Bolivia Charts Its Own Path on Coca

Samuel Oakford

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 26 2014 (IPS) - This week, the U.N. reported that coca cultivation in Bolivia fell nine percent last year, and a massive 26 percent in the past three years.

Two mid-altitude regions – Yungas de La Paz and the Cochabamba Tropics – account for nearly all cultivation in Bolivia and both areas saw significant reductions in 2013. Remarkably, illegal cultivation in Bolivia’s national parks was cut in half, to only one thousand hectares.

“A very small country challenged the basic premises of U.S. domination and policy implications, and it succeeded." -- Kathryn Ledebur

The nationwide decrease, to an area of only 23,00 hectares, or 12 miles, is widely regarded as a laudable achievement, but overlooked is the fact that Bolivia’s success has come on its own terms – not Washington’s – and with vital cooperation from many of the country’s small coca farmers.

“Bolivia reduced the crop through eradication efforts, but also with the participation of coca growers and farmers,”Antonino de Leo, U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime’s representative in Bolivia, told IPS.

“They are doing this in a climate of participation and dialogue – they call it social control,” he added. “Not only does the government have a target for illicit cultivation, but it’s the very same as what farmers and the union of farmers have.”

After his election in 2005, President Evo Morales, himself the former head of the country’s Cocalero union, began negotiating with farmers and their unions, working to convince them that mutually agreed upon cultivation totals would mean higher prices and a sustainable income for tens of thousands of subsistence growers.

Indeed, last year, the price of coca in Bolivia, already higher than in neighbouring Colombia and Peru, rose a further seven percent, from 7.40 dollars to 7.80 dollars per kg.

While the total value of Bolivia’s coca crop fell from 318 million dollars to 283 million dollars, farmers for the most part no longer live in fear of having their livelihoods destroyed by the severe eradication efforts that were funded by the U.S. and characterised drug policy in the Andean nation for decades.

A militarised response favours criminal gangs and armed factions and leads to a concentration of illicit wealth among those groups. In Bolivia, the annual coca allowance of one catousually 1600 square metres – is seen as a sort of minimum wage, rather than a bonanza for a small elite.

Unlike in Peru and especially in Colombia, where forced eradication, fumigation and seizures are still the preferred method of handling illegal coca production, farmers in Bolivia allow officials to visit and measure their mountainside fields – measurements that are then verified by satellite data.

Because of this, data reported by the government closely match U.S. figures (they were identical in 2012), while the two sets of numbers can vary wildly in neighbouring countries.
“Nothing is done entirely without friction, but it has done away with cycles of protest and violence and the deaths of coca growers,” Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, told IPS. “There continue to be human rights violations, but in the past they would rip out all their coca and there was no plan for how they should eat in the meantime.”

In Colombia, the government destroys roughly 100,000 hectares every year. Because small farmers often have no economic alternative, they replant coca, and the cycle begins again.

Bolivia’s programme does have strict limits and well-defined geographic allotments for growing. Any plants found to be in excess of the cato or in areas not approved for cultivation are destroyed.

“Good practices show that in order to reduce illicit crops in a sustainable way and avoid the balloon effect, there is a need to combine eradication efforts with long-term participatory development programmes that create real opportunities for the farmers, and they need to be comprehensive,” said de Leo.

In 2008, Morales expelled U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg; the following year the Bolivian government kicked the DEA out the country, and drug funding from the U.S. ceased.

The moves were a precursor to a carefully planned re-working of Bolivia’s obligations under the U.N. convention system that governs global drug policy. In 2011, the country took the unprecedented step of withdrawing from the 1961 convention on Narcotics Drugs, but the following year re-acceded – with the stipulation that Bolivia be allowed to maintain a legal domestic market for coca leaves.

The decision was accepted by the overwhelming majority of member states, who accepted that coca was a traditional plant used, without abuse, by millions of Bolivians.

Like various other efforts, including marijuana legalisation in several U.S. states, the decision served to chip away at a uniform and prohibitionist legal interpretation of the conventions. But unlike Uruguay, Washington and Colorado, Bolivia has official approval from the international community.

“If 15 years ago someone asked what would happen to an Andean country that loses all U.S. funding, we’d be talking about Marines coming in and things falling apart, but none of those things have happened,” said Ledebur.

“A very small country challenged the basic premises of U.S. domination and policy implications, and it succeeded,” she added.

Last year, the U.S.government cited Bolivia’s withdrawal from the conventions when it decertified it for failing “demonstrably to make sufficient efforts to meet its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.” But in the same memorandum, authorities acknowledged the “pure potential cocaine production” of the country had decreased 18 percent in 2012.

While Bolivia may have made peace with its coca growers, it’s still the third largest producer of cocaine in the world. In 2013, the government destroyed over 5,000 cocaine production facilities and maceration pits and seized 20,400 kilogrammes of cocaine paste.

Fueling production in the Andes is the growth in demand in Brazil, today the second largest cocaine market in the world behind the U.S.

“As long as there is a solid demand for cocaine, it’s going to be very difficult to compete with coca – it will always be a very attractive crop,” said de Leo.

Though users are generally not criminalised for use to the extent in other countries, law 1008, a draconian, U.S.-influenced legislation signed in 1988 still underpins drug policy in the Bolivia. A lack of clarity in the law means a worker labouring inside a cocaine factory can be treated the same as a powerful “narcotraficante”.

Law enforcement efforts still tend to target the poorest members of Bolivia’s society. One survey found 60 percent of prisoners were earning less than 300 dollars every month before they were arrested.

“They pursue interdiction in a very traditional way,” said Ledebur.

Buoyed by his successes, Morales has announced a goal of further reductions in the coca crop, down to 14,700 hectares. To this point, curtailment has been sufficiently absorbed by growers, but greater cuts could run up against opposition. If farmers feel squeezed, Morales, the former coca grower, could find he’s bit off more than he can chew.

Bolivia: A glance at the most important achievements of the new economic model

Presentation by Luis Alberto Arce Catacora, Minister of Economy and Public Finance

Since 2006, under the direction of the President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia Evo Morales Ayma, we the Government and the people have worked designing a new State and a new economic model steaming from an analysis of the structural crisis of capitalism and from a commitment to change our reality up to then characterized by economic and social exclusion to most Bolivians since the colonization period. Exclusion got worse during the twenty years of neoliberalism before 2006. 

The New Economic Social Community Productive Model was built based on sovereignty of our economic policy. On these grounds, a historic decision about nationalizing the Bolivian hydrocarbons was taken, in accordance with the people’s mandate, adopted after overcoming neoliberal policies. 

By means of that important decision, the State began to recover the control over strategic sectors of the economy, which allowed us Bolivians to take control of the economic surplus previously deprived from us; and apply a policy of income redistribution through Conditional Cash Transfers programmes (Juancito Pinto, Dignity Rent, Juana Azurduy,) public investment, inversely proportional wage increases , and crossed subsidies among other measures.

Through the New Economic Model, we engaged in strengthening the role of the State that now directs the economy for the purpose of transferring the economic suplus -steaming from strategic sectors’-to income-employment generating sectors in order to articulate existing structures of economic organization in Bolivia (State, community, social, cooperative and private,) under the principles of complementarity, reciprocity, solidarity, redistribution, equality, legality, sustainability, equilibrium, justice and transparency. 

In the same vein, we recovered sovereignty on fiscal, monetary, financial and exchange rate policy in order put them to work for the economic and social development of the Bolivian people. Since 2006, every year we self-design our Fiscal-Financial Programming. Since then the fiscal policy is oriented to achieve growth with income redistribution , output incresing, industrialization, food sovereignty and job creation. We pursued the de-dollarization of the economy which was before highly dollarized; and we also transformed the financial system in order it to go along with the Government’s social objectives. The Government also enhanced and diversified the productive matrix. 

It is also important to highlight that because of the implementation of social and income redistribution policies, supported by higher levels of public investment; we managed to stimulate domestic demand for it to become the main growth engine, which is oriented towards developing productively and industrially our natural resources and eradicate the multiple dimensions of inequity and poverty. In this document, we describe the main achievements reached since 2006, because of the implementation of the New Economic Social Communitarian and Productive Model, which are outcomes from a collective effort to improve the quality of living and reach what we call the Vivir Bien (Live Well) for Bolivian people.

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