from Center for Preventive Action and Latin America Studies Program

Bolivia on the Brink

Council Special Report
Concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contributions to current policy dilemmas.


Three years ago, the Council on Foreign Relations launched a commission to examine U.S. policy in the Andean region and the Colombian conflict.

The result, Andes 2020: A New Strategy for the Challenges of Colombia and the Region, outlined a comprehensive new regional policy designed to move toward a better balance of “guns versus butter.” Unfortunately, violence continues to plague the region to this day, most recently in Bolivia, where the controversial actions of President Evo Morales and the organized opposition have increased polarization and the likelihood of sustained social unrest.

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Diplomacy and International Institutions

This new Council Special Report, sponsored by the Council’s Center for Preventive Action, addresses the ongoing social, political, and economic challenges underway in Bolivia and presents a clear set of recommendations for the U.S. government. Bolivia on the Brink, written by Eduardo A. Gamarra, professor and director, Latin American and Caribbean Center, Florida International University, argues that with ethnic, regional, and political tensions in Bolivia on the rise, Washington’s current “wait and see” approach to the Morales government is no longer adequate.  Instead, Gamarra encourages the U.S.government to redirect its policy toward Bolivia with an emphasis on preservation of democratic process and conflict prevention.

In order to do so, the report recommends the use of more carrot than stick in the near term, encouraging Washington to continue to work to develop relations with both the Bolivian government and opposition. Gamarra argues that excluding Bolivia from critical U.S. benefits such as trade, military training, and development assistance would only push the Morales government closer to Cuba and Venezuela, feed anti-American sentiment in the region, and increase the likelihood of sociopolitical turmoil. Calling U.S. leverage too limited to unilaterally influence the direction of the Bolivian government, the report also urges Washington to work with regional states to persuade all Bolivian parties to work within the democratic system to address the nation’s many challenges.

The result is a valuable contribution to any consideration of U.S. policy in the region, one that merits attention from regional specialists and foreign policy generalists alike.

Download the Spanish translation of this report [PDF].

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Diplomacy and International Institutions

Letters in Response to Bolivia on the Brink

Letter One: H.E. Mario Gustavo Guzmán Saldaña, Ambassador of the Republic of Bolivia to the United States

Letter Two: Response from the author, Eduardo A. Gamarra

Letters posted March 8, 2007.

H.E. Mario Gustavo Guzmán Saldaña

To the Author:

I read with alarm the Council on Foreign Relations report, Bolivia on the Brink [Council Special Report No. 24, February 2007], by Eduardo A. Gamarra. The picture it paints of a country at the edge of social and political disintegration is a vastly different country than the one that I know. In fact, the first year of the Morales administration has probably had more political and economic stability than Bolivia has seen in most of the last decade.

The author paints an overwhelmingly negative picture—he has almost nothing positive to say about our government's first year, despite numerous achievements of promised reforms and economic advances (see below). It is also inaccurate and misleading in a number of areas.

I also found the paper to be condescending and patronizing in its attitude toward our government, with a certain lack of respect for Bolivia's sovereignty, and for its democratic process. The author's implication that our President, Evo Morales, ordered the murder of four people in 2000 is particularly outrageous and offensive.

The paper begins by stating that the "policy agenda" of the government "has exacerbated political, ethnic, and racial schisms in Bolivian society." Let me say without exaggeration that this attitude recalls the southern white opponents of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, during the U.S. civil rights movement, when they accused King of "stirring up trouble" and aggravating racial tensions in a previously "peaceful" but white supremacist south.

It was not the present government that created the "political, ethnic, and racial schisms" of Bolivia, which have evolved over more than five centuries; rather it is the present government that is trying to do something to resolve these divisions, and the injustices that cause them. That is what the Bolivian people voted for, and what the government is attempting to deliver. I can't recall any government in modern history, including Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal in the United States that did not encounter resistance from some sectors of society when it tried to implement a reform program for the benefit of the majority. Bolivia is no exception.

But the Bolivian government has, wherever possible, sought compromise and conciliation with its opponents. In the voting for the Constituent Assembly, for example, the government deliberately offered voting rules that increased the representation of the second—place finisher—the largest opposition party, Podemos—far beyond its representation in the electorate. With only 15 percent of the vote, thanks to these special voting rules, Podemos received 24 percent of the delegates. Dr. Gamarra neglects to mention this, instead accusing the government of having "polarized Bolivians more than ever before" by insisting that a simple majority would be sufficient for approving various articles of the constitution. According to Gamarra, this "contradicted the laws and the spirit that led to the election" of the constituent assembly. But this is not true. The law did not require a two-thirds majority for approval of individual articles.[1] And although the government would like to have been able to achieve this, after more than six months it was clear that such a requirement would not allow the assembly to complete its work within the legal time frame. In the end, a compromise was reached that would allow those articles that are not approved by a two-thirds majority to be approved by referendum. The government's proposal for a simple majority was not, as alleged by Gamarra—who in this paper assumes bad faith on the part of almost everything the government does—a violation of law but an effort to break a deadlock that was preventing the Assembly from achieving the results that the Bolivian people voted for.

The author's lack of respect for the democratic process is also evident in his statement—without offering any evidence—that Bolivia's participatory democracy has "the potential to threaten liberal democracy" or representative democracy. We do not share this view that participatory democracy is a threat to representative democracy; rather it makes representative democracy more representative. It is, of course, a threat to the representative democracy of the old order, where people could vote, but a small, corrupt oligarchy made all the decisions that mattered. But that is what the people voted to change, and our government welcomes their participation in bringing about these changes.

The author's economic analysis is also ill-informed and inaccurate. For example, he states that "Bolivia has one of the highest per capita dependencies on foreign funds in the hemisphere. As of 2005, for example, 11 percent of Bolivia's national budget depended on donor assistance and external financing." This is no longer true, and it is not clear why the author would have relied on such out-of-date numbers when current data are readily available. For 2006, Bolivia ran a budget surplus of more than $600 million, an amount much larger than the 11 percent of the budget that was previously funded by foreign donations and financing.

The author does not seem to appreciate the significance of this change, which is a result of the Bolivian government getting an enormously better deal for its hydrocarbon resources. Since 2005, government revenue has increased by 6.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). In the last year alone, it has increased by 3.4 percent of GDP, or more than $340 million. For comparison, imagine if a U.S. government were elected and in just one year increased government revenue by $450 billion, wiping out the U.S. federal budget deficit and running a surplus. This would be considered a major achievement, but Gamarra barely notices this as he focuses on everything that could possibly go wrong in Bolivia.

The government has begun to direct these resources to benefit poor people, building rural health clinics, approving expanded health care for the elderly and children, and financing a major land reform, which has begun with the redistribution of some 200,000 square kilometers of state-owned land. These merit little regard from the author, who sees the land reform as "likely to generate serious, perhaps violent conflict" and "shake private sector investments in Bolivia"—"no matter how the Morales government pursues this issue over the next few months."

The author also misunderstands Bolivia's recent economic history. In evaluating the economic reforms of the post-1982 era, he misses the profound economic disaster that took place: By 2005 the economy was still below its 1982 level of per capita GDP. This amazing and unprecedented long-term economic growth failure was one of the main reasons that Bolivians demanded change.

Gamarra also describes the cancellation of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank debt in 2006 as "a surprisingly generous move." He appears to be unaware that this cancellation was the result of ten years of the government's compliance with a large set of quantitative financial and structural benchmarks under the IMF/World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. The Bolivian government had compiled "a long track record of sound macroeconomic policies and substantial structural adjustment," according to the IMF and World Bank and therefore, despite the poor economic results from these policies required by the IMF and World Bank, Bolivia had met the conditions for debt cancellation under the HIPC initiative.[2] The debt relief was neither surprising nor more generous than that granted to other HIPC countries.

The author's contention that "Morales's once soaring popularity has declined substantially since the government adopted controversial approaches to land reform, drug eradication, and natural resource management" is now seriously out of date. It seems the crisis that Gamarra thought (hoped?) would lead to disaster has passed. The latest Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado poll shows the president's approval rating at 65 percent, one of the highest in the hemisphere.[3] This one data point refutes the author's whole thesis that Bolivia is "on the brink" of any kind of political meltdown. Countries that suffer from a crisis in governance do not have presidential approval ratings of this magnitude. By comparison, President Alejandro Toledo of Peru polled in the single digits before he left office, and President Bush currently has approval ratings in the low 30s.

There are many other distorted and/or misleading comments in the text. The section on trade is exaggerated, for example: Bolivia's preferences under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), while significant, accounted for less than 2 percent of the country's total exports in 2006.

But the worst part about this paper is its lack of respect for Bolivia's sovereignty. The author calls for the United States to "take a leading role in initiating" a process by which Chile, Argentina, and Brazil are encouraged to "approach the Morales government and the opposition in an effort to bring all sides to the negotiating table." Perhaps Dr. Gamarra is unaware, but we already have all sides at the negotiating table: We have a sovereign and democratic government, which includes a democratically elected constituent assembly. We are quite capable of working out our differences within existing democratic institutions, and do not need the intervention of other countries to ensure that our democracy produces a result suitable to Dr. Gamarra. His call for foreign intervention looks rather transparently like an attempt to bolster support for those who would simply refuse to accept the results of electoral democracy.

And just exactly what does he mean by recommending that the United States use "current trade and development assistance" to "bolster the independence of the military"? In a democracy, the military is not an independent institution but responsible to the elected government. This sounds rather ominous and threatening.

So, too, do the various threats sprinkled throughout the paper, that Gamarra recommends the United States employ if desired results from the government are not obtained: "then there is no guarantee of continued U.S. aid"; "sanctions such as bilateral aid cuts, vetoes of loans from international financial institutions, and exclusion from market access agreements could be enacted"; "the United States can consider revoking aid" (page 33); and "in the short term, the United States should resist the temptation to impose sanctions in order to give regional diplomacy a chance to succeed."

Regional diplomacy is not necessary, and Bolivia is not "on the brink" of anything but the economic and social reforms that its citizens voted for, in the hope that the corrupt, discriminatory, and antidemocratic system of the past, which marginalized and excluded so many of our people, could be replaced by a government of the people. The author seems to have forgotten what Bolivians voted for, and what democracy looks like. His paper is unhelpful in the extreme.

H.E. Mario Gustavo Guzmán Saldaña
Ambassador of the Republic of Bolivia to the United States

Eduardo A. Gamarra Responds:

Nearly twenty years ago, a U.S. ambassador sent me a four-page, single-spaced letter to complain to my university president, my coauthor and mentor James Malloy, and my department chair about my characterization of U.S. policy and favorable treatment of the Bolivian cocalero movement. Then, in 1990, after my testimony to Congress against the militarization of the drug war in Bolivia, the then Bolivian ambassador in Washington and several government ministers wrote to accuse me of distorting facts about the country's commitment to the drug war. When my book Entre la Droga y la Democracia was published in 1994, the U.S. ambassador personally intervened to block my participation in a U.S. Agency for International Development project because it was "unhelpful." Finally, in 2001, President Hugo Banzer's ambassador to Washington made an early morning phone call to "encourage me" to change an interpretation I had given to a Washington Post reporter. I point to all of these incidents because ambassadors must do their jobs to push particular government agendas. Ambassador Guzman is also doing his job.

This report has generated both extensive praise and criticism from all sides. A few people with close ties to the Bolivian government have sent me congratulatory notes. A larger number of people linked to the opposition have questioned my "overly generous" evaluation of President Evo Morales's first year in office. This is not the first time in my academic career that I find myself in the middle—exactly where I would expect to be. My attempt at a middle-of-the-road position is captured in the following excerpt: "In this light, the most salient threat to democracy comes from the unwillingness of all parties involved to exercise good faith in a process of constitutional change demanded in the 2005 elections by all Bolivians." The point of the report is that in this polarized environment the center has disappeared and is in dire need of reconstruction. My hope was that my piece would contribute to this goal and to the consolidation of a tolerant and pluralist democracy in Bolivia.

I will concede to the ambassador that some of the figures (such as foreign aid dependency) have indeed changed as a result of the very favorable macroeconomic environment that prevails in Bolivia. It is also true that President Morales's poll numbers continue to be high and rebounded in February. The report was in press when the Apoyo Poll was released. I stand by the analytical points made throughout the report. For example, I continue to be concerned about the nature of the president's project to concentrate political power and generally do away with the plural nature of Bolivian democracy. Dozens of statements by President Morales, Vice President Alvaro García Linera, and other cabinet ministers could be cited in support of my interpretation about the course of Bolivian democracy.

Along these lines, I find it interesting that Ambassador Guzman's note casts the core critique of the Council Special Report in the context of a whole set of liberal American credentials. U.S. liberalism—even New Deal Liberalism—has been about enhancing individual rights and limiting the potential threat of the state to basic individual civil liberties. Yet in contemporary Bolivia, the government and its followers are pushing a collectivistic agenda that characterizes opponents as racists, oligarchs, or U.S. collaborators. I would urge an appreciation of the basic American politics texts to understand the centrality of individual rights to contemporary liberalism even in the context of advocating for a strong, socially committed state.

In making the case about the democratic credentials of Bolivia's current president, Ambassador Guzman insinuates that Morales has achieved the same stature as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (A passage also suggests a comparison with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.) Others have already compared him to former South African president Nelson Mandela. Whether he can achieve a life's work that compares with that of any of these great men remains an open question at this early stage in his government. Ambassador Guzman could do our shared home country a great service if he could help President Morales and his followers understand that both King and Mandela were concerned less with getting even with their oppressors and more with making their people full participants in open democracies that guaranteed due process and basic human rights.

Along these lines, not only the government's statements, but its actions over the past thirteen months raise serious issues about its commitment to individual rights. The wholesale violation of due process in several cases, for example, should be of great concern to Ambassador Guzman, who as a journalist was not shy about criticizing previous governments when individual rights were in jeopardy. Even Amnesty International has expressed concern over impunity in Bolivia in recent days. In short, by act of omission, the ambassador's comments disregard developments such as packing the supreme court; calling for the dismantling of the constitutional tribunal; distributing government jobs en masse to Movement for Socialism supporters; violating habeas corpus; and sending angry mobs to battle opponents, among numerous other actions, are legitimate ways to construct participatory democracy.

Curiously, Ambassador Guzman makes little reference to the policy suggestions to the U.S. government. The suggestions urge the United States to grant Bolivia everything, despite the Morales government's actions and statements. Suffice it to say that the policy suggestions are made with Bolivia in mind and not a government of any given ideological slant. Instead of examining the policy suggestions as an attempt to contribute to the country's development, the ambassador accuses me of violating Bolivian national sovereignty. This response is even more curious if placed in the context of the recent visit to Washington of Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca and previous visits by Vice President Garcia Linera to secure the majority of the policy suggestions made in the report.

It is sad that Ambassador Guzman's comments resort to personal characterizations such as the attempt to equate me with a racist white Southerner. To one who has spent an entire career advocating racial equality, conflict prevention, and basic respect for human rights, this inference is simply unacceptable. I am proud of my alignment with social democracy and U.S.-style liberalism. The ambassador's comments appear directed at casting me as just another white guy attempting to defend the interests of a privileged racist few that subjugated Bolivia's indigenous masses. Like Ambassador Guzman, I am a middle-class mestizo Bolivian. Unlike the ambassador, who left a promising career in journalism, I have never worked for any Bolivian government and am proud of my written record, which clearly points out the flaws of every Bolivian administration over the past two and half decades. I expect to continue to do so in the future and welcome the debates that might ensue.


  1. ^ Ley Especial de Convocatoria a la Asamblea Constituyente, 6 de Marzo de 2006.
  2. ^ International Monetary Fund and the International Development Association, "Completion Point Document for the Enhanced Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Initiative," 2001. (.pdf)
  3. ^ Angus Reid Global Monitor, "President Morales Climbs to 65 percent in Bolivia," February 26, 2007.

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