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Bolivia: What is the fate of our democracy?


By Manfredo Kempff Suarez, ICEES


Are we better off than were 50 years ago? Half a century ago General Torres ruled, before that Ovando and then Banzer. All three were dictators with different tendencies. But was Bolivia, relative to its neighbors, better off than it is now? Of course, those were the times of the Cold War, of bloody confrontations between the left and the right. It was a time when the USSR was fighting with the United States for dominance in Latin America, the Soviets through their most advanced pawn, Cuba, a guerrilla seeder; and the USA using the armies, some of whose chiefs were trained at the School of the Americas. The former encouraged revolutionary warfare and the latter the doctrine of national security.


The conflict was defined. Alternately, the nations aligned themselves with one Bolivian power or another, regardless of what the citizens said in the streets and universities. And we say alternately because that is how the pro-Soviet left and the Pentagon right followed one another in power. The vote was worth little in Latin America in those years or was worth nothing, because popular street shouting was generally silenced by military marches. It was the time that I described, long ago, as “the guerrilla left and the barracks right.” None of them were right for democracy.


After half a century are we better off? Yes, we are better off in the sense that we vote almost every year, that there is freedom to express ourselves, that there are fewer tanks and the curfews have disappeared. But have we learned anything after living through those times? It gives the impression that when the USSR collapsed and we ceased to interest the gringos, there was a moment of moderation and progress. But then our politicians went crazy, became “stupid”, puffed up, felt they were owners of their world, convinced that the military could not touch them because of the international censorship of dictatorships. Now we are surrounded by privileged politicians who are allowed to rule, even if they are illiterate.


Since then we have lived a democracy of robbery and inefficiency. Our young people, those who are now 30 years old, have no notion of what Bolivia was like, and know only the true or false things that they hear, without much interest. And those who are 60 only dimly remember the last military dictatorship as a deplorable stage. They believe that they are living in the best of all worlds, that there can be nothing better than this pitiful mess of a democracy. But what they don’t know is that they are very far from living in a true democracy, that this system of government is tricky and that it is set up and invented for the most rogue to rule.


Populism, more to the left than to the right, has spread like a plague everywhere, especially on our continent. This is causing an alarming weakening of the legal systems. Even the most consolidated democracies like Chile’s are suffering the attacks of disgruntled mobs that devastate and burn everything they find, like the Mongolian hordes of centuries ago. Venezuela, once an envied nation, today is a territory of famine, violence and exile. Not to speak only of Bolivia, which has endured 14 years of inefficiency and corruption, look at our neighbors Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and now Colombia, all with different problems. And we do not know what will be the fate of gigantic Brazil, seething with poverty and discontent.


But it is Colombia and Peru that should concern the inter-American system the most. What happened in Colombia is an irrational subversion encouraged by the FARC and other armed groups, the fruit of decades of an irrational civil war. If Duque, to whom the abuses are attributed, is overthrown, or if Duque is relieved by the military, a “domino effect” could occur in Latin America while the helpless Western world looks the other way, feeling Latin America has become a uncontrollable daughter. The same would happen with Peru if Castillo wins, because after enduring the change of leaders every year, the Armed Forces. could take power as an act of responsibility. And let’s not talk about Chile, which, walking towards the election of a new Constitution, has dark clouds on its democratic horizon.


If democracy in our region does not show signs of efficiency and order, if it does not come out of the disrepute into which it has fallen, the solution for the disaster has to come. It is to be hoped that the years of elections of bad candidates, the denunciations of corruption, inefficiency and drug trafficking, will not again call the military to take over. If one country falls, the rest will fall.


Manfredo Kempff Suarez,  is a regular contributor to Bolivia’s Instituto, Ciencia, Economía,  Educación, y Salud  (ICEES)