After the end of the cold war, qualified analysts foresaw the inevitable marginalisation of Latin America. It would be gradually absorbed by a globalisation led by the United States. However, the emerging multi-polar framework rearranged the global geopolitical balance allowing the continent to re-emerge. It worked out its own role, a clear break with the colonialist tradition of Latin America as the US’s “back yard.”
Bolivia is the least densely populated country of the sub-continent and the one with the highest percentage of indigenous population. It occupies a well-defined position in international questions, and has inverted the route that previously made it depend on the US. The failure of the Washington Consensus neo-liberal guidelines and the country’s grassroots political participation, which characterised the pre-Morales era, were instrumental in bringing about this new political cycle. In particular, there was true popular emancipation. Dating from the mid-nineties, when social movements, following protests and demonstrations, gained political ground, they were recognised by the institutions. This inaugurated what, in 1997, was National Dialogue, with deep repercussions on conducting politics in the country. This was the first experience of the shared preparation of an agenda of social problems based on four essential principles (opportunity, equality, justice, and dignity) and on bringing citizens closer to the institutions. This process culminated in the Law of National Dialogue. It institutionalised citizens’ political participation and created the premises for society to control state powers. Until then, they had been underrepresented.
There were two other changes in Bolivia. First, the popular mobilisation in 2000 against privatising water in Cochabamba. It was proposed by the Bzner government and ended up cancelling the disputed law.
Second, the protests in 2003 against the decision of Sánchez de Lozada’s government to export Bolivian gas through the Chilean port of Mejillones (avoiding the alternative route through Peru). The Bolivians considered this a one-sided concession to the Chilean government and a weakening of the historical dispute for Bolivia’s outlet to the Pacific Ocean. The protests forced the President to flee the country. Vice-President Mesa immediately took his place trying to calm things down through an apparent nationalisation. This was the first step towards Evo Morales’ ascent to power.
These two episodes are known as “the water war” and “the gas war.” They definitively altered the country’s political panorama, clearly marking the end of an administration identified with neo-liberal power and turning a new page in Bolivia’s history. This was confirmed in 2006 with Evo Morales’ coming to power. He is an Aymara Indian who, during the revolts, led the MAS (Movement to Socialism), distinguished for the vigour of its protests.
From the start, the President sought to interpret his people’s needs by uniting the idea of national interest with social change. He proposed that Bolivia act freely in the face of US imperialism and transformed the concept of race into political capital. His chief measures include: adopting the Presidential Decree on Hydrocarbons in 2006, The National Development Plan for a Good Life in a Bolivia that is Dignified, Sovereign, Productive, and Democratic in 2007, and the Constitution in 2009. He also established foreign relations with new emerging regional and international actors.