November 29, 2005
Bolivia: Failure of a Nation

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

Evo Morales leads the polls in Bolivia with one third of the electorate's favor. Morales, a leader of the coca-leaf pickers, is a radical and a collectivist in the ideological family of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro -- attributes to which he adds a dangerous ethnic tinge that borders on racism. His triumph will add all kinds of problems and apprehension to Bolivia's already catastrophic society.

He is followed in the polls by Jorge ''Tuto'' Quiroga, with 27 percent, and businessman Samuel Doria, with 13 percent. Both men are prudent, pro-Western democrats who believe in the market. Their combined votes easily surpass Morales'. Since there is no runoff and Doria is not expected to drop out, it's likely that Morales will win the Dec. 18 election and plunge the country into chaos.

Why is the nation committing political suicide? The answer came, indirectly, from data provided by Myles Frechette, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia: The Bolivian republic has systematically failed in something as essential as improving the living conditions of the majority.

Persistent poverty

Bolivia is South America's most stubbornly poor country. In the past half-century, Brazil has grown 350 percent; Chile, 200 percent; and Argentina, 75 percent. In turn, Bolivia has grown barely 1 percent. The Bolivians who will now cast their votes live in as abject a poverty as their parents did in 1980 or their grandparents in 1950. The amount of wealth they can create, per capita, is the same today as it was before the mythical revolution led in 1952 by Victor Paz Estenssoro.

The most obvious explanation points to the failure of the leading class. Considering the relatively small population (fewer than 9 million) with a literacy rate of more than 80 percent, the responsibility for this disaster inevitably falls upon the ruling elite. The politicians, primarily, were incapable of creating a social and judicial system where enterprises could proliferate, the educational system could improve and various ethnic groups could integrate with a greater degree of harmony.

The consequences of this election, if Morales wins, will rattle all of South America. Bolivia is the world's third-largest producer of coca, with almost 75,000 acres devoted to that accursed crop. The top producers are Colombia and Peru. With coca friendly Morales leading, Bolivia will soon head the list. That must worry Brazil, because it is the first destination of that Bolivian drug.

Violent outcome

However, as dangerous as the drug is a potential war against Chile. With allies such as Cuba and Venezuela, two brawler states, it is likely that Bolivia will try to recover, manu militari, the territory it lost to Chile during the War of the Pacific, 1879-1883.

The sum of all these tensions could make Bolivia so ungovernable as to provoke a violent outcome. Nor is it impossible to conceive a scenario where Argentina from the south and Brazil from the east are forced to send troops to pacify their neighbor in the face of growing breakdown and anarchy.

You can't govern so poorly for so long -- practically since the founding of the nation in 1825 -- and not expect that a definitive catastrophe won't eventually occur.

2005 Firmas Press

Carlos Alberto Montaner

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