Three distinguished British and Bolivian analysts discussed longstanding issues that have shaped Bolivia's social and political landscape at a November 7, 2008, seminar co-hosted by the Latin America Program and the Inter-American Dialogue. Scholars Laurence Whitehead, John Crabtree, and George Gray Molina, all currently based at Oxford University, explored historical ethnic and regional fissures as well as disputes about the distribution of political power and economic resources, particularly from the hydrocarbon sector. They also examined contemporary policy choices Bolivia faces in advance of a constitutional referendum scheduled for January 25, 2009.
John Crabtree, research associate at the Centre for Latin American Studies, Oxford University, outlined the structure of a recently-published book he co-edited with Laurence Whitehead, Unresolved Tensions: Bolivia Past and Present. Authors define six areas of longstanding tension in Bolivia. First, inherently divisive questions of ethnicity have generated identities of belonging/non-belonging that are merged with questions of class. Second, regionalism has been an issue that dates back to the nineteenth century and is tied to the control and distribution of rents from natural resource production. Crabtree highlighted the relationship between the state and society as a third area of tension. Bolivia has been described as a "swiss-cheese" state with an unequal reach and areas of strength and weakness. The issue of state-society relations became magnified with the Cochabamba water wars in 2000 as well as following with the election of Evo Morales in 2005. A fourth area of tension concerns constitutionalism and the relative balance between the protection of minorities and individual rights and "direct democracy." The fifth tension revolves around different strategies of economic development, particularly of natural gas and how to diversify Bolivia's economy away from its dependence on a single commodity. A final area of tension concerns Bolivia's relations with the rest of the world: how to relate to globalization as well as to such partners as Venezuela and Cuba versus other economic partners.
Laurence Whitehead, an Official Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, Oxford University, contrasted two sources of democratization in Bolivia. One current is legal/institutional, derived from a European colonial legacy and concerned with a gradual extension of the franchise and of rights. In contrast, a second source is mass-based, centered on direct mobilization and participation, particularly in the solving of local problems. Bolivia has not managed to find a workable equilibrium between these two dynamic processes, he said. The Constituent Assembly represents an attempt to re-found the republic and resolve the tension once and for all, but the processes are likely to continue, Whitehead predicted. The process of reform set into motion by President Evo Morales has been met with strong opposition, and unlike in Venezuela and Ecuador, opposition parties have a strong presence in Congress. Noting that complete breaks with the past are unusual, Whitehead indicated that the Morales government should learn from the failures of the MNR and the 1952 revolution. He also underscored the importance of building state capacity if efforts to "re-found the republic" were to succeed.
Bolivia's history informs its present political state, according to former United Nations Development Program official George Gray Molina, currently an Oxford-Princeton Global Leaders Fellow based at the Global Economic Governance Programme at University College, Oxford University. He described the October 21, 2008, agreement between political parties as "historic," pointing not just to the process of negotiation and the ability to agree to disagree but also the role of Congress in defining the parameters of a new constitution. He said that the constitution's recognition of regional and departmental autonomies constituted a "middle of the road compromise," and highlighted advances in the definition of indigenous collective rights that did not undermine or threaten individual rights. The agreement on a single judicial system, as opposed to the two systems envisioned in earlier drafts, also reflected an important compromise. Although a number of important debates were pushed to the future, Gray Molina praised the new document as the best that could be agreed upon without further violence or bloodshed.