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By Laurence Whitehead

This paper analyzes the failed attempt to replace military authoritarian rule by civilian constitutional government in Bolivia between 1977 and 1980. The Bolivian case is evaluated from the comparative perspective provided by the Wilson Center Latin American Program's collaborative project on "Transitions from Authoritarian Rule in Latin America and Southern Europe."

The Bolivian authoritarian regime, even in its harshest form during the Banzer dictatorship, was not very solid by international standards. By Bolivian standards, however, it seemed remarkably durable, and even relatively successful in its own terms. The paper explains why a "controlled liberalization" was nevertheless attempted, and traces how this process escaped the control of its originators. As democratization gathered momentum, it became apparent that in Bolivian conditions political liberty would bring with it intense demands for socioeconomic change. The paper seeks to explain why Bolivia's competing political parties were unable to agree on an effective "democratizing pact" that would moderate and stabilize the process. It also argues that there was, in any case, an unavoidable risk of failure, not least because any political change threatened the various illicit privileges that had developed during the Banzer dictatorship. Given the pervasive criminality that had spread through the officer corps (largely spurred by the narcotics trade ), a fierce backlash was always to be feared. The legacy of this failure damages the prospects for peaceful political liberalization--let alone for effective democratization--in Bolivia in the foreseeable future.


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