Regional Civic Committees

Regional Civic Committees

In the late 1980s, Bolivia was one of the least integrated nations of Latin America. Because Bolivia's geographic diversity generated deep regional cleavages, Bolivian governments had been challenged to incorporate vast sectors of the country into the nation's political and economic systems. The most profound of these regional splits separated the eastern lowlands region known as the Oriente (Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando departments and part of Cochabamba Department) from the Altiplano. Natives of the Oriente, called Cambas, often looked with disdain at highlanders, referred to as Kollas. Over the years, Cambas contended that the central government, located in La Paz, had financed the development of the Altiplano by extracting resources from Santa Cruz Department. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy in the mid-1980s because of the primacy of natural gas and the collapse of the mining industry. For most of Bolivia's history, however, the Altiplano had supported the development of the Oriente.

In this context of regional disputes, comités cívicos (civic committees) emerged to articulate and aggregate the interests of cities and departments. The most significant was the Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee, founded in the early 1950s by prominent members of that department's elite. In the late 1950s, this committee effectively challenged the authority of the MNR in Santa Cruz. Some observers argued that between 1957 and 1959 the civic committee in effect ruled Santa Cruz Department. As was the case with other sectors of society, the MNR was unable to subordinate regional interests to the interests of the party.

During the period of military rule, leaders of the civic committees received prominent government posts. During the Banzer period, for example, members of the Santa Cruz committee were named mayor and prefect. The military was among the first to discover that civic committees were better mechanisms for regional control than political parties.

Civic committees also proved to be more effective representatives of departmental interests. Under democratic rule, the civic committee movement bypassed parties as valid intermediaries for regional interests. This situation was attributable to the political parties' failure to develop significant ties to regions. Regional disputes often took precedence over ideology and party programs. Nevertheless, although civic committees often presented the demands of their respective regions directly to the executive branch, the Constitution of 1967 states that only political parties can represent the interests of civil society. Civic committees thus forged contacts within political parties, and political parties, in turn, actively sought out members of civic committees to run on their slates. These efforts by political parties to incorporate the demands of the civic committees as their own could be perceived as healthy for the institutionalization of an effective party system in Bolivia. Moreover, civic committees helped to relieve partially the regional tensions that, under authoritarian regimes, were mediated only by the military.

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