The Tortuous Transition to Democracy

The Tortuous Transition to Democracy

The succession of elections and coups that followed the military's withdrawal from politics in 1978 revealed the deterioration of Bolivian institutional life. In the absence of military leadership for the process of transition, parties, factions, and other groups searched for a formula to carry them to the presidency. Nearly seventy political parties registered for the general elections in 1978, including at least thirty MNR factions.

In this context, it became evident that elections would not solve the structural problems facing Bolivia. In 1979, 1980, and 1985, the winning party could only muster a plurality of votes during the elections. As a result, the legislature became the focal point of political activity as parties and tiny factions maneuvered to influence the final outcome of the general elections. For example, in 1980 Congress elected as president Hernán Siles Zuazo, who had won a plurality of votes. Simultaneously, factions of the military linked to narcotics and other illicit activities were unwilling to surrender control of the state to civilian politicians who threatened to investigate charges of human rights violations and corruption during the Banzer years.

The July 17, 1980, coup by General Luis García Meza Tejada represented a two-year interruption of the transition to democracy. García Meza's military regime was one of the most corrupt in Bolivian history; García Meza and his collaborators maintained close links with cocaine traffickers and neofascist terrorists. Faced with international isolation and repudiation from nearly every political and social group, García Meza and the generals that succeeded him ruled with brute force. By 1982 disputes among rival officers and pressure from abroad, political parties, the private sector, and labor eventually led to the convocation of Congress that had been elected in 1980.

Siles Zuazo of the Democratic and Popular Unity (Unidad Democrática y Popular--UDP) coalition, was again elected president by Congress on October 10, 1982. The UDP was an amorphous entity that grouped Siles Zuazo's own Nationalist Revolutionary Movement of the Left (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario de Izquierda--MNRI), the Bolivian Communist Party (Partido Comunista Boliviano--PCB), and the relatively young Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria--MIR). Having been denied the presidency in three consecutive elections, Siles Zuazo's rise to power was an auspicious occasion. He enjoyed overwhelming popular support and appeared to have a mandate to implement populist reforms. The military and its civilian allies were completely discredited and were no longer a threat or an alternative to rule Bolivia.

By 1982, however, Bolivia faced the most severe economic and political crisis of the preceding three decades. The economy was beset by chronic balance of payments and fiscal deficits. The most immediate manifestation of the crisis was an inability to service payments on its foreign debt of nearly US$3 billion. By 1982 the gross domestic product had dropped by nearly 10 percent. Siles Zuazo thus faced the dilemma of trying to democratize the country in the context of economic scarcity and crisis. The UDP promised to enact a more equitable development program that would address labor's demands for higher wages and other benefits. As the crisis deepened, however, labor became increasingly disaffected.

The economic plight exacerbated tensions between populist and antipopulist wings of the MNR and other political parties that had been latent since the revolution. Because the UDP controlled only the executive, political conflict was heightened. Congress remained firmly in control of a de facto alliance between Paz Estenssoro's MNR (the faction that retained the party's name) and Banzer's Nationalist Democratic Action (Acción Democrática Nacionalista--ADN).

Conflict between branches of government had been manifest since the beginning of the transition process. Legislators formed complex coalitional blocs to choose executives, whom they promptly turned on and sought to subvert. Congressionally sanctioned coups, labeled "constitutional coups," were only one example of the prevailing political instability.

Under Siles Zuazo, the full complexity of the crisis emerged. From the outset, the government was weakened by a serious confrontation between the legislature and the executive over alternative solutions to the economic predicament. Responsibility for resolving the crisis rested with the executive, whereas Congress exercised its oversight powers. Additionally, the presence of minuscule parties in Congress exacerbated the confrontation between the UDP and the parties in the legislature.

As a result of the government's inability to deal with Congress, Siles Zuazo relied on executive decrees. Congress, in turn, charged the president with unconstitutional behavior and threatened to impeach or overthrow him in a constitutional coup. During the three years of his presidency, Siles Zuazo was unable to put down the congressional threat, directed by opposition parties but bolstered by groups from his own UDP.

Between 1982 and 1985, the Siles Zuazo government attempted to address Bolivia's economic crisis by negotiating several tentative paquetes económicos (stabilization programs) with the International Monetary Fund. Each was the center of a recurring political battle that put Siles Zuazo in the middle of a class struggle between the powerful COB, which represented labor, peasants, and sectors of the middle class, and the relatively small but organized private sector led by the Confederation of Private Entrepreneurs of Bolivia (Confederación de Empresarios Privados de Bolivia -- CEPB). This conflict reflected a recurring debate in Bolivia between models of development and the question of what class should bear its costs. It also revealed the extent of Bolivia's reliance on foreign aid.

Between 1982 and 1985, the CEPB and COB attempted to pressure the government to enact policies favorable to their interests. Siles Zuazo would decree a stabilization program designed to satisfy the IMF and the United States internationally and the CEPB domestically. The COB would respond with strikes and demonstrations, often backed by peasants and regional civic associations. Lacking congressional support, the government would modify the program to the point of annulling its effectiveness through wage increases and subsidies, thereby provoking the wrath of the CEPB and IMF.

By 1984 the government was completely immobilized and incapable of defining effective economic policies. The result was the transformation of a severe economic crisis into a catastrophe of historic proportions. During the first half of 1985, inflation reached an annual rate of over 24,000 percent. In addition, Bolivia's debt-servicing payments reached 70 percent of export earnings. In December 1984, lacking any authority to govern because of the conflict with Congress, labor, the private sector, and regional groups, the Siles Zuazo government reached the point of collapse. As the crisis intensified, the opposition forced Siles Zuazo to give up power through a new round of elections held in July 1985.

The 1985 elections reflected the complex nature of the Bolivian political process. Banzer, who had stepped down in disgrace in 1978, won a slight plurality with 28.5 percent; the old titan of the MNR, Paz Estenssoro, finished a close second with 26.4 percent. A faction of the MIR, headed by Vice President Jaime Paz Zamora, took third. An indication of the left's fall from the grace of the electorate was the MNRI's showing of only 5 percent.

In Congress the MNR moved quickly to form a coalition that would enable Paz Estenssoro to gain the presidency. After luring the MIR with promises of state patronage, a coalition was formed, and Paz Estenssoro was elected president of Bolivia for the fourth time since 1952. Although enraged by the outcome of the congressional vote, Banzer and the ADN made the calculated decision to accept it. In so doing, the former dictator protected his long-term political interests.

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