The tour guide stopped next to a modest green lamppost opposite Bolivia’s Presidential Palace on one side of the central plaza of the world’s highest capital city, La Paz, and told us a story. In 1946, revolutionary forces entered the palace, killed the president, threw his body from the balcony and hung it up from that exact modest green lamppost. “But,” he said, “a few years later we realized he wasn’t so bad after all, and so we erected that statue of him,” pointing at a dignified bust that stands right next to — you guessed it — that same green lamppost.
And then he repeated 189 similar stories. Well, not quite. However:
Bolivia has witnessed 190 coups, attempts and revolutions in 191 years.
Not all of those attempts were successful, but, yes, that’s basically one attempted coup a year for the country’s entire history, according to the Washington Post’s country profile. There have been 90 changes of government since independence in 1825, with each government lasting an average of just over two years. Bolivian history is defined by long periods of rule by the military or by landowning elites of European descent. An exceptional dependence on natural resources, Bolivia’s checkered — at best — military record and discord between landowners and laborers have all contributed to the country’s turbulent history, according to Kevin Young, assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Lurking behind all this is “probably more stability and continuity” than you might expect, says Robert Smale, associate professor of history at the University of Missouri: While there might be a new face in the Presidential Palace every couple of years, this mostly describes a series of power struggles within elite circles, while the underlying system of government has experienced long periods of stability. Indeed, “Bolivia does, at least pattern-wise, fit in with many of its neighbors,” says Smale. Turbulent politics post-independence followed by oligarchy, instability and military rule in the 20th century before a transition to democracy is a familiar story in countries like Chile and Peru. The pivotal moment for Bolivia was the 1952 revolution, when what had been “the most backward society” in the region underwent a “quick, surprisingly not-that-violent and totally unexpected” transformation, says Smale, with the destruction of the landowning class, extensive land redistribution to native groups and the extension of the franchise to the entire population.
However, Herbert S. Klein, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University and an expert on Bolivian social history, sees Bolivia’s past more in the context of evolution than revolution. Bolivia now “comes to fruition with a current indigenous government that is unique by Latin American standards,” courtesy of the gradual “social evolution” that has occurred since 1952. He’s referring, of course, to Evo Morales, who is not only the first president of fully indigenous descent but also the longest-serving president in the country’s history, having been in power for a whopping 10 years. In both the radical changes brought about by the 1952 revolution and its current politics, Bolivia “has been a big social-experiment country.”
Evo leads an administration whose “hard leftist” rhetoric is contrasted with “surprisingly economically pragmatic” decision-making, says Smale. And in many ways, he’s crushing it. Evo has achieved continuous and strong economic growth, plummeting rates of illiteracy and the highest rate of poverty reduction in Latin America. In light of all the history, says Young, “Evo Morales’ presidency has been remarkable.”
All in all, what’s shocking may not be the apparent turbulence of Bolivian history, but rather the successes of the current administration. Indeed, despite the world-record stat, “I don’t think of Bolivian history as tumultuous,” says Klein. A hundred and 90 coups, attempted or otherwise? “Uninteresting. The rise of an indigenous movement that’s taking control of a government? Now, that’s interesting.”
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