Country profile: Bolivia

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Country Profile: Bolivia

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Indigenous leader Victor Ara. (© Vanessa Baird)

In many main squares of Bolivia’s highland mining communities, there is a statue of a miner, with a tool in one hand, and a gun in the other hand. This is a symbol of the country’s tradition of radical social movements. The mining unions are much smaller now, but the tradition of the miners continues in strong social movements in the countryside and towns. They helped Evo Morales to become president in 2005, and again in 2009. Morales was a leader of the coca farmers before. He had been influenced by the miners’ radicalism, and was an important part of the resistance to neoliberal reforms in the 1990s.

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He has now been president for eight years and he has a good chance of winning the 2014 presidential election. Morales has brought big changes to Bolivia, one of Latin America’s poorest and most unequal countries. In 2006, he brought Bolivia’s natural-gas industry back under state control. This is Bolivia’s main source of income – from exports and tax. And he increased the amount of tax paid by foreign companies. The same year, he started rewriting the constitution to give political and social rights to the majority indigenous population (they had been left out for a long time by the mestizo élites). The new constitution started in 2009.

Morales has tried to make Bolivia more important internationally, too. He has made foreign companies less important in the economy. And he has fought against long-term pressure from Washington to stop producing coca, the raw material for cocaine. In 2008, after the US were possibly trying to remove him from power, he expelled the US ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from the country. Morales is close to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba, and he joined the Venezuelan-led ALBA grouping, and is trying to link to other countries critical of the US.

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El Alto is over 4,000 metres above sea level. It is probably the highest and largest open-air market in the world. (Vanessa Baird)

There is a long history of leftwing nationalism in Bolivia, since the early 20th century. The National Revolution in 1952 led to the nationalization of the country’s mining industry, a radical agrarian reform and the beginning of votes for everyone. Morales grew up in a poor highland indigenous peasant community, and he has tried to build on this tradition, and link it to the fight for indigenous rights.

But his government has had a lot of opposition. In 2008, the élites in eastern Bolivia wanted to break away as they were afraid they would lose their huge private estates. Then, in 2011 and 2012, there were social movements who disagreed with the government. They were afraid the development plans would work against indigenous rights and preservation of the environment. One protest was a 600-kilometre march from Trinidad in the tropical lowlands to the capital La Paz to fight against plans to build a road through a protected indigenous are. So people started to doubt that Morales was committed to the indigenous groups and the environment. And there were lots of disagreements inside and between all the social movements.

But the country’s economy has been good since 2006. It is exporting more and the country is no longer in debt, so the government can increase social spending and public investment. Poverty has gone down, particularly because of more employment. Money paid to the very young, the elderly and nursing mothers has been very important, especially in rural areas. And the ethnic and gender groups are now working together. Indigenous people (especially women) are now important in government.

by John Crabtree.

Country Profile: Bolivia Fact File

Leader President Evo Morales Ayma.

Economy GNI per capita: $2,040 (Peru $5,500, United States $48,450).

Money Boliviano.

Main exports Natural gas (49%), minerals (33%). They have tried to export more variety and to industrialize raw materials, but the economy still depends on international prices, which change a lot.

People 10.1 million. Annual growth rate (2001-12) 1.7%. People per sq km: 9 (UK 253).

Health Infant mortality 39 per 1,000 live births (Peru 14, US 6). Lifetime risk of maternal death: 1 in 140 (US 1 in 2,400). HIV rate is 0.3%. Healthcare is free, but not good in poor urban areas and most rural areas – and standards are lower than in neighbouring countries. There are very big differences between the public and private healthcare.

Environment The environment is suffering, eg. land erosion from soya farming in the lowland east and mining pollution in the highlands. Climate change makes peasant agriculture unpredictable.

Culture According to the 2012 census, 40% are ‘indigenous’. The largest ethnic groups in this 40% are Quechua (46%), Aymara (42%), Chiquitano (3%) and Guarani (2%).

Religion Most Bolivians are officially Roman Catholic, but not many practice this religion. Like other countries in Latin America, evangelical churches and other protestant groups are growing.

Language Almost all Bolivians speak Spanish, but many as a second language. The main indigenous languages are Aymara and Quechua.

Human development index 0.675, 108th of 186 countries (Peru 0.741, US 0.937).

Country Profile: Bolivia ratings in detail

Income distribution It was one of the worst countries in Latin America but this is now improving.

Life expectancy 67 years (Peru 74, US 79). The lowest in Latin America, but life expectancy is improving because of better food and healthcare.

Position of women There are a lot more women now in politics and social movements. The cabinet has tried to get equal numbers of women and men but has not always succeeded.

Literacy The literacy rate has improved a lot to 97.5%, according to the 2012 Census. But this is often only very basic literacy.

Freedom There are no real restrictions on political freedom, but senior opposition leaders (some accused of corruption) have chosen to live abroad. There is no real censorship of the press, but some people say that there are.

Sexual minorities Homosexuality is legal, but the conservative society does not approve. Transgender is unusual but most people accept it.

NI Assessment (Politics) Evo Morales became president in 2005, and again in 2009, and he is likely to win the election in 2014. Morales is a popular leader. He has a lot of support in rural parts of the country and in poor urban areas. The opposition to his government is weak and divided. Several opposition leaders have chosen to leave Bolivia, because they say they are persecuted. There is a lot of small-scale corruption, but Morales tries to fight against it. Human rights observance is relatively high.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://newint.org/columns/country/2013/11/01/bolivia/