Afghanistan of the Andes?
bolivia | by Miguel Centellas | 08 Feb, 2004 at 12:15 PM | comments (4) | trackback (0)

There's a recent meme circulating about Bolivia becoming the "Afghanistan of the Andes." While this is in the realm of possibilities, I don't think it's in the realm of probability. Yes, Bolivia's suffering a crisis of governability. It's also true that Bolivia's involvement in international cocaine production makes exercising government control even more difficult. And, finally, there's evidence of at least nominal involvement by guerrilla groups in Bolivia. But. The analogy between Bolivian & Afghanistan is tenuous, at best.

To begin w/, Bolivia doesn't have a political force to rival the Taliban. Yes, there are various radical — and less-than-democratic — groups in country. But it's not just that none of these groups are religious in nature (there's no ultra-religious political movement in Bolivia). While the Taliban was a religious movement, it's important to remember that it also was a well-organized proto-fascist totalitarian movement. But. What separates Evo Morales' MAS, Jaime Solares' COB, and Felipe Quispe's MIP from the kind of organization that was the Taliban is one simple & profound difference — none of these groups (separate or together) could come close to exercising a near-monopoly over the means of coercion over the rest of society.

Another difference is that Bolivia's not nearly as isolated as Afghanistan. Bolivia's more closely integrated into the world community (and, more importantly, world markets). It shares borders w/ (relatively) advanced, industrial, democratic societies (Chile, Brazil, Argentina). A radical state (of any kind) would have a difficult time simply because of the pressures internationalized states & societies face. Bolivia might become another Venezuela (or even another Colombia, w/ its narco-civil war); it's much more difficult for it to become another Afghanistan.

It's also important to note that Afghanistan slid into the grips of the Taliban w/in a specific context: A Soviet invasion that shattered Afghan society. The war of national liberation waged by guerrilla groups meant that a post-Soviet civil society was heavily armed. The Taliban's Afghanistan can be attributed in large part to the years of warfare that allowed organized militias to rise to power. In sharp contrast, Bolivian civil society isn't armed; there are no political militias roaming the countryside.

Pre-Taliban Afghanistan also lacked a substantive democratic history. Bolivia's recent experience is quite the opposite. Twenty years of electoral democracy is difficult to undo; people are too used to liberal rights. The popular dissent in Bolivia is quite the opposite of what it was in pre-Taliban Afghanistan — Bolivians are demanding more liberal democratic rights, not less (even if rejecting a neoliberal economic model).

Afghanistan's also primarily a rural, underdeveloped country. And while Bolivia also classifies as "underdeveloped" (though not nearly to the degree of Afghanistan), it's principally an urban country. Nearly half the Bolivian population lives in three metropolitan areas. This means that many Bolivians are too used to the niceties of urban, cosmopolitan life.

There's no doubt that Bolivia's two decades of relative democratic stability are in jeopardy. But. The problems of governability facing the new government are far from the first stage of a slide into anarchy or totalitarian repression. The situation's not so drastic; we're not on a slippery slope.

The best way to analyze Bolivia's current situation isn't to compare it to very-different Afghanistan. Rather, w/ a view to the Latin American historical experience — specifically populism & social movements. After all, Goni wasn't the first president to be toppled by a coup (popular or otherwise).

Of course, the "Bolivia as Afghanistan of the Andes" meme is probably more directed at the idea of a stateless chaos, rather than the fear of an emergent Taliban-like regime. Then. Why use the term "Afghanistan"? Especially when a comparison to Colombia — w/ its narcotics-fueled civil war — would do just as well. Clearly, in this "war on terror" era, the comparison w/ Afghanistan has specific connotations (& implications).

Even so, the projection of Bolivia's slide into anarchy & civil war is far-fetched. After all, Colombia's civil war dates back to the 1960s — further if you consider it an extension of the preceding 100-year civil war. The role of cocaine in the Colombian tragedy came later & was only grafted onto the already-ensuing civil war, prolonging it. Bolivia's cocaleros may be just as integrated into the narcotics trade as Colombian campesinos — but they're not nearly as heavily armed.

In the end, Bolivia's recent history doesn't reflect the Afghan experience, as much as it's a return to centuries-old, Latin American political history.

" comments

Bolivia may not be the "Afganistan of the Andes;" clearly it's not as parochial.

But parallels between Columbia's campesinos and Bolivias cocaleros raises the question:

What role does the drug trade play in Bolvian governance?

Is there any way to examine the degree of influence? And is the present Bolivian govenment as connected to narco-trafficking as siamese twins are connected at the head?

Posted by tom | February 9, 2004 04:24 PM

To answer your question:

Well, the drug trade has been a major part in Bolivian politics from time to time. It certainly was under some of the most corrupt of military regimes (esp. Luis Garcia Mesa). But also during the MIR-ADN presidency (many MIR members were later found to be tied to narcotraficantes in various ways).

But, overall, the drug trade has a lesser hold on Bolivian politics than in Colombia. In part, because Bolivia is a supplier of raw materials (low money), whereas Colombia is the source of finished product (high money). It's like any commodity: the suppliers of raw product get less money and are less essential (individually) than are the people/places that create value-added product.

So, no. Bolivian politics isn't dictated by the interests of narcotraficantes — though it's heavily influenced by US interests. The Bolivian state is too heavily dependent on international foreign aid (US, Japan, Europe) to not tow the line on various issues.

The cocaleros dominate election turnout in the Chapare and part of the Yungas. But that's about it. Evo Morales clearly represents the interests of coca producers (he started his career as a bag man). But the middle class and much of the rest of the country generally opposes cocalero interests. Now that Evo's trying to become a "national" political figure, he's trying very much to court middle class interests.

Keep in mind also that the drug war in Colombia is tied up w/ the ongoing civil war. This means that the Colombian state has no control over 2/3 of its national territory. Bolivia might be a weak state, but there are no semi-fiefdoms carved out in the Chapare or Yungas.

Posted by Miguel | February 9, 2004 07:27 PM

Interesting. thanks.

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