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Monday, February 09, 2009

Conflict prevention in Bolivia and Ecuador : The role of the international community

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Bolivia and Ecuador: A Decade of Crisis
In recent years, Bolivia and Ecuador have faced so many chal¬lenges to their stability and constitutional order that many observers have wondered how these countries have avoided slipping into widespread violent conflict. This paper examines the political developments that have made these two of the most volatile nations in the region. It also highlights the role of the international community in preventing the eruption of conflict in both countries.

The two South American nations share many common prob¬lems and characteristics: they are highly divided societies where wide sectors of the population have been historically excluded from the political arena; they have weak political parties that have been unable to create national coalitions; they are fragile states that have been appropriated for the personal benefit of elites; and their political structures have been unable to effectively guarantee space for the resolution of conflict within the existing legal frameworks. The combi¬nation of these factors has contributed to the erosion of the legitimacy of both states, further exacerbating intra-institu¬tional conflict and instability.

In this context, the 1990s saw the strengthening of social movements that acquired important political salience and that demanded a radical rethinking not only of how politics operated, but of the configuration of the polity itself.1 In both countries, the social movements took their demands to the streets, staging massive protests that frequently paralyzed the economy by blocking roads and airports.2 These conten¬tious tactics were met with fear and disdain by the political establishment, which failed to effectively respond to their de¬mands.

It is in this backdrop of contesting political discourses and their consequent tensions that Evo Morales and Rafael Cor¬rea won the presidential elections in Bolivia and Ecuador, re¬spectively, in 2006. Their triumphs are part of what is being referred to as Latin America's turn to the new left, after a wave of electoral contests clearly rejected the policies inspired by the Washington-consensus, which had prevailed in the 1990s, and brought to power left of center candidates in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. This regional turn to the left has deservedly received much attention3 and, as others have pointed out, it would be a mistake to assume that all of these governments are cut from the same mold. A tactical alliance with Venezu¬ela has provided both Ecuador and Bolivia the resources and political support to allow their leaders to push forward radical agendas without compromising with the opposition4. While ideologically closer to Chávez than to the more moderate Bachelet in Chile and Lula in Brazil, Correa and Morales have made efforts to not appear as mere mimics of the Venezuelan president.

When examining the potential for conflict, significant differ¬ences in the political dynamics of these two nations must be considered. While in both cases a strong regionalism perme¬ates social and political relations, the question of local au¬tonomy has become a serious threat for the unity of Bolivia. The divide between the center of political power (La Paz) and economic prosperity (Santa Cruz) has called into question the strongly centralized government of Bolivia. The ethnic divide that accompanies this division has resulted in the indigenous population (who live mostly in the highlands) supporting Mo¬rales' quest to retain that centralism as a feature of the new constitution while the white and mestizo population of the lowland 'half moon' (media luna) states demand greater au¬tonomy from the center5 . The level of confrontation between these groups in Bolivia has been the source of violence rarely seen in Ecuador. Also important to note is the higher level of political independence of Rafael Correa, who arrived to the Presidency after a brief political career, running under a newly formed political movement. Contrary to Morales, Correa is not part of a social movement with a long tradition, and thus is free from having to respond to a set of specific demands. Mo¬rales' agenda, on the other hand, has been defined not only by the opposition, but also by the more radical sector of the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo), which is quick to remind him of the promises he made before and during the campaign to become their leader.

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