Bolivia’s Crisis, Latin America’s Failure

Bolivia is not a typical Latin American country by any definition. But for Haiti, it is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and it is even less stable, with a history of more than two hundred coups since independence.

In a region with a strong indigenous past but a scattered and isolated present, Bolivia is, alongside Guatemala, perhaps the only country in Latin America where indigenous peoples make up a majority of the population. Its topography and ethnic distribution are generating autonomist and even secessionist forces that threaten national unity in more menacing ways than anywhere else. And, of course, it is, with Paraguay, the only land-locked nation on the sub-continent.

So it would be highly imprudent to extrapolate Bolivia’s current crisis to the rest of Latin America. It is far too simple to generalize: institutions elsewhere are much stronger, poverty – and particularly extreme poverty – have been diminishing, and the battle over natural resources has been largely settled. Even in places like Venezuela, with both huge oil reserves and a traditional-minded nationalist government, the status quo allowing for foreign investment in energy resources has survived nearly eight years of President Hugo Chavez.

While the existence of indigenous movements is a reality in many countries, from Chiapas to “Araucania,” from Amazonia to Ayacucho, nowhere in Latin America have they posed a genuine threat to national integrity. So Bolivia is not a premonitory crisis; nor does the hoary old “domino theory,” to which both Lyndon Johnson and Che Guevara subscribed in the case of Bolivia, seem valid or even half-way reasonable.