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The politics of Evo Morales' rise to power in Bolivia

Research reports

On the surface, the role of knowledge and evidence in Bolivia’s political landscape appears to be minimal. However, over the years, international donors have invested plenty of economic resources into developing think tanks that produce both knowledge and evidence. This paper seeks to examine the utilisation and impact of this knowledge in Bolivia’s recent political history, as well as any links with political institutions. It explores how Evo Morales came to power through the support of indigenous social movements and their relationship with think tanks.

Bolivia’s indigenous people, who comprise nearly two thirds of the country’s population, have over the centuries been labelled by the State as inferior, ignorant and poor. Ethnicity continued to be subordinate to class-based struggles even after the national revolution. The decline of the mining industry in the 1960s and 1970s, which many indigenous communities relied on, added to pre-existing levels of poverty, and led to significant rural-urban migration amongst the indigenous population. More frequent and intensive interactions accompanied by economic and political inequalities fostered racial tension and as a result, ethnicity started to take on more prominence in Bolivian politics, especially with the government’s implementation of structural adjustment policies in the 1980s in response to economic crisis and the need for loans from the Bretton Woods Institutions.

Economic reforms also included the banning of coca production, an important symbol of indigenous Bolivian culture. The penalisation of coca, along with the perceived selling off of natural resources to foreign interests forged solidarity amongst diverse indigenous groups and huge resentment towards a political system that was seen as increasingly exclusionary. Since the political system did not appear to represent the interests of the indigenous population, between 1991 and 2003, indigenous people resorted to protests and demonstrations. To quell social unrest the government, assuming politics to be class-based, made some changes to promote inclusion of indigenous people in the neoliberal development project. This included decentralisation and electoral reform. However, indigenous groups wanted more than just participation in policy-making; they wanted rights to self-determination and an acknowledgement of sovereignty. Unintentionally, the government’s changes to the political system provided some additional space for indigenous movements to further mobilise and form numerous social movements, some of which managed to secure representation (albeit limited) in the legislature. These movements chose to pursue direct action through strikes and blockades including the ‘water wars,’ which were highly effective in promoting change.

Social movements were not alone in demanding change. Think tanks and NGOs also played a crucial role. Adoption of the Washington Consensus fostered the establishment of a number of think tanks including Fundación Milenio, FUNDEMOS, UDAPE and PRONAGOB (the last two being internal, government think tanks), which helped to broadly legitimise the neoliberal policy agenda, and more specifically provide technical advice. Many of these think tanks had explicit links with traditional political parties. Similarly, the rise of ethnic based politics saw the growth of think tanks in support of indigenous social movements such as CEJIS and CEDLA. They produced and communicated evidence to support their demands, provided them with training and funding, brought diverse social movements together through the development of a coalition (SCCIP) enabling them to speak with one voice and crucially mediated dialogue between them and government. Think tanks in both eras had significant impact in the policy process. Following the removal of two presidents in the early 2000s, in 2005 Evo Morales the head of MAS, who had gradually gained support inside the existing political system (aided by support from outside), formed an interim government. Calling for an early election, Morales won by a large margin as indigenous people clearly voted for him in large numbers. Morales came to power on a ticket of major constitutional reform through the establishment of a Constitutional Assembly.

International actors played a key role in supporting the production of relevant knowledge. Neoliberal think tanks received funding from the World Bank, the IMF, IADB, CAF while think tanks in support of indigenous social movements received funding from several European donors. They also received support from the Anti-globalisation movement and the World Social Forum (WSF). And just as Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz provided policy inputs during the neoliberal era, celebrity academics such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt came in support of Evo Morales’ political project. Think tanks often provided cadres of policy-makers in both the neoliberal era and once Morales assumed presidency.

Think tanks in Bolivia have thus had influence on politics and policy-making since 1985, but only due to their connections with political parties, social movements and the executive. Therefore thinks tanks, though often subordinate to political interests, can be classified as principal actors in the Bolivian political process.

Rafael Loayza Bueno, Ajoy Datta