Revolutionary situations?: Bolivia and Morales in comparative perspective

A commenter to my previous post on Bolivia reasserts his claim that a potential victory by Evo Morales in the scheduled interim election for Bolivia’s presidency would lead to a revolutionary dictatorship. The gist of the commenter’s argument is that it happened in Cuba (Castro) and Venezuela (Chávez), and it could happen in Bolivia:

It doesn’t happen overnight, but with a determined despot, it eventually happens. In fact, it always happens.

Wow, what an amazing claim! This is a bit like the claims made by players on victorious sports teams that they wanted it more than the other team. If we believe in ourselves, nobody can stop us! No, the winning team did not want it more, it won because of forces largely out of the immediate control of the players themselves. Same with revolutions and revolutionaries. It is not the determination of the would-be dictator that makes a revolution; it is the collapse or take-over of state institutions that would otherwise check the “determined despot.” In the Bolivian case, the probability is low that Morales could become president in the first place. But if he does, the probability is even lower that he could control congress or dispense with its check on the presidency, and lower still that he could overcome the resistance of the armed forces to the consolidation of a totalitarian-style revolutionary regime.

Let’s review the Cuban and Venezuelan (and, I will add, Chilean) cases and see the extent to which Bolivia has similar characteristics.

In the case of Cuba, Batista’s army collapsed, unwilling to stand and fight once the dictator fled. (I have developed this argument in Theory and Society (1989), and Robert Dix and others have developed similar arguments.) There were no political parties to articulate the interests of the middle class (as noted by Javier Corrales in Latin American Politics and Society, 2001), and most of the middle class that might have formed the backbone of an oppositions to Castro—the way the Nicaraguan middle class and its parties and backing of armed resistance would later check the Sandinistas—fled the island. There was no legislature to check Castro because it had already been emasculated by Batista. In the decades since coming to power, Castro has never permitted the development of institutions that might check him (as argued by Perez-Stable in Comparative Politics, 1999). Cuba is about as institution-free an environment as one can imagine for a relatively stable political system, and it has been such almost from the day Castro took power, thanks to the collapse of the army and the absence of significant political parties or a legislature.

In Venezuela, Chávez had first tried to seize power in a coup in 1992, for which he was subsequently dismissed from the army, but for which he received widespread accolades from the lower classes who had been losing ground under what had become an increasingly hollow form of “democracy.” He was later released from prison and mounted a presidential campaign, and won 58% of the vote in 1998—the most ever for a candidate under the 1958–98 electoral regime. He campaigned openly on a platform of replacing the country’s constitution and signed a decree convoking a referendum on the matter on his very first day in office. This represented a break in the institutional order, but one that he clearly had a mandate for (and the supreme court upheld it). In the ensuing years, he has indeed consolidated an ever narrower regime that could be moving in a quasi-totalitarian direction (as I argue in a review of an edited volume on Venezuela; the review will be published soon in Perspectives on Politics). While I do agree that Venezuela’s political situation has radicalized, it is still a very long way from being “another Cuba.” (And while land seizures are indeed on the increase, as the commenter to my first post notes, I would note that they are nowhere near the scale of Zimbabwe. Moreover, Chávez still confronts stronger opposition parties and a larger middle class than Mugabe does.)

Now, do these conditions apply in Bolivia? First of all, we do not even know if the elections for December are going ahead, as I noted in my earlier post. If they are, the outer limit in voter support that Morales can obtain is probably in the low-to-mid thirties. (He won 22% and placed second last time.) Under Bolivia’s constitution, the popular vote is not decisive. In fact, Bolivia is one of two countries in the world in which the presidential candidate who obtains the highest vote total in the final or sole round of popular voting can “lose” to the runner up. (The other, of course, is the United States.)

Having failed to win a majority outright, Morales would be dependent upon horse-trading in congress just to get the presidency in the first place (as noted by baz in the comments to my earlier post, as well as in the post itself). It is highly unlikely that congress would elevate him to the presidency, but even if it did, he would face a congress in which he had a plurality of seats, but nowhere near a majority. Unlike Chávez, who also faced a fragmented congress (elected, unprecedentedly for Venezuela, months before the president in a transparent and successful effort to deprive the winner of a working majority in the body), Morales would lack the popular backing to decree a constitutional-replacement process over the heads of that congress. Not having built up a base of support inside the junior office corps (as had Chávez, from the inside), Morales could not count on the acquiescence of the armed forces. I cannot see how a hypothetical Morales presidency could avoid being checked by congress, the military (and probably also the judiciary, which has become quite assertive in recent years, unlike that of Venezuela in the 1990s).

If Morales were to become president, the historical parallel most relevant would not be Venezuela or Cuba, but Chile under Allende. And we know how that ended. But even that scenario is unlikely to be repeated in Bolivia were Morales to become president. Unlike Allende, Morales could not count on a broad alliance of well established parties to support him. He certainly would not get the unanimous support of congress to nationalize gas production, as Allende got for nationalizing copper. The pro-Allende parties managed a narrow majority in 1971 nationwide municipal elections and very narrowly missed a majority in congressional elections three months before the September 11 coup. Allende was a long-time senator with considerable respect across the political spectrum, even if his avowedly revolutionary agenda commanded only minority support. Morales would have none of Allende’s advantages, such as they were.

Revolutions that occur almost always surprise us. They are notoriously hard to see coming. But if Morales (1) became president, (2) controlled or overcame congress, and (3) marginalized the military, it would be one of the great surprises of contemporary Latin American regime change. Even in revolutions, the preexisting institutions matter. (That was for you Steven T.: a little flashback to, what, 1988?)

Whether Morales is selected president one day or not—and I still think the likely outcome is not—the most likely scenario is continuing instability and ungovernability. Not a pretty scenario, but not the installation of a Marxist dictatorship, either.

0 thoughts on “Revolutionary situations?: Bolivia and Morales in comparative perspective

  1. Pingback: PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science » Yes Virginia, Institutions do Matter

  2. This tracks with a discussion in my Inter-American politics course last week about revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua (and the lack thereof in El Salvador).

    I shall be recommending this post to my students.

  3. Pingback: Fruits and Votes » Blog Archive » Bolivia pre-election update

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