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Bolivia: Autonomies in decline

Diego Ayo

Centralizing tendencies may thwart the realization of autonomy.

Bolivia has enacted a new Constitution that was drafted during its first Constitutional Assembly held in 2009. One of the outstanding bold changes outlined in the document is the recognition of departmental, regional, municipal and indigenous autonomies. Nevertheless, the progress in autonomy is now met with a tendency toward the concen­tration of power —an authoritarian tendency that prevents the practical implementation of autonomy despite its legal recognition.

Anti-democratic policies are impinging upon the democratizing objectives of Bolivia's Constitution.

Anti-democratic policies are impin­ging upon the democratizing object­ives of Bolivia's Constitution. For ex­ample, legislation in March 2011 by the government of President Evo Morales indicated that changes in autonomous budgets would require the approval of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. Nothing could be more re-centralizing than this measure.

Following the disposition of the 2009 Constitution regarding autonomies, five significant advances were made. First, the monopoly on legislat­ing was broken, beginning the move from a single-state model to a com­posite or decentralized state model. Departmental autonomies were finally recognized.

Second, municipal autonomy was recognized at a hierarchical level an­alogous to that of other autonomies, resulting in a tri-territorial autonomy model similar to the one found in Brazil. As a result, municipalities now have the capacity to legislate.

Third, indigenous autonomies were created to further enrich Bolivian dem­ocracy, which consists of representative democracy, direct democracy, and in particular, ethnic or community dem­ocracy.

Fourth, mechanisms for consocia­tional democracy or power sharing were developed in the national and departmental legislative assemblies. They are based on the recognition of permanent indigenous curul chairs, where representatives are elected ac­cording to the indigenous commun­ities' own codes.

Finally, regional autonomies, albeit tenuous, were established between de­partmental and municipal autonomies. This could result in a new delineation of territories nationwide in the near fu­ture.

Pendulum swing toward centralization

Nevertheless, this democratizing progression faces the aforementioned opposing reality. The new push against decentralization is part of what has been a continuous pendulum swing between periods toward and away from decentralization.

There has been a continuous pendulum
swing between
periods toward and
away from

In the period away from decen­tralization from 2010 onward, the Plurinational Legislative Assembly was appointed the central player author­ized to decide upon regional issues far beyond its own challenges and obli­gations. As a result, the concentration of power and consequent loss of the autonomies' relevance have become evident. The municipal autonomies have denounced the government's dis­course as being devoid of content, lik­ening it to media-propaganda policy.

Table 1
Periods toward and away from decentralization in Bolivia, 1994-2011

The Public Participation Law is enacted Toward from 1994 to 1997
The government changes and public participation is neglected Away from 1997 to 2001
The National Dialogue Act is enacted, authorizing new transfers to municipalities based on poverty criteria Toward from 2001 to 2002
Under Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s new government, resources are re-centralized to move “beyond the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative” Away from 2002 to 2005
The municipal level is established at the same hierarchical level as the other levels of autonomy Toward from 2006 to 2009
Fiscal resources are scarce, and talent is brought back to the central level Away from 2010 onward

Source: Prepared by the author.

In fact, this measure of re-centralization is likely only a minor gear in the major centralist machinery driving other fis­cal moves that are becoming a reality: delays in distribution to autonomous governments; boycotts to credit cap­acities for municipalities (the credit of the Inter-American Development Bank destined for the municipal government of La Paz was denied by the Ministry of Finance); and decreases in resources resulting in re-centralization (as seen with Dignity Incomes derived from de­partmental funds), among others.

Further, the central government does not plan on sharing the allocation of public services. It knows very well that the autonomous ability to provide services to the public subtly reduces the government's presence. Since all it has left are votes, power has to be taken away from the autonomies. The president could better distribute that same money or, failing to do so, the mayor could do it under the control of the Assembly, which is under the president's control. In other words, the autonomy model is directed toward consolidating a patrimonial monopoly with the central government as the only service provider. There is only one benefactor for the populace: the official governing party.

In the long run, bureaucracy will spread relentlessly. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that, with the same person­nel, the Ministry of Autonomy will take charge of overseeing the changes made. We have already seen for more than 15 years of popular participation that the allotments never meet the minimum requirements. They are less likely to reach these criteria now, unless shares are increased for civil servants. The result: bureaucracy spreads, and meritocracy potentially declines.

Given the present situation, a pol­itical and fiscal agreement should be discussed to define once and for all the priorities of the central government and the limits of fiscal manoeuver­ability that the autonomies will have, and, in the spirit of the Constitution, to strengthen this hard-fought reform. To do otherwise would be to encourage revolution without change. An extreme version of the status quo will repeat it­self relentlessly: more centralism along with all of its patrimonial defects.

Diego Ayo has a doctorate in Political Science from the Instituto Ortega y Gasset. He is currently Professor at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, La Paz and writes regularly in his blog www.entrevistador.ya.st.

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