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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Protests Here, Protests There: Mass Demonstrations and the State of Democracy in the U.S. & Bolivia

By Nicholas A. Fromherz

Bolivia has been called a “weak democracy.” 1 In some sense, that’s probably right. But if democracy implies power held by the people, this accusation may go too far. In Bolivia, mass protests win results. Take the recent case of the government’s attempt to construct a freeway through a national park and protected indigenous territory. Despite years of planning and a $400-million contract with Brazil, the administration in La Paz scrapped the plan after a small march swelled into country-wide demonstrations, road blockades, and chants for the President’s resignation. To be sure, the government made mistakes along the way—including an incident of police brutality—that weakened its position and enflamed the public even further. But regardless of these mistakes, it appeared all along as though the people would win out.2 At least on issues of critical importance, the public in Bolivia is not afraid to hold the government accountable. And the government, whether accurately or not, perceives that it has no choice but to bow to public sentiment.

Travel north 4,000 miles to Zuccotti Park, and things look radically different. The people gathered there clearly believe they have the capacity to inspire change through protest, but there are few among them who expect a Bolivian-style response from the government. Indeed, many (perhaps most) expect just the opposite: Washington to ignore them as best it can until, if the demonstrators are lucky, the government introduces some minor, incremental reform. They might wish for more, but, deep down, they doubt this will happen. And even if a fair chunk of the demonstrators do believe they can effect fundamental change through protest, their optimism is drowned out by the skepticism that prevails among the public at large. The U.S. government just isn’t that responsive. Voters overwhelmingly supported a public health-care option that never came. They opposed the bank bail-outs delivered in October 2008. Al Gore lost the presidential election despite winning the popular vote. Recent history has taught us that public opinion does not control U.S. policy or even the make-up of our government.

All that being said, it would be too simple to suggest that the government in La Paz, out of some sort of benevolence, respects public sentiment more than its counterpart in Washington. There are two sets of actors involved in the citizen-government relationship, and the more striking difference may lie in how the public plays out its role. In Bolivia, road blockades are a political tradition. If only a fraction of the populace has actually engaged in erecting or maintaining a blockade, a much larger slice of the population has cheered on these acts, and nearly everyone tolerates them. The government doesn’t even try to break them; the politicians just sit down at the negotiating table and work out a compromise.

Can we imagine this happening in the U.S.? What would happen if the Occupy Movement decided to shut down the New Jersey Turnpike or the Lincoln Tunnel? Chances are it wouldn’t last too long. But even putting aside the question of government response, the public at large would not stand for it. Resorting to such measures, the Occupy Movement would alienate the masses and ensure that its platform found no traction with established political forces. We resolve political differences through the ballot box, the conventional wisdom goes, and we take to the streets only in cases of extreme injustice. They may not be terrorists’ tools, but road blockades aren’t the stuff of an advanced democracy.

Or are they? If “advanced” is taken to mean sophisticated—as relying on the workings of representation and protocol as opposed to direct, organic action—then the answer is probably “no.” But if by “advanced democracy” we mean a strong democracy, our take on the question may be different. Various definitions abound, yet almost all understandings of democracy incorporate the concept of majority rule with minority right. Ideally, these two forces, though in constant tension, achieve a balance. Crucial policy decisions are consistent with the will of the majority, but those decisions may not infringe upon certain fundamental expectations. The majority has plenty of room to operate, yet some things are off limits.

Using the role of protests as an analytical lens, we can see that the U.S. and Bolivia alike have failed to achieve the balance envisioned in the majority rule-minority rights equation. Where these countries differ, though, has to do with which side of the equation gets shorted. In Bolivia, the government is constantly put in check by the majority; when the public speaks up, the government listens. In the U.S., this is not the case. Partially the result of political structure and tradition—and partially the product of a more restrained public—disconnect between popular sentiment and government policy has become a fixture in the U.S.

But if the U.S. doesn’t go far enough in responding to majority sentiment, Bolivia may err in the opposite direction. When Evo Morales came to power in 2006, riding a wave of popular support, he implemented reforms that pleased many but arguably violated the fundamental rights of the few. Like so many countries in Latin America, Bolivia moved from colonialism to neo-colonialism without ever experiencing true independence. Raw feelings towards the elite were always bubbling just below the surface; Morales’s election tapped this energy and yielded a few over-zealous policies. For instance, in his effort to “de-colonize” the country, Morales broke up large land-holdings, claiming that their former owners had acquired them illegitimately. In some cases that was probably true. In other cases, wealthy land-owners became the victims of political circumstance, their cries of foul drowned out by the cheers of revolution. And, in late 2010, Bolivia fell into the other trap of government that responds too slavishly to public opinion: fiscal imprudence. After announcing that he would cut the massive gasoline subsidies buoying the transportation industry, Morales was forced to change course only three days later. Road blockades and mass protests apparently left La Paz no choice but to continue with the subsidies that are a constant budget drain. If one of the virtues of representative government is an occasional dose of paternalism—saving the people from themselves—Bolivia finds this lacking.

As in all things, healthy democracy depends on balance. Comparing the use and effect of mass protests in Bolivia and the United States, the differences are stunning. In both cases, though, public demonstration and how it is received suggests a lack of equilibrium. Achieving the right balance is easier said than done. If Zuccotti Park would welcome a bit of the spirit of Plaza Murillo, and La Paz a bit of Washington, both nations might find themselves a step closer to the ideal.

1See, e.g., Bolivia: Tiny Nation, Big Troubles, The Christian Science Monitor (June 9, 2005).
2 For more details, see Nicholas Fromherz, The Rise and Fall of Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Foreign Affairs (Oct. 18, 2011), at http://www.foreignaffairs.com/features/letters-from/the-rise-and-fall-of-bolivias-evo-morales

Nicholas Fromherz is an Environmental Law & Policy Scholar for Adelante Mujeres in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He holds a J.D. from the University of San Diego and a B.A. from the University of Oregon. Before entering the non-profit sector, Mr. Fromherz practiced civil litigation in California and worked for the federal judiciary in Detroit and Milwaukee. He can be reached at nfromherz@hotmail.com

Comments in Chronological order (2 total comments)

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Tue, November 08, 2011 11:35 AM (about 110643 hours ago)
Thoughtful essay, thank you; as to the situation in the United States, the current socioeconomic situation (gross inequality, massive wealth in the hands of few and a spreading sense of impoverishment--and economic precariousness--in the realities facing many) is prompting the Occupy movement, and this movement is itself related to other efforts in the U.S. such as the anti-globalization "Battle for Seattle" of a decade or so ago, and then one can recollect the strong focus on economic justice in Dr. King's work and the "March on Washington" which he was helping to organize when he was assassinated. In short, the tradition of "in the streets" civil disobedience and public assembly, organizing, and so on has a strong place in the story.
Tue, November 08, 2011 05:26 PM (about 110637 hours ago)
A key dimension in both Bolivia and the US can be the social power of active and contemplative nonviolence (see the work of Gene Sharp on this theme and examples from around the world).
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