Fixing Poverty The Bolivian Way

by Brandon Knopp

The region formerly know by the Spanish Viceroyalty as “Upper Peru” won independence from Spain in 1825; Bolivia was named in honor of Simón Bolívar, the persistent champion of Spanish American Wars for Independence. However, almost 200 years later the country which claims the largest proportional population of indigenous people in South America continues to struggle. Both the legacy that colonization left behind and the added stresses of trying to preserve its indigenous history within a 21st century context continue to affect Bolivians.

Bolivian Mother Commuting Home with her Kids After a Day in La Paz
Bolivian Mother Commuting Home with her Kids After a Day in La Paz. Photo Courtesy of Brandon Knopp

Bolivia began as a multi-ethnic, highly divided nation, where rich elites of Spanish descent continued to control power and money while the indigenous poor struggled to maintain their way of life as farmers and small-time traders on the fringes of urban society. Today, problems of poverty remain even though more than 60 percent of Bolivians self-identify as indigenous. It wasn’t until 2005, with the election of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, that the issue of poverty was publicly declared to be a consequence of the country’s colonial history. Within the first months of his presidency, Aymara leader Evo Morales began to fight for the protection of indigenous rights, as a way to eradicate the poverty that had been burdening his people for decades.

Coming from a humble background of coca farming and llama herding, Morales’ victory became a symbol of the indigenous majority’s power over the future of the nation. A year into his first term, Morales shocked the world by nationalizing all of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves claiming that the resource belonged to the people of Bolivia and not to foreign money. This represented a major step towards Bolivian decolonization in the 21st century. For the first time since Bolivia’s champion of independence, Bolívar, it seemed that Bolivians had a role model to look towards, one who stood for the protection of his people from foreign rule.

Bolivians with their cattle

Not all efforts in the name of indigenous rights proved to rely on militant expropriation. Morales also supported the majority population with his public stance on cultural preservation. He increased the prevalence of indigenous language instruction in schools across the country. Morales protected the livelihood of coca farmers by opposing United States pressures to prohibit the growing of the plant, which is at the center of spiritual and economic life for rural Bolivians. Shortly after taking presidency, Morales organized a Constituent Assembly which passed a Constitutional Referendum a few years later in favor of indigenous rights. The new constitution enacted in 2009 recognizes 37 official languages aside from Spanish, restricts private land ownership, and defines Bolivia as a plurinational secular state.  

All of these efforts are part of the campaign to eliminate poverty, by way of supporting the indigenous population it heavily weighs upon. While many other developing nations have sought the path of first world aid and 21st century education, Bolivia has remained an adamant opponent to westernization and continues to deal with the positive and negative consequences of their position. Only time will tell how effective this approach is at accomplishing its goals, while the government continues to work on implementing new policies Bolivia’s neighbors as well as the rest of the world look on with eager if not anxious eyes.