Bolivia has one of the most difficult histories of any country in Latin America. As Waltraud Queiser Morales points out, Bolivia is the stuff of stereotypes about the region, from incessant political unrest to extreme dependency on the export of a few raw materials. This book is useful because it provides a cogent overview of Bolivia’s history, with strong emphasis on the contemporary period.
Morales devotes about half of her book to the period before the great social revolution of 1952 led by the MNR. She provides a quick overview of the country’s history, although the focus is unfortunately almost exclusively on political events. Relying frequently on somewhat dated secondary sources, she allows the new Bolivian social and economic history that has emerged in the last decades to remain virtually unmentioned.
Morales’ main focus is the period after the revolution of 1952. She characterizes the revolution largely as a failure, because it did not create social equality and because the country continued to suffer from militarism as well as economic and political dependency. By 1985, with the accession of Víctor Paz Estenssoro, the revolutionary leader of 1952, and the implementation of his “neoliberal” New Economic Policy, the author considers the revolution dead. Devoting a chapter each to postrevolutionary social changes, the postrevolutionary economy, and Bolivia’s foreign policy, Morales attempts to show how, after 1985, Bolivia was worse off than before.
Somewhat surprisingly, Hernán Siles Zuazo, during his abbreviated second administration (1982-85), comes off as the most admirable ruler of contemporary Bolivia. Morales particularly lauds Siles’ Third World–oriented foreign policy and the valiant attempts at getting back a seacoast from Chile a century after Bolivia’s loss in the War of the Pacific (1879–84). It even appears, in the foreign policy chapter, that Morales is in her element, describing Bolivia’s recent diplomacy with verve. Many, including this reviewer, would disagree with her assessments about the Siles administration’s role in Bolivian history, for it led to the almost complete political demise (might one say suicide?) of the Bolivian Left.
For readers who want a quick overview of recent Bolivian history, this book is adequate. For a more comprehensive general history of Bolivia, however, Herbert Klein’s recently updated volume remains the standard work.