Freedom of speech has become an important prerequisite of democracy and is to an equal extent prized by the population of any democratic country. Many modern generations quite rightly feel that they have a “right” to speak their mind about political policies and that when many minds converge in their opinion these minds have a “right” to group together and express their discontent, be it in the form of strikes, blockades, marches or sit-ins. This relatively modern trend can be seen in the almost daily protests, of one kind of another, that afflict America, England and a number of other developed democratic (or even non-democratic) countries. It can also be noted in the international outcry that rained down over the presidents of the Arab Spring over a year ago, or more recently, but to a lesser extent, the international discontent over the arrest of the Russian protest punk group “Pussy Riot”.
Bolivia is no exception. Its population, like that of most up and coming democratic countries, is decreasingly afraid and increasingly animated to group together and express discontent over government actions. Their methods of choice are strikes and road blocks, which is not surprising considering that these are two of the most economically damaging forms of protest and are therefore the mostly likely to make the government yield to the given request.
It is great that the Bolivians have found their voice and are actively interested in the direction of their country’s development. However the picture is not quite as rosy as that, because a large number of yearly road blocks and strikes has a damaging effect on the already fragile Bolivian economy.
Protest methods such as strikes and road blocks are economically costly due to the fact that they take time, effort and money away from both the protesters, the government, and the general population. The costs of social conflicts or protests over the 35 years between 1970 and 2005 averaged out at a shocking $60 million per year, which is approximately 1% of the country’s GDP. Furthermore, protests have been on the rise over the last ten years with a trend towards the costly road blocks and this trend has at times been estimated to have cost the government as much as a $200 million yearly, which equates to 3% of the GDP. It is therefore not surprising that protests have a negative relationship with GDP growth and thus ultimately socio-economic development (1).
Furthermore, protests are often not a direct representation of the majority opinion and, as Bolivia is currently experiencing, can even end up with two equally strong sides demanding different things. Such situations leave the country in a type of stalemate, as there is no one action that will appease everyone.Yet the government is keen to put an end to the costs and instability that the protests bring, which can often only be done by meeting the demands of the protesting group. Moreover, suppression of protests is difficult to do without violence, which is not only morally wrong but is anti-democratic and runs the risk of curbing future, possibly valuable protests. And there is no doubt that protests can be extremely valuable when they reflect the opinion of a large portion of the country, for instance, Tony Blair would have done well to listen to the hundreds of thousands of people that marched against his imminent invasion of Iraq.
So what choice is the Bolivian President Evo Morales left with? Does he have to sit back and accept strike after strike and road block after road block despite the adverse effects that they are having on his country’s development? Unless he can successfully persuade the population that other, less costly, forms of protest will be genuinely effective, and it’s unlikely that they will be, acceptance is unfortunately the only real option.
- Evia, J. L., Laserna R. and Skaperdas S. (2007), Socio-political conflict and economic performance in Bolivia, Working Papers 070814, University of California-Irvine, Department of Economics.
Do you have a suggestions on how to eliminate the highly disruptive practice of road blocks in Bolivia? Leave a reply below.
Mieke Dale-Harris is working as an intern at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia.
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