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About Beatrice Kaya

I am a full-time International Studies lecturer in one of the best universities in Indonesia. I am also a business entrepreneur focusing on fashion and ceramic tableware.  I have a bachelor degree from Seattle University, Seattle, USA majoring in Political Science. Then, I have my master degree in International Relations (International Political Economy) from the University of Birmingham, UK. Before I became a lecturer and entrepreneur, I worked at a big political consultant company conducting electability surveys for the state’s legislative candidates for many years. I also organised seminars for State’s legislative candidates on how to win a seat in the State legislatives. In the near future, I hope to build my own political consultant company.

The Impacts of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Programs in Bolivia


  1. Introduction

Located in the Amazonian basin with abundant natural resources, including gas and oil, no one would expect a country such as Bolivia to be poor. However, it is a fact that cannot be denied. According to the CIA, “Bolivia is one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America” (March 27, 2012). It is heavily populated with a population density that ranges from less than one person per square kilometer in the southeastern plains to 10 people per square kilometer in the central highlands. Bolivia is composed of the following ethnic distribution: 55% indigenous, 15% European, and 30% mixed or mestizo; of the 55% indigenous, 29% are Quechua, 24% Aymara, 1% Chiquitano, and 1% Guarani; other minorities such as German, Croatian, Serbian, Asian, Middle Eastern, and others live in Bolivia (US Department of State (DoS), March 8, 2012). Many subsist through farming while many live in poverty (DoS, 2012). The Bolivian economy has been rough since the crisis in the 1980s. In the 1980s Bolivia experienced the most disastrous economic crisis. During this time the Bolivian government asked for the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) help. The IMF was involved in giving advice and monetary aid to the country. Bolivia has gone through many reforms from neoliberal to twenty-first century socialist economic reforms. The neoliberal reforms, supported by the IMF, were opposed by the public in Bolivia, and especially by the indigenous poor; the country experienced great turmoil.

When the neoliberal reforms began, some companies and natural resources were privatised. In order to boost its economy, Bolivia used to depend on coca production. Coca is a sacred plant for the indigenous people in Bolivia; however, it is also the main ingredient in the production of cocaine (South, 1977, p. 22-4). Though it is sacred to the indigenous, due to the economic crisis many Bolivians used coca for the production of cocaine to be sold in the US and its neighboring countries illegally (Thrope, 2000). As a result of this the US proposed and imposed coca eradication programs. After the US-funded coca eradication programs, which were also supported by the IMF, the Bolivian economy moved back to its oil and gas economy. Under President Morales those national resources that were privatised became nationalised.

On December 18, 2005, Evo Morales won the presidential election, beating his opponent Jorge Quiroga. Morales won by a large margin proving that his influence had broadened “beyond rural, indigenous, union, and lower-middle class voters” (Ribando, 2007, p. 5). He is the first indigenous President of Bolivia. His plan during the presidency was to nationalise the gas and oil resources, fight against corruption, and break away from the free market economy (Kennemore and Weeks, 2011, p. 269). Since taking over office, Morales has moved the Bolivian economy from neoliberalism to twenty-first century socialism.

Looking back at Bolivia’s economy, political and social conditions from the 1980s crisis to the present, this paper argues that although the IMF’s neoliberalism programmes aimed to help boost the economy and eradicate poverty in developing countries such as Bolivia during crises, the programme itself created greater negative social and environmental impacts, which then led to economic slowdown. This paper also argues that the IMF’s programmes worked under great influence from the US whose intentions were hegemonic in the region. The US had explicit intentions to create broader markets and it imposed unsuccessful neoliberal economic policies on Bolivia, which led to political turmoil in the country.

  1. The IMF’s mission and role as the International Financial Institution

The neoliberals believe that having an International Financial Institution could help to regulate an economy in crisis. The US as a hegemon as well as a neoliberal practitioner then created the IMF. In every crisis the IMF has stepped in to help the borrowing countries to get over the crisis. For example, during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the IMF stepped in by pouring monetary aid to countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, etc. Besides those countries in Asia, Bolivia is one of the IMF’s clients. In order to understand the involvement and impacts of the IMF in Bolivia, it is first important to elaborate the IMF’s history, mission and roles in the international or global system.

The IMF is one of the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) that was created after the Great Depression in the 1930s (International Monetary Fund (IMF), 2012). The IMF was founded to make sure that the same depression would not happen again in the global system (IMF, 2012). The United States is one of the founders of the IMF. It has a big influence on the IMF’s advice and decisions (Biglaiser and DeRouenJr., 2011, p. 192).  The IMF’s activities include: 1. giving policy advice to the borrowing countries; 2. providing “research, statistics, forecasts, and analysis” of the international market; 3. giving loans to the countries that experience difficulties; 4. eradicating poverty through loans; 5. giving “technical assistance and training to help countries improve management of their economies” (IMF, 2012).

Moreover, the IMF used to specifically help developed countries. However, the role of the IMF has changed over time, especially since the collapsed of the Bretton Woods system. As Biglaiser and DeRouen Jr.(2011) state:

The Fund also devoted most of its attention to developed countries, with less interest related to the developing world. However, following the collapse of the Bretton Woods exchange rate system and the growth of financial system modified and its attention shifted to developing countries (Babb and James cited in Biglaiser and DeRouen Jr., p. 191).

The IMF shifted its role from developed countries to developing countries, because when there is a crisis, the developing countries usually need assistance more than developed countries (Biglaiser and DeRouen Jr., 2011, p. 192). For instance, during the Asian Financial Crisis Thailand desperately needed IMF funds to save its Baht currency from devaluation (PBS, 2012). Due to the situation during the crisis, developing countries cannot resist the IMF Funds.

            To gain access to the funding, the borrowing countries have to consult with IMF staff, write a Letter of Intent containing proposed economic policies to address the economic issues that the borrowing countries are experiencing, goals and the amount of aid that is needed to reach the goals (Pop-Eleches, 2009, p. 27). Furthermore, the IMF imposes certain conditions on the borrowing countries. If a country wants to borrow money from the IMF, that country has to apply the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs). The SAPs include privatisation, allowing free markets and liberalisation, export-led growth, etc. (World Health Organization (WHO), 2012). These SAPs are influenced by neoliberal ideology. In other words, countries that are in crisis have to play by the IMF’s rules to gain access to IMF funds and advice.

            The IMF has done its job in helping countries in economic crisis since the day it was established. It has helped many countries, including Bolivia. Before Bolivia accepted funds from the IMF, it also applied the proposed conditions. It privatised state-owned companies, and it moved to a neoliberal economy. Despite all of the help the IMF offered and gave to Bolivia, the advice and conditions proposed by the IMF adversely affected Bolivia socially, politically, and environmentally.

  1. Crisis in Bolivia and the impacts of IMF involvement

Since the early 1980s Bolivia has suffered from a great crisis. The IMF stepped in after the Bolivian government asked for funds. For decades Bolivia has depended heavily on foreign aid and the IMF to maintain its financial condition. As the IMF stepped in to Bolivia to help the country, Bolivia had to obey the conditions that the IMF proposed. Bolivia began to move towards neoliberalism. However, the IMF stopped funding the Bolivian economy when Evo Morales took office, and the economy shifted toward twenty-first century socialism. First, the author will address the crisis in the 1980s and the IMF role in the crisis, as well as the implications of having the IMF step in. Then, the author will elaborate about Bolivia’s economy under the Morales administration and the relationship between Morales and the IMF.

  1. Bolivia’s 1980s crisis until 2005

In the early 1980s, Bolivia experienced unprecedented hyperinflation (Jorgensen et al, 1992, p. 3). Prices escalated dramatically, reaching over 20,000% (Jorgensen et al., 1992, p. 3). In that same period of time, before Hugo Banzer was President, Bolivia’s economy was heavily dependant on Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) and foreign borrowing (Sachs, 1987, p. 279). By the time Banzer left office and the international economy was worsened due to the war on oil prices, political turmoil happened in Bolivia, and hyperinflation took place (Sachs, 1987, p. 279). There were three factors that triggered hyperinflation in the country: 1. the increase of interest rates when international monetary aid was limited; 2. seignorage escalated as the net of the international resource transfer went down; 3. the collapse of the tax system (Sachs, 1987, p. 280). As Banzer left office, Victor Paz Estenssoro stepped in. The first thing he did was to apply the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that were funded and supported by the IMF (Jorgensen et al, 1992, p. 3). These SAPs mainly acted by reforming taxes, reducing the public deficit, and privatising the state-owned companies (Jorgensen et al, 1992, p. 3-4). Under Paz’s government, Bolivia started its close relationship with the IMF and slowly corrected its economic conditions.

Then what are the consequences of having the IMF help the Bolivian economy? There are positive as well as negative consequences of the IMF’s assistance. Nonetheless, weighing both impacts, there are more drawbacks than advantages. According to Jorgensen et al (1992), the advantages of having IMF assistance in Bolivia are that inflation in 1987 went down significantly (See Table 1), and “public sector deficits were brought under control, and the exchange rate remained unified” (p. 4). In this case, the IMF has helped the Bolivian economy to get better, partly because Bolivia asked for assistance through the ‘Letter of Intent’ and accepted the neoliberal conditionality proposed by the IMF.

Although IMF monetary assistance and Western aid helped Bolivia minimise inflation, it did not eradicate poverty in Bolivia. This is one of the drawbacks. Many people still live in poverty. Because of the war on drugs that Bolivia forcedly participates in, Bolivia has agreed to stop the export of coca productions to the Western markets (Pop-Eleches, 2009, p. 111). Positively, this encouraged Western countries to give monetary assistance to Bolivia, under US influence. It also led the IMF to give more hard money to Bolivia. Negatively, this decision has led to economic and political instability in Bolivia. For example, firstly, Bolivia’s GDP was not expanding greatly. The growth was rather slow, due to less revenue from illegal coca exports (See Table 2). Secondly, as the government stopped the export of coca productions to Western countries, the people who lived in rural areas whose lives depended on the crops (coca) lost their source of income. They became even poorer. Besides the US war on drugs, the SAPs proposed by the IMF have led to even greater economic problems. For example, after the privatisation of the state-owned companies in Bolivia, about 23,000 or more people were unemployed, which then created a social backlash (Jorgensen et al, 1992, p. 4). Besides unemployment, the standard of living in Bolivia went down (Kohl, 2006, p. 306). As neoliberal economic reform occurred, the standard of living in Bolivia went down, because unemployment rates were high. People had no money to live, which then affected their standard of living.



The second drawback of having IMF assistance is social instability in Bolivia. When the Bolivian government decided to privatise oil, gas, and water, supported by the IMF, the Bolivians did not just stay still. This privatisation of natural resources actually created deep deficits (Schultz and Whitesell, 2005, p. 40-1). Many indigenous Bolivians joined forces to oppose government policy. They opposed this decision because, after the privatization of these natural resources, the revenue was not evenly distributed to the people (Hindery, 2004, p. 192). This continuous economic condition aggravated the disappointment and anger of the Bolivian people. The peak was during the Water War in Cochabamba, as well as the Gas War. The Bolivian people protested against neoliberalism reform in Cochabamba. As Haartstad and Anderson (2009) put it,

The “Water War” in Cochabamba in 2000 and the “Gas War” of 2003 drew international headlines and the enthusiastic attention of an antiglobalization movement at its peak. Protesters routinely identified “neoliberalism” as the root of most of the country’s difficulties … During the Water War, social movements mobilized against the privatization of the municipal water supply and demanded greater recognition for indigenous usos y costumbres (customary uses) in water management. (Benavides, Kohl, and De la Fuente cited in Haartstad and Anderson, p. 16).

These protests illustrate the desperation and suffering that the Bolivian citizens experienced due to the neoliberal reforms that were supported by the IMF. Also, other reasons such as high taxes triggered the insurrection in Bolivia (Schultz and Whitesell, 2005, p. 41).

      The last drawback of the IMF involvements in neoliberal reform in Bolivia is the environmental degradation of the country. The SAPs had contributed to deforestation and forest degradation in Bolivia. Deforestation took place in many places in the country because of soybean and wheat exports (Kaimowitz and Thiele, 1999, p. 506). Also, mining productions that were privatised destroyed the forest and lands (Kaimowitz and Thiele, 1999, p. 506). Private companies expanded their businesses without considering the environmental impact on Bolivia.

      Thus, although at some points the IMF did bring bright economic plans for Bolivia, it also brought drawbacks that were very damaging to the country and its people. Many deadly tragedies have happened including the Water War in Cochabamba. Also, the IMF decreased interest rates, but it did not eradicate poverty in Bolivia. The privatisation of companies lead to unsustainable economic practices in Bolivia.

  1. The Evo Morales era and the recent global financial crisis

Evo Morales became president in 2005. Under Evo Morales, Bolivia moved toward a socialist economy. Morales, who is an indigenous cocalero, and who took part in the Water War in Cochacamba, is an anti-neoliberal. He sets his policy under the idea of avoiding the IMF’s monetary aid. His economic policies are based on “twenty-first century socialism” (Kennemore and Weeks, 2011, p. 267). These policies rely on the idea of government regulation in the market with some freedom in innovating and allocating resources efficiently (Kennemore and Weeks, 2011, p. 267). Morales’s economic system is concerned more with the poor people’s freedom to be assertive, both politically and economically (Kennemore and Weeks, 2011, p. 268). This economic system does not reject capitalism, but it includes humanitarians and respects the indigenous people’s interests more (Kennemore and Weeks, 2011, p. 268).  During his inaugural speech, Morales set out his plans to halt the influence of the neoliberal economy (Kennemore and Weeks, 2011, p. 269). He did it. As it is reported:

The last standby agreement between the Bolivian government and the IMF expired March 31, and the recently elected government of President Evo Morales decided not to sign a new memorandum of understanding with the agency. (Uco, 2006)

This action for declining to agree to IMF assistance confirms the bold decision and fulfillment of Morales’s promise to stop neoliberalism. Morales also brought natural resources (oil, gas, water, etc.) back under state control. He ensured that revenue was evenly distributed, and so addressed the issue of corruption in his administration (Kennemore and Weeks, 2011, p. 272). These revenues are now spent on education, pensions, etc. (Kennemore and Weeks, 2011, p. 272). Ever since Morales adopted this economic system GDP has increased and inflation has decreased (See Tables 3 and 4).



The recent global financial crisis has affected the Bolivian economy, which has caused a drop in export commodity prices, especially for mining and hydrocarbons; it has reduced remittances for the purpose of paying for these materials in the export market. But the effect of the global financial crisis did not so much affect Bolivia’s economy because during the pre-crisis, Bolivia’s export commodity boomed, permitting the country to reverse chronic fiscal and external deficits, helping to accumulate large amounts of foreign exchanges reserves (Jemio and Nina, 2010, p. 22). At the time the crisis was taking place, Bolivia’s export revenues fell, but they were still “at historically high levels” meaning that export revenues boosted the Bolivian economy, and so the economy was not affected so much by the financial crisis.

Moreover, the new economic policies under Morales have been proven to bring growth. It seems that Morales’s steps in addressing the economic crisis worked well. Morales stopped the IMF assistance, but managed to get the economy under control without the IMF stepping in.

  1. Analysis

From the crisis and neoliberal implementation in Bolivia, the author argues that there are two main explanations of the phenomenon in Bolivia. Firstly, the IMF involvement in addressing poverty in Bolivia was highly influenced by the US’s hegemony and interests in the region. Secondly, the neoliberal policies that were intended to boost the economy worked the other way around. They contradicted the true purpose of having a neoliberal economic system. The impacts were very destructive economically, politically and environmentally.

First is the US’s influence in the region through the IMF. The US’s influence on the IMF is unquestionable. The US is one of the founders of the IMF. The US poured the largest amount of monetary aid into the IMF to help countries in crisis. In the case of Bolivia, the US used its power hegemonically to take advantage of the situation. According to Stephen Gill cited in Kohl (2006), the definition of hegemony is:

… not to be understood as simply a relation of dominance between states in the inter-state system; it involves the construction of a relatively consensual form of politics within its sphere of reference, with its combination of power and leadership giving due weight to subordinate forces in a series of institutionalized political settlements. Hegemony is forged in a complex set of historical blocs that link public and private power within and across nations in transnational political networks that seek to sustain, regulate, and rule an increasingly global capitalist order. “ (p. 308)

The US’s influence in Latin America dates back to the Cold War era. In the Cold War, the US tried to balance its influence in the Latin American countries to prevent communist Cuba in the region from spreading its ideology. The US wanted to implement its neoliberalist and capitalist ideologies to the region. By creating the IMF as the International Financial Institution, the US attempted to continue its historical legacy on the different blocs (capitalist vs. communist blocs). The US wanted to preserve its position as hegemon in the system, in order to maintain the power and the historical legacy that it has. There are two examples of the US trying to impose its interests as a hegemon in the region. The first example is through IMF functions. In the IMF, the Board of Governors has the highest authority in making decisions (Clegg, 2011, p. 8). This Board of Governors consists of the member states’ finance ministries and central banks (Clegg, 2011, p. 8). Over time, the ratios of the representation of these board members is increasing (Clegg, 2011, p. 8). However, the representation of the board members that are also the core creditors (US, UK, France and Germany) has not changed (Clegg, 2011, p. 8). In making the decision, there has to be a quorum in the meeting, which relies on the representation of 50% of the voting power (Clegg, 2011, p. 8). These 50% of voting powers actually come from the US and the UK representation (Clegg, 2011, p. 8). So, in other words, most of the IMF’s decisions are based on what the UK and US have to say. The second example is the US economic interest on oil and gas in Bolivia. The US pushed the Bolivian government through the IMF to privatise its natural resources with some intentions. If the state-owned enterprises were privatised the US private investors could step in and gain revenue from the investments. Shell, the US oil company, gained 50% shares of its company with assurance of management control (Hindery, 2004, p.191). This privatisation benefited private companies and investors, and left Bolivian citizens with nothing.

            The second explanation is that because the IMF works under US prescriptions and interests, the actual role did not quite match the intended role. The foundation of the IMF was to address global poverty and help the poor; nonetheless, the IMF seems to work only in US terms or in a one-sided way, and it does not hold itself responsible for every consequence of every decision taken. The economic restructuring and political reform that was proposed by the IMF led to the destruction of the country’s stability. There are some examples of the destructions. Firstly, due to the privatisation of state-owned mining companies, there was a reduction in state revenues (Hindery, 2004, p. 282). Multinational Corporations (MNCs) were able to gain easy access to natural resources (Hindery, 2004, p. 282). Secondly, the social unrest in Bolivia cannot be neglected. In 2003 during the insurgencies, many people died because they struggled for their lives. In 2003, Ana Colque, a student, was shot during the public protest against the IMF neoliberal package (Shultz and Whitesell, 2005, p. 39). This social unrest was a consequence of the contradictory functions of the IMF.

            Pressures from the US were implicit in overall social unrest, failed economic reform and environmental degradation in Bolivia. The US influence, due to its historical legacy to keep its power as a hegemon in the system, brought misery to Bolivia.

  1. Conclusion

The neoliberals believed that through creating International Financial Institutions, such as the IMF, they could help to spread the neoliberalist ideology that was believed to be able to address the crisis and eliminate poverty. The IMF was first created in response to the 1930’s Great Depression in the US. The role then changed to address global poverty and help poor countries to recover from the crisis. It shifted from being concerned with the problems of developed countries to addressing the economic issues that were being experienced by developing countries. The IMF acted as the lender. It gave monetary aid to address economic crises and poverty in the developing world. However, in carrying out its roles, the IMF failed to be fair and responsible. In the case of Bolivia, IMF plans to implement neoliberalism were unsuccessful in many ways. The IMF was not able to do its job and role fairly due to the influence of the US in its decisions. The IMF worked on the US’s behalf, which then lead to the IMF neglecting its true mission as a neoliberal institution. The IMF helped Bolivia to help maintain US power as the hegemon in the region. The IMF corrected the economy in Bolivia by lessening inflation, but it did not eradicate poverty. Many people in Bolivia are still living under poverty. Due to the continuous economic situation, there is still much opposition by the Bolivian people. This has been proved by the occurrence of the massive protest in Cochabamba, where so many people died because of the insurgency opposing IMF economic plans. Also, the neoliberal program by the IMF has created environmental impacts to the forest and natural resources in Bolivia.

Thus, the case of Bolivia proves that adopting neoliberalism is not always a good way of correcting the economy. There is no easy way to implement neoliberalism into developing countries. The developing countries still need to have government control to develop their economies. Government regulation is still needed because their economy is not as stable as those of developed countries. Neoliberalism works best in developed countries because, although during the economic crisis some people were made unemployed, the percentage of unemployment is not the same as that in developing countries in crisis. The standard of living in developed countries may decline during crisis and the implementation of a neoliberal economy; however, this standard of living will not be as bad as the declining standards in developing countries in crisis. Take the case of the US during the recent global economic crisis. The US adopts a neoliberal economic system. When in crisis, unemployment in the US was high, but the number of middle and upper class families in the US was more than the number of people that were unemployed. Also, standards of living may be affected, but it is not comparable to the declining standard of living in Bolivia during the adoption of the neoliberal economic system. As the standard of living declines, social conflicts arise. This creates social consequences that should be anticipated and addressed in perfect time in order for the neoliberal system to flourish (Daniel M. and Arce G., 1999, p. 216). If these social consequences are not being addressed and anticipated properly, neoliberalism will lose its credibility in the international system in addressing economic crisis and poverty.


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