Bolivia offers a critical, but atypical, case for international democracy promotion. The ongoing political transformation initiated by President Evo Morales constitutes one of the few experiences in the world of a serious effort to build a democracy different from the existing Western liberal models. And this presents a significant challenge to democracy promotion efforts. 

The United States and Germany—two main external actors in Bolivia—have been compelled to react to this challenge. In the case of the United States, an initial phase of wait-and-see escalated in 2008 into an open crisis in bilateral relations. Attempts to adjust U.S. democracy assistance to the evolving political situation in Bolivia failed and by the end of 2009 USAID’s democracy program was closed on demand of the Bolivian government. The German government, on the other hand, explicitly supported the political changes initiated by Morales. Bilateral relations between Bolivia and Germany are characterized by general continuity and in terms of democracy assistance Germany largely adjusted its programs to the preferences of the new Bolivian government.

International democracy promoters often argue that they are not trying to impose a specific form of democracy from the outside and Bolivia has tested the U.S. and German commitments to this ideal. In fact, both governments have not stuck dogmatically to their particular models or concepts of democracy, but have shown some surprising flexibility. Negative reactions to Morales, especially in the case of the United States, were actually triggered by disagreements on specific policy issues.
Bolivia’s ongoing democratic transformation suggests that the best external democracy promoters can do under such circumstances is to support processes of inclusive dialogue and constructive conflict resolution. Instead of focusing on a specific political end point—a given model of democracy—support should push for a peaceful and inclusive political process of constructing a model appropriate for Bolivia. This, however, requires external actors to unequivocally respect Bolivia’s claim to democratic self-determination that encompasses not just the shape of its political system but also its foreign, economic, and narcotics policies.