Natural gas, cocaine, water, racism, widespread poverty, and a legacy of almost 200 coups in almost as many years are the prime motives behind Bolivia’s perpetual political unrest.
In the latest chapter, the current president, Carlos Mesa, faces exactly the same kind of populist protests that unseated his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, in 2003.
It was Lozada’s strict, World Bank-driven economic policies of privatization, government austerity and foreign investment that cost him his job.
Fossil fuels dispute
Angry over what they saw as a giveaway of natural resources to non-Bolivian interests, a powerful coalition of impoverished Aymara Indians, labor unions, coca farmers and peasants, led by a charismatic socialist legislator, Evo Morales, undertook a series of protests, roadblocks and deadly riots that led to Lozada’s downfall.
Mesa, at the time the vice president, took up the job as chief executive. While more popular than Lozada, he has been hard-hit by controversy over a new “hydrocarbon” law governing Bolivia’s abundant fossil fuel resources.
The law returns 18 percent of fossil-fuel profits to Bolivia. Morales and his allies want that number upped to 50 percent, and renewed protests and roadblocks earlier this month, spurring fears of food shortages.
Mesa is attempting a compromise that keeps the profit returns at its current rate, but taxes foreign investors at more than 30 percent. At issue are whether there will be any exemptions permitted to this tax.
Earlier this week, Morales called for an “intermission” in the protests and blockades, to give the president and the legislature a chance to respond.
Mesa, meanwhile, has attempted to resign twice, and both times was dissuaded by supporters.
He also has tried to force early elections, but was turned back by the legislature.
His indecision may have cost him political capital that, according to Reuters, “may ironically make it much harder for him to serve out his term until 2007.”
Fossil fuels may have been the catalyst for this latest crisis, but simmering in the background is the widespread poverty that affects 7 out of 10 Bolivians, particularly peasant and Indian farmers.
This is the single issue that lends so much strength to Evo Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism party.
An Aymara indian who represents his coca-growing constituency in the legislature, Morales calls capitalism “the worst enemy of humanity,” and lost the 2002 presidential election against Lozada by only 1.5 percent.
Among the social flashpoints that energize his coalition are water, class and racial divisions, and coca.
— The French corporation Suez won the contract to handle water facilities in the city of El Alto, but now faces demands that it leave the country for allegedly denying services to 80,000 people. The company defended its record in a press release that said it outperformed the government in delivering water. Similar protests drove a Bechtel-owned water company out in 2000, drawing starkly contrasting stories from the corporation and its opponents.
— Peasant farmers, who count on coca as a major cash crop, find themselves pitted squarely against the policies of the United States and Bolivian governments. The U.S. is particularly concerned that a 22 percent decrease in coca production in Colombia has been offset by an 18 percent increase in Bolivia.
— Bolivia’s middle and ruling classes are European-descended or of mixed heritage. Most of the protests and blockades have emerged in the peasant Indian communities, who are demanding better public services and anti-poverty programs. The rhetoric traded between the two has been, unsurprisingly, quite embittered, often invoking race and educational levels.
The United States interest in Bolivian politics is not limited to neo-liberal “free market” economics or cocaine eradication.
The country is also one of the 139 signatories of the Treaty of Rome, which established the International Criminal Court. The U.S. is opposed to the court, which it says could be used as a political tool, and has demanded that member nations grant immunity from its jurisdiction to U.S. citizens.
The Bolivian legislature is divided on whether to grant such immunity — but according to critics, U.S. pressure in the form of withheld military aid and exclusion from free-trade agreements may fail to move leftists already opposed to such programs.
Keyword Search (bolivia): Google News, Yahoo News
CIA World Factbook: Bolivia
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
Unyielding Bolivia polarized between Mesa and Morales.
Mercosur, March 17, 2005
Bolivia fears food shortages as protests grow
Reuters, March 14
Stay or quit? Bolivia’s president keeps changing his mind
Reuters, March 18, 2005
Rural poverty central to Bolivia’s plight
BBC, March 8, 2005
An interview with Evo Morales
Counterpunch, December 3, 2004
Water rates hard to swallow
Inter Press Service, March 16, 2005
Review of Aguas del Illimani (Suez) activities in Bolivia
Suez Corp. Press Release, March 14, 2005
Bechtel vs. Bolivia
Bechtel Corp./The Democracy Center, 2004
U.S. warns Peru, Bolivia on coca production
Knight Ridder Newspapers, March 4, 2005
Cocaine price steady despite drug war gain
United Press International, March 15, 2005
Old Bolivian prejudices rise to surface
Indian demands for water, services scorned by others
Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2005
U.S. Presidency Shapes War Crime Tribunals
International Criminal Court faces treaty doubts
Newsdesk.org, October 28, 2004
U.S. threatens Bolivia in effort to secure criminal court immunity
Pacific News Service, March 3, 2005