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Bolivia Remains on the Edge after Violent Protests - 2003-11-06

Bolivia is a country at a crossroads. Behind it lie more than 80 people killed last month in a series of anti-government protests sparked by plans to export natural gas to the United States and Mexico via a pipeline running through neighboring Chile, a long-time rival.

George Anne Potter is an anthropologist researching popular social movements who has lived in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the past seven years. She says the public uprising against the unpopular pipeline deal was not the first time Bolivians had taken to the streets in protest. In 2000, she says the people of Cochabamba rose up against the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation in the now infamous "Water War."

Nation-wide protests forced the American company to pull out after it took over the city's water system and raised rates. George Anne Potter says this fight - a real David versus Goliath battle - gave the poor, working class Bolivians hope: “There's no doubt in my mind as a social analyst and having been very active in the Water War activities, that people felt empowered to be able to change something as important. And I think part of the proof is what came out of the water war, something called the Coordination for Water and Life, and the same social sectors and the same leadership are heading up and organizing the coordination against the sale of gas. So there's a clear historical link.”

Interim President Carlos Mesa has promised to hold a referendum on the natural gas deal.

Nancy Postero, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at San Diego, has lived and worked in Bolivia for many years. She says that while people were upset about the natural gas arrangement, the protests tapped a deeper vein of discontent: “Yes, people were upset about the gas. But really what this is about is the fact that most people in the popular sectors and in the poor sectors don't feel that the government is representative. And they didn't feel that Goni, the former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, was representative of them. Nor that the political parties were representative. So what people are waiting to see right now is whether this transitional government can really accomplish what the poor people have been wanting for such a long time, which is the restructuring of the state in such a way that they feel actually represented.”

Nancy Postero says Bolivians are supporting opposition leaders like Evo Morales and Felipe Quispe because they seem to be genuine representatives. Both men are from indigenous communities and grew up in poverty like the majority of Bolivians.

While the opposition succeeded in ousting the former president, will they be able to overcome the ethnic and social tensions that have long plagued the country? Nancy Postero says that's the big unknown:

“Now the question is can this very broad coalition of people come together with some sort of proposal? Evo Morales and his group, the MAS, the Moviemiento al Socialismo or the Movement toward Socialism party, really had that problem even to start with that they weren't very cohesive. They were bringing together all sorts of people: the old left, the miners, the workers, the indigenous people, and trying to come together with some sort of plan what they call a propuesta. And in fact, they weren't able to do it. They've been - what in Spanish they call a contestatario a very good opposition force, but they haven't been able to be so far a party that has any good proposals or good plans that can unite the whole country.”

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. Unemployment hovers around 12% and 70% of Bolivians live below the poverty line. Infant mortality rates are high - nearly one child in ten dies before the age of five. The Bolivian economy, never strong, was wrecked by hyperinflation in the 1980's.

Eric Jacobstein, program associate at the Inter American Dialogue in Washington, says changing the country's future will not be an easy task. That's why U.S. support is important: “Recently Bolivia has made really big strides in three areas of keen interest to U.S. foreign policy. And these areas involve building democracy, implementing free market reforms and cooperating on the U.S. sponsored drug war. More than anybody else, Bolivia has really done a great job of eradicating a high percentage of their coca, more than the other Andean countries. And those are three reasons which lead us to believe that the Bush Administration should be more engaged in that country. This is a country that has really followed the U.S. recipe to the full extent.”

U.S. backed free market reforms, including the widespread privatization of inefficient state industries, forced tens of thousands of Bolivians from jobs while cutting social programs and pensions and raising taxes.

Many of the unemployed workers, in particular jobless miners, turned to farming, specifically cultivation of coca. Although indigenous peoples of the Andes have used coca leaves for centuries, much that is grown these days is sold to drug traffickers in Colombia who turn it into cocaine. As such, Bolivian coca farmers and their crops are the target of harsh U.S. drug policies. Eric Jacobstein says the U.S. war on drugs is the main reason for growing anti-Americanism in Bolivia:

“A White House report said that eradication in Bolivia outpaced the spread of alternative development. And so if you have these unsuccessful alternative development policies, you're not giving people a reason to continue to eradicate coca. This is a country with such great poverty where coca really is an economic means, a means of survival. So if we're going to say to them ‘cooperate on the drug war,’ we're going to want them to come up with an appropriate alternative crop, which will help them rise out of poverty.”

Eric Jacobstein says anti-U.S. sentiment has also helped build support for Evo Morales, head of the coca growers, or cocaleros union. He won 21% of the vote in the June 2002 presidential election, while the winner, former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, gained only 22%. The Bolivian constitution doesn't require a majority of votes to become president nor does it allow for a second-round or run-off election. That leaves the decision largely with Congress and out of the hands of the people.

It's this obscure political system that leaves so many Bolivians feeling disenfranchised, says University of California at San Diego's Nancy Postero. And it's these types of issues that Bolivians hope to address in their Constitutional Assembly.

“The people I've been speaking to in Bolivia are very clear that the country is on a razor's edge,” says Ms. Postero. “If the transitional government can make the kinds of changes that the poor people want, then the state is not going to fall into complete chaos. If not, they've made it very clear that the social power, the social capital that they gained in this uprising is not going to evaporate. They're not going to say ‘Oh well, it didn't work.’ They are going to take this to the edges.”

Nancy Postero says so far the events of the past several weeks have unfolded within the constitutional process for a transfer of power. However, she says if the situation deteriorates, it's unclear whether Bolivia's young democracy will survive or if the military will step in and take power.