Turfed out to Florida
The forced resignation of Bolivia's president, an attempt by the local establishment to defuse tensions, temporarily rescued the country from political chaos. Hisham El-Naggar in South America and Jaideep Mukerji in Cairo review the situation
It is not often that Bolivia, a landlocked South American republic, considered the continent's poorest, makes international headlines. It is a pity that when it finally did, it should have been in the aftermath of a bloody repression which cost upward of 70 lives.
An angry mob marching on La Paz, the capital, as well as on other urban centres, forced the resignation of millionaire President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Democratically elected, albeit through back-alley power deals, Sanchez de Lozada had -- in an earlier presidential term -- implemented one of the first structural adjustment programmes the International Monetary Fund (IMF) considered successful.
That was back in the 1990s when Bolivians considered hyper-inflation to be their main problem.
Sanchez de Lozada's reforms did wipe out inflation. Alas, they also wiped out employment prospects and purchasing power for many of the country's poor who in the years that followed found themselves decidedly, and irremediably, poorer.
Sounds familiar? It should. Bolivia's structural adjustment was to become something of a paradigm especially in Latin America where national leaders, dictators as well as democratically elected presidents, were urged to imitate Bolivia's success.
The recipe was exceedingly simple, it had to be, for it was the same for all countries. Fiscal austerity, privatisation and a state impotent to regulate the flow of capital: monopolistic transnational control of markets was its key ingredient.
The results were mixed, but unemployment usually climbed, and poverty followed suit. Then came retribution: corrupt governments who were indifferent to the creeping impoverishment of the population crushed mobs infuriated by the broken promise of market-blessed prosperity.
Popular uprisings replaced military coups as the key mechanism of unscheduled regime change. New governments learned to talk less of privatisation and more of the need to stem poverty and attend to the needs of the most disadvantaged. It did not always make them loved in international circles, but did wonders for their life expectancy.
It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that the grand executioner of Latin American structural reforms should have finally had to foot the bill for the misery into which his reforms plunged his less fortunate countrymen. The pretext for massive anger, when it came, was surprisingly trivial but at the same time emblematic. The government's plan to export natural gas to the United States via Chile proved to be the straw which induced the proverbial lama, the closest thing the Andean region has to a camel, to react with a swift and surprisingly vigorous kick.
The government's gas export project -- duly sanctified by the usual international voices -- was doubly insulting to the inhabitants of the country's poorest district. They saw the deal as beneficial primarily to the multinationals -- it would net the country a meager 18 per cent in royalties -- and thus as an attempt to rob Bolivia of one its few, its very valuable, natural resources.
The news that the gas was to flow through Chile, which in a war that dates back to the 19th century had seized Bolivia's only outlet to the Pacific, was singularly offensive to national sentiment.
What makes Bolivia's crisis so unusual is that it combined furour against the failures of what has come to be called neo-liberalism -- read IMF-inspired reforms -- with a strong dose of nationalism. Sanchez de Lozada, an American-educated businessman was derided as a gringo bent on pursuing his earlier attempts to plunder the country or, even worse, to alienate its national patrimony.
Sanchez de Lozada did not help matters by labelling his opponents as narcoterrorists in a CNN interview which recalled the Philippine's Fernando Marcos's ill-fated attempts to play to a primarily American audience. His arrogance and social insensitivity, never far below the surface, was not only visible but actually ostentatious.
The "narco" charge is not altogether gratuitous. One of his key opponents, Evo Morales, a union leader who lost the election to him largely owing to the horse-trading the country's electoral system encourages, is considered a leader of coca-cultivating peasants. One of the by-products of the crop these said peasants rely on as a main source of living is, sadly, cocaine, which has put Bolivia on the shopping list of many drug cartels. A US-sponsored programme aimed at wiping out coca cultivation was to have included subsidies to the peasants to compensate them for their losses. But few subsidies reached the intended beneficiaries, and not a few local officials grew suspiciously -- and conspicuously -- more opulent.
To dismiss opposition to Sanchez de Lozada as a ploy by drug dealers is at best simplistic, and at worst disingenuous. Popular discontent quickly acquired ethnic overtones; most protesters were of indigenous origin, in contrast to the establishment's European lineage. As social tension rose to boiling point, the risk of a full-scale civil war became frighteningly real. The savage repression with which Sanchez de Lozada reacted to social dissent did not save him. As opponents contemptuously dismissed his belated offer to submit the gas deal to a referendum, the local establishment reached the conclusion that he would have to go. And go he did: to Miami, to be precise, with six family members. He was succeeded by Carlos Mesa, the vice-president who had earlier dissociated himself from his murderous counter-insurgency techniques. The establishment finally realised that less arrogance and more social sensitivity were needed to make the country governable again. It remains to be seen whether the matter will end there.
Mesa is expected to be in a very vulnerable position. He cannot boast his predecessor's experience, much less his contacts. His only political capital, which may not last long, is that he had the foresight, or gutlessness, to repudiate the repressive carnage in time to save his own skin.
International circles hurried to express support for Mesa and for the constitutional process. The constitutional process, here as elsewhere in the region, has to contemplate occasionally heeding the anguished cries of an increasingly raucous mob.
Bolivia back from brink
Bolivians breathed a sigh of relief last Friday over President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's decision to resign after a month of bloody protests left more than 70 dead and hundreds wounded. Lozada's announcement was met with cheers from thousands of people in the city of El Alto, which for weeks had been the epicenter of mass protests demanding Lozada's resignation.
Vice President Carlos Mesa was sworn in as Lozada's replacement and immediately announced his intention to hold early elections, saying "Our destiny is at stake. I urge you all to help me."
Bolivia's civil unrest was set off after the government unveiled a controversial plan to export Bolivia's significant natural gas reserves to the United States and Mexico. The plan, which the government claimed would generate annual profits of over $1.5 billion for the beleaguered Bolivian economy, was panned by critics who pointed out that for every $100 of gas sold, only $18 would find its way back into the country. Sergio Caceres, editor-in-chief of Bolivian news publication Juguete Rabioso, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "Bolivia suffers from poor internal gas distribution" and that people were outraged that the government would "put transnational companies' interests above those of ordinary Bolivians".
People began taking to the streets across the country, with thousands of indigenous Ayamara and Quichua campesinos marching into the Bolivian capital La Paz chanting anti- government slogans. Events spiralled out of control when the military opened fire on protesters, reportedly killing 30 and wounding dozens more. Bolivian journalist Edgar Ramos, speaking to the Weekly from El Alto, described having seen "dead bodies lying in the streets" adding that "the tension was terrible because people feared even more reprisals from the military."
The deaths sparked outrage across Bolivia and the protests swelled to include labour unions, student groups and dozens of social movements. La Paz was brought to a total standstill after thousands of campesinos set up dozens of road blocks around the capital, effectively placing the city in a state of siege. Similar road blocks were set up in other cities prompting many countries, including Brazil, Australia and Israel, to evacuate their citizens to safety.
Lozada attempted to quell discontent by announcing he had indefinitely postponed plans to export the gas but his gesture, according to Bolivian opposition leader Evo Morales, missed the point. "What the Bolivian people want is that the gas remain in Bolivia, for the benefit of Bolivians," he said. "The only political solution to this crisis is the resignation of the president of the republic."
As the protests dragged on, political support for the embattled president began to crumble. Several key political allies, including Vice President Carlos Mesa, withdrew their support and added their voices to the chorus of people demanding Lozada's resignation. Lozada finally relented to the immense pressure and submitted his resignation to parliament in a letter, adding that he did so against his will. Lozada subsequently flew to Miami to recover from the "shock and shame" of being forced to resign. In an interview with The Miami Herald, the ousted president said "I see many uncertainties in Bolivia's future and fear the disintegration of the country."
One of Bolivia's most powerful businessmen, Lozada came to power last year in a tight election in which he received less that 25 per cent of the popular vote. His neo- liberal agenda, which included widespread privatisation and strict government spending, did not sit well with Bolivia's poor, who account for up to 70 per cent of the country's population. Lozada had previously come under fire in February after trying to raise income taxes in accordance with International Monetary Fund guidelines. That initiative came to an abrupt end when La Paz's disgruntled police force clashed with the military, leaving several dead.
Lozada's successor, Carlos Mesa, now faces the unenviable task of picking up the pieces and trying to help the country move forward. Mesa, an independent with no political affiliation, wasted little time in trying to restore stability to the country. He promised an investigation into military conduct during the protests and proposed a binding referendum be held on how Bolivia should deal with the natural gas issue. Mesa also unveiled a new cabinet consisting mostly of independent economists and intellectuals to lead the country until elections can be held.
Despite having been able to restore order and having received pledges of support from opposition parties, the new president still faces an uphill struggle. As an independent, Mesa has no firm political support and many are worried that his proposed referendum will only further divide the country. Caceres told the Weekly that people's support of Mesa would only last so long as he honoured his agreements to hold the referendum and added that Bolivians have not forgotten that Mesa was an avid supporter of Lozada's unpopular economic reforms. Felipe Quisque, leader of one of the most influential indigenous groups in the country, vowed to launch a fresh round of protests in 90 days if Mesa did not honour his promises to Bolivians.
Despite the lingering uncertainty over Bolivia's political future, many in Bolivia were in an upbeat mood. Although Lozada had claimed that the protests were a direct attack on Bolivian democracy, many feel that Bolivia's democracy was in fact rescued by Lozada's forced resignation. Caceres pointed out that for the first time in this country people felt as though their actions made a difference and that they were in control of their own destiny. "Bolivians are no longer willing to simply let the government make decisions behind their backs," he said, adding that the protests sent a clear message that "the country cannot exist without consultation among the population". Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States (OAS) César Gaviria agreed, praising Bolivia for acting "responsibly and calmly, with great political maturity during a difficult time".