Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 June 2005
Issue No. 746
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Bolivian pressure cooker

Rising instability in Bolivia is tearing that Andean country apart, writes Hisham El-Naggar from Buenos Aires

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Scenes of anguish, anger, violence, police brutality and social unrest in La Paz, the Bolivian capital

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, Bolivian President Carlos Mesa who tendered his resignation late Monday, warned that the country was on the brink of civil war. He called for the holding of immediate elections as the only way out of Bolivia's political impasse.

Bolivia, an impoverished, landlocked country, has been monopolising the news lately in much of South America. As civil unrest increases, observers are wondering what the threatened violence in this traditionally unstable nation may mean for the rest of the region.

For a long time, Bolivia was touted as a success story by the IMF crowd, who couldn't stop congratulating themselves, and, less noisily, the Bolivians, for having been the first to adopt a far-reaching "stabilisation" programme. It is true that Bolivia did manage to recover from the hyperinflation which plagued two of its more prosperous neighbours, Brazil and Argentina. But the promised economic renaissance, which was to result from rigorous respect for recipes more concerned with fixing numbers than doing something about prevailing poverty, simply never materialised.

For years Bolivia's poor have been not only abandoned to their fate, but in fact made to feel irrelevant in the decision-making process of the country's elite. Complicating the situation is the fact that there are two separate elites, the traditional mining elite which holds sway in the western, poorer region, of the country, and the newer elite which rules the more prosperous east, where the presence of natural gas reserves promises to bring about a bonanza for a fortunate few.

Since the natural resources of the west have been largely depleted, all eyes are on the natural gas reserves of the east, where the proportion of "whites", that is to say, those not of indigenous descent, is more pronounced. This has given rise to pressure from two different directions on the central government in La Paz. The west, represented by indigenous associations and the maverick leader, Evo Morales, himself of Indian descent, have been leading the resistance against attempts to export Bolivian natural gas at what they consider to be disadvantageous terms for the country. The east, on the other hand, whose leaders would dearly love to see the natural gas flowing out of the country, has been clamouring for autonomy, which some believe may be the first step in a process which could end in the dismemberment of Bolivia.

Even by the standards of Bolivia's unsettled past -- the unpopular President Sanchez Losada was recently forced to resign as a result of a popular uprising which took place in the west of the country -- the current situation is highly explosive. This week, the no less unpopular President Carlos Mesa attempted to resign as well, but the Bolivian congress refused to accept his resignation. Meanwhile, the powerful Catholic Church has called for national conciliation.

Is Bolivia about to fall apart? Certainly the situation is critical. In the western region, a two- week-old strike calling for the resignation of Mesa, the dissolution of congress and a new constituent assembly, has left La Paz and nearby El Alto with serious food shortages. Meanwhile, heavily armed right-wing militias, calling themselves "blackshirts", have been promising to "defend" the interests of the east. Indigenous demonstrators who "dared" to set foot in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the major city in the east, have been brutally beaten in what many agree were horrifyingly racist incidents which television cameras recorded.

It is clear that Bolivia has a serious identity problem. Different Bolivian factions describe the strife plaguing their country through the lens of white versus indigenous, rich versus poor, "jackbooted fascists" versus "subversives".

Both Argentina and Brazil, Bolivia's largest neighbours and traditionally regarded as friendly by the Bolivians, have offered to mediate, but have thought better of it, as it became clear any intervention on their part could be misinterpreted. Corporate interests from both countries have invested heavily in the Bolivian natural gas sector, and as such could be viewed as politically motivated parties. As for the Organization of American States, of which Bolivia is a member, it too must tread carefully as to avoid being accused of taking sides.

The pressure is on for Mesa to resign, for a constituent assembly to be convened, as demanded by the indigenous protesters and by Morales, and for a referendum to be held in the western provinces, as demanded by leaders of the region, to decide whether these provinces should have more "autonomy". But for many, these demands are seen as impossible, as they threaten to divide the country's elite and hence, inevitably, the entire population.

The Catholic Church's call for national dialogue may be the only ray of hope. Though Bolivia may not get much attention outside the region, what happens there may have far-reaching implications. In the past two decades, military coups and calls for outright secession by disgruntled regions have been considered far- fetched scenarios in this part of the world, as democracy has begun to take hold.

If Bolivia's crisis results in either of these dramatic scenarios, a dangerous precedent will have been set in a continent where precedents mean a great deal. The only hope is that common sense and a renewed desire to forge a national identity may bring peace to a troubled country which has suffered more than most.

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