Bolivia's retreat from civil war

John Crabtree
9 June 2005

The Bolivian congress on 9 June decided to accept the resignation of Carlos Mesa, and to appoint the president of the supreme court, as an interim president, pending fresh presidential and congressional elections. The move will help defuse a growing and potentially violent confrontation that Mesa had described as pushing Bolivia towards “civil war”.

Until the very last minute, it seemed as though Mesa would be succeeded by the president of the senate, Hormando Vaca Díez, backed by the country’s discredited political parties and right-wing business elite in Santa Cruz, its main economic hub. However, bringing forward the date of elections will not remove the sources of antagonism which had brought hundreds of thousands of protesters in to the streets in the preceding weeks in support of constitutional reform and re-nationalisation of the hydrocarbons industry. The protesters feel empowered by recent developments.

Bolivia’s two faces

Bolivia is a country with a strong and assertive civil society but one with a historically weak state. In the past, the country’s miners orchestrated popular social organisation. They provided the core of the union movement, which the Central Obrera Boliviana (Cob) used to wield strong influence over national politics. Unlike most other Latin American countries, Bolivia retained a unified labour movement.

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The power of the miners and the Cob went into sudden decline in 1985, when faced with a drop in tin prices, the state company faced bankruptcy. Some 25,000 miners lost their jobs in the following few years. Many of the miners left the mining areas for work in other parts of the country.

It was only in 1999 that public protest once again became a potent force. Faced with the privatisation of its water supply, the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city, took to the streets to force the government to back down. Their success provided a strong boost to the self-confidence of “people power”.

Four years later, in October 2003, it was the people on the street in El Alto, the sprawling working-class township on the fringes of La Paz, whose protests forced the resignation of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. On this occasion, the mobilisations were aimed at plans to export Bolivia’s natural gas reserves to the United States via a pipeline through Chile, Bolivia’s traditional enemy.

In spite of their militancy, Bolivian popular movements remain fragmented. This reflects the country’s geographical, social, cultural and ethnic diversity. Sources of dissatisfaction in the eastern lowlands of Santa Cruz focus on land concentration, whereas in Cochabamba the focus is on the eradication of coca, the raw material for cocaine. In the highland Altiplano, close to La Paz, the main issue is one of ethnic identity and respect.

However, the development of the country’s gas wealth has become a rallying cry around which the disparate element can unite. Passage of a contentious new hydrocarbons law was the trigger for recent disturbances. Possessors of the second largest reserves of gas in Latin America outside Venezuela, many Bolivians ask themselves what they stand to get out of the exploitation of gas by multinational companies; not much, is their answer.

There have long been two strands running through Bolivian politics: mobilisation and protest on the one hand, and constitutionalism on the other. Often these have run at cross-purposes. During much of the 1980s and 1990s, political parties made most of the running and politics became less confrontational and more institutionalised. However, the political parties have been widely discredited as ineffectual, self-interested and corrupt. The resurgence of popular protest has fed on people’s feelings of disillusionment with parties as vehicles of change.

Dissent has also been fed by the shortcomings of economic liberalisation, particularly in generating employment and boosting people’s meagre incomes. Privatisation, it was claimed in the 1990s, would bring half a million jobs. However, the record has been meagre, and Bolivia remains one of Latin America’s poorest countries. The most dynamic sectors of the economy – hydrocarbons and agribusiness – have brought scant returns for most Bolivians, while further accentuating social and regional inequalities.

At the same time, the country’s economy remains perilously dependent on the goodwill of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, agencies that have helped steer the direction of economic policy-making over the last two decades. Much of the government’s social spending is financed through the Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiative, which relies on World Bank support and the continuance of pro-market reform.

Bolivia also comes under strong pressure from the United States, whose government is wedded to ending the cultivation of coca. The emergence of Evo Morales as a key political actor owes much to his defence of the interests of the coca farmers of Cochabamba.

Bolivia’s threat by example

The United States has a long history of intervening in Bolivian politics, and many Bolivians regard coca eradication as but the latest chapter. They see that successive governments have been more willing to attend to Washington’s drug agenda than to the livelihoods of coca farmers. Anti-American sentiments therefore find a receptive audience; when, just prior to the 2002 presidential elections, the then US ambassador warned voters not to support Evo Morales, his popularity surged. In the end he only narrowly missed being elected president.

Washington therefore views recent developments in Bolivia with concern. At the June 2005 annual meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Condoleezza Rice, the United States secretary of state, sought unsuccessfully – to reinforce the OAS’s capacity to intervene “in support of democracy”. The main threat, it would seem, comes from Andean countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

John Crabtree is the author of Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia (Latin America Bureau, 2005)

Coca apart, a key concern is that Bolivia will turn its back on the liberalising economic reforms. The demand to renationalise the hydrocarbons industry, which has become the watchword in recent weeks among protesters in La Paz and elsewhere, is a direct assault on the politics of the Washington Consensus. Morales and others have also played a leading role in opposing Bolivia’s involvement in any free-trade agreements with the United States.

There is also concern that the Bolivian example may prove destabilising elsewhere. The countries of the southern cone of Latin America – Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay – have all voted in left-of-centre governments, revealing the growing unpopularity of orthodox liberal economics. Events in Bolivia may have some knock-on effects in Ecuador, whose president, Lucio Gutierrez, was ousted recently on a wave of popular unrest. In neighbouring Peru, the Toledo administration is universally unpopular, and – as in Bolivia – dissent is increasingly taking the form of direct action, rather than being channelled through parliament.

But perhaps of most immediate concern for Washington are Morales’s links with Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. Their extent is unknown, but Morales has visited Caracas on several occasions. With elections now being brought forward in Bolivia, Morales is one of the more likely winners of the presidential sash. Coupled to his ties to the coca farmers, the idea of a Chávez lookalike taking office in La Paz is anathema to Washington.

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