BOLIVIA: COUNTRY IN CRISIS By Pierre Beemans (Article)


pierres photo

Pierre Beemans

My wife and I spent the first two weeks of February in Bolivia, visiting family and friends and taking in the Carnival celebrations that, while less known than those in Rio de Janeiro -- are among the most exuberant expressions of popular culture in Latin America. Our visit also gave us an opportunity to observe at first hand the political effervescence that had led the country to the brink of near-anarchy -- the meltdown of effective national government...


From southern Peru through Bolivia to northern Argentina, the Andes Mountains divide into an eastern and western range; between the two lie the high bare plains of the Altiplano plateau. The Altiplano is a paradoxical part of the world: the air is thin and cold, the agriculture is subsistence, and yet it is one of the oldest inhabited parts of the continent. Long before the Quechua-speaking Incas built their fortresses and temples from Cuzco to Cochabamba, the Aymara-speaking Tihuanaco civilization had constructed a huge citadel of massive stone walls and temples just south of Lake Titicaca. Today, 500 years after the Spanish conquered the Incas and decimated the native population to work the silver mines of Potosi (at 5,000 metres a.s.l), the Quechua and Aymara Indians still make up about 70% of Bolivia's population of 8,500,000. Increasingly, however, they have moved out of the bleak hamlets of the Altiplano and the mountain hillsides into the cities of La Paz, Cochabamba and El Alto, or into the eastern departments (counterparts of Canadian provinces) of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando..

The descent from El Alto to La Paz is surely one of the most spectacular urban itineraries in the world: the vast flat Altiplano comes to an abrupt halt a few hundred metres from the airport and the cliffs drop almost vertically in places nearly 1,000 metres within a few kilometres. Think of the Altiplano as a kitchen counter, with the centre of La Paz in the middle of the sink where the plug is. The highway twists back and forth down the side of the valley into the old city centre with its colonial churches and narrow 19th century streets. Then think of tens of thousands of small square brick houses perched one almost on top of the other, lining the edges of the sink right up to the counter. Those are the crowded working-class districts. The sink is cut away at one end where the valley continues to drop, the air becomes thicker and the temperature warmer as one passes through the commercial district with its new glass-walled skyscrapers down to the fashionable residential areas at the bottom of the valley where the new business, military and bureaucratic elites live. Like the traditional middle-class, they are largely Spanish-speaking and of mestizo or European background.

Everything that comes into La Paz, by air or by road (the trains no longer serve the city), comes through El Alto. When I first visited Bolivia 35 years ago, El Alto was just the airport with a few hundred one-storey houses for its workers on the edge of the plateau where the road began its descent into the La Paz basin. Today, it is a bustling assertive city of 750,000 overwhelmingly Aymara-speaking migrants from the countryside. Every day, several hundred thousand pour down the roads into La Paz to work in factories and offices, as street vendors and domestic servants. There are no fashionable residential areas or business and bureaucratic elites who live in Al Alto.

Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, has always had a chequered political history. For most of the past half-century it has alternated leftist populist regimes with military dictatorships. Poverty and over centralized government contributed to widespread corruption. In the 1970s and 80s Bolivia became one of the major sources of cocaine to feed the exploding global demand, and narcodollars quickly subverted the economic and political life of the country. The low point was probably reached in the early 80s when the annual inflation level reached 14,000% (sic) and General Meza, the President, was indicted as a narcocriminal.

By the mid-1990s, however, Bolivia seemed to have finally entered a period of relative economic and political stability. The tropical eastern lowlands, centred around the booming city of Santa Cruz, thrived on the exports of oil, gas and agricultural products to Brazil and Argentina. Poorly managed state enterprises, especially in mining, public utilities and railways, were being privatized and sold off to foreign investors; tens of thousands of workers were laid off in the process. The neoliberal government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada was the darling of the World Bank and the IMF and, while they prospered, of the urban middle classes. Bolivia's economic problems have deep social and structural roots, however, and the prosperity from Sanchez de Losada's policies were slow in trickling down to the poor urban and rural masses. As government subsidies were reduced or eliminated, foreign-owned utility companies raised the prices of water and electricity to realistic levels, provoking more popular unrest among the poor in the major cities.

Bolivia has no lack of other problems, as well. From colonial times, the cities, the government and the industries were in the highlands (whose inhabitants are known as "collas"); the eastern lowland plains and Amazon jungles were the hinterlands, sparsely peopled by ranchers and settlers from Europe and Brazil called "cambas". The collas have always had the political upper hand, but in recent decades it has been the cambas of the Oriente who have profited most from the discovery of oil and gas and the opening up to the markets of Brazil and Argentina. This has exacerbated the traditional rivalry between the two groups and many of the social and political leaders in Santa Cruz have come to see the government in La Paz and the impoverished peasantry of the highlands as obstacles to even greater prosperity.

Bolivia still carries the psychological, political and economic scars of the War of the Pacific in the 1860s, when it lost its Pacific provinces to Chile, from Antofagasta to the Peruvian border. Almost all of its imports and its manufacturing and mining exports now have to go through Peruvian or Chilean ports. There have always been enough demagogues in politics, the media and the military to ensure that no government could ever give up Bolivia's claim to access to the Pacific and of course, no government in Santiago would consider returning any of the land that Chile has held for a century and a half.

The Current Crisis

Despite the complicity of some military and political figures with the drug lords, the government has worked hard with assistance from the USA to eradicate the spreading coca plantations in the fertile foothills of the Yungas, where the Andes drop down into the Amazon basin, and in the broad valley of the Rio Chapare. As coca is far more profitable than subsistence crops, campesinos in these regions have worked equally hard to oppose the government programs: mass marches on the capital, blockades of highways into the major cities and, most recently, the formation of the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS), a populist vaguely left-wing political movement under Evo Morales, a charismatic peasant leader. Not to be outdone, the campesinos of the Altiplano flocked to another political grouping called the Movimiento Indigenista Pachacuti, led by Felipe Quispe, an Aymara populist. Quispe, who styles himself the Mallku or Leader), makes openly racist appeals to rural and urban Indians to reclaim from the urban middles classes the lands and the political power that were taken away over the centuries by the Spanish colonialists and their descendants.

In the middle of 2003, Sanchez de Losada thought the solution to the country's fiscal problems was to export more of Bolivia's ample supply of natural gas to foreign markets via a pipeline over the Andes to a Chilean port on the Pacific Ocean, and to increase the price of diesel and gasoline (the lowest in South America) in order to reduce high government subsidies. Tentative export agreements had been reached with Mexico, China and California, but opportunists and demagogues in the opposition parties and the media so inflamed public opinion over the idea of giving away Bolivian gas, especially through a Chilean connection, that the government had to back down. It also backed down on the price hikes in the face of demonstrations and strikes by truckers, bus drivers and shopkeepers, but to no avail: the tempo of marches, strikes, manifestations and blockades increased.

In early October 2003, the government used the army to break up blockades of the access roads in El Alto and 67 people were killed. Mass protests ensued across the country; the army and police withdrew their support and the President fled the country for his life. The Vice-President, Carlos Mesa, assumed the presidency but with very limited political power: he was a well-known TV entrepreneur and personality who had been brought in to add lustre to the cabinet, but who had no strong party base.

In his concern to avoid violence, Mesa has tended to yield whenever challenged. For example, when the privatized, French-owned utility company raised the cost of water connections in El Alto, the city administration organized massive protests and blockades; he gave in and cancelled the contact with the company. Since then, miners' and farmers' unions have been agitating for similar measures against other foreign corporations and large landholders.

The rhythm of blockades and strikes continued through 2004, no solution was reached concerning oil and gas exports and domestic prices, and by the end of the year the cambas had had enough. In January 2005, a self-appointed "Civic Committee of Santa Cruz" organized a mass meeting of over 300,000 people and advanced a demand for political and economic autonomy for the department. Beni, Pando and Tarija soon made similar demands (relatively mild, in terms of the kind of autonomy enjoyed by Canadian provinces), and even some highland departments joined in. Politicians and the popular media in La Paz and Cochabamba accused the Santa Cruz Committee of having separatist ambitions and secret support from Brazil and Chile. The army announced that it would ensure that Bolivia remained indivisible. Wilder spirits talked of the risk of civil war.

President Mesa calmed things down in early February by promising that departmental autonomy would be on the table for discussion during a Constituent Assembly to be convened in September 2005, for the purpose of amending or re-writing Bolivia's constitution. Meanwhile, he announced that departmental prefects (governors) would henceforth be elected by popular vote rather than named by the central government. How the Constituent Assembly will unfold or come to any kind of durable constitutional agreement is anybody's guess, and it is not even clear whether the Constitution needs re-writing. Support for the mainstream political parties (the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, the Alianza Democratica Nacional and the Movimiento Izquierdista Revolucionario) has collapsed in the last two years, the new populist movements have not been able to consolidate themselves politically and are bitterly divided among themselves, the civic movements in various departments have no national vision and no leaders with national appeal.

Meanwhile, within a week of our departure in mid-February, there had already been three more blockages on major routes into La Paz. On March 6, President Mesa offered his resignation to Congress, saying that he could no longer govern under such conditions. In the following days, his aides tried to negotiate with Congress the conditions under which he might agree to stay on, notably the passage of new legislation to govern foreign investment in oil and gas and their exportation, as well new Presidential elections. On March 16, the negotiations broke down and President Mesa resigned.

A dim prospect

In the face of such challenges and of the widening divisions along regional, racial, economic and social lines, as well as in the absence of political leadership (or even of anything resembling a consensus about what the country should be), one is tempted to be a bit gloomy about the prospects for Bolivia. The USA has recently named Bolivian instability as one of its three major concerns in Latin America. However, Bolivia has survived other daunting crises before and it will probably muddle through this one as well. Bolivians are becoming more and more fed up with the blockades and the paralysis of government; as a result, Mesa's political popularity has begun to rise in inversion proportion to the opposition he has encountered from the traditional parties and the populist movements. An astute communicator, he may be able to capitalize on this support and out-manoeuvre the populists for the votes of the people, thereby surviving until the next crisis. If he does not and sticks to his resignation, and if no viable replacement can be found until the next elections, it is not farfetched to assume that the armed forces will step in to take over the reins of government. That prospect is so dismaying that it may impel all sides to step back from the brink. But then again, it may not.

March 18,2005

Pierre Beemans

Tags: Pierre Beemans