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South America‘s poorest cousin on the verge of collapse?



bOLIVIA, This poorest country in the continent, that by the gap between rich and poor as well as by the number of analphabetic individuals exceeds all of its neighbour, is currently experiencing one of its worst constitutional crises ever. President Carlos Mesa announced his dismissal earlier this year, only two years after his predecessor found his way out of the presidential palace and into exile in the U.S.

The current situation has its roots in the long-lasting conflict between a big time capital and the country’s power elite on one hand, and the left-wing opposition on the other, over the rights to natural gas resources. The latter consists of various leftist activists, poor farmers, miners, students and natives, having as a common denominator their place of residence, the poor southern part of the country, area around the La Paz and high Altiplano areas. This conflict gained momentum following the demands of the Northeastern self-rule movements. The lowlands hold most of the gas and traditionally they have been a wealthier part of Bolivia.

The capital lies in the rugged highlands of the Altiplano, where there aren’t so many gas resources. This is an area known for its rough clime, with extreme temperature changes as well as little precipitation. Here the air is thin, and a lot of people take coca-leaves to withstand the extreme demands of the altitude. In the Altiplano we find Bolivia‘s 75% strong native population, who are divided into the Ketchwa and Aymara ethnic groups. The Bolivian natives own 10–15% of the land and its natural resources, and the residents of the Altiplano represent the lowest end of the social scale. Their living standard is generally lower than that of the white or Mestiso Bolivians, and they are also considerably less educated so that they risk stronger official (and non-official) discrimination.

To understand Bolivia‘s current stand one must go back in history. Ever since the independence in 1825, when the so-called High Peru (Alto Peru) was separated from the rest of the Peruvian Viceroy’s province and created into a sovereign republic, Bolivia seems to be the slowest pupil in the classroom. Bearing the name of liberator Simon Bolivar, no other country in the continent has had a more repressive power elite towards the natives, a worse gap between haves and have-nots, a higher illiteracy or higher number of military coups.

Throughout the history there have been some beacons of lights, like for example Victor Paz Estenssoro, who came to power after a popular revolt in 1952. His politics of nationalization made him very popular among the working class and in some sectors of the middle class. Even though Bolivia‘s living standard improved somewhat remarkably during the first term of his presidency, he still faced several attacks from the right-wing opposition in his second term. In the early 60s his coalition started disintegrating from within. In an effort to please the centrist and rightist sectors, he confronted the far left and lost much of his grass root voters in the process. His regime that once promised equal rights for all Bolivians became inefficient and authoritarian, and was ousted in November of 1964 by the armed forces in a coup supported to a high extent by the CIA.

 Leftist populism?

a large number of the natives work in mining industries or they are farmers. Very poor working conditions contributed to the growth of an Indian movement alongside other social progressive movements that in coalition defended the rights of the suppressed Bolivians. In this respect, the gas conflict is the tip of the iceberg. Many years of systematic abuse from the country’s power elite have led to the protests and violence of the latest decades. Through this process the establishment had to deal with the growth of an «Indian/native» elite that is well-educated and more than able to lead this somewhat «chaotic» social movement; the new elite which uses tactics such as civil disobedience, house or factory occupations, road blocks as well as long-lasting strikes to achieve their political goals in the struggle against established Bolivia.

The leading character of this huge popular movement is the highly controversial Evo Morales. Originally he started speaking out and defending the rights of coca farmers, at a time when the central government in La Paz was under heavy pressure from the Americans to crack down on their coca trail, subsequently banning all coca trade. The crackdown made life especially difficult for poor Highland and Sierra farmers, who’s main and sometimes the only income, depend on coca.

In the course of a few years the social movement has grown from anonymity to being a major political power factor. This success can partly be given to Morales. His rhetoric of social equality strikes well with the Bolivian lower classes; while at the same time it plays well the Nationalist card. His latest discourses have held references to «Bolivia’s full rights to its natural resources» as well as «the historical right to the sea». In neighbouring Chile, his comments have led to him being as near as possible to a status as «persona non grata».

  The way forward

eduardo Rodriguez’ appointment may seem like a compromise solution, although there are huge question whether he can deliver and satisfy every political sector. Bolivia‘s power elite cannot see their interests well kept by appointing a more progressive president and government, that will be under pressure of leftist sectors to defend the country’s natural resources from the trans-national companies. Rodriguez will have to face the challenge of the «self-rulers» in the North East, that has calm down for the time being, but which can and will blossom again.

One thing worth mentioning is the current state of non-belligerence of the Bolivian armed forces. Contrary to the old times, where the military would seize power at the least innuendo of crisis, today they are bystanders, they are not taking action unless situation gets out of hand. This is happening despite the great social unrest, demonstrations and almost alike civil war conditions in some parts of the country. Have the armed forces learned to separate public interest from their own political power motivations? If the answer is yes, then we can conclude that Bolivia‘s military is also embarking on the same course of positive democratization as their Argentinean, Brazilian and Chilean counterparts.

HUGE ISSUES IN NEED OF RESOLVING ARE LAYING AHEAd for Rodriguez and his administration. With no crisis in sight, he will have the time to work on re-establishing order in internal affairs as well as rebuilding a very fragile trust to the international community. The question is how long he will last in a country with a tradition of short-term presidencies. Not very much has to go wrong for his administration of «national unity and compromise», before the social-progressives on one side, and the right-winged parties, now stronger than ever and backed up by the north-easterners, take off their silk gloves. The consequence; yet another constitutional crisis that not only will prove destructive to the Bolivians, but one that will also have negative impacts in a continent that at the moment is in on the rise, both economically and politically.




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