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Jim Shultz: Bolivia In Turmoil

The Democracy Center On-Line
Volume 65 - June 8, 2005

Bolivia is once again in the international news and with good reason. For three weeks the capital city of La Paz has been largely shut down by protests. The President has announced his resignation. The Congress is poised Thursday to hand the Presidency over to one of its leaders, an action which could easily spark deep and prolonged violence here.

These events change quickly and I encourage those interested to keep up via The Democracy Center's Blog from Bolivia at:


By Jim Shultz

As I write this, here is where things stand in Bolivia.

For three weeks the capital city of La Paz has been besieged with protests - largely from the Aymara Indian communities of neighboring El Alto and the vast altiplano highlands - demanding that the country retake control of its gas and oil reserves and that the government convene a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the national constitution. These protests have effectively shut down the national government and, along with smaller actions in Cochabamba and elsewhere, have effectively shut down ground transportation in much of the country. The US is encouraging its "non-essential" personnel to leave Bolivia.

On Monday night, Bolivia's President, Carlos Mesa, announced his resignation in a televised speech to the nation. He said he was stepping down in the hope that a change in government might help end the protests and bring about the first steps toward national calm and unity. On Thursday the Bolivian Congress will meet in the city of Sucre (where it hopes to escape the protests in La Paz).

Absent some sort of dramatic development, the Congress will accept Mesa's resignation and the Presidency will fall into the hands of Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez, a deeply polarizing figure with little public support. At various points in the current political crisis Vaca Diez has criticized the President for "not governing", Bolivian shorthand for using the army to crush the protests. If he takes over the Presidency this week Bolivia seems headed on a clear road toward deepened conflict, and more than likely, an explosion into violence.

How Did Bolivia Get Here?

As I have written before, the events happening this week in Bolivia are the natural outcome of economic policies set in motion over the course of two decades, market-driven economic reforms imposed on Bolivia (and other poor countries) by two US-dominated institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This is how I explained it in an article posted today by the New York Times:

"The bottom line is that Latin America is in open rebellion of the economic policies of the Washington Consensus," said Jim Shultz, director of the Democracy Center, a group in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba that is critical of free market reforms in the country. "Sometimes it happens in the ballot box. Sometimes it happens on the street, like in Bolivia. It is in essence the same rebellion."

The current battle over public control of gas and oil is Bolivia's fifth major public uprising on an issue of economic globalization in as many years, stating with the Cochabamba water revolt in 2000. What is happening here - and in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and elsewhere - is not an ideological movement. It is not the second coming of Che. Latin Americans are rebelling against the practical failure of these policies. In Bolivia that rebellion is in the streets.

That economic rebellion goes hand in hand with the demand by a large portion of Bolivia's indigenous majority for a remaking of the political map, in a way that will give them political influence and power akin to their majority numbers. That is a demand 500 years in the making.

Protests - Pro and Con To be sure, if one talks to average people on the street here in Cochabamba, one can find a good deal of resentment toward the protests and the people behind them. Many Bolivians in the city just want to work, just want their children to be able to go to school, and just want to be able to buy groceries without a fear of the city being cutoff. I find that a majority of people I talk to here support the movement's demands for return of the gas and oil (and more than 90% voted to do that in a national referendum last July). What they don't support is the tactics of road blockades and economic disruption.

Leaders of the demonstrations are quick to ask, "What other tactic do we have that will make the government listen?" People have gone on hunger strikes, have crucified themselves in the country's main plazas, have made their case in the media. None of these is sufficient to counter the invisible pressure being brought to bear on the other side by the likes of the IMF and British Petroleum.

Bolivia is a nation that once sat atop a mountain of silver (Potosi) that helped bankroll the Spanish Empire for three centuries. It ended up the poorest country in South America. For many Bolivians the choices would appear to be - either challenge the government in the street or allow history to repeat itself with the nation's vast petroleum reserves.

The US has charged that the protests here are being fueled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a strong anti-US critic in the region. That reminds me of the Bolivian government's bogus claim five years ago that the Bolivian water revolt was being fueled by drug traffickers (as opposed to Bechtel's huge water price hikes). Whether you agree with the protests or disagree with them, there is no question that they are rooted in genuine Bolivian anger at the giveaway of the nation's gas and oil.

What Next? So much depends on what happens in the Congress Thursday. President Mesa himself took to the airwaves again last night, calling on the Senate President and his House counterpart to resign and allow succession of the Presidency to fall to the head of the Supreme Court, an act that would automatically trigger new national elections in August. He warned that the nation was on the brink of a civil war.

But political ambition runs deep among the nation's elite and it is clear that Mr. Vaca Diez is working overtime behind the scenes to arrange his ascension to the Presidency.

It is make-a-deal time again in Bolivian politics and a politician within reach of the Presidency has a lot to deal. When Mesa took over in 2003 he declared the administrative apparatus of government off limits for party operatives. That is a lot of lucrative patronage and opportunity for corruption snatched out of their hands. If you invested tens of thousands of dollars in your party's efforts to capture the spoils of governing and then get denied those spoils (like becoming a vice-minister), how are you supposed to get back your investment?

We will do our best to keep our readers informed in the tense days ahead, though regular postings on our Blog from Bolivia. You can find it at:


THE DEMOCRACY CENTER ON-LINE is an electronic publication of The Democracy Center, distributed on an occasional basis to more than 2,500 nonprofit organizations, policy makers, journalists and others, throughout the US and worldwide. Please consider forwarding it along to those who might be interested. People can request to be added to the distribution list by sending an e-mail note to: Newspapers and periodicals interested in reprinting or excerpting material in the newsletter should contact The Democracy Center at "". Suggestions and comments are welcome. Past issues are available on The Democracy Center Web site.


SAN FRANCISCO: P.O. Box 22157 San Francisco, CA 94122 BOLIVIA: Casilla 5283, Cochabamba, Bolivia TEL: (415) 564-4767 FAX: (978) 383-1269 WEB: E-MAIL:

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