Bolivia's Political Earthquake

Andean Time Bomb

Aymara peasants lay stones over the road from Cochabamba to La Paz, Bolivia, Sept. 23, to protest attempts to export natural gas from Bolivia to neighboring Chile.(Photo: AFP/Aizar Raldes)

In the 1980s and ’90s, Bolivia became a laboratory for the International Monetary Fund’s experiments. The IMF recommended cutting public spending and privatizing state-owned companies. President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, elected to his first term in 1993, was a star pupil, and in two years the government sold its five largest enterprises: Oil, telecommunications, airlines, electricity, and the railroads were all privatized.

In 1997, the World Bank took aim at the water system and offered the government US$600 million in debt forgiveness in exchange for privatizing it. Bechtel, a powerful California firm, won a contract, with no other bidders, to manage the city of Cochabamba’s water supply until 2039. The price of water soared, setting off large popular protests. Cochabamba rose up against the company and recovered one of its basic rights: water. In early 2000, Bechtel left Bolivia, the water contract was voided, and a new, publicly owned company took over.

This experience set the stage for a series of battles in the natural resources sector, leading up to the so-called Gas War, which blew up when plans to export natural gas to California and Mexico were announced. The gas was supposed to be piped via Peru or Chile, considered by experts to be the best routes from a technical point of view, but the story ended with the president’s resignation. This was the spark that ignited the discontent aroused by the eradication of coca fields, following Washington’s guidelines.

[Bolivia’s new president, Carlos] Mesa, spoke of looking to those who have been excluded for centuries: the indigenous population. With the tin and silver mines exhausted, natural gas is the only natural resource left, and the only thing that can keep the country solvent. What to do with it is the million-dollar question and the hot potato confronting Mesa, a historian without political experience, who has inherited a country immersed in its most serious crisis in two decades.

His promise to govern with indigenous people and the announcement of proposals such as a referendum to decide the gas issue and a constitutional convention have deactivated, for now, the popular revolt. But his decision to exclude the traditional political parties from his Cabinet has upset those politicians, who have shortsightedly announced that they will not help out. They ought to look at Ecuador, Peru, or Venezuela, where this issue has had serious consequences.

Mesa asked for a truce and has said that only by respecting plurality and diversity can a realistic Bolivia be constructed. Bolivia needs a respite with a modicum of social harmony, and the president deserves a grace period and everyone’s help. Help from the organizations that launched and carried out the revolt—and from Washington, which should pull back on its drastic plan to cut coca production if it wants to contribute to Bolivia’s stability. Some assistance from Divine Providence would help, too. Bolivia is a time bomb: The majority of its people get by on less than $80 per month. Today the indigenous people have a strong voice. The question is whether they will know how to make use of it, now that they have the opportunity.