The Heritage Foundation
October 29 2003
riots that culminated in Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de
Lozada's resignation on October 17 were a means for marginalized
citizens to express frustration with exclusion from political
decision-making and participation in their economy. But for the
agitators who rallied behind them, the protests and their attendant
violence were a way to force a change in power. This should be a
warning to the Bush Administration of how discontent can be
channeled to empower leaders hostile to U.S. interests and the
region's fledgling democracies and markets.
stability and ensure ongoing cooperation in counternarcotics efforts, the United
States should encourage international support for Bolivia's precarious
democracy, enhance lagging U.S. public diplomacy efforts, and retarget
counternarcotics assistance to strengthen civil society and the rule of law.
Government on Thin Ice
Bolivia has enjoyed two decades of uninterrupted democratic rule and, thanks to
free-market reforms, an average economic growth rate of 4 percent during most of
the 1990s. Since 2000, however, successful elimination of 90 percent of the
country's illicit coca cultivation has caused the economy to contract, and
excessive government bureaucracy, weak rule of law, and inadequate property
rights block any compensating rebound. Because citizens living on the margin
cannot easily overcome these obstacles, 60 percent of Bolivia's citizens
continue to subsist on less than $2 per day.
counterdrug aid in the form of crop substitution programs has failed to boost
employment or cut poverty, and the transportation infrastructure needed to move
commodities to market has barely improved over two decades of assistance.
Moreover, none of the substitute crops, such as bananas, has a competitive
administrations of Presidents Hugo Banzer and Jorge Quiroga hoped to replace
lost coca income with natural gas exports from newly discovered reserves. But
President Sánchez de Lozada, elected in August 2002 in a runoff against coca
eradication opponent Evo Morales, ran into mounting opposition after trying to
impose new taxes on the middle class when the economy was sputtering, and then
neglected to communicate how gas sales could benefit the majority poor.
In September 2003, residents of the shantytowns surrounding La Paz took to the
streets to denounce government plans to construct a gas pipeline from the fields
near Tarija to the Pacific Ocean. At first, they complained that it would go
through rival Chile, which blocked Bolivian access to the Pacific following the
war in 1879. When President Sánchez agreed to consider rerouting the pipeline
through Peru, they switched their message to opposing foreign gas sales
Bolivia's coca growers generally did not participate in the protests, their
leaders--indigenous activist Evo Morales and coca growers union chief Felipe
Quispe--assumed prominent roles and claimed their movements would soon be in
power. The media generally attributed some 70 deaths to actions of Bolivia's
security forces, but the violence began when rural agitators shot at a
government convoy engaged in rescuing tourists held up by roadblocks in the
highlands. Later, some deaths reportedly resulted from accidents, rioters
wielding lit sticks of dynamite, and thugs intimidating non-participating
citizens. However, Morales accused the government of perpetrating a massacre.
support within the government, Sánchez resigned on October 17 and was replaced
by Vice President Carlos Mesa, who promised early elections and repeated
Sánchez's parting pledge to hold a referendum on the gas issue.
Halting gas sales may cost Bolivia billions of dollars in lost revenue, but
natural gas is a pawn in a much bigger power play. After bullying Sánchez from
office, Quispe gave President Mesa 90 days to adopt his pro-coca cultivation
agenda, or else violence would resume until special elections--not contemplated
under Bolivia's constitution--are arranged. If either Quispe or Morales becomes
president, the country could fracture from conflict between the highland poor
and more prosperous lowlanders.
it is likely that Morales, reportedly advised by European activists and backed
by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, would align Bolivia with Chavez's
authoritarian regime and Castro's Cuba. Both Quispe and Morales oppose coca
eradication efforts and, if elected, would set back the war against drug
trafficking and Colombia's attempt to reign in domestic narcoterrorists.
What Needs to Be Done
The Bush Administration was right to express confidence in President Mesa; but
to promote Bolivian stability, maintain prospects for prosperity, and salvage
cooperation against drug trafficking, the United States also should:
democracy and the rule of law.
Internal agitators seek an extraconstitutional special election to put their
leaders in office. U.S. officials should encourage all parties to abide by
Bolivian law and pursue any changes constitutionally, and the Bush
Administration should ask hemispheric allies like Brazil and Uruguay for their
support in monitoring and protecting Bolivia's democratic order.
Strengthen U.S. public
which have languished in Bolivia since the U.S. Congress cut all such programs
in the late 1990s. Bolivia's indigenous population is not monolithic. Embassy
outreach should be conducted in Aymara and Quechua, as well as in Spanish, to
promote moderate voices in the community. The U.S. Broadcasting Board of
Governors should consider adding indigenous dialects to the Voice of America's
South American broadcasts. International exchanges should be increased and
extended to promising indigenous leaders, not just government officials.
Retarget counternarcotics support.
While the political will to reduce excess coca cultivation must be addressed,
some of the $100 million in annual assistance should be redirected to land
titling to strengthen property rights and break up existing coca collectives,
leverage transportation improvements to get alternative crops to market, and
support local organizations that champion the rule of law and deeper
broad-based middle class through open markets must be Bolivia's first priority.
The United States should support that objective if it wants continued
cooperation on other issues such as the traffic in narcotics.
Johnson] is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The
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November 24, 2003