Bolivia at a Crossroads

In a previous essay, “Bolivia in Turmoil“, written during the week of demonstrations and marches that led to the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada on Friday October 17, I argued that the one sure result would be vastly increased power of the campesinos. But power to block things and power to achieve things are two entirely different sorts of power. It now remains to be seen whether Bolivia has friends who will help assure that the newly confirmed powers will be used constructively, in ways that will not exacerbate divisions and animosities.

The Disaster Model of Equatorial Guinea

On November 16 “60 Minutes” aired a program about Equatorial Guinea, another country with recently discovered fossil fuel reserves. There is no question that money has flowed into the country, which now has embassies that give lavish parties. But the money has produced increased oppression rather than affluence and well-being, since the funds are controlled by the president, largely for the benefit of himself and his family. There are, of course, occasional handouts. But there is no free press and no opportunity for public scrutiny of the scandalous waste of public assets. The principal energy company, Exxon Mobil, knows that it is financing tyranny, but apparently (it declined an invitation from “60 Minutes”) regards its collusion with the dictator as a fair price to pay for the stability needed to exploit the offshore oil deposits. Might that happen in Bolivia?

Certainly Bolivia is a different country with different traditions, and its future remains open. On the one hand there are forces working on the pattern Exxon Mobil has established in Equatorial Guinea. The popular opposition to President Sanchez saw his policy as moving in that direction. They regarded Bolivia’s 18% share of the proceeds as too small — in Equatorial Guinea it is only 12% — and they saw the bulk of the poor people in Bolivia being neglected for the sake of big profits of foreigners who are already rich. On the other hand there is already a free press in Bolivia, and a vigorous political tradition with campesino power. I think it unlikely that the deal in Bolivia would have been as bad as that in Africa. But the pattern did indeed look similar.

Distortions in The Times

There is perhaps an equal danger in Bolivia that the winner to emerge out the turmoil of October will be an indigenous leader who will establish an indigenous dictatorship. That is the danger of which Sanchez warned in his resignation letter, a warning which was echoed in a New York Times editorial of November 3, “Revolt of the Poor in Bolivia.” “Not since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores have Latin America’s Indians enjoyed the political influence they have today.” says the Times. “Sadly, however, the indigenous may not benefit. Leaders of the Bolivia protests, for example, advocate policies that would make the poor worse off.” After noting that part of the popular movement that carried the day was a backlash against globalization, the Times concludes, “The nationalism and economic ignorance of the opposition to the gas deal show where the indigenous movement is going wrong. . . they must distance themselves from a counterproductive populism and develop economic policies that really work to help the poor.”

Opposing ignorance falls into the same class as favoring motherhood and apple pie. But what is the “ignorance” the Times complains of? Just what are the economic policies of the indigenous movement? The Times notes the long history of wrongs, culminating in anger over Washington’s insistence on eradicating the profitable cash crop of coca. But the only hint of an economic policy they cite is: “Many Bolivians do not want their country to sell its gas at all.”

I do not know whether it is true that “many Bolivians do not want their country to sell its gas at all.” Rhetoric to that effect did occur during September and October, even on the part of members of Congress. There is a vagueness about “many” that makes the statement impossible to refute. Nonetheless the picture that it conveys is wholly misleading. It is as if one were to say that many Americans believe that there should be no restrictions at all on the possession and use of firearms. Not provably false, but highly misleading.

Bias in the Washington Diplomat

A report on Bolivia in the Washington Diplomat for December 2003 contains similar understandable errors – understandable because of the general ignorance of the press about Bolivia and the tendency to try to find the key players. That is not to excuse the errors, since they do betray a bias or two, and may also impede progress.

Where the Violence Was

One of the problems is the emphasis at the beginning of the story on the days of violent demonstrations. The problems started with blockades, which have been ruled a form of violence in German law (the cases involved sit-ins at entrances to munitions plants), and which are at least a form of confrontation. The deaths were initially caused not by demonstrations but by the government deciding to break the blockades by armed force. The first such attempt was in August or September, when tourists were evacuated from Sorata, a center for trekking. No deaths were directly due to demonstrators; the army killed a dozen or so. The second attempt came on the fateful day of October 12, when the army attempted to escort a convoy of trucks to replenish fuel supplies in La Paz, a confrontation that resulted in 34 deaths. Those deaths led at first to angry demonstrations the next day, leading to property damage in the streets (mostly paving stones removed for barricades against military reprisal; little or no looting) and 20 more deaths. The overall death toll is generally put at 70, among whom there was only one soldier/policeman.

The following days there were more demonstrations, culminating with 100,000 people in Plaza San Francisco on Thursday, the day before the resignation of President Sanchez, and the decisive day politically. There was again some property damage to hotels near Plaza Murillo, but the marches themselves showed discipline and determination and were entirely peaceful. In these days the main cry was for the resignation of the president, driven home at times by calling him a killer, and a prominent secondary slogan was that there should be no more blood should. The generally pacific nature of the marches and demonstrations does not come through in the reporting in the Diplomat or the Times.

Complexity of Indigenous Leadership

Another distortion is that only one peasant leader is named as a leader, Evo Morales. He is important. He is leader of the coca growers (cocaleros), enjoys the support of the miners and several other unions, is a member of Congress, and came in second to Sanchez de Lozada in the presidential polling in 2002. But the original protest was against the terms of the gas sale, and that was not initiated by Morales but by Felipe Quispe (known as “El Mallku”, “condor” in Aymara), also a member of Congress and the spokesman for the campesinos in the altiplano north of La Paz. (Morales has his base in the Chapare, south of La Paz and at a much lower elevation.) It is also Quispe who has developed the tactic of blockades, using them each year with increasing effectiveness. When Quispe’s campaign began to hit home last summer, Morales joined in and has not been reluctant to take credit; he has a much better public relations staff.

The Understanding of Exploitation

Though the campesinos are often thought to be ignorant, and indeed have poor schools, it will be wise to note the sophistication of Quispe’s understanding of the gas deal as another instance of the exploitation of Bolivia’s natural resources. Beginning with the Spanish, if not with the Incas, such exploitation has in the past resulted in increased wealth for foreign exploiters and increased oppression for the indigenous people. The powerful popular response to Quispe’s campaign demonstrates that this historical understanding is deep and constitutes a significant political factor today.

A Variety of Problems

The problem with this second distortion is that it leads commentators to say that the main issue in Bolivia is the US insistence on eradicating coca production, without effective alternative work for the cocaleros. That is a problem, but solving it will do nothing to satisfy Quispe and the campesinos whose complaints he voices. There are two problems that are thereby obscured: the plight of the campesinos in the altiplano north of La Paz, and the terms of the gas sale. Each of these is as important as the problems Morales and his constituents press.

The new president, Carlos Mesa, is a fresh face in national politics, and one must wish him well, as is done in the Diplomat. But wishing him well may not be enough. He faces the same problems as Sanchez, who, of course, could hardly take the underlying problems away with him when he left for Florida. In fact Sanchez has probably made them more difficult, by portraying those who forced him out as ignorant and irrational. His perspective is reflected not only in his letter of resignation but also in the New York Times editorial of November 3, which claims, as noted above, that “nationalism and economic ignorance of the opposition to the gas deal show where the indigenous movement is going wrong.” This perspective is a prescription for disaster.

Toward a Positive Future

There are two truths that must be in President Mesa’s mind and that need to anchor thoughts and policies toward Bolivia now:

Failing to export some of the huge reserves of natural gas spells economic suicide. Failing to revise the terms of the sale spells political suicide.

Given these two policy anchors, what is needed is help and advice about how to redefine the deal. Since the international consortium is reported to have already spent $3 billion developing the wells and the pipeline, delicate and complex negotiation will be required.

I read the daily La Razon every day during the week of work stoppage, marches, and demonstrations that led to the resignation of Sanchez de Lozada. (Even though churches, schools, banks, post offices, laundries, restaurants, shops were all closed, and street vendors absent and transport unavailable, all the media continued operations — a healthy sign indeed.) Economic ideas that appeared in the press included basing the gas deal on current (150 trillion cubic feet) rather than 1997 (2 TCF) proven reserves, raising Bolivia’s share of the proceeds from 18% to 50%, using gas for industrialization before exporting it, assuring benefits for Bolivia’s poor up front rather than down the line. There were other points raised about the gas deal that were more political than these, but these points were voiced with several variations.

My own sense of what is desirable for revising the gas deal is that it should include three features:

(1) something like 80% of the jobs at every level reserved for Bolivians, with training provided wherever necessary and even if this means some delay in the project;

(2) immediate development of plans for small-scale industrialization in at least three cities, Tarija, Cochabamba, and El Alto, with immediate jobs and job training; and

(3) immediate up-front infrastructure improvements (schools, roads, water, power) for the altiplano, using (and training) local labor wherever possible.

President Mesa and his country will need considerable international help in achieving a revision along these lines, but such a revision could well provide an international model for resource exploitation in other places.

NEWTON GARVER is SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and UB Professor of Philosophy Emeritus. He is co-author of Derrida & Wittgenstein (1995) and a frequent contributor to Buffalo Report, where this dispatch originally appeared.