Bolivia on the Brink

On May 6, President Carlos Mesa caught Bolivia off-guard. He announced that as a result of continual protests and growing blockades, he was no longer willing to, “govern based on the crazy things different sectors demand,” and planned to submit his resignation to Congress the next day. The unexpected announcement generated uncertainty throughout the nation that was paralyzed by 57different road blockades to obtain diverse and sometimes contradictory demands. Ironically, high levels of protest do not reflect inflexibility of the administration. Instead, the greater openness of the Mesa government, compared to its predecessors, heightened disenfranchised group’s hopes that there long-postponed needs might finally be met. At that time, strongest protests had been going on for six days in the Chapare coca-growing region and in El Alto. The resignation announcement represented an impromptu mini- referendum to generate public support for his administration, as well as a reaction to a genuinely untenable situation.

Mesa seemed to capitalize on the generalized fear of “what could come next” which had permitted him to remain office for seventeen months after the forced resignation of his predecessor. All groups in Bolivia and the US fear that if Mesa leaves office, he might be replaced with a right-wing hard-line president, greater military control, or with coca grower and MAS party leader, Evo Morales.


The Root of the Problem

The main point of friction continues to be coca growers’ and other groups demand that 50 percent of oil and gas profits to go to Bolivia as royalties instead of Mesa’s proposal of 18 percent royalties and 32 percent in taxes for the nation’s treasury. Critics of the Mesa bill maintain that the legislation does not guarantee that Bolivia will receive the full percentage. According to analyst Tom Kruse, taxes are also subject to international arbitration and future international trade agreements, allowing international fuel companies to reduce their payments.

Faced with this uncertainty, the Bolivian congress rejected Mesa’s resignation. Traditional parties, which had been part of the ruling coalition during the previous administration, signed a four point agreement to further Mesa’s legislative agenda and lift road blockades. The second largest party in the legislature, MAS, led by coca grower leader Evo Morales and the indigenous party, MIP, refused to sign the accord, although it nominally addressed some of the concerns of their constituencies. Both parties remain wary of renouncing alternative means of protest and throwing their lot in with parties that have historically marginalized and repressed them.

Mesa emphatically stated that his position on the gas issue was not a result of U.S. pressure. Instead he stated that all international funders and lenders were pressuring him and that he refused to adopt policies that would restrict aid to Bolivia when it is the most dependent and economically weak country in the region.


U.S. Critique of Mesa’s Drug War Performance Creates Further Pressure

The release of the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report just two days before Mesa’s announcement created additional pressure. The report blamed political instability for increased coca cultivation, harshly critiqued the Mesa administration for negotiating with coca growers, and questioned its ability to carry out policy:

The besieged Mesa Administration, at times, seemed more concerned with containing possible confrontations with cocaleros through negotiation and concessions than with the consistent application of the rule of law.

The impact of political instability on the GOB’s ability-or even its willingness-to fulfill its obligations over the coming years it remains unclear whether the Mesa Administration’s new five-year coca plan can successfully address its most pressing problem-the rapid growth of illicit cultivation in the Yungas.

Poor grades on the nation’s anti-drug report card could affect funding not only from the U.S., but from other international lenders. The critique came less than a month after the announcement that the U.S. planned to reduce antinarcotics assistance to Bolivia by more than 10 million dollars in fiscal year 2006. In a hearing justifying this budget Secretary of State, Condoleezza’s Rice, stated that the Bush administration was concerned about that party (MAS) and general political instability (La Razon 2/17/05).

Although support of Morales and his party provided internal stability for the administration, the relationship produced friction with the U.S. Critics hypothesized that Mesa’s pointed reproaches at Evo Morales in his resignation speech could represent a strategy to visibly distance himself from the coca grower leader and congressman in an attempt to curry favor with the U.S. and other international lenders in an effort to secure badly needed funding.

Mesa’s decision to focus on Morales and another union leader in his speech did turn mainstream public opinion against them. Morales denounced that he has received repeated death threats since the presidential message and has characterized the resignation announcement as “blackmail.” He has also begun to advocate coca grower demands again, especially impunity in human rights cases there. In his resignation speech, Mesa said that he refused to call out the military or police to clear blockades because he did not want to be responsible for civilian deaths. Morales countered that two coca growers were killed in September and October of 2004 and that there had been no investigation.


The Impact of the Resignation Threat

Although the Bolivian Congress refused to accept his resignation, the episode does not represent an all-out strategic victory for Mesa. He shifted his initial complaints about protesting sectors to key demands on Congress. The agreement signed with traditional parties does not guarantee their compliance, as these parties lost influence with Mesa’s inauguration and adoption of a cabinet without party affiliations. Furthermore, the possible prosecution of many of these party leaders for the death of over sixty civilians during the Sánchez de Lozada administration has deepened resentment.

Mesa has successfully shed his reputation as a weak leader, who promised everything to all parties, without being able to follow through. In a culture accustomed to blockades and other means of pressure in the absence of traditional democratic avenues to meet its needs, Mesa staged his own social protest, and is now viewed as stronger. Although as Vice President, Mesa stated that it was beneficial to have groups like MAS included in congress and government, his maneuver has pushed Evo Morales, coca growers, campesinos, trade unionists and other key groups into much more radical positions. As a result, the possibility of conflict resolution through dialogue appears even more distant.

Maintaining international funds and approval to pay the bills continues to be a priority. Influential donors, specifically the U.S., may press Mesa to end the entrenched blockades in the Chapare, especially around the oil wells there. As a result, a negotiated solution appears less probable than armed intervention by the security forces.

By citing the real need to maintain international funding, Mesa has created the impression with that he will cater to US and transnational dictates, a position unacceptable to protesting groups.

Blockades in the Chapare continue, as do those in the Alto and in Cochabamba, the nation’s third largest city, which is completely surrounded. Strikes and blockades also took place in Santa Cruz and Potosi. The so-called “silent majority” that has come out in support for Mesa has begun to call for strong-arm tactics against protestors. In several cities, confrontations have ensued between Mesa supporters and protestors. Strikes and blockades also took place in Santa Cruz and Potosi.

Battle lines have been drawn, once again, according to traditional alliances— the executive and traditional parties vs. more radical, historically-excluded social sectors. MAS, the largest trade union (COB), campesinos led by Felipe Quispe Huanca and seven other popular groups announced a coalition to continue protests and blockades on March 9. Fearing that his move had backfired, Mesa publicly apologized to Evo Morales, prompting an announcement from Morales that negotiations with the government still may be possible. It remains unclear whether Mesa’s political gamble will permit Bolivia to move forward as a nation or further polarize an already profoundly-divided society.

KATHRYN LEDEBUR is the director of the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. She can be reached at: