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BOLIVIA
Country on the edge
José Antonio Aruquipa
6/2/2005
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Government under pressure from protests demanding the president’s resignation.

The precarious stability in which the Bolivian government is currently living is a sign of the profound problems that not only threaten President Carlos Mesa’s government but national integrity as well.

Although protests are commonplace in La Paz, the seat of the Bolivian government, the conflict intensified on May 5 when Congress passed a new energy law that would increase taxes for the 15 foreign companies operating in the country to 50 percent of their revenues. La Paz was turned into a battle camp after the announcement, as thousands of campesinos, teachers, miners and merchants organized marches, which led to confrontations with the police.

While the trigger for this wave of protests was the passing of the hydrocarbon law, participants have become more radical, now demanding the nationalization of the country’s energy resources along with Mesa’s resignation and the closure of Congress. "Bolivia is experiencing a cyclical crisis with unpredictable effects," warned Jorge Lazarte, an analyst and former adviser of the Bolivian Workers Central and judge in the National Electoral Court (CNE).

"We have reached the stage of tribal society," he said. "Anything can happen."

Excluded and isolated

The majority of demonstrators is of indigenous origin and come from rural areas where 90 percent of the country’s extreme poverty is concentrated. Many lack electricity, safe drinking water and health care, according to official records.

Their isolation in a democracy that "has benefited a small group within (Bolivian) society" has driven them to organize protests demanding urgent change, according to political scientist Jimena Costa.

"Historically, there had not been equal political participation. Some groups, mostly limited to those of Western backgrounds, have administered political power, and that was accompanied by the exclusion and poverty, rendering many second-class citizens," said Costa.

After the so-called "gas wars", that led to the resignation of former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in October of 2003, as a means to placate the debate on the ownership of Bolivia’s hydrocarbon reserves, Mesa’s government called for a five-question referendum on July 18, 2004. This resulted in a "mandate order" and the need for given a new law for the sector.

Mesa presented at least three distinct versions of the law to Congress, but the legislative body ended up passing a law that would create a tax of 50 percent of the oil production and ordered the businesses to subscribe to the new contracts within 180 days. Before the law, businesses paid a tax of 18 percent of their revenues.

In addition to the worry expressed by foreign companies, social sectors rejected the law’s wording as "favoring the transnationals" thus beginning their attacks on Congress and Mesa.

Mesa, on the other hand, declined to use his presidential veto power, allowing Congress to pass the law.

Demands become extreme

The president’s attitude unleashed a wave of criticism that led to demands that the hydrocarbon reserves be nationalized.

For Miguel Zubieta director of the Bolivian Federation of Mining Workers "the nationalization of gas (reserves) is the objective of Bolivians; if we do not succeed now, we will suffer another 60 or 80 years of poverty."

But the ownership of the hydrocarbon reserves is not the only problem facing the government.

Since January, the civic leaders of Santa Cruz — the country’s most prosperous department which generates 30 percent of nation’s revenue and where 50 percent of foreign investment is concentrated — have pressed for a referendum of autonomy and the election of prefects, that would need to take place according to a unilateral decision in the region on August 12.

The demand, which was sent to the CNE was rejected by Deputy Evo Morales and his Movement to Socialism (MAS) party that threatened more protests if the constitutional assembly, announced by Mesa when he assumed the presidency, was not founded before the autonomy referendum.

Indecisive government

Lazarte warned that "the government itself" had contributed to worsening the problems with their lack of decision making, resignation announcements, and of acceleration of the elections.

"Sadly, the government is part of the problem. No one is leading, it is a big game of chess in which the pieces move on their own accord," he said.

The most recent protests were accompanied by rumors of a suspected coup and the public demand by two military officials for Mesa’s resignation in order to "form a military government". A military tribunal discharged Lt. Cols Julio Herrera Pedrazas and Julio César Galindo to resign after they appeaed on television requesting that Mesa step down from the presidency.

Mesa rejected that possibility and said that his duty is to finish his term, which ends on August 6, 2007.

Although on May 26, the social movements made a truce with the government, giving Congress time to debate on the autonomy referendum and the constitutional assembly, for General Alvin Anaya, former head of the Armed Forces, the situation in Bolivia can be described as "a growing piece of dynamite with a shrinking fuse."


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