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Thirty-three people were killed in a shoot-out with army officers in front of the presidential palace. Fourteen more were killed when a mob of angry demonstrators set fire to a gas station. When 30,000 fervent demonstrators descended on the Bolivian capitol—which, in a stroke of tragic irony, is named La paz (“The peace”)—they came with a list of 72 demands on president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. The first demand was for him to leave office.
These last two weeks of intense rioting, looting and over 65 deaths have left the landscape littered with destroyed toll booths and cut-down lamp posts and the major Bolivian city of El Alto with a severe food shortage. But this weekend, the protesters got their wish; President Sanchez has now fled to Miami.
The source of this extreme and violent outcry that toppled the executive branch of Bolivia’s government was the president’s desire to make his natural resource-rich nation a player in the global economy—a move that Bolivia was clearly not ready to embrace. Sanchez’s plan involved exporting some of Bolivia’s abundant natural gas to willing buyers in Mexico and California. The idea met stiff resistance from the Bolivian population, who scoffed at the notion that the gas pipeline would need to pass through the Chilean coast, since the coastline in question was part of Bolivia before it was lost to Chile in a war fought between 1879-1883. This troublingly isolationist stripe of the Bolivian masses was pointedly at odds with the personality and ambition of president Sanchez, the 73-year-old, American-educated former mining executive.
Given Sanchez’s tenuous hold on power—he was reelected 14 months ago with only 22 percent of the vote in the same election that ushered in a much more leftist Congress—and his easy association with the dreaded ‘foreign influences,’ it is no surprise that he was easy prey for the likes of Evo Morales, who led the Movement Toward Socialism in strikes and rioting. Morales has criticized Sanchez for his gas project and for his efforts to put tighter controls on the Bolivian production of cocoa, a crop despised by American officials trying to stem the cocaine epidemic but a key income source for the peasant class—many of whom live of less than $5 a week.
Sanchez’s resignation seems to have allayed some of the fears of the crowds, who are now starting to disperse, but it is still essential for the U.S. to keep a close eye on Bolivia, the poorest—and now most politically fragile—nation in the region. When Sanchez stepped down, he handed power to his vice-president, Carlos Mesa, who is seen as an independent voice from the previous regime but has only been in government for one year—joining Sanchez’s ticket as vice-president after a career as a television journalist. Fears of Mesa being a political novice were in no way assuaged when his first address included promises of measures, like a national referendum on the gas project, that are clearly unconstitutional.
With a novice in the top office and radical forces still playing on the xenophobic resurgence, such as Indian Leader Felipe Quispe, who has assembled his own “Indigenous Congress” outside the Bolivian capitol, the situation is far from settled. With far left Hugo Chavez leading next-door Venezuela into financial ruin, Bolivia stands particularly vulnerable; rumors of Chavez’s involvement in this latest uprising should be enough to rouse U.S. attention to this region’s fragility. If America learned nothing else from the last Brazilian economic crisis and its extraordinary domino effect, it is that the U.S. ignores the plight of South America at the risk of its own economic health.
Bolivia’s brush with disintegration and violent socialist insurrection should remind the U.S. to retain an active interest in nations that have been paying the high prices of America’s market-based reforms. The U.S. cannot afford to leave these countries without help in emergency situations and without advice on, and support for, long-term growth.
As dozens were killed in Bolivia and the nation was being literally disassembled by dynamite-carrying throngs, the U.S. did send help—a six-person assessment team charged with securing its own embassy building. The administration, and the American public, needs to increase its commitment to nations like Bolivia—for their health and for ours.
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