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Artículo publicado con autorización del autor.

Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada's recent ouster, following weeks of deadly protests in which up to 80 Bolivians died, offers the Bush administration a welcome opportunity to revamp U.S. policy in Latin America.

Outrage against this U.S.-educated millionaire, who speaks Spanish with an American accent, was sparked by a controversial plan to export natural gas to Mexico and the United States through neighboring Chile, when Peru offered better terms. Opponents objected because it benefited Chile, a perennial rival after Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile in the 1879 War of the Pacific.

Matters came to a head when Bolivians learned the multinational engineering firm Sánchez de Lozada hired to complete an "impartial" study of the gas project, had close ties to the Bechtel Group and to three foreign companies involved in the gas venture.

A Bechtel subsidiary generated a storm of protest in Bolivia three years ago when it raised local water rates in the city of Cochabamba. Bolivian peasants, believing access to clean water was a human right, eventually defeated the effort. They charged that no one has the right to lease the rain.

But there's much more than natural gas behind Bolivia's riots. They quickly developed into a popular referendum on globalization, U.S. meddling in Bolivian affairs, and the use of force to suppress the demonstrators.

The gas proposal tapped deep discontent with a decade-old free market experiment that increased the huge gap between rich and poor. A free-market advocate, Sánchez de Lozada privatized state-run businesses and ushered in other "reforms" during his first term, from 1993 to 1997. The president defended his gas export plan, calling it a "gift from God," but few Bolivians, nearly half of whom earn less than $2 daily, believed the average citizen would benefit.

Popular unrest also underlined discord with U.S.-backed anti-coca growing policies, which deprived thousands of peasants of their livelihood. Highlighting the cost of the coca war, Sánchez de Lozada complained in a private interview just before his fall, "the United States asks a lot but offers little." President George W. Bush had just rejected a $150 million loan request to plug a gap in the Bolivian budget.

Unable to force change in the legislature, indigenous leaders opted for street mobilization. This political empowerment of native peoples in Bolivia is part of a regional trend, also evident in Ecuador and Peru.

Bolivia's Andean neighbors share its problems. Economic and political stability has become increasingly fragile, even in countries like Peru where the economy is performing relatively well. In response, Washington has beefed up its military presence, recently announcing new bases in Ecuador and Peru.

In the increasingly futile war on drugs, the Bush administration has pushed Bolivia and Peru to adopt zero tolerance, ignoring the centuries-old socioeconomic role of coca production. In both states, the plant is used legally and doesn't just serve as the main raw ingredient for cocaine.

Events in Bolivia simply highlight many concerns of most Latin American states. For example, the recent Free Trade Area of the Americas talks in Miami exposed widespread disagreement on both globalization and U.S. trade policies.

President Carlos Mesa Gisbert, vice president under Sánchez de Lozada, in mid-November hosted a two-day Ibero-American summit in Santa Cruz. When the protestors who had forced Sánchez de Lozada from office only a month earlier held an "alternative summit" at a nearby university, Mesa dropped in to talk with the disaffected, something his predecessor would never have done.

At the summit, President Mesa's colleagues strengthened his hand, issuing a statement in support of democracy in Bolivia and promising financial aid. The summit also approved a plan, championed by Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, to allow debtor nations, like Bolivia, to reduce debt payments, investing the money instead in infrastructure projects.

After ignoring Latin America up to now, the Bush administration recently promised a fresh start. Bolivia is a good place to begin a fundamental reevaluation of U.S. policies, as part of a wider effort to rebuild confidence and stability in the region.

(Ronald Bruce St John)


Ronald Bruce St John, a Foreign Policy in Focus analyst, has published extensively on Latin American issues, including "La Política Exterior del Perú" (1999). He wrote this for the Institute of Policy Studies. The Institute for Policy Studies is the only multi-issue progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. Through books, articles, films, conferences, and activist education, IPS offers resources for progressive social change locally, nationally, and globally.

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