LEARNING FROM AN OUSTED PRESIDENT
Artículo publicado con autorización
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 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. http://www.ips-dc.org