Bolivia Offers Cautionary Tale for FTAA Negotiators

Adam Saytanides

Evo Morales
South American leaders participating in November talks on the Free Trade Area of the Americas should look to recent events in Bolivia as a cautionary tale.

After six weeks of massive protests calling for his ouster, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada fled to Miami on October 17. Vice President and ex TV-journalist Carlos Mesa took over the presidency, but he may not hold the reins for long.

In Mesa’s inaugural speech he pleaded with indigenous leaders and union organizers who orchestrated the demonstrations to give him time to govern—and promised to hold presidential elections after organizing a referendum on who will control gas exports and convening a Constitutional Assembly.

Evo Morales likely would win if elections were held tomorrow. Morales, an Indian congressman and presidential hopeful, heads the Movement Towards Socialism party (MAS) and the powerful coca-growers union. He lost to Lozada in the 2002 disputed presidential election by 1 percent of the vote: Lozada received 22 percent to Morales’ 21 percent.

“We will give him a chance,” Morales said of Mesa. “He has a good message, but I don’t trust him too much. We will see if he keeps his word. But it will be very difficult for him in the face of pressure from the U.S. government.”

Lozada’s demise began in the arid, inhospitable altiplano region of Bolivia, land of the Aymara Indians, where a roadblock had been erected to protest the privatization and planned export of the country’s natural gas reserves. When the army was sent in September 5 to clear the road, six people were killed, sparking rioting and a general strike in La Paz.

As the weeks wore on, poor coca growers were joined by poor miners, who carried dynamite to battle military vehicles. The protests gained momentum on October 12 after the army killed several demonstrators in El Alto, a marginalized neighborhood of miners and campesinos on the outskirts of the capital. Hundreds of thousands of protestors—poor and middle-class alike—clogged the streets of La Paz, bringing the city to a standstill. When the dust finally settled, roughly 80 Bolivians had lost their lives, and Lorzada was out of power.

Morales and other indigenous leaders for months had warned of civil war if the government pushed ahead with plans to privatize Bolivia’s gas reserves. At the same time, Coca growers in the Chapare region were nearing a state of open rebellion over U.S.-sponsored eradication of coca, their staple crop.

Morales rose to prominence in the international anti-globalization movement during the April 2000 “water war” against U.S. corporate giant Bechtel, when he foiled plans to privatize the drinking water supply of his hometown of Cochabamba through organizing popular protests. His international profile was boosted further by the recent “civil coup.” Just one week after his rival’s resignation, a triumphant Morales traveled to Mexico City to speak before a left-leaning think tank and to address the Mexican Congress.

In that forum, Morales suggested that eventually Bolivia will export its natural gas for much needed economic development. But he said the back-room deal Lozada struck only benefits foreign corporations and the privileged few. As a result, he lamented, proprietary rights to the gas no longer belong to the Bolivian people.

“The fight is now to get the rights to the gas back,” Morales said. “If we can get control of the hydrocarbons back, then we can industrialize and export under better conditions.”

The Mexican Congress received Morales like a head of state, punctuating his speech with hollers and applause. In the Legislative Palace of San Lazaro Morales warned that more insurrections will follow if global financial institutions do not allow Third World countries to control their own destinies.

”The representatives of the World Bank had better listen to us,” Morales declared. “The World Bank and IMF and the transnationals must stop looting our natural resources, and stop privatizing basic services. … They must respect human life.”

By pushing forward with a plan to re-nationalize Bolivia’s natural gas industry, Morales may be asking for a showdown reminiscent of Fidel Castro’s sugarcane coup in Cuba. While speaking before Mexico’s Congress, he seemed to relish the idea of confronting the United States with the growing chorus of leftist South American presidents who now stand in open defiance of U.S. foreign and economic policy: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Lula de Silva of Brazil, and to a lesser degree, Nestor Kirchner of Argentina.

“Anti-imperialist thinking has grown around the world with Bush’s mistaken invasion of Iraq—and this thinking we should strengthen,” Morales said. “I dream of boosting this anti-imperialist message with a great summit including Fidel, Lula and Chávez, to show that we are united, and to make the North American imperialists think twice.”

Adam Saytanides is a producer for NPR’s Latino USA,” based in Austin, Texas.
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