A coup looms – maybe -- in Bolivia

Bolivia, to which democracy returned in 1982, used to be called Latin America's youngest democracy; but if things continue to spiral out of control here in the next few days, it may very well shed its twenty—three year history of democracy and return, once again, to rule by a de facto military government.

As I file this report from La Paz late Thursday evening, President Carlos Mesa is meeting with members of his cabinet. What most people don't know is that he is also meeting with senior officials of the country's armed forces.

In other buildings around the city and around the country, the leaders of Bolivia's main political parties are in closed meetings with their regional representatives.  And throughout the capital, people are telephoning one another to share bits of information, rumors, fears. Earlier this evening, I overheard a senior representative at an international organization canceling all trips out of the country.

The only thing that is certain is that no one—not even President Mesa—really knows what is going to happen in the next 48 hours.

Bolivian Brinksmanship?

But before jumping to the conclusion that a military take—over of the country is imminent, readers should be aware that Bolivia has been here before, and that the country's political actors are reading from well—known scripts. Several times in the past two decades —— even when all hope seemed lost in this poor, land—locked country —— something has always been worked out.

Perhaps this time, too, at the 11th hour, some accord or agreement may be hammered out among feuding political parties. A new social contract of sorts may even be achieved in the next few days and the government of President Mesa may survive yet another crisis.

But, sadly, most Bolivians do not believe any of this is possible. Worse yet, the majority of the interviews I have conducted over the past several days have indicated that most people don't want any more negotiations, meetings or accords. They are tired of the protests, strikes and road blocks. They simply want order.

Everyone I have talked to today—from taxi drivers to an indigenous woman selling newspapers to several middle—class business executives—simply wants one thing: a strongman, military or civilian, to establish order, ensure the rule of law and lead the government, at least until presidential elections in 2007.

'We are beyond a crisis of the state,' says Amilkar Blacutt, a surprisingly knowledgeable taxi driver who drove me around on Thursday afternoon. 'What you need now is a whole new agreement among members of society.   And if they don't agree, well, then you obligate them by force. We've just had enough of these social convulsions.'

Others are even more blunt. '[Mesa] is a president without any authority,' says Fernando Ascarrunz, a member of the Nueva Fuerza Republicana's National Executive Committee.  'No one knows what Mesa wants. But what we need right now is someone with guts, someone who will take a stand, someone who will lead.'

All this is less a rejection of democracy or constitutional principles by Bolivians than it is an indictment of how badly Mesa has governed the country since he replaced ousted President Gonzalo Schez de Lozada 17 months ago.

Mesa started his Presidency with wide—spread support from both indigenous people who knew Mesa from his years as a television commentator, and from members of his own class — the mostly white and mestizo middle and upper—classes of the Zona Sur (Southern Zone) of the city. But from the very beginning of his presidency, Mesa has been afraid of taking strong stands for fear of incurring the wrath of Evo Morales and other social agitators. (And the fact that US foreign policy—makers have ignored the presence of insurgency movements operating in Bolivia has only emboldened Morales.)  Still, Mesa held the public's support through the usual politicians' practice of promising different things to different interest groups.

But in the past week, all of Mesa's remaining good—will and support has evaporated. He is now ridiculed at luncheons and literally called a 'sissy' at afternoon teas organized by society dames. Mesa is faulted for two things: first, for not having dealt with Evo Morales and his followers and, second, for being so indecisive about whether or not he wants to remain president.

Threatening to Resign, Again

Nearly two weeks ago, Mesa, ostensibly tired of the road blocks and street protests that afflicted the country, offered his resignation to the Bolivian Congress. Two days later, they rejected his offer and, symbolically, re—ratified him as President. That gave Mesa and his presidency a new lease on life, and many hoped — indeed, expected —— that with his new mandate Mesa would show some steel and move the stalled country forward.

But that was ten days ago, and in Bolivian politics ten days is a very long time. A lot of things have happened since then.  The most important is that the Congress took up the issue of a controversial hydrocarbons law which would raise taxes on foreign oil and natural gas companies operating in Bolivia. Senators and deputies of the bicameral legislature met late into Wednesday morning trying to hammer out an agreement on the levels of the proposed taxes and finally agreed on a tiered system of taxation—which many saw as preferable to the 50 percent tax hike on all foreign oil companies in Bolivia being pushed by Evo Morales and other members of the opposition.

As soon as the vote was tallied, Morales and members of the MAS threatened a new round of street protests and roadblocks.

And then something completely unexpected happened: Mesa, after hearing of the new threats from the leader of the MAS, proposed a new law that would move the presidential elections forward—from 2007 to August of this year. This was his way of leaving the presidency. And that is when all Hell broke loose: Mesa's popularity immediately dropped, the main political parties issued statements or held press conferences to reject this proposal, and there were accusations that such a proposal was simply unconstitutional.

On Thursday, the Congress rejected Mesa's proposed law—even though Mesa had warned that if rejected, he would simply resign, this time unconditionally.

Congress had rejected Mesa's first offer of resignation because, according to the constitutional order of succession, the President of the Senate, Hormando Vaca Diez, would assume the presidency. But Vaca Diez is widely seen as an oligarch of the eastern lowlands of Santa Cruz and would prove even more divisive than Mesa's hapless predecessor, Sánchez de Lozada.  In fact, during congressional debates Thursday afternoon Evo Morales warned that a Vaca Diez presidency would not last an hour. Morales and his legion of followers would make sure of that.

So, Whither Bolivia?

So, here is where things stand at midnight Thursday: Mesa can either resign permanently in the next day or two—or he can choose to fulfill his presidential term and stay in office until 2007. There is no third way.

If he chooses to stay in office, then he has to deal with the problems facing the country; and to deal with these problems requires more than just eloquent speeches and theatrics: it will require of him decisive leadership—to stop the blockades, to end the protests and to defuse Evo Morales and his increasingly aggressive MAS party. To face Bolivia's problems will require Mesa to take a strong stand against these and other destabilizing forces.

If Mesa chooses to resign, then the country may very well be plunged into chaos, uncertainty—or, perhaps, even an old—fashioned Latin American coup d'etat resulting in a possible de facto military government.

A. M. Fantini is a graduate of Dartmouth College. He spent five years in Bolivia working for Bridge News, CNN and the World Bank. Mr Fantini is completing a book about his home state of Vermont and the 1960s counter—cultural revolution.