Bolivia on the brink -- again

In what almost has become a perverse annual tradition, Bolivian mobs again have blocked city streets and highways around the country. This—and the promise of further unrest in the coming weeks—forced embattled President Carlos Mesa to offer his resignation Sunday night. The Bolivian Congress will decide by Tuesday evening whether or not to accept it.

Mesa, formerly the vice president, replaced President Gonzalo Schez de Lozada after his own ouster in October 2003. In the 17 months he has been president, Mesa's government already has endured 820 different protests. The only surprise is that he's lasted this long.

In Sunday's televised speech, Mesa, who had been a well—known and respected journalist, said he had 'reached his limit.' Amid growing unrest over past weeks—and recognizing that his government would not be able to withstand further protests planned for the next few days over the use of the country's massive natural gas reserves—Mesa decided simply to call it quits.

Bolivia, which has approximately 55 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves—the second largest in Latin America after Venezuela—has been struggling over what to do with it for years. Unfortunately, as the ouster of Sánchez de Lozada and the [pending] resignation of Mesa indicate, the manipulation of the poor and the uneducated Indian majority by left—wing demagogues like Evo Morales and Felipe Quispe, both indigenous leaders, has been extremely successful. Their message to the crowds is consistently anti—U.S., anti—free trade and, at times, virulently racist.

Their nationalist rhetoric—combined with a successful disinformation campaign—has resulted in several left—wing legislative proposals now making their way through Congress. The most outlandish of these would abrogate the country's contracts with foreign investors, increase the state's share of company profits to nearly 50 percent and perhaps even re—nationalize the country's huge oil and gas sector.

Of course, any of these alone would be enough to bring all foreign direct investment (FDI) in Bolivia to a standstill. FDI, which had in 1999 reached nearly $1.2 billion per annum thanks to structural reforms during the first Sánchez de Lozada government (1993—97), have since dropped by a whopping 50 percent.

A New Focal Point for Terrorism?

Evo Morales and Felipe Quispe aren't the only ones to blame for this state of affairs. Certainly Morales, leader of the country's coca—leaf farmers and the MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) political party, and Felipe Quispe, formerly a member of the EGTK guerrilla movement in the early 1990s and now an indigenous leader, have used tried and true pressure tactics—street campaigns, political blackmail, and outright coercion—to get things done. But their efforts have been well complemented and perhaps even assisted by other, more sinister actors.

According to several South American intelligence services, there are indications that members of Colombia's FARC terrorists have been working for the past few years among indigenous groups in Bolivia, especially those linked most closely with the country's narco—economy (i.e., Evo Morales' coca—leaf farmers). Separately, there have also been confirmed reports that former members of Peru's Shining Path guerrilla army have been broadcasting via radio into rural Bolivia and may even have taken part in recent criminal activity in both the cities of El Alto and La Paz.

Moreover, there are other events that, while not conclusive, clearly suggest something is going on in Bolivia that should warrant greater attention on the part of the both the Bolivian government and U.S. officials in charge of foreign policy and security in the region.

Two years ago, on indigenous rural radio, two former 'colonels' of the Shining Path guerrilla army were interviewed about ways to fight foreign domination. A few months ago, a young Bolivian man was apprehended on his way out of La Paz carrying a stash of stolen firearms and rifles. He was later, by error, set free by police. And last week, protest organizers began canvassing the neighborhoods of El Alto, knocking on doors and forcing residents to take to the streets and protest against President Mesa. Anyone who refused, according to one Indian lady, would be fined a penalty and perhaps even find his or her windows broken by 'community enforcers.' These are classic methods of coercion once used by the Shining Path in Peru.

An important detail no one seems to be asking is how all these marches, protests, and roadblocks are being financed. The protestors typically all receive alcohol, food, and cigarettes. And often, as had occurred during Black October (that overthrew President Sanchez de Lozada), nearly a hundred truck—loads of rural indigenous poor were brought in from the countryside. Who paid for these trucks? Who organizes, sets up, and pays for the infrastructure for these protests?

Asleep at Foggy Bottom

Some of the blame for the rise of these radical elements has to be shouldered by the U.S. Department of State and other agencies responsible for hemispheric security and the Southern Cone. The power and influence that Evo Morales enjoys now in Bolivia is, in part, the direct result of a lop—sided approach of U.S. policy in the region. Focusing all its financial and military resources into a strident (and, admittedly, successful) coca—leaf eradication program in Bolivia, the U.S. has failed to concurrently offer any kind of assistance for counter—insurgency efforts. The result: a growing narco—guerrilla movement, the presence of foreign terrorist groups, and the spread of anti—U.S. rhetoric.

While the Bush Administration pushes ahead with its increasingly successful efforts to build democracy in Iraq, it has neglected Latin America. This neglect is surprising since I remember how newly elected President George W. Bush called then—president Hugo Banzer Suárez in early 2000 to introduce himself—in Spanish, no less. This was widely interpreted as a sign that Latin America would be a priority for the new Bush administration. Of course, priorities shifted after September 11th.

But little by little, left—wing politicians have taken hold of governments across the South American continent (Uruguay is the latest democracy to elect a left—wing populist). And slowly, almost imperceptibly, left—wing groups have started sowing seeds of discontent and dissent around the region, undoubtedly emboldened, inspired, and supported by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who has made clear his ambition to export the Cuban revolution throughout the South American continent.

Instead of seeing counter—insurgency efforts in Latin America (and Bolivia in particular) as part of a comprehensive War on Terror, slow—moving American bureaucrats at Foggy Bottom and elsewhere in Washington may have given radical elements carte blanche, allowing them to gain a dangerous foothold in the Southern Cone.

A. M. Fantini is a graduate of Dartmouth College. He is half—Bolivian and recently finished five years in Bolivia as a correspondent for Bridge News and a consultant to the World Bank.  Mr. Fantini is completing a book about Vermont and the 1960s counter—culture.