- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

A growing crisis in Bolivia could bring down the government of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and spread unrest throughout the Andean region. Clashes between protesters and the military have left scores dead. Much of the president’s cabinet has resigned and the military’s support for the president appears ambivalent.

Pope John Paul II and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan have expressed concern over the violence. The State Department has said it would only support a democratic resolution to the crisis.

A catalyst for the unrest was a plan to sell Bolivian gas to the United States and Mexico by way of a $5 billion pipeline to a Chilean port. Many Bolivians see Chile as an arch rival, after an 1879 war left Bolivia landlocked. The plan would have benefited Bolivia, but the government said it had difficulty gaining trust in the project, since most Bolivians have seen few benefits from economic liberalization. Gas exploration and development was innovatively privatized in 1996 by Mr. Sanchez de Lozada in a previous term, with half the stake awarded to the Bolivian people themselves. The gas exportation plan, which he has shelved, would have been run and financed by private companies and deliver for Bolivia royalties ranging from 18 percent to 50 percent of exploration — up to $500 million annually.

Farmers are also protesting the government’s U.S.-backed coca-eradication, which has reduced production of that crop by about 80 percent and left many more impoverished. Now, though, the unrest is largely about the death toll itself and the military’s fatal force.

Popular discontent in Bolivia has been boiling below the surface for years, if not centuries. Mr. Sanchez de Lozada has not delivered promised jobs. The anger is ethnic and economic, with about 60 percent of the indigenous population living on about $2 a day. Income per capita was expected to fall by 0.3 percent this year before the uprising, but could drop more if unrest continues.

While Bolivia has long been very poor, it has been relatively stable and recused from the terrorist violence of its neighbors. Now, Bolivia could spread instability through the Andean region, where much of the population is similarly disaffected and governments vulnerable.

The Bush administration hasn’t ruled out the prospect of playing a more active role. Mediation efforts in Bolivia could be modeled on the Group of Friends Initiative in Venezuela, where the United States, Spain, Brazil and others are involved. If an orderly resolution isn’t found quickly, Bolivia could descend into chaos — and take others with it.

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