Monday, August 23, 2004

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Carlos Mesa knows as well as anyone the precarious nature of his office.

In 1983, months after the nation’s dictatorship gave way to democracy, Mr. Mesa published a book called “Presidents of Bolivia: Between Ballot Boxes and Guns,” a survey of a tumultuous history marked by nearly 200 coups and countercoups.

Lately, however, democracy has hardly provided better job security for Bolivia’s chief executive.

Last October, thousands of poor, indigenous Bolivians set up roadblocks and withstood weeks of brutal repression, in the end driving Mr. Mesa’s predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, from power in a bitter standoff over who will ultimately control the country’s vast energy wealth.

But the new president, who last month won a critical popular referendum on his own energy program, struck a decidedly optimistic tone in an interview conducted last week in his plush office at the presidential mansion.

Mr. Sanchez de Lozada was forced to flee that same office in February 2003, after its windows were riddled with bullets. Soldiers and police were engaged in a firefight in the pigeon-filled Plaza Murillo below that left more than a dozen people dead.

The dents in the bulletproof windows are still there, but last year’s unrest now seems remote, and Mr. Mesa is brimming with confidence two weeks after Bolivians approved the referendum on which he had staked his presidency.

“Another October? No,” said Mr. Mesa, a large man who appears very much the intellectual with his graying beard, frameless glasses, and didactic habit of organizing nearly everything he says into neatly enumerated lectures.

“Problems, roadblocks, demonstrations, strikes, threats, shouts, what have you — there’ll be more than you can imagine. But another movement like that of October? No.”

He added: “If the referendum itself wasn’t proof enough, if the absolute calm wasn’t a categorical answer to all those doomsayers who said the referendum was going to be marked by violence, I don’t know what more proof I can give.”

On July 18, Bolivians voted in favor of a proposal designed by Mr. Mesa that asked five questions on how to exploit the nation’s natural gas and oil reserves. The referendum, which won 77 percent of the vote, gives the government much greater say in the operations of foreign oil and gas companies, but stops short of the re-nationalization sought by radical critics.

Meanwhile, threats by leaders of Bolivia’s labor unions and indigenous groups to burn ballot boxes and shut down roads in a boycott of the vote proved empty.

Analysts say the poll was a crucial vote of confidence in Mr. Mesa, who was not elected to the presidency and has no party apparatus under his command. Mr. Mesa benefits from an approval rating close to 70 percent, one of the highest in South America.

Ironically, he has won this support pushing an agenda not of his own making. Mr. Mesa was an outspoken champion of the free-market policies that reigned during the 1980s and 1990s, including the privatization of the gas and oil industries under Mr. Sanchez de Lozada’s first term as president ending in 1997.

A popular television journalist, Mr. Mesa made his first foray into politics in 2002, when Mr. Sanchez de Lozada ran for president again and chose the political novice as his vice-presidential candidate.

But since his abrupt rise to the presidency on Oct. 17, Mr. Mesa has become a loud critic of the aggressive privatizations and market-friendly policies known in Latin America as neoliberalism.

“The dogmatic economic model of neoliberalism doesn’t work and it must be changed,” said Mr. Mesa.

“The pressure Bolivian society exerts is the same pressure as that in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Peru,” he said.

“The political center, which was leaning toward the right in the 1980s and the 1990s, is now leaning to the left. The middle class that defines the political center across the continent is shifting because the results of the model have been insufficient.”

In his calls for reform, Mr. Mesa echoed other leftist South American leaders, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Argentine President Nestor Kirchner.

But unlike his counterparts, Mr. Mesa has tempered his criticisms by simultaneously defending the economic liberalization of the 1990s as a necessary transformation that suffered from poor implementation.

And while these other leaders are attempting to strengthen regional ties to present a common front in trade negotiations with the United States, Mr. Mesa has joined the leaders of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia in holding direct talks with Washington.

“It’s not black and white,” the Bolivian president said. “First, we’re in a world that is globalized. Second, we’re in a world with an open economy. Third, Bolivia has to insert itself in this world, and we’re not going to be able to change these rules.”

Mr. Mesa grew up on the upper fringes of Bolivia’s middle class, which is small but extremely influential in a nation that has South America’s largest indigenous population and highest poverty rates.

The son of two art historians, he spent his youth in upscale neighborhoods in southern La Paz, studied literature in Madrid before finishing his degree back in Bolivia and helped found a national film archive in 1976.

He later became nationally known as the host of a television talk show called “Up Close,” which he conducted between 1983 and 2001. Described by some as a harder-edged Larry King, Mr. Mesa was known for eviscerating guests with brutally frank critiques before tossing out softball questions.

The two central items of Mr. Mesa’s program — a renationalization plan for the gas and oil industries and the creation of an assembly to draft a new constitution — were not crafted by white-skinned and mestizo intellectuals in the smoke-filled parlors of southern La Paz’s mansions. They sprang instead from longtime demands from Bolivia’s combative unions and social movements that the president embraced in order to quell last October’s uprising.

But as the new president has tried to steer a more moderate economic course since the vote, the attitude of Bolivia’s foremost indigenous leaders toward Mr. Mesa has ranged from deep suspicion to outright hostility.

In the days after the July 18 referendum, Mr. Mesa announced plans to export natural gas to Mexico and the United States through Peru — a similar plan to export gas through Chile had sparked the October rebellion, dubbed the “Gas War” — and to increase natural gas exports to Argentina.

He also introduced a bill that critics say falls far short of the demands that drove the protests in October — renationalization of Bolivia’s oil and natural gas industries and orienting production to meet domestic demands first.

Evo Morales, an Aymara coca farmer and a staunch critic of the United States who nearly won the presidency in 2002, had been a key pillar of support for Mr. Mesa, abandoning the devastating road blockades that had become his trademark while endorsing the referendum.

But in recent days, Mr. Morales and his coca farmer supporters, called “cocaleros,” have threatened to return to street protests, announcing plans for a nationwide demonstration Monday.

“The people will mobilize if there’s no nationalization,” said Mr. Morales at a press conference recently. “We can’t accept a law that is pro-business, pro-oligarchic, pro-imperialist. Carlos Mesa’s proposal, for example, was created with money from the multinational companies.”

If the president “continues to follow in the footsteps of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada,” Mr. Morales warned, “he’s going to end up just like him.”

Mr. Mesa further angered the cocaleros by carrying on with the U.S.-funded program to eradicate coca, the base ingredient in cocaine and a mild stimulant chewed by indigenous Bolivians on a regular basis.

Mr. Mesa refers to his opponents as “tiny” and “minuscule,” bristling at the suggestion that his plans to export gas betray the spirit of the referendum.

Bolivians voted in favor of exporting the country’s energy resources only after the establishment of a national policy that would encourage industrialization and impose higher taxes and royalties on private companies.

Much will depend on Bolivia’s discredited Congress, splintered into a half-dozen parties, which must now interpret the meaning of the referendum while considering Mr. Mesa’s bill, among other proposals.

For now, the president appears to be riding high after the referendum, which he has hailed as a new model of participatory democracy.

Asked what historians will write about his presidency after he steps down in 2007, Mr. Mesa speaks of his role as a bridge between an old corruption-ridden political system and one in which everyone — including Bolivia’s long-neglected indigenous majority — is given the chance to participate.

A centerpiece of what he calls a new “social pact” is the constituent assembly set to convene next year, in which Bolivians from all sectors of society will be called on to participate in the rewriting of their constitution.

“I guess what I’ve been charged with is a moment of historic change, a shift in democracy,” said Mr. Mesa.

“There are still so many things to fulfill, including the commitments I made on October 17. This is the end of one era of democracy, and the beginning of another. We’re moving from a democracy that was based on political pacts to a democracy of people’s participation.”

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