- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

BUENOS AIRES — Recent political victories by authorities in Bolivia’s richest state have set precedents that could undermine democratic advance in one of Latin America’s poorest nations, analysts say.

For two weeks last month, protesters angered by government-imposed gas and water rate increases blocked major roadways in two of Bolivia’s largest cities, Santa Cruz and El Alto.

Embattled President Carlos Diego Mesa rescinded the price increases on Jan. 19, bowing to mostly indigenous, anti-capitalist protesters, but angering pro-business, European-descended elites in Santa Cruz, who resent state meddling in industry.

Santa Cruz residents, known as Crucenos, responded with calls for autonomy.

Facing the most severe constitutional challenge to his troubled presidency, Mr. Mesa subsequently agreed to let voters elect the state’s highest officials. He also approved a referendum on autonomy for Santa Cruz.

Mr. Mesa’s decision was cheered in Santa Cruz, where leaders have laid the initial steps for a provisional assembly. But some analysts criticized the increasingly popular forms of disruptive political expression.

“People in Santa Cruz are saying they forced the president into changes and ended up with a more democratic Bolivia even though they didn’t follow the constitution, the rules,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian-born political scientist and director of Florida International University’s Latin American and Caribbean Center.

“But the message is a terrible one. Basically a few people can block roads and force constitutional and economic changes,” he said.

Other observers say civic disruption is likely to grow, especially as Bolivians in resource-rich eastern states challenge the growing political clout and anti-business leanings of Bolivia’s indigenous majority.

“Leaders in Santa Cruz are trying to cover their own privileges,” said Jaime Burgoa, president of the Land Foundation, a nonprofit group based in the capital, La Paz, that fights for indigenous land rights.

Mr. Burgoa said leaders in Santa Cruz are using whatever means possible to avoid an upcoming constitutional assembly in which a populist-driven land law is up for consideration.

The proposed law would redistribute privately owned, underused land to the state. That, Mr. Burgoa said, would apply to vast swaths of private property in Santa Cruz.

The social divide between east and west has roots in Bolivia’s history of natural-resource extraction, which has generated strong labor movements.

“Today we are seeing the indigenous component mixing with labor union stances that are very anti-foreigner and anti-private investment,” Mr. Gamarra said.

He argued that poverty had declined under neoliberal economic policies for 15 years from 1985 onward, but had been rising since those policies were reversed in 2000.

Given Bolivia’s conciliatory stances and relative lack of importance in drug trade and terrorism, Washington’s interest in the country is meager, analysts say.

“But there is the possibility that the conflict could cause regional instability at some point,” said Stephen Johnson, a Latin America analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “That’s especially true if Venezuela gets involved.”

Recent reports in the Miami Herald suggested that Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s authoritarian and anti-U.S. president, funds anti-government opposition in Bolivia with money gleaned from his country’s vast oil exports.

Former leftist presidential candidate Evo Morales, who leads one of Bolivia’s main opposition parties, has acknowledged Mr. Chavez’s ideological support but denied financial contributions.

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