- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

Bolivia is in turmoil this week after President Carlos Mesa’s offer to resign failed to end the violent protests that have rocked the capital in recent weeks. Roads are shut off, food shortages have been reported and crowds of tens of thousands, mostly Indians and miners, are clashing with riot police. At the root of the crisis is a push to turn Bolivia into a high Andean clone of Venezuela, which would be disastrous for Bolivia and a deep concern for the United States. Mr. Mesa warned Wednesday that his country is “on the verge of civil war.”

The anti-government ringleader is Evo Morales, a Marxist politician who wants Bolivia to nationalize the country’s gas reserves, the second-largest in South America. Mr. Morales, an Aymara Indian, has risen on a wave of anger over the economic policies of Mr. Mesa and his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who, like Mr. Mesa this week, resigned after street protests in late 2003.

Just a few years ago, Bolivia was looking like a quiet Andean success story. By the late 1990s, coca eradication had greatly reduced the country’s profile as a drug source, and economic liberalization apace under the pro-American Sanchez de Lozada administration, coupled with legal reforms, promised a better future for the country (which in 2004 had South America’s lowest per-capita GDP). But in the last few years Bolivia has fallen apart as the economy floundered and the coca crop surged.

There is little doubt Mr. Morales would bring a familiar type of strongman rule to Bolivia were he to lead the country. He consorts with the usual anti-American suspects and advocates anti-growth economic policies like Venezuela’s. Rumors that he takes money from Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and from Libya were reiterated Tuesday by the State Department’s top diplomat for Latin America, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega. At an Organization of American States conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., he said that “Chavez’s profile in Bolivia has been very apparent from the beginning.” The Venezuelan government denies this, but Mr. Morales, effusive in his praise for Mr. Chavez, clearly isn’t above it. He confirmed to Newsweek in 2003 that he took a $48,000 “human rights” award from Libya, which he used for his unsuccessful 2002 presidential bid. Why Mr. Morales would take money from Libya but not Mr. Chavez is unclear. What is clearer is that Mr. Morales would enact Mr. Chavez’s same “anti-hegemonic” foreign and domestic policies if he were leading Bolivia.

Both the OAS and the State Department are urging a constitutional solution to the crisis, something we hope is possible. But so far, the remnants of Bolivia’s government are proving incapable of quelling the violence themselves. “We are a step away from civil war,” David Aramayo, the country’s police chief, told the New York Times on Tuesday.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday that the OAS had offered Bolivia assistance — presumably mediation — but thus far Bolivia has declined that help. Now that Mr. Mesa has resigned, the OAS must monitor the situation more closely and continue to press for constitutional and diplomatic solutions.


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