- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

LA PAZ, Bolivia - This month President Carlos Mesa averted Bolivia’s worst crisis since assuming office 17 months ago by offering to resign and calling for early elections.

Parliament rejected both requests, and coca farmers lifted road blockades on Bolivia’s most important highway, saving Mr. Mesa from the fate of his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who fled to Miami during an uprising of indigenous people in October 2003.

But Mr. Mesa’s hold on power remains precarious. He is the latest president to bend to popular pressure in a region where deteriorating conditions have provoked social unrest and called forth movements fiercely opposed to U.S. policies promoting free markets and coca eradication.

“In Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru distrust and loss of faith in failed institutions fuel the emergence of anti-U.S., anti-globalization and anti-free trade demagogues,” Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, told the House Armed Services Committee on March 9.

But though the roadblocks and protests are viewed with alarm in Washington, some observers here are optimistic about the rise of grass-roots indigenous movements that have galvanized the region’s long-excluded poor to demand social justice and control over their natural resources.

“There are many conflicts in the region, but they need to be seen in a positive light,” said Pablo Mamani, an Aymara sociologist at the Public University of El Alto and author of two books on the region’s indigenous movements.

“If we never fight, how are we going to achieve our rights? Governments in this part of the world are not exactly democratic. If they were, these conflicts would not be necessary,” Mr. Mamani added. “There are profound social and economic inequalities in the Andean world. Of course there’s instability, but it’s because people here have been subject to terrible degrees of exploitation, and now this reality is out in the open.”

In recent years, increasing poverty and growing gaps between rich and poor in Latin America have heightened discontent with so-called “neoliberal” economic policies that favor foreign investment over an interventionist state. The backlash against multinational companies and the governments in league with them has been especially sharp in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, which are among the poorest countries in South America and have the continent’s three largest indigenous populations.

In Ecuador, indigenous people in the Amazon rain forest have organized to fight multinational oil companies that covet the country’s potentially large natural gas and oil fields. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), which has formed a political party called the Pachakutik Movement, has had a decisive influence on the national government in recent years, helping bring down President Jamil Mahuad with protests in 2000 and backing Lucio Gutierrez’s successful bid for power in the November 2002 presidential election.

CONAIE has since broken with Mr. Gutierrez, whom it accuses of betraying his nationalist platform by easing restrictions on foreign investments and pushing through austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund.

In Peru, President Alejandro Toledo’s approval ratings have shrunk to single digits, according to some polls, as the country’s relatively high growth rates failed to improve conditions for the majority poor.

This month, thousands of coca farmers in southern Peru blocked roads to demand an end to the U.S.-backed eradication of the crop, whose leaf yields cocaine. It is considered sacred by the native people, and for millennia has been brewed in the Andes as a mildly stimulant tea and cure for altitude sickness.

Nor has Peru been exempt from protests against foreign investment. In June 2002, massive demonstrations in the city of Arequipa stopped the sale of two publicly owned electricity companies to the Belgian firm Tractebel.

But perhaps nowhere has the groundswell against globalization and U.S.-backed governments been as striking as in Bolivia, where indigenous movements have waged street battles against multinational companies and free-market measures — and won. In January, Aymara neighborhood groups paralyzed the poor city of El Alto until Mr. Mesa agreed to rescind a contract with Aguas de Illimani, a privatized water-utility company owned by French giant Suez.

El Alto was the epicenter of the large indigenous rebellion in October 2003 against an unpopular deal to export natural gas to the United States that forced the ouster of Mr. Sanchez de Lozada.

In the so-called “water war” protests of 2000, peasants, students and factory workers forced out the privatized water utility in the city of Cochabamba owned by San Francisco-based multinational Bechtel Corp. The most recent road blockades, which precipitated Mr. Mesa’s call for early elections, were carried out by mostly Quechua-speaking Bolivian coca farmers led by opposition leader Evo Morales, a presidential hopeful and outspoken opponent of U.S. drug policy.

Mr. Morales and other Indian leaders have demanded that the royalty on foreign petroleum companies be raised from 18 to 50 percent and demand greater control over the natural gas and oil industry by the state and indigenous communities.

“We have taken care of our natural resources for thousands of years, so why should we give them all away now to these multinational companies?” asked Vicente Flores Romero, a Bolivian indigenous leader.

“Why the marches? Why the road blockades? Why the hunger strikes?” he went on. “Because these are the only ways they will listen to the legitimate demands of the indigenous people.”

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