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Bolivia in Crisis

Bolivia is becoming the epicenter of battles against neo-liberal financial institutions like the World Bank and the U.S.-sponsored forced eradication of coca production.
 
 
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LA PAZ, BOLIVIA -- Evo Morales, indigenous leader, founder of the coca growers' union, elected senator, and potential president of Bolivia, is "not only willing but interested in bilateral relations with the United States on the basis of respect and equality," and would visit the U.S. if granted a visa.

Morales made the suggestion in an interview in his frenetic but modest offices in the country's legislature. A U.S. embassy official later demurred on Morales' proposal without rejecting it.

Morales missed becoming the top vote getter in Bolivia's last presidential election in 2002. His Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party is expected to win numerous municipal elections later this year. He is in the progressive mainstream of Bolivia's political spectrum, but is rated a radical threat to U.S. interests.

U.S. General James Hill, head of the Army's Southern Command, warned that "if radicals continue to highjack the indigenous movement, we could find ourselves faced with a narco-state that supports the uncontrolled cultivation of coca." An Embassy spokesman here declined to comment on the military commander's testimony, stressing that "in the end, it's their country." But he also noted that "if there's a conflict with U.S. national interests, there would be problems."

The muted comments were in contrast with public warnings by previous American ambassador Manuel Rocha against Bolivians voting for Morales, threats which were widely interpreted to have increased Morales' vote.

Providing a visa to Morales would represent a pause in the ever-deepening Bolivian crisis. Last year, approximately 110 protestors and bystanders were killed in confrontations that led to the sudden flight of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada ("Goni") to Miami. At issue was a lucrative natural gas export project that involved Sempra, a California-based energy corporation that combines Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas and Electric. Sempra has abandoned for now its quest for Bolivian natural gas as a result of the crisis.

The new government of Carlos Mesa has pushed back this week's deadlines for a proposed reform of the country's gas and oil laws that currently benefit foreign investors. A referendum on the gas issue is scheduled for July, but its formulation has not been announced. A third promise, for a constituent assembly to rewrite Bolivia's constitution by next year, is bogged down in procedural details.

It is at best a cold peace, however. The country is seething with daily protests and rumors of coups and counter coups. A call for an indefinite general strike by Bolivia's labor federation seems to have been reconsidered for the moment as indigenous leaders wait for President Mesa to "finalize his promises one more time," as one observer noted. The situation could explode at any time.

In addition to the immediate potential for another round of bloody confrontations are even greater political stakes. With a 62 percent Indian majority and the option of exercising power, Bolivia is becoming the epicenter of battles against neo-liberal financial institutions like the World Bank and the U.S.-sponsored forced eradication of coca production.

While Morales has offered to discuss a new bilateral relationship with the U.S., however, Washington has been steadily increasing the percentage of aid to Bolivia earmarked for military efforts since 1996. The Bush Administration's proposed budget earmarks 40.4 percent of approximately $150 million for military efforts, up eight percent over the previous cycle. Increasing military aid to a country in crisis does not give much hope to progressives here that the U.S. is serious about new bilateral discussions.

Tom Hayden, who writes on the globalization crisis, is investigating developments in Bolivia. Watch for his overall observations on one of the continent's most vibrant social movements in Bolivia in the Nation magazine next month.