23 October 2003 Edition

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Protestors force Bolivian President into exile

Bolivia's neo-liberal political parties have regained control of the South American country's Congress after a general strike put an end to the government of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. The parties agreed to formalise Sanchez de Lozada's resignation, his exile to Miami and the election of Vice President Carlos Mesa as the country's new president.

Sanchez de Lozada resigned on Friday 17 October, following a month-long popular revolt against his plans to sell Bolivia's gas to the US, which caused more than 70 deaths. Tens of thousands of people marched and blockaded the capital for weeks in a rejection of Sanchez de Lozada's pro-US, free-market economic policies. A US-educated businessman and one of the wealthiest people in the country, Sanchez de Lozada is disliked by millions of Bolivians, who see him as an out of touch "gringo". He was elected last year by Congress after no candidate won a majority in elections. Sanchez de Lozada had garnered less than a quarter of the popular vote.

When the resignation became known, protestors danced and clapped in the streets and sang the national anthem. The protestors shouted "quit, quit" and exploded sticks of dynamite two blocks from a government palace guarded by troops and assault vehicles. "Finally, the criminal has fallen!" said Roberto de la Cruz, a union leader.

Sanchez de Lozada had resisted calls for his resignation until a main partner in his ruling coalition withdrew its support for the government because of the bloodshed as hordes of miners, farmers and Indian women marched to the centre of the capital.

The growing political muscle of social movements in Bolivia mirrors a shift toward the left across South America, where new leaders in Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina have questioned who benefits from neo-liberal trade policies.

This is the third time that protests have paralysed the country in recent times. First there were protests against water privatisation. Later, farmers rebelled against US plans for coca eradication that would have resulted in the end of the traditional use of coca in the country.

The debate regarding what to do with Bolivia's natural gas reserves, the largest in Latin America, came to a head approximately a year and half ago when Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, proposed that the gas be exported to Mexico and the US using a pipeline that runs through Chile. But many Bolivians, who do not enjoy the benefits of their own gas reserves, distrust Chile, which won a 19th Century war and cut Bolivia off from the Pacific Ocean. Rather than have their desperate government sell the gas to foreign investors, many want it to be nationalised and used internally to generate much needed employment and income.

In August, civil society and union groups announced a coordinated campaign to stop the export of the gas, beginning with direct action in the Yungas, a region north of La Paz. The so-called Gas War included demands for clarity in coca laws and for the release of jailed political leaders.

The current crisis in Bolivia is social, economic and political. Socially, despite improvements in service coverage, poverty and vulnerability have been increasing. Economically, growth has been poor, and accompanied by growing structural unemployment and underemployment. Over 7 of 10 new jobs created in the past 15 years have been in the "informal" sector. And politically, Bolivia faces a dramatic crisis: as never before, governments and the "political class" - as it is referred to here - face a deep crisis of legitimacy.

These three areas of crisis are clearly linked to policies imposed by the international financial institutions, in particular the International Monetary Fund. Research shows clearly that the policies prescribed by the IMF have, among other things, not produced strong or sustainable growth; have opened countries, communities and families to new vulnerabilities; exacerbated inequalities, which puts a brake on growth, stresses political systems to the breaking point, and engenders new and powerful forms of criminality and social tension.

Though gas was the flame that ignited the protest, demonstrations quickly broadened in scope as labour leaders and Indian groups voiced frustration over the government's failure to improve conditions in South America's poorest country.

Right in the middle of this protest have been the miners, the coca growers, the peasants from the south, university students, factory workers, teachers, pensioners, merchants and youth, lots of youth. On some streets there were confrontations, tear gas, precarious barricades and burning of tires. Thousands of miners, dynamite in hand, were cheered by the crowds. On other streets, coca growers from Yunga and residents of Villa Fatima shared bread and refreshments with the police.

Others who protested included sections of the middle-class - intellectuals, human rights activists and professionals. In residential neighbourhoods, people also demanded the resignation of the President, with vigils around churches.

Many of the better off showed solidarity with the peasants heading to San Francisco square in La Paz. The city's residents opened their homes to the coca growers and peasants and shared their bread and coca tea before the confrontations.

Foes of Sanchez de Lozada now want him back in Bolivia to face trial. Evo Morales, the opposition congressman who has championed the cause of Bolivian coca leaf farmers, accused the former government of "economic genocide" and said Sanchez de Lozada should be jailed.

From his safe haven in the US, Bolivia's ex-president said he was struggling with feelings of "shock and shame" after fleeing the country.

Among opposition leaders in Bolivia, the debate now centres around whether or not to accept Carlos Mesa as president, at least temporarily. "We are going to negotiate with the new President and if he does not resolve our demands, we will make a call for a Popular Assembly with representatives of every social, labour and popular organisations of the country, to recover the gas by our own means and to satisfy the rest of the popular demands," said one of the protest leaders.

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