Saturday, October 18, 2003

The Beeb tracks the replacement of the former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada with his Vice-President (and now President) Carlos Mesa. This comes in the wake of massive protests in Bolivia over Sanchez de Lozada's plan to export natural gas; I had heard some speculation last week that this could turn into a revolution if the President didn't do something about it. He did. He left. He's now in Miami.

It looks like the protestors got what they wanted:

A respected journalist and political independent, Mr Mesa immediately pledged to hold "a binding referendum" on the plan to export gas to the US and Mexico.
There's a related story on the protestors explaining their beefs:

So why the protests?

Mainly because macro-economic arguments [about growth] cut no ice with Bolivia's impoverished indigenous Indian majority, who feel that the economy is run for the benefit of a wealthy elite.

Bolivia has been a democracy since 1982 after decades of political instability and repeated military coups. But during that time, inequalities of wealth have increased and there has been no reduction in poverty.

As a result, ingrained Latin American hostility to giving up control over natural resources has now combined with the Bolivian masses' wider sense of economic exclusion to produce a socially explosive mixture.

Nationalism also plays a key role. The idea of selling off Bolivia's gas to the US was always certain to anger the president's left-wing opponents, fearful of being exploited by the "gringos" to the north.

Bolivian pride was further dented by the idea of exporting the gas by way of a Chilean port - an outlet that was in fact part of Bolivian territory until Chile seized Bolivia's coastline in their 1879-83 war.

What have the protesters been demanding?

As far as Bolivia's gas reserves are concerned, the protesters are calling for them to be nationalised and made available exclusively to the Bolivian people.

They are unconvinced by economists who say that it would take no more than 1% of Bolivia's reserves to satisfy the country's entire market in gas.

Other demands include higher wages, better pensions, comprehensive land reform and Bolivia's withdrawal from the planned Free Trade Area of the Americas.
I'm not sure what I think of these demands... the money for said higher wages and better pensions has to come from somewhere, but there's an important lesson in this: despite the hyper-focus on Middle Eastern security in the media and by American policymakers, the issues of development and inequality that ignites protests across the Americas never went away, and we ignore them at our peril.

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