New York Times
Poor Little Rich Country
By WILLIAM POWERS
Published: June 11, 2005
MY taxi is stuck behind Indian roadblocks. Three hundred farmers, many of them Quechua in colorful ponchos, just took control of the only highway near this small town in central Bolivia, right below a jaguar-shaped Inca temple. I can escape neither east to the sweltering boomtown of Santa Cruz nor west toward the windswept Andean capital, La Paz, where tens of thousands of Aymara Indians are on the march. I get through, but only after abandoning my taxi and making my way on foot.
For three weeks, the country has been paralyzed by blockades and protests; a few days after my experience at the roadblock, the uprising forced the president, Carlos Mesa, to resign. The protesters want to nationalize Bolivia's vast natural gas reserves, South America's second largest; BP has quintupled its estimate of Bolivia's proven reserves to 29 trillion cubic feet, worth a whopping $250 billion. The Indians are in a showdown with the International Monetary Fund and companies like British Gas, Repsol of Spain and Brazil's Petrobras that have already invested billions of dollars in exploration and extraction.
Many are calling the remarkable past five years in Bolivia a war against globalization. In a limited way, they're right. McDonald's closed its outlets here, unable to lure Bolivians away from their saice and salteñas. Demonstrators in bowler hats forced out Bechtel and Suez water privatizers; blocked an income tax urged by the mighty I.M.F.; and ousted President Mesa's predecessor, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozado, who spoke Spanish with a heavy American accent, over his plan to export Bolivian gas to California through Chile.
But this is not about walling off a Wal-Mart-free utopia; it's more of a struggle over who has power here. An American Indian majority is standing up to the light-skinned, European elite and its corruption-fueled relationships with the world.
You might say that Bolivia has colonized itself. When the Spanish Empire closed shop here in 1825, the Europeans who stayed on didn't seem to notice - and still don't. Even within Latin America, the region with the greatest wealth inequality in the world according to the World Bank, Bolivia is considered one of the most corrupt, per Transparency International's annual index of political dishonesty. It's also divided along a razor-sharp racial edge.
Highland and Amazon peoples compose almost two-thirds of Bolivia's population, the highest proportion of Indians in the hemisphere. (It's as if the United States had 160 million Apaches, Hopis and Iroquois.) And while native people are no longer forcibly sprayed with DDT for bugs and are today allowed into town squares, Bolivian apartheid - a "pigmentocracy of power" - continues.
I've been here for three years as an aid official, and exclusion is part of life. Indians are barred from swimming pools at some clubs, for example; they are still "peones" on eastern haciendas little touched by land reform. In La Paz, I was walking through the fashionable South Zone beside an Aymaran woman, Fátima, when another Bolivian viciously pushed her off the sidewalk. She wasn't shocked by the sentiment, but she was amazed that the man had been willing to touch her. Meanwhile, Bolivia's energy-rich eastern states are agitating for "autonomy" in a thinly disguised effort to deprive the poor Indian west of oil and gas revenues.
What is to be done to prevent a collapse in Bolivia? The answer, of course, must begin with Bolivians themselves. Elites here must recognize that the country's dark-skinned social movements are stronger than any political party or president and will not go away. Any lasting solution must shift real power to Bolivia's poor majority.
We'll see a lot of political maneuvering in the coming days. Some of the roadblocks have been dismantled in the wake of Mr. Mesa's ouster and the installation of a new interim president, Eduardo Rodríguez, the former head of the Supreme Court. But sustained stability depends on movement toward more equality, not just cosmetic changes, starting with speedy national elections and a constituent assembly with the full power to rewrite the Constitution and decide who benefits from Bolivia's petroleum.
Solving the crisis, however, depends not just on ending exclusion, but also on how the rest of the world relates to Bolivia, South America's poorest country, particularly through economic policy.
The United States and the international community have a vital role. In a speech this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was right to acknowledge Bolivia's democratic deficit.
But beyond lip service we must accept that democracy means, well, letting people decide what to do with their own resources. Existing contracts with foreign oil companies were signed by corrupt Bolivian leaders, without the approval of Congress. Even if nationalizing petroleum may be a growth-zapping bad idea, we need to let Bolivians themselves decide.
Moreover, our own ideas for this region are not always so fabulous. Bolivia was the testing ground for the I.M.F.'s "shock therapy" liberalization in 1985. This stringent recipe has made millions for oilmen and industrial soy farmers here (neither sector creates much employment) but has not reduced inequality; 20 years later, Bolivia's income levels are stagnant or worse, and half the population lives on less than $2 a day.
BESIDES taking a respectful hands off, the world should contribute one vital thing toward a more democratic society that embraces Indians: debt relief to the reforming government. Bolivia's debt load has risen to 82 percent of gross domestic product, sucking up a mind-boggling 40 percent of fiscal expenditures. This is a recipe for more poverty and turmoil.
Meanwhile, the Indians, distrusting Mr. Rodríguez's promise to call elections and talk to proponents of nationalization, are keeping some of the roadblocks in place, a tactic that costs millions of dollars in lost commerce, hurting the Indians themselves most of all. But as one Quechua told me as he crossed his arms in front of trucks here in Samaipata, vaguely evoking Tiananmen Square: "Our cultures have been blocked for 500 years. This is our only voice."