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BOLIVIA: Political Landscape Shaped by Protests

by Monte ReelThe Washington Post
April 4th, 2005

ETERAZAMA, Bolivia -- The skin between Leonida Zurita's thumb and index finger was stiff as cowhide, callused from grasping the stems of coca plants and yanking off leaves. In two days, she and her husband had dried and bagged about 30 pounds of coca, then hauled it to an open-air market where they sold it for about $45.

Now, Zurita sat at a village cafe and sipped beer mixed with Coca-Cola, waiting for a car that would carry her 18 hours to La Paz, the administrative capital.

There, she and other farmers of coca, which is used to make cocaine, planned to storm and seize the office of a senator. Their plan was to force him, and other politicians, to stand up to international fuel companies and demand a bigger share of the profits from Bolivia's natural resources.

"Bolivia has natural gas, water, coca and all kinds of natural resources," said Zurita, a 35-year-old mother of two. "But the problem is that they keep stealing it from us."

This is the refrain these days among Bolivians like Zurita, who see life as a struggle of David vs. many Goliaths: the foreign companies that drill for natural gas; the U.S. government, which has spearheaded programs to eradicate coca fields; the private companies that have taken over some municipal water utilities.

In the past several years, popular anger toward such powerful institutions has fueled a growing culture of protest, attracting tens of thousands of indigenous farmers and other disgruntled residents. The movement has gained enough clout to drive one president from office and bring a second one to the brink of resigning last month.

In 2003, protests against a plan to export fuel through neighboring Chile, considered by many to be the nation's archrival, led to the fall of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. His successor, Carlos Mesa, has since faced an average of 40 protests a day, according to one newspaper's count. In March, a series of roadblock demonstrations prompted Mesa to twice offer his resignation to Congress. The gesture was rejected, but in a televised plea, Mesa told the country that the protesters were causing Bolivia to commit "collective suicide."

The president was referring to protesters such as Zurita, who was among those standing by piles of rocks and branches in the middle of Bolivia's main highway, idling about 2,500 trucks, their cargoes of produce rotting. She helped coordinate the blockades, standing with a cell phone to her ear and directing people toward eight barricades in place near this small town.

Two weeks afterward, Zurita's cell phone rang while she waited in the village cafe. The protest at the senator's office had been postponed, the caller told her. They'd wait a week and see how votes were lining up on a proposed bill that would require foreign companies to pay up to 50 percent in royalties and taxes for Bolivia's natural gas.

Then maybe they wouldn't seize just the one senator's office, Zurita later said the caller told her. Maybe they'd take over a bunch of them.

Leading the Battle

The man on the phone was Evo Morales, 45, a former coca grower and leader of the Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, a rapidly growing opposition party. Like more than 60 percent of Bolivians, he is of indigenous descent, and his face, framed with bold black bangs, has become the face of Bolivia's protest movement.

The day after his call to Zurita, Morales sat behind a glossy desk in his office in La Paz, contemplating a document being circulated on the Internet. It showed a picture of his face, headlined with phrases that suggested he was wanted, "dead or alive."

"This is clearly an attack against MAS and the leftist social movements," Morales asserted at a small news conference as a cluster of television cameras pointed at him from across the desk. "But it doesn't scare us. It makes us stronger."

To Morales's detractors, the denunciation was classic Evo. They label him a paranoid who believes that multinational corporations and institutions are out to get him. They see an egomaniac, a hijacker of social causes, a power-hungry strongman-in-the-making. He's a friend of Venezuela's fiery president, Hugo Chavez, they say, with a brand of populist rhetoric intended to incite and divide.

To his supporters, Morales is a man looking out for the interests of Bolivia's indigenous majority, as opposed to the descendants of Europeans who overwhelmingly make up Bolivia's ruling class. His early support came from coca growers in Eterazama and other areas who are allowed to grow about 1,600 square feet of coca plants each. They say their coca is grown for such legal uses as indigenous medicines and teas, and they bristle at suggestions that it is used to make cocaine. Coca, long a traditional crop in Bolivia, has been drastically reduced since the 1990s, when U.S. authorities led an eradication campaign that was carried out by the Bolivian armed forces. At the time, Morales's outspoken criticism of eradication won him the support of many growers, but his base soon expanded to include other activist groups, from landless peasants to urban consumers fighting for public control of privatized local water systems.

Morales depicted all these fights as part of a single, larger crusade against privatization and the U.S.-promoted free market policies embraced by Bolivia in the 1980s. On the strength of that vision, he was elected to the Senate, and then under his leadership, the Movement Toward Socialism became the main opposition party in Congress two years ago.

In Eterazama, a village of ramshackle tin-roofed shops, the main street is lined with flags and homemade signs pledging allegiance to Morales and MAS. But not everyone here is a fan. The Rev. Sperandio Martinelly, who works with peasants in the surrounding Chapare region, said Morales had evolved from a popular local champion to an intimidating national politician.

"More than anything, I think people participated in the roadblocks because they were forced," Martinelly said. "People have told me that if they don't show up once, MAS fines them. If they don't show up three times, they get their land taken away. This is what Evo is like now. He used to listen. Now he's like a dictator."

Politics of Water

From an altitude of 13,400 feet, the people of El Alto look down onto the adjacent city of La Paz, which sits in a crater-like bowl high in the Andes mountains. An estimated 800,000 people live in El Alto, and about 200,000 of them have neither water nor sewer service in their homes. The air is thin, but the indignation is palpable.

Luna Gregoria, a pregnant mother of seven, does have a water connection, but she has joined rallies against the French water company that took over the municipal utility in 1997 during Bolivia's drive toward privatization.

Gregoria and other residents said the company, partly owned by Suez, a French multinational, charged $450 to provide a water connection and drainage in a place where most people earn about $2 a day. Water rates since privatization have increased 35 percent.

Even at those prices, Gregoria said, the company provided a water connection only as far as the dirt street next to her house. Her husband had to build the pipe to an outdoor basin where she washes clothes, rinses vegetables and fills buckets for drinking.

"We want connections to the whole house," said Gregoria, 34. "We need a new company to do that, one that is controlled by the public, not a private company."

El Alto has become ground zero for the protest movement. Its location, near the international airport and above the center of government in central La Paz, gives residents the power to bring the country to its knees. The 2003 revolt that brought down Sanchez de Lozada's presidency was centered in El Alto; three years earlier, the water privatization issue had galvanized demonstrators in the city of Cochabamba and throughout the country.

At the time, protesters in Cochabamba rallied against Bechtel Corp., which had taken over that city's water utility. Led by a former shoemaker, Oscar Olivera, and bolstered by sympathetic coca farmers, they blocked the highways, forcing Bechtel out. After that, highway blockades became the preferred vehicle for change.

"Since the 'Water War' in 2000, people have realized that the only weapon we have is blockades," Olivera said in an interview in Cochabamba. "When we have used other kinds of mobilizations, the government has never listened."

Two months ago, residents of El Alto effectively shut down their city, forcing the government to promise to cancel the Suez utility contract. But Mesa, the beleaguered president, has complained that shutting out foreign investment is killing the economy and making Bolivia an international pariah. Some public opinion polls indicate that many Bolivians agree and believe the protests are making things worse.

"I think Mesa is being manipulated by the protesters up there," said Vicky Velasquez, a 20-year-old nursing student in La Paz, as she looked up toward El Alto.

Although the last few weeks have been relatively quiet, many residents of El Alto said frustrations could easily reach a boiling point again if the new water company does not offer an improvement. Morales and other protest leaders say they only seek to change policies, but some protesters, having discovered they have the power to topple elected leaders, said they would not be afraid to try it once more.

"We'll be out on the streets again," said Toribio Lopez Estaca, a neighborhood leader. "We'll take over any water facility we need to. We'll even throw out Carlos Mesa if necessary."





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