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Bolivia prepares to break with the past

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Evo Morales’ assumption of the Bolivian presidency promises a major revamping of the country’s political and economic system. He is a popular leader with a significant following within the indigenous Bolivian population, and comes to power with an ambitious program for developing the country.

Bolivia’s relationship with the United States, and with international companies that possess a stake in the country’s resources, will be crucial during his term in office. How successful he is will depend in great measure on his political wisdom in dealing with powerful forces inside and outside the country.

Morales, one of the founders of the Movement to Socialism party, first achieved national prominence in April 2000 when a large international corporation was due to take over newly privatized waterworks in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s second-largest city. The resulting price increases would have put water out of reach for the majority of the population. Following mass demonstrations led by Morales, the proposed privatization scheme was defeated and the country got a taste of Morales’ charisma and leadership.

Morales has led the cocalero movement, a group of coca leaf-growing campesinos resistant to U.S. efforts to eradicate coca in the country. Chewing coca leaves is a Bolivian tradition dating back more than 1,000 years. It has energizing effects, dampens hunger and is an effective antidote against soroche or high-altitude sickness. Any hotel in the capital city of La Paz, some 4,000 meters above sea level, offers newcomers coca-tea as a customary way of dealing with the effects of high altitude.

The cultivation of coca leaves is the main livelihood for the indigenous Aymara and Quechua peoples. According to Morales, the elimination of coca-leaf production is tantamount to eliminating the Aymaras, Quechuas and other indigenous peoples.

Morales favors the exploitation of coca leaves for religious, medicinal and other popular uses, but insists that he opposes the conversion of coca leaves into cocaine. He says his administration aims for “zero cocaine, zero drug trafficking, but not zero coca.”

Morales proposes solving the drug problem at the demand level, not at the supply level, and points out that U.S. eradication efforts carried out so far in Bolivia have not had any effect on cocaine use in the U.S. He has suggested forming a common front with the White House against cocaine and drug trafficking. “Cocaine and drug trafficking,” he has stated, “are not part of Bolivians’ indigenous cultures.”

Bolivia’s new president has vowed that the country’s vast natural resources will be used for the country’s own development. Part of his aim is to renegotiate contracts with international companies that are exploiting Bolivia’s natural resources, to obtain terms more favorable to the indigenous population. Under current conditions, private international companies have practically complete control over the production and sale of oil and gas, paying only 18 percent in royalties and no taxes, a situation widely considered abusive.

Bolivia has the second-largest amount of natural gas reserves in Latin America and is rich in silver, tin and other minerals. In spite of that, 63 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Bolivia has among the worst social and health indicators in the hemisphere, a situation that Morales has promised to change.

The new president’s position regarding growth of coca leaves and his energy policy have put him on a collision course with international companies. British, American and Spanish oil and gas companies obtained substantial profits from the privatization of the energy industry during the 1990s. Little of those profits, however, have benefited Bolivia’s poor, whose protests have forced the resignation of two presidents in two years.

For Morales, the biggest challenge is to balance social demands for radical change with international companies’ fears and U.S. pressures. Shortly before assuming power, Morales softened his populist anti-U.S. rhetoric. During a visit to South Africa, he stated that he welcomes any dialogue with the U.S. that would lead to peace and social justice in his country.

The U.S. would do well not to confront him in ways that would increase the Bolivian population’s animosity toward Washington’s policies. Rather than the confrontational approach it has displayed toward President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, the U.S. should deal with Morales as it does with Brazilian President Lula da Silva, with whom it has created an effective working relationship.

Washington’s failure to engage Morales in a constructive dialogue will prod Bolivia toward Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, which are strongly critical of U.S. policies.

Morales hopes to secure people’s rights by convening a constitutional assembly next summer with the main goal of creating conditions for fair development and exploitation of the country’s resources. How the U.S. deals with another unsympathetic government will help or hinder that process. If, amid the formidable obstacles, Morales succeeds, he will be able to redress centuries of abuse of Bolivia’s indigenous population.