Bolivia is on the brink of a constitutional, indeed, societal collapse. It seems headed for a military coup d’état and general chaos. In the overall scheme of things in Latin America, Bolivia is of only marginal economic or political significance. But as the most acute case of a more general and disturbing set of problems affecting far more important countries in the region—an increased radicalization (and anti-democratic manipulation) of indigenous peoples, the return of long-discredited populist and Marxist ideologies, general government incompetence, and pathological anti-Americanism—it is a country we should be paying attention to.
The immediate cause of Bolivia’s current anti-government protests, which have included riots and highway blockades erected by the protesters (leading to several deaths and serious food shortages in the capital), is the issue of natural gas exports. Once a major tin producer, Bolivia today depends almost completely on hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas) for its legal export revenues; coca makes a significant and growing illegal contribution to revenues. Coca growers have increasingly sought to see coca be treated the same as hydrocarbons. Congressman Evo Morales Ayma, the coca growers’ leader, chief of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, and runner-up in last year’s presidential election, said in an interview last year, “Now is the moment to see the defense of coca as the defense of all natural resources, just like hydrocarbon, oil, gas; and this consciousness is growing…. Five or six years ago I realized that one day, coca would be the banner of national unity in defense of our dignity, and now my prediction is coming true.”
To start with oil and gas, Bolivia has plenty of both—especially the latter, of which it has the second largest reserves in Latin America. Until recently most was exported to neighboring Brazil, but that country has reduced imports as it exploits domestic deposits. One would think that the alternative would be export elsewhere, and the United States and Mexico are indeed highly interested. But any pipeline linking Bolivia to world markets must cross another country’s territory, since Bolivia is landlocked. To get gas to the Pacific, Bolivia would have to transport it through Peru or Chile, the latter of which would provide a much shorter path. However, Bolivia is landlocked precisely because it lost its Pacific coast to Chile in 1883, following an ill-advised war that Bolivia initiated. No Bolivian has forgotten, forgiven, or gotten used to this—indeed, the country still pretends to have a Navy (on Lake Titicaca) and makes claims the lost territory, usually to the Chileans’ amusement. The Bolivian military strongly opposes any pipeline through Chile.
The MAS, a collection of cocaleros, old-fashioned communists, Trotskyites, Castroites, and racialist indigenous peoples nostalgic for pre-Colombian times, is opposed to the export of gas per se, claiming that it would only enrich the United States and multinational corporations. This even though a pipeline through Chile would bring Bolivia close to $500 million a year in revenues. Such revenue, however, would be dirty money in the eyes of Evo Morales and his followers, unlike the proceeds from coca, which is worshipped as part of “ancestral tradition.”
The problem with this rationale is that coca, in Bolivia as in Peru, where similarly false claims are being made, is being grown in areas and quantities that have nothing to do with indigenous traditions and everything to do with greed, criminal enterprise, and leftist propaganda. Most Bolivian coca is now grown in the lowland tropical jungles of Chaparé rather than in the highlands of Yungas, as was traditional. And none was grown there before the Europeans arrived, when it began to be grown during the 1980s not by Indian communities but by former tin miners who moved to the area in search of more money and less work, who brought with them a socialist ideology and trade union organization. This may in fact be the only case in the world where a criminal enterprise is heavily unionized and has its own political party—the MAS.
Like Morales himself, MAS is not just an open advocate of drug production, which is a crime under Bolivian and international law, but also advocates (re-)nationalization of all large enterprises, natural resources, and large farms, non-payment of external debt, and anti-globalization, all mixed with a “return” to the pre-Colombian paradise of the Aymara and Quechua of half a millennium ago.
Perhaps such notions seem ridiculous, but Morales and the MAS believe in their rhetoric and seek to “liberate” their fellow Amerindians and coca growers throughout Latin America. In the same October 2002 interview, Morales acknowledged that “of course, sometimes it is the coca growers that set off the spark” if there is still violence and military repression. The advent of MAS will make it harder than ever for Bolivia, with its nationalist military, a tradition of about one coup d’état every ten months since it gained independence in 1825, an unstable government coalition of ex-leftists, opportunists, and the simply corrupt, to function as a democracy or achieve economic development. La Razón columnist José Gramunt de Moragas put it well when he recently described Bolivian politics as a pendulum eternally moving between unsolved problem to violence and back to the status quo.
Bolivia is not alone in this predicament. Ecuador’s recently elected president, Lucio Gutierrez, a former coup-making colonel, lost the support of the powerful Indian socialist organizations when he tried to impose some economic common sense. He is in danger of becoming the fifth elected president in so many years to lose his job before the end of his mandate. In Peru, another former officer and (failed) coup-maker is also increasing his popularity on an indigenous/socialist platform. All in all, and considering also the pseudo-indigenous Zapatista socialists of Mexico (led by a Marxist, blue-eyed former academic), it appears that the indigenous Latin American peoples’ growing political power represents not progress but simply anti-democratic socialist nostalgia and a profoundly reactionary and illiterate approach to economics. The tragedy, of course, is that these people are the most likely victims of the type of politics they advocate. Their future seems destined to look much like their past of poverty and backwardness, all in the name of a “progressive agenda.”