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Friday, February 06, 2004

Bolivia in trouble 

The situation in Bolivia, where I spend six months in 2001, deteriorated badly over 2003. This culminated in the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (Goni), after a well-publicized, violent uprising in La Paz and the adjacent ghetto-city El Alto sparked by a plan to export natural gas to the U.S. through a proposed pipeling running through neighboring Chile. The most dramatic (possibly apocryphal) moment within these events was when a military officer executed on the spot one of his servicemen who refused to fire on the protesting civilians. In total, an estimated 70 people died.

One of the key figures in Bolivian politics is Evo Morales, the indigenous leader of the coca growers trying to form a coalition of the long-disenfranchised indigenous. Among other things, cocaleros constitute the poorest of the poor in Bolivia. Their profession has been targeted by US efforts at staunching narco-terrorism. This has included US military and DEA presence, aid to the ongoing Bolivian militarization of coca-growing regions, and alternative development funds for farmers to plant crops such as bananas, pineapple and the like. By and large, farmers are still impoverished, with many having lost access to the only cash crop -- coca -- that sustained them. As Slate reports, they have found the market for alternative crops saturated, meaning prices have fallen, and no rich countries have stepped up to create the requisite favorable export conditions that could make these crops economically viable. This deterioration in standard of living has added to the country's instability.

Compounding the situation are austerity measures that the current government must enact to remain solvent, service international debt and attract the foreign investment that could eventually spur a recovery. Any additional taxes or cuts in domestic spending that impact the poor are likely to kindle further rounds of violence and protest within this disastrous country.

All of which is a complete and total shame, because Bolivia is one of the most precious places on Earth, and the people are the kindest and most open I've encountered in my travels. It is a country of 8.5 million now, with perhaps another 4 million Bolivians in the diaspora.
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