May 28, 2004

Mesa's Migraine

MABB is a registered TM.

For any head of government of a democratic country, the occasional headache is just a part of the job. But, for the president of Bolivia, Carlos Mesa, the occasional headache has turned into one of the worst Migrains attacks of his short presidency. The source of his pain is a complex compound of political activism by certain sectors of civil society, political parties inefficacy in congress, his own government's disunity, foreign pressures and, of course, the complexity of the issues he is set to confront as president of one of the poorest and most politically active nations in the world.

What is worst, his problems are starting to complicate even more. Just yesterday there was a strong confrontation between activists and police in the area of San Pablo (department of Beni). According to reports, the results of these confrontations were 21 wounded and 3 dead. It seems Mesa's problems are taking hin down the same old road of demonstrations, confrontations and violence, which forced the previous president (Sanchez de Lozada) to abruptly end his government.

But, who are the elements making up this problematic compound?

Social sectors

The Bolivian Workers Union (COB), which comprises of the corresponding regional workers unions as well as other civic organizations such as regional miners unions, regional transport workers unions, urban and rural teachers unions and so on, decided to increase their protests to pressure the government into attending their demands and to disavow the upcoming referendum. The COB disputed the government's arguments about the referendum and expressed that such mechanism was designed to protect interests of the transnational energy companies. They further argued the referendum did not addressed the will of the Bolivian population, which is the nationalization of gas and the derogation of the current hydrocarbons law. As a result, they decided to continue road blocks and demonstrations.

The La Paz teachers union maintain the general strike implemented in compliance to the COB's call to action and to ask for a pay raise. This sector has vowed to radicalize its measures as the conflict escalates. Currently, they are asking the resignation of the finance minister. While in Cochabamba, the regional teachers union is blocking roads as a pressure tactic.

The people living in rural areas around La Paz, who are organized in rural workers unions, decided to start road blocks to pressure the government to attend their demands. These measures are also set to radicalize as the referendum approaches and the government tries to bring everything under control.

Members of the Public Transportation Workers Union (ST) are voicing their discontent with the rise in gasoline prices. They have been urged by COB to join the efforts to pressure the government.

A group of about 1,000 miners have taken over a mine in San Vicente (south of Potosi) with arms in hand. They express their dissatisfaction with the government's broken promises to reactivate the cooperative mining system and thus provide employment for miners around Bolivia. In La Paz, a group of 200 miners from the Pacuni mine are demanding restitucion of their employment. They threaten with immolation.

University Students, professors and administrative workers of the University of La Paz (UMSA), are preparing new marches and demonstrations to pressure the government to increase the university's budget.

The bakers union are preparing a rise in the price of bread, due to a rise in the price of energy (gas) and other materials.

In Sucre (political capital of Bolivia), various organizations affiliated to COB, are planning demonstrations, marches and strikes, to pressure the government into funding a development project in Sucre ($4,8 mil.) and to clean the Pilcomayo river of pollution.

The Civic committees Pro La Paz, Oruro and Pando, expressed that they will join the COB's protests if the government does not attend to their demands. The demands: The removal of several government officials in Pando, whom they associate with defending the interests of the timber companies operating in that region.

Pressure also comes from within Mesa's administration. Xavier Nogales, Hydrocarbons Minister, quit his post. It is reported, but not confirmed that Nogales was asked to leave the post after he voiced criticism about the referendum questions. His criticism highlighted redundancies, ambiguities and lack of clarity in the formulation of the questions. Nogales leaves his post after only 40 days as member of the Mesa cabinet and at a critical time for the government.

A police officer, Jose Luis Mamani, has started a hunger strike to pressure the government improvements on the police department's administrative regulation and to show his disapproval of the referendum.

On another front, the US government, through its embassy in Bolivia, continued its pressure on congress to ratify the immunity treaty, signed on May 2003 with the previous administration of Sanchez de Lozada. The Bolivian government is worried about the outcome of the vote, because if the treaty is not ratified, it will result in more difficulties dealing with the government of the US. Mainly, the military aid, which is used to combat drug trafficking, will be compromised.

The private sector (business owners) as well as the energy companies, are worried about nationalization. Thus, Mesa has pressure to make sure his government respects the law and the contracts signed with these enterprises.

As we can see, the picture is complicated, and as stated earlier, it is about to get even more complicated. Every day unions or civic organizations join the COB's call to action. Mesa's pains are here to stay, for the moment. The solutions rest would on Mesa's political ability and astuteness.

One solution could be to share the power and thus the responsibilities with key leaders of these social sectors. This would bring into action these sectors and would result in to such sectors taking ownership of the many problems Bolivia faces. Of course, this solution can also result on a radical movement of the government to more populist policies and a rapid descent into chaotic situations. Not to mention, the possible effects on Bolivian democracy, foreign relations and stable economic growth.

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