The Miami Herald
Sat, Feb. 07, 2004

New president struggles to control chaotic nation

Bolivia's leader, Carlos Mesa, tries to calm a coup-prone country. But if his ideas work, Washington may not like it.

  Knight Ridder News Service

  LA PAZ, Bolivia - When Bolivian President Carlos Mesa walks into his palace office, he can't help but notice a spider web of cracked glass and a bullet hole in a window.

  ''That one wasn't meant for me,'' he says dryly. It was meant for the man he replaced last October, pro-U.S. President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

  Mesa, 50, a handsome and formal man, by inclination and training a historian not a politician, has struggled since then to hold his poor, violent and chaotic country

  191 COUPS

  Bolivians have endured 191 coups and revolutions in the country's 178-year history, and today the country is again rife with intrigue. There are rumors of plots to storm the Congress. Rival opposition organizations are clashing in the capital and in Bolivia's drug-growing region, known as the Chapare. There, rebel leaders allege, the United States has armed paramilitaries to suppress farmers of coca, the raw material for cocaine.

  Until now, Bolivia has been a key U.S. ally in the war on drugs and a model student in adopting U.S.-espoused open-market policies. Now, both issues face doubts and challenges. And while Mesa remains personally popular, the Congress he must push changes through is widely reviled as corrupt.

  Mesa, chosen because he added to his predecessor's prestige, has no party to support him, and sounds like a historian when asked about Bolivia's prospects. ''The
  question is whether we are constructing a new cycle or whether we are the tail end of the cycle that is ending,'' he said in an interview Thursday.

  A new historical cycle in Bolivia might clash with U.S. interests. In a nationwide speech last Sunday, Mesa criticized the U.S.-espoused economic policies of the 1990s that made Bolivia one of Latin America's most open economies but failed to reduce poverty. Free-market policies allowed cheap imports to wreck domestic production, Mesa said. He wants the state to serve as an engine for economic growth.

  ''This doesn't mean the old concept of interventionism or state planning'' of the economy, he added. Rather, he'd adopt a ''Bolivia first'' strategy. All government purchases valued at less than $1 million, for example, would be restricted to Bolivian companies. For bigger business, a Bolivian company whose bid was less than 20 percent higher than a foreign company's would win the contract.

  With Mesa's encouragement, Bolivia's Congress is investigating what happened to revenue supposedly destined for the federal treasury from the privatization of
  state-owned telephone, power, mining, railroad and aviation companies. Lawmakers want Alfonso Revollo, who oversaw the sales of state assets from 1993 to 1997, to return from his World Bank post in Washington to explain what happened to the money.

  ''It is a moment [in history] that demands that we analyze in depth what has failed . . . over the last 20 years,'' Mesa said.


  Referring obliquely to the United States and global lenders such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, he added: ``The more powerful countries, and particularly the multilateral institutions that have designed various democratic and economic scenarios, must rethink many of the things they have done.''

  Lacking political party supporters, Mesa relies on a Cabinet of widely respected Bolivians whom the populace considers honest. Indeed, polls show Bolivians trust Mesa precisely because he doesn't have a party behind him.

  Bolivia's Congress, on the other hand, is unpopular and mistrusted. But through it Mesa must pass proposed new taxes on wealth and deep cuts in government spending that are aimed at decreasing this year's $414 million fiscal deficit.


  The same Congress will determine the fate of Mesa's initiative to shore up the oil and gas sector. A proposed sale of natural gas through Chile to the United States and a $6 billion pipeline project triggered the protests last October in which 56 Bolivians died and Sánchez de Lozada fell from power. The protesters felt the deals would leave profits due native Bolivians in the pockets of foreigners and politicians.

  Mesa promises a referendum on the sale of natural gas and would give average Bolivians a stake in the state energy company through the sale of bonds.

  Mesa also will propose key social policy changes in March, he said. In recognition of the social tension in the Chapare region, he indicated, they may include allowing growers to produce some amount of coca. First, Mesa wants to determine the legal domestic demand for coca, which also is chewed by native Bolivians to enhance stamina or used to make teas.