The New York Times
July 19, 2004

Bolivians Support Gas Plan and Give President a Lift

EL ALTO, Bolivia, July 18 - Two days ago, protesters in this gritty, largely indigenous city, the flash point for fierce antigovernment protests that already toppled one president, burned an effigy of President Carlos Mesa. They were furious that Mr. Mesa's government had refused to wrest private gas installations from huge foreign corporations.

On Sunday morning, though, Mr. Mesa waded through throngs of supporters at El Alto's Eva Peron school, shaking hands with voters who had come to cast ballots in a referendum that asked Bolivians how the country's huge natural gas reserves should be developed. The plan did not include taking the facilities away from private companies.

By late Sunday, with two-thirds of the votes counted, Bolivians were poised to approve handily all five questions on the ballot, which, the president said, would permit the private energy companies to export large quantities of natural gas, while allowing his government to increase the royalties it receives and tighten restrictions on those companies to provide more benefits to Bolivia's 8.3 million people.

The result was seen as a vote of confidence for a president who, upon taking office on Oct. 17 after President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada resigned, was warned by some militant protest leaders that he had three months to set things right.

"You have to give him time," said Betty Roque, 53, a poll worker in El Alto and, like most people here, an Aymara Indian. "You can't expect him to do it all in a few days."

Whether hard-line indigenous leaders - who say free-market reforms and Bolivia's ruling classes have ensured the country's long misery - will now cede space to the president is not clear.

Criticism of the referendum is sure to linger because many Bolivians did not understand the convoluted questions, political analysts said. Protest leaders said the referendum should have asked only whether Bolivians wanted the government to take over private energy installations.

Political analysts said the real test would come during the weeks when the president tried to push through Congress his new hydrocarbons law, to be based on the results of the Sunday referendum. If his adversaries initiate demonstrations by opposition groups, Mr. Mesa, a relative outsider with little support in Congress and no allies in Bolivia's security forces, may find himself in political trouble.

"Here you have a guy who has no control over the armed forces, no control over the police," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian-born expert who oversees Latin American studies at Florida International University. "He basically controls the palace, and he has the daunting mission of trying to re-found the country."

For the 50-year-old president, the issue of whether the government should nationalize the natural gas facilities or continue to allow foreign companies to handle the export process has made his job akin to walking a tightrope. A false move, political analysts say, and he could end up like Mr. Sánchez de Lozada, whose downfall came after he proposed building a gas pipeline through Chile, Bolivia's historic enemy, in order to export gas to the United States.

"The challenges for the Mesa government are enormous," the International Crisis Group, a policy analysis organization, said in a recent report on Bolivia.

The possibility of failure in this chronically unstable country is of deep concern to the Bush administration and to foreign energy companies, which have spent $3.5 billion here since Mr. Sánchez de Lozada allowed them to begin exploring for natural gas and selling it to other countries seven years ago. The explorations found that Bolivia has the second-largest gas deposits in Latin America.

On the surface, Mr. Mesa, a tall, urbane intellectual addicted to films, history books and the television network that he founded, may seem out of place as the leader of an inward-looking country landlocked in the middle of a continent. A former partner in Mr. Mesa's network, Amalia Pando, calls him a "man who enjoys the good things in life," clearly not dealing with the basics of Bolivia's deep-rooted problems.

Mr. Mesa's mother, Teresa Gisbert de Mesa, said in an interview that her son never wanted to be president. "Why would anyone want this?" she said. "What can you get out of this job?"

Before running successfully as vice president in 2002 on Mr. Sánchez de Lozada's ticket, Mr. Mesa had never held public office. He belongs to no political party and is not from the elite group of wealthy landowners, military men and mining barons that has churned out politicians in the past.

But that outsider status is also welcome in a country where people are inherently distrustful of traditional politicians and political parties, long accused of corruption.

"This is a transparent government, and people recognize that for the first time they have a president who says what's what," said Ramiro Molina, a historian at La Paz's University of the Cordillera.

Mr. Mesa has taken care to tread delicately, building a working relationship with Mr. Sánchez de Lozada's chief antagonist, Evo Morales, the country's most powerful indigenous leader. Mr. Mesa has also followed through on two promises he made after taking office: to hold a referendum and to convene a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, which will give more say to poor rural dwellers.

One result is that he now enjoys an approval rating approaching 70 percent. "There is something very clear here," Mr. Mesa said in an interview. "Bolivian society supports a president because the president offers a legitimate democratic solution and because at a moment of crisis like this Bolivia cannot be unstable."

Mr. Mesa had long been known to Bolivians for his blunt, straightforward style as a journalist and host of "Up Close," a politically influential television interview show where Bolivia's politicians and newsmakers have appeared. His reputation was cast for uncovering the role of the secret police and other government functionaries in rights abuses and corruption.

He has also written books on soccer, film and Bolivia's chaotic history, including a 720-page tome on the country's presidents, called "Between the Ballot and the Gun."

In one subchapter in that book, "Violent Death in the Presidency,'' Mr. Mesa notes that 11 presidents or former heads of state have been assassinated, including one who was dragged from his office and hanged from a lamppost.

Mr. Mesa seems well aware of the pitfalls.

To soothe tensions, he has traveled to El Alto to inaugurate the construction of gas hookups to poor neighborhoods and pledged to refrain from using force against protesters, as Mr. Sánchez de Lozada did.

"This is a weight on my shoulder," Mr. Mesa said of the 59 deaths that led to his predecessor's resignation. Mr. Mesa said his government was now open to "dialogue under all conditions."

He has even come down hard on the elites, telling them in a recent forum of industrialists, "Now, more than ever, a political or social solution is as important as or more important than an economic solution."