An Uncertain Peace in Bolivia

An Uncertain Peace in Bolivia

October 25, 2003

By Benjamin Dangl and Kathryn Ledebur

Bolivia’s conflicts regarding the proposal to export the nation’s gas to the US through a Chilean port proved to be the spark that fueled a much larger fire of national discontent.  Arising from the din of the Gas War were demands for clarity in coca eradication laws, rejection of the ALCA free trade agreement, rejection of harsh national security legislature and demands for better wages.  After more than a month of what might have become a fierce civil war, which produced nearly eighty dead and five hundred wounded, the president resigned.

On October 17, when congress accepted ex president Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation, many citizens across the country celebrated not just the departure of the president, but also the end of the violence and repression from security forces, however temporary the peace may turn out to be.   After the president resigned, weary protesters and people maintaining road blockades retreated.  Blockades were hauled off roads, businesses and schools opened their doors for the first time in weeks, heavily armed military stopped patrolling city streets, and citizens were able to walk and travel freely again without the fear of getting caught in a confrontation between protesters and security forces.

It remains to be seen, though, whether traditional political party elites and especially the U.S. government will provide the breathing space for the new administration to implement reforms.  One key roadblock continues to be U.S. rigidity on its forced coca eradication policy, which has repeatedly impeded agreements and peaceful resolutions to previous conflicts.

Vice President Carlos Mesa Becomes President of Bolivia

On the night of October 17, after Sanchez de Lozada, known as Goni, officially resigned, Carlos Mesa, the vice president, became the president of Bolivia, as stipulated in country’s constitution.  Mesa’s inaugural address highlighted the ethnic, regional and economic diversity of the nation.  He pragmatically stated that his government will not be able to meet all the demands of protesting sectors, and asked that they be patient and collaborate with the new government. The speech set forth five major guiding principles for his presidency:  a broad-based referendum on the exportation of the nation’s gas; a new executive branch without the participation of political parties; a full-fledged war to fight government corruption; austerity in spending; and a constitutional assembly to elect a new president.

After Mesa officially took office, he said, “I want to create a government for all Bolivians, for a great multiple and diverse country, where we can respect the equality of everyone.  I am only going to be the president if I serve you (the country), because if you end up serving me you will kick me out.” (El Diario, 10/21/03)

Opposition Leaders Present a Conditional Truce

Protesting sectors, such as those led by Evo Morales, Campesino Leader, Felipe Quispe and Bolivian Workers’ Union (COB) leader, Jaime Solares, have agreed to a ninety day truce to allow the new government time to produce results regarding the opposition’s demands.  If Mesa does not follow through with what the opposition leaders have demanded regarding issues such as the exportation of the gas, rejections of the ALCA Free Trade Agreement and clarity in coca production laws, they have pledged to begin another fierce campaign of blockades, marches and strikes. (La Razón, 10/21/03)

MAS party and coca grower leader, Evo Morales, said that his party is not interested in participating in the new administration, and will offer constructive criticism from their seats in Congress.

US Ambassador Officially Supports Mesa:  Coca Issue Could Define the Success or Failure of the New President

Although the U.S had announced support for the ex president, Goni, its official discourse changed after Mesa’s swearing in.  The next day U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, David Greenlee recognized that the transition had been constitutional. He later added that the US embassy supports the presidency of Carlos Mesa, and that the amount of development aid to Bolivia from the US will not change.  (Los Tiempos 10/ 22/03)

What “support” will entail remains to be seen.  Strong pressure to comply with accelerated forced eradication of the coca leaf remains the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in Bolivia.  All U.S. economic aid, and aid from international organizations that the U.S. participates in, is conditioned on compliance of anti-drug objectives through the yearly certification process.  As one of the poorest countries in Latin America, Bolivia is extremely dependent on this funding, and as a result has repeatedly bowed to U.S. pressure.   Although the use of the Bolivian military to forcibly eradicate large quantities of coca in the Chapare region has provoked gross human rights violations, generated greater power for the armed forces at the expense of strong civilian rule and provoked sustained conflict in the region, the U.S. has been unwilling to be flexible in policy or diminish pressure.   Alternative development projects designed to generate replacement income for farmers, as stipulated by Bolivian law have been largely ineffectual.  As a result, coca farmers quickly replant eradicated plants to provide income for their families.

U.S. Inflexibility Impedes Lasting Solutions

U.S. inflexibility on the eradication issue has repeatedly caused negotiation between coca growers and the Bolivian government to break down, at times when both parties were willing to make considerable concessions in an effort to seek peaceful solutions to the ongoing crisis.  Goni’s inability to grant even the most limited concessions to coca farmers, such as a pause in eradication efforts to carry out a study of legal coca markets, greatly eroded his credibility with the Bolivian public and caused protests and government repression to escalate.

U.S. counternarcotics policy will most likely be the issue that will make or break the Mesa presidency.  Coca producers have already reiterated their demands for a pause in eradication, the modification of anti-drug law 1008, and a study of legal coca markets. Their leader, Evo Morales, has warned that if progress is not made on these issues within one month, that direct action by producers will resume after the truce. (Los Tiempos, 10/22/03)

Mesa has not yet announced his administration’s stance on coca eradication, although the newly appointed minister of defense has stated that eradication will continue until a policy can be defined.

Revisions Needed in Coca Eradication Policy

In the first days of Mesa’s administration, US ambassador Greenlee stated anti-drug programs are just a part of broad U.S. policy and that he did not wish to discuss the coca issue because “it’s divisive.”  This assertion seems to overlook the pressure exerted by the certification process. Greenlee later confirmed that U.S. anti-drug policy in Bolivia will not change.  Other U.S. officials have repeated his sentiments. U.S. Drug Czar, John Walters warned that coca production in Bolivia is on the rise, “Bolivia had more than twice the amount (12,000 hectares of legal coca) under cultivation just last year, with the trend going upward,” and warned that, “hitching Bolivia’s future to coca cultivation could relegate it to permanent backwater status” (New York Times Editorial 10/22/03).  These comments echo sentiments expressed by ex-U.S. Ambassador, Manuel Rocha just before the 2002 presidential elections. Rocha said that if Bolivia elected Evo Morales as president, the country would lose international aid. The statement infuriated Bolivian voters and helped Morales come in just one and a half percentage points behind Sánchez de Lozada.

In effect, heavy U.S. government pressure has helped make the Bush administration’s fears become reality, in terms of increasing popular support for Morales and forcing the resignation of their ally, Goni.   If U.S. policymakers do not drastically revise existing policy to provide room for the Mesa government to negotiate, they will undoubtedly be faced with a more radical administration as a result of the constitutional assembly. It is time for the U.S to change its repressive policy that has yet to yield results at home.  In spite of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hectares eradicated, the price, purity, and availability of cocaine on American streets remains virtually the same.

The Gas Issue

Although Mesa made few promises during his inaugural address, he did affirm that he would carry out a broad-based referendum to consult the Bolivian population whether or not, how, when, and through what port, the gas should be exported. The newly appointed Chancellor, Juan Ignacio Siles, said that the “possible commercialization of the gas could be projected towards the improvement of the quality of life of the sectors most excluded in the Bolivian population.”  (La Razón, 10/20/03)

The terms of the exportation, though, need to be changed radically. According to CEDLA, an economic think tank, the current price the nation receives per thousand cubic feet of gas to Brazil is $1.77 (U.S.).  The price for exportation to the United States would be only $.70 per thousand cubic feet and Bolivia would only receive 18% of that amount, around $.13 per thousand cubic feet.  President Mesa stated that if Bolivia decides to export the gas, he wants the petroleum companies to give 50 percent of their profits to Bolivia. (La Razón 10/21/03)

Many citizens remain skeptical that any plans to export the gas would benefit the Bolivian people and instead continue to demand that the gas be industrialized nationally, allowing the country to benefit from this additional capital.   However, currently, Bolivia does not have the financial resources to undertake such a project.

Cabinet Appointments Limit Power of Traditional Political Parties

Mesa appointed a new round of apparently qualified ministers without traditional party ties.  He stated, “The decision to develop a government without political parties…is the clear answer, after the absolutely inescapable fact that the political parties are in a grave crisis, not just within the government, but within the whole society.” (La Razón, 10/20/03)  The institutionalization of these posts provides the opportunity for greater government transparency and efficiency. The legislative gridlock created by traditional party disputes impeded any significant progress during Goni’s short presidency.  At this time, all major parties have expressed support for the new government, except for some sectors of the MNR, Mesa and Sánchez de Lozada’s party.

It remains unclear whether traditional parties will attempt to impede the new administration, as Mesa has appointed mainly politicians from independent political parties.  In the past, ministerial posts and personnel from departmental governments have been spoils that traditional parties have divided to their members.  Until Mesa’s inauguration, membership in a traditional party was considered a prerequisite for government employment, even at the lowest levels.  At the same time, though, it weakens the power base for political parties, and is likely to provoke strong opposition in the near future.

War on Corruption Presents Shocking Results

Ex-coalition parties are also under scrutiny in recently initiated investigations into government corruption. On October 21, as its first effort to fight corruption, the new administration began financial audits of all ministries.  Investigations revealed that key economic and strategic information had been erased and destroyed within the Government Ministry. The Bolivian press reported that ex-Government Minister Yerko Kukoc had been given thirteen million dollars to fund security forces during the Gas War.  Although the quantity has not been confirmed, it is unclear where these funds went.  Investigations in other ministries may reveal similar acts of corruption.

The most shocking revelation of the campaign came on October 22.   Administration spokespeople revealed that one day before his resignation, Sánchez de Lozada had signed a Supreme Decree, stating that  spending of reserved funds, a huge sum in the Bolivian national budget, did not have be approved or audited by the government accounting office.  The ex-president authorized himself to approve spending for September, October and November.  The decree stated that, “the recent events in the country endanger normal citizen activity…as a result it is necessary to engage in a greater number of specific central administration expenses, which cannot have the necessary documentation and supervision” (Los Tiempos, 10/23/03). The presidential delegate in charge of the investigation, stated in addition to Goni, all his ministers signed the decree and that it was clearly an act of corruption and unethical (Los Tiempos 10/24/03).  It remains unclear whether the ex-president and other officials implicated in the incident will face legal consequences.

Justice for Gas War Atrocities

Carlos Mesa has also promised justice regarding the atrocities that took place during the Gas War, which will be essential to maintaining the support of sectors that participated in the protests. After Sanchez de Lozada left Bolivia, one angry citizen in stated that, “Sánchez de Lozada doesn’t have a soul.  He escaped through the back door after he had killed us like animals.  Sooner or later he needs to be brought to justice.”  Another person  added, “We want guarantees that this won’t happen again.”  (La Razon, 10/21/03)

Mesa has already met resistance within the government regarding investigations.  Several party leaders in Congress commented that a debate over the social conflicts and violence which recently took place “would not be wise at this time because such a debate would bring back a climate of confrontation within the country at a time when we should focus on pacification.”  (La Razón, 10/20/03).  The Bolivian military has publicly stated its support for Mesa.  At the same time, though, the armed forces said that they do not expect to be held responsible for the violence in the Gas War, which was the result of a political conflict.

On October 23, the European Parliament voted to reject asylum for Goni and other officials and asked that they be held responsible for the repression and deaths in the Gas War.  The document stated, “human rights violations are not subject to a statute of limitations and members of the previous government should respond for the abuses they committed to repress popular movements….It is not appropriate to grant asylum to these leaders, who should appear before Bolivian justice for the crimes they committed during their rule.” ( Los Tiempos 10/24/03)

The resolution is crucial in a nation plagued by endemic impunity for human rights violations.   Members of the Bolivian security forces rarely face legal consequences for their actions.  Cases of military personnel accused of violations are routinely referred to military courts, in violation of Bolivian and international law. They are generally acquitted quickly. Yet, pressure on the armed forces could create further instability.  Impunity for government repression aggravated social conflict in the nation. Without addressing this issue, it will be extremely difficult for the new president to maintain peace.


The majority of the Bolivian population has given Mesa the benefit of the doubt.  This support, though, is not unconditional or eternal.  It is inextricably linked to his capacity to meet the multiple and varied demands of different social sectors. As one citizen explained, “It’s a good thing Mesa is making all of these huge promises, but if he doesn’t fulfill them we’ll kick him out just like we did with Sanchez de Lozada.  I think people in the US could learn something from Bolivia and kick out Bush the same way!”

As Mesa stated at his inauguration, it will be impossible to grant all concessions to every sector.  Without breathing space from traditional political elites and the Bush administration, Mesa’s concerted efforts to create a more representative and inclusive Bolivia, could be smothered.
Benjamin Dangl and Kathryn Ledebur work at the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia.  Dangl can be reached at

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