Bolivia no longer dancing for President Paz. Elections show public dismay over severe austerity steps

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Mar'ia L'opez remembers dancing for Bolivian President V'ictor Paz Estenssoro when he visited her remote mining community after being elected for the first time 35 years ago. It was the year of the 1952 revolution, and Mr. Paz was the leader who carried out sweeping land reform, nationalization of the lucrative tin mines, and who gave thousands of disenfranchised Bolivian peasants the vote.

``We went to the road to meet him, and it was far,'' recalls Mrs. L'opez, now a mother of six children. ``We made presents and carried him to town on our shoulders.''

Now, Mrs. L'opez - who worked as a mineral sorter from the age of 13 until being forced last year to quit along with thousands of Bolivian mine workers - says she and other peasants feel cheated by the man they voted into power four times.

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On Dec. 6, Bolivians confirmed their deepening disappointment with the Paz government by voting against the ruling Nationalist Revolutionary Movement in the first nationwide municipal elections in the past 40 years.

The final results have not come out yet, but initial results show the vote is split between the conservative Nationalist Democratic Action Party and the Leftist Revolutionary Movement.

The Paz government has been heralded for reducing the rate of inflation from 25,000 percent when it took office in August 1985, to about 20 percent this year. But the Dec. 6 vote was yet another sign that Draconian austerity measures aimed at whipping the battered economy into shape have exacted a high social cost and are taking their toll.

Last month, Mar'ia L'opez was one of an estimated 1,700 miners and their wives who went on a month-long hunger strike throughout Bolivia. They were striking to push for jobs and higher benefits for some 20,000 miners forced to quit when the government announced the dismantling of the state mining sector in August 1985. They called off the protest this year on Dec. 4 after the government and union members responded to pressures from the Roman Catholic Church for dialogue after two babies died during the hunger strike.

``We would rather die of hunger here [at the protest] than of hunger in our houses,'' said Marina Luna, a mother of four whose husband was fired and given $1,000 after working 23 years in the Viloco mine. ``We can't make ends meet. We don't have housing. Our children are undernourished because we can't feed them.''

Political analysts predict more unrest after Christmas once $40 in monthly living supplements being paid to destitute miners run out.

``There is no money to offset the social cost,'' said one international banker here.

The government already has spent $50 million in benefits. It says its cash-strapped treasury simply can't afford to pay more.

While union leaders criticize the government for not using some of the compensation money to invest in new equipment to rehabilitate the mining sector and maintain permanent jobs, government insiders say it acted too quickly to reduce the fiscal deficit by attempting to get miners off the state payroll.

There was no uniform policy of how much to pay miners in different communities or any consideration of long-term planning, a source said, adding: ``The money is spent, and most miners have nothing to show for it.''

The dismantling of the state mining sector has placed great strains on the social system. There are, for example, 79,000 miners' children who must be absorbed into the school system in the cities.

Bolivia has few options, other than cocaine production, to the immediate problems of employment and lack of government funds.

The government has not persuaded local or foreign business to invest, despite incentives to stimulate exports and transportation.

``The problem is confidence and time,'' said economic analyst Gonzalo L'opez Munoz. ``Democracy here is still like a little baby, and many people are wondering is it going to subsist?''

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