Bolivia's challenge: heal divisions

Leftist leaders say they will resume blockades Monday if the new president doesn't meet their demands.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

With a new president in office and month-long blockades removed from La Páz, calm has returned to the Bolivian capital.

But just hours after Supreme Court Chief Justice Eduardo Rodríguez Veltze assumed the presidency Thursday after Carlos Mesa resigned last week, more-radical opposition leaders were threatening to resume their blockades as early as Monday if Mr. Rodríguez does not begin addressing their demands.

Those demands - nationalization of the country's vast natural- gas reserves and the drafting of a new constitution - don't lend themselves to quick fixes. Bolivia is South America's poorest country, with deep economic, political, and racial divisions. And the leftist protesters, having demonstrated their muscle by driving two presidents from office in less than two years, have been emboldened by this latest show of strength.

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"The demands [of the left] are not gone, but a lot will depend on how Rodríguez acts in the next week," says Roberto Laserna, a sociologist and head of the Millennium Institute, a think tank in Cochabamba. "If he concedes or backs down quickly, he'll be done and the next government will be military."

Political turmoil in Bolivia is nothing new. The country has had nearly 200 different governments since independence in 1825. The difference now is the growing strength of the country's left-leaning indigenous majority, which has traditionally held little influence in Bolivia's political and economic affairs.

The left's best-known leader is Evo Morales, head of the Movement Toward Socialism party and the runner-up in the 2002 presidential election.

But Mr. Morales is hardly alone in trying to represent indigenous interests. In fact, the recent crisis here offered more- radical leaders a chance to eclipse the influence of Morales.

These leaders include Abel Mamani, head of the neighborhood association of El Alto - the city overlooking La Páz - and Jaime Solares, president of the country's main labor union. They have been less willing to compromise in recent weeks than leaders like Morales, who still has presidential aspirations.

"There are leftist leaders in Bolivia now like Mamani and Solares who are outside the formal political system and who look at Congress and the presidency as 'bourgeoisie democracy,' " says Eduardo Gamarra, head of Latin America studies at Florida International University. "They prefer 'direct democracy' - bringing people into the streets - over the ballot box."

The demand for a new constitution that would give greater economic and political influence to indigenous groups raises concerns in the east, where a more European-descended population centered around the boomtown of Santa Cruz hopes to expand its economic links to the rest of the world while distancing itself from the central government.

Worried that a new constitution will weaken their influence, leaders in Santa Cruz are pushing to have a referendum on autonomy by early August that would trump any later decision by the constitutional congress.

Just about the only thing the two groups agree on is the need for new elections.

Yet other than Morales, Bolivia's left has no plausible national leader. And many analysts say Morales has misjudged the crisis affecting Bolivia over the past month.

"For Morales to be credible as a national candidate, he has to appeal to the urban middle class," says Mr. Gamarra. "But I think he lost that group, partly because he laid siege to La Páz over the past three weeks. At the same time, the left has radicalized to the point that he's now losing his traditional base of support as well."

If Morales can't raise his approval ratings, more centrist politicians will be well positioned for upcoming elections, which Rodríguez says he will call by the end of the year.

The most likely candidates are Jorge Quiroga, who served a one-year term as president in 2001-2002, and Samuel Doria Medina, a former cement magnate who leads the National Unity party. Neither is viewed as part of the indigenous community here and both could expect to face the same challenges that brought down Mr. Mesa and that are already threatening Rodríguez.

"The question for every Bolivian president now," says Gamarra, "is how do you deal with the street, because the street has no rules."

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