Boiling point in Bolivia
Internal conflict could destabilize the region. Here's what Washington can do.
While America's foreign-policy debate centers on the Middle East and Russia, unrest is mounting in South America. Bolivia is teetering on the brink of conflict, threatening to destabilize a region much closer to home and further damage our troubled economy.Skip to next paragraph
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The crisis represents what the United States might increasingly face: waning power and rabid anti-Americanism, limiting Washington's options in trouble spots. In this case, the best the US can do is help support efforts led by Brazil and other South American states.
Bolivia is synonymous with political and social strife. Long known for its deep social inequities and political turmoil, this country of 9 million people has increasingly been divided geographically, economically, and even culturally. Two groups now fight for control of the state: those in the lowlands, mostly capitalist mestizos (people of mixed European ancestry) who support globalization and benefit from Brazil's booming economy, versus the indigenous groups in the Andes, the anti-American Aymara and Quechua, who prefer state control of the economy.
Bolivia's mineral resources complicate this picture. Not only are the country's abundant hydrocarbon reserves concentrated in the four wealthier lowland provinces but centuries of elite exploitation have left indigenous groups deeply distrustful of any scheme that might deprive them of these riches.
President Evo Morales has exacerbated these divisions since coming to power in 2005. Although rightly concerned that his indigenous supporters would not benefit from the state's growing gas revenue, he's alienated his opponents by trying to centralize authority, confiscate property, and illegally ram through a new constitution.
The risk of civil war has markedly increased in recent weeks. The Army has occupied an opposition province, declaring martial law there and imprisoning the governor on charges of "genocide." Fighting has killed some 30 people. Anti-Morales protesters have occupied central government offices in Santa Cruz, the country's business capital, and interrupted natural-gas deliveries to Brazil.
Morales has attempted to blame Washington for Bolivia's troubles, expelling the US ambassador on the spurious grounds of fomenting rebellion. He behaves like his close ally, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who also expelled his country's US ambassador to distract attention from his own problems.