Poverty and corruption -- staples of life in Bolivia

Roberto Yuamona and Carlos Wari eke out a living collecting and selling Brazil nuts and white sap from rubber trees in Bolivia's Amazon Basin.

Once a month an Army sergeant appears at their thatched huts and demands their rubber. This has gone on since a military garrison nearby told them two years ago that they lived on military property and would have to sell their products to the military. The rubber sells for 612 pesos a kilo in town, but the military pays Yuamona and Wari only 25 pesos a kilo.

''What can we do?'' Mr. Wari asks. ''They have the guns.''

Many Bolivians, including the professional class, seem to be asking the same question these days. In this country, stories abound of military corruption, inefficiency, and robbery.

The most recent scandal surrounds the February devaluation of the peso. Just before the devaluation, according to some banking officials here and other sources, President Celso Torrelio Villa ordered the Central Bank to sell dollars to certain military officials at established rates at a time when most people had to pay inflated rates for scarce dollars.

The result was that the military men, with advance knowledge of the coming devaluation, bought millions of dollars within just a few days.

President Torrelio has denied this and promised an investigation. But some observers skeptically think the investigation will produce nothing. They say they know of no military official who has been reprimanded, at least publically, in any other recent investigations into alleged military impropriety.

Some private-sector leaders go so far as to say the government runs some state-owned enterprises for the personal profit of military leaders.

Some of these businessmen may have an ax to grind. But another major complaint some of them make -- involvement of government officials in the cocaine trade -- has been documented by US news organizations. Bolivia's cocaine business has been estimated to take in $1.6 billion a year.

Since Gen. Luis Garcia Meza staged a coup in July 1980, which thwarted a democratically elected government from taking power, repression and corruption have been close to the worst in the nation's turbulent history, some Bolivians report. That assessment is echoed by Amnesty International, a London-based human-rights organization, which says that repression and corruption in Bolivia are at a high point.

General Meza has technically resigned, turning power over to a three-man junta which he appointed. The junta, however, appears to be no more trusting of civilian political activity than General Meza.

Political and trade unions are banned, constitutional guarantees are suspended, a curfew is in effect, and the press is censored. The nation's secret police still makes nightly rounds -- arresting and, in some cases, torturing people, according to Amnesty International and interviews in Bolivia. Recently, in just one week, more than 100 labor leaders were arrested and detained.

More than 7,000 Bolivians have been forced into exile since the coup. Many more have been banished as residenciados to remote areas in the Andes, or the Amazon jungle.

The country's top civilian leaders, including some former presidents, are in exile. Some of those who remain in Bolivia live underground, trying to organize opposition despite the junta's huge intelligence network.

Leaders who speak out often find life difficult. For example, shortly after Gen. Lucio Anez Rivera and ex-President Gen. David Padillo recently denounced government corruption, their houses were bombed.

One Bolivian labor leader, who was arrested in December, spent two weeks in jail, where he says about 60 other persons were held as political prisoners. During this time the government issued a statement denying that it held political prisoners.

For several nights, he says, he was taken to secret police headquarters, where he was interrogated and tortured for information about union activities and where the union leaders were hiding.

''The first night I was beaten unconscious with sticks. The other nights I was stripped of my clothing, tied, and given electric shocks,'' he says.

He is in hiding now. ''They said if I talked to anyone about this I would die ,'' he says.

Electric torture equipment was introduced after the Meza coup by members of the Argentine military, according to documents leaked to the press last year. The documents show that devices such as probes and clips called picanas were brought to Bolivia, along with instructors to teach the Bolivian military how to use them. Some individuals and groups, such as the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C., even allege that high-level Argentine military officers helped plan the 1980 coup in Buenos Aires.

Resistance in the form of strikes, work stoppages, and hunger strikes have crippled some past military regimes. Bolivian workers, in fact, generally have been the leaders of the push for democracy here.

The country has largely been spared left-wing violence, but many people here wonder how many more years this will last. The Confederation of Private Businesses announced in the fall that if the armed forces did not withdraw from the government, there would almost certainly be a uprising.

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