Thursday, June 9, 2005

'Crunch Time' In Bolivia

I don't usually do anecdotes. Here's an exception. Some years ago I was introduced to a young woman who had spent a year in Bolivia as an exchange student. Looking to strike up a conversation, I asked her: "What one thing will you always remember about Bolivia?" She said: "Ten grams of cocaine cost five dollars."

Displaying my considerable mathematical skill, I said: "That's fifty cents a gram." She said "Yep." And I said: "So the people, they're ripped all the time?" She said: "No. They can't afford it." I said "They don't have fifty cents?" And she said: "No. Most of them don't have fifty cents. And if they did have fifty cents they would spend it on food."

Welcome to Bolivia, land of cocaine and natural gas; also
one of the least developed countries in South America. Almost two-thirds of its people, many of whom are subsistence farmers, live in poverty.
And yet these indigenous subsistence farmers, perhaps the poorest people in perhaps the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, have somehow found out that their government is "a stooge of the foreign energy companies" and they've decided they've had about enough of it. They want more control of their country's resources, and they have some other issues and concerns too. There's also a history of shady dealings.
In April 2000, Bechtel signed a contract with Hugo Banzer, the former president of Bolivia, to privatize the water supply in Bolivia's 3rd-largest city, Cochabamba. The contract was officially awarded to a Bechtel subsidiary named Aguas del Tunari, which had been formed specifically for that purpose. Shortly thereafter, the company tripled the water rates in that city, an action which resulted in protests and rioting among those who could no longer afford clean water. Martial law was declared, and Bolivian police killed at least 6 people and injured over 170 protesters. Amidst Bolivia's nationwide economic collapse and growing national unrest over the state of the economy, the Bolivian government was forced to withdraw the water contract. In 2001, Bechtel filed suit the Bolivian government for $25 million in lost profits. The continuing legal battle has attracted attention from anti-globalization and anti-capitalist groups.
This year the problem has been legislation setting tax rates on foreign energy firms. They think the foreign energy companies aren't paying enough, and they think they can influence their government's position on the matter.

So they've taken to the streets of their capital, and they've stayed there for weeks, and their protests have sometimes been violent but mostly they have been peaceful, and they've tied up the whole city, and they've virtually locked up the entire landlocked country, and their demands have certainly been noticed, and their President has resigned, and now their Congress is trying to decide whether to hold a snap election, or what they should do, but they can't meet in La Paz because nothing in La Paz is moving.

So today the Congress is going to meet in Sucre to see what ... if ... how ... they can avoid enflaming a dangerous situation ... whether they can avoid a civil war. It may be a good omen that the name of the city where they are about to meet -- Sucre -- is French for "sugar". Perhaps a sweet ending is in the cards for this crisis in Bolivia. But then again you never know.

I have been following this story for quite a while now, and I am continually amazed by the persistence and courage of the Bolivian protesters. But I have never been more amazed than I was when I took a close look at the 'gun' in this photo.

Here is the most recent BBC coverage of the Bolivian situation. Previous posts regarding Bolivia on this blog include this one, which has links to all the others.

This lowly and nearly frozen blogger extends his heartfelt best wishes to the indigenous subsistence farmers of Bolivia, where the cocaine is unaffordable at fifty cents a gram, and some of the rifles are made out of wood.