They were the kind of ugly street scenes that few presidencies survive. All last week, thousands of poverty-stricken Bolivians protested in the capital, La Paz, and around the country, railing at President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Sánchez or Goni, as he is called sent the army to restore order. As Bolivian soldiers fired on demonstrators, impoverished Indian mine workers used crude slingshots to hurl lighted sticks of dynamite back at them. But they were no match for the army's tear gas and bullets, and the clashes left as many as 80 people dead.
The people around Goni had had enough. First, Vice President Carlos Mesa renounced the iron fist "I can't continue to support the situation we are living" and then key ministers defected, as more than 100,000 Bolivians marched nationwide to demand Sánchez's ouster. By 11 p.m. Friday, Sánchez, 73, a millionaire who barely won the presidential race last year, had left the country for the U.S. and his letter of resignation had been read in Congress. "This protest," it complained, "has violated the essence of our democracy." Mesa was sworn in as President.
Though the pretext for the uprising was Sánchez's $5 billion plan to pipe natural gas to the export market via Bolivia's historical enemy, Chile, its real cause was Sánchez's apparent indifference to the country's misery. Bolivia (pop. 8.8 million) is South America's poorest country, and job losses resulting from industrial privatization have forced an estimated two-thirds of its work force into the underground economy. Indigenous farmers have seen their fields of coca Bolivia's most lucrative crop, used to make cocaine and herbal medicines eradicated as part of the U.S. drug war. Alternative crops like coffee usually earn only a tenth of coca's price in today's depressed global markets. These grievances helped catapult Evo Morales, an Andean Indian who represents coca farmers, into a runoff for the presidency last year. As Sánchez's government collapsed, Indian farmers flooded into La Paz to march. If Goni hadn't gone, said one, "he'd have to kill us all."
[an error occurred while processing this directive]By law, Mesa is eligible to finish Sánchez's term, which ends in 2007. But Mesa, 50, said he wished to stay on only until a referendum has been held on the natural-gas issue and a special national assembly addresses Bolivia's socioeconomic crisis, to "peacefully resolve our ancient hatreds." He gave no timetable, but told Congress that it should hold a special presidential election afterward.
For now, the front-runner in any election would be Morales, 43, who also leads the Movement to Socialism Party. Should he win, it would be one more piece of evidence that Latin America's backlash against globalization especially the capitalist reforms that have so far done more harm than good for the region's 500 million people in poverty could revive the failed left-wing economic policies that provoked those free-market reforms in the first place. Brazil, for example, last year elected former labor leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as President. In Peru, antiglobalization riots (most often prompted by complaints over industry privatization) have become common. And the "Bolivarian Revolution" of left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has brought double-digit economic contraction to that country.
As a result, Mesa's support in Bolivia will be fragile at best especially since he pledged to maintain economic-austerity policies. "Goni was completely linked to foreign interests and foreign capital against Bolivia's interests," said Jaime Solares, head of the Bolivian Workers Central. "All of his measures must be wiped out!"
Foreign investors can only hope that the rest of Latin America doesn't begin to sound that Jacobin. Reassuringly, the region's new leftward shift seems more strongly influenced by the fiscal prudence and less strident rhetoric Brazil's Lula has adopted since taking office. But as the U.S. which has made no secret of its dislike for Morales sent one of its own army units into La Paz last weekend to help evacuate Americans, Latin leaders could no longer deny that political dynamite has been lit. Mesa will have to work hard to put out the fuse