Bolivian Savors Vote of Confidence; Mesa Upbeat after Winning Energy Plan Referendum

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 24, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Bolivian Savors Vote of Confidence; Mesa Upbeat after Winning Energy Plan Referendum


Byline: Reed Lindsay, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

LA PAZ, Bolivia - President Carlos Mesa knows as well as anyone the precarious nature of his office.

In 1983, months after the nation's dictatorship gave way to democracy, Mr. Mesa published a book called "Presidents of Bolivia: Between Ballot Boxes and Guns," a survey of a tumultuous history marked by nearly 200 coups and countercoups.

Lately, however, democracy has hardly provided better job security for Bolivia's chief executive.

Last October, thousands of poor, indigenous Bolivians set up roadblocks and withstood weeks of brutal repression, in the end driving Mr. Mesa's predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, from power in a bitter standoff over who will ultimately control the country's vast energy wealth.

But the new president, who last month won a critical popular referendum on his own energy program, struck a decidedly optimistic tone in an interview conducted last week in his plush office at the presidential mansion.

Mr. Sanchez de Lozada was forced to flee that same office in February 2003, after its windows were riddled with bullets. Soldiers and police were engaged in a firefight in the pigeon-filled Plaza Murillo below that left more than a dozen people dead.

The dents in the bulletproof windows are still there, but last year's unrest now seems remote, and Mr. Mesa is brimming with confidence two weeks after Bolivians approved the referendum on which he had staked his presidency.

"Another October? No," said Mr. Mesa, a large man who appears very much the intellectual with his graying beard, frameless glasses, and didactic habit of organizing nearly everything he says into neatly enumerated lectures.

"Problems, roadblocks, demonstrations, strikes, threats, shouts, what have you - there'll be more than you can imagine. But another movement like that of October? No."

He added: "If the referendum itself wasn't proof enough, if the absolute calm wasn't a categorical answer to all those doomsayers who said the referendum was going to be marked by violence, I don't know what more proof I can give."

On July 18, Bolivians voted in favor of a proposal designed by Mr. Mesa that asked five questions on how to exploit the nation's natural gas and oil reserves. The referendum, which won 77 percent of the vote, gives the government much greater say in the operations of foreign oil and gas companies, but stops short of the re-nationalization sought by radical critics.

Meanwhile, threats by leaders of Bolivia's labor unions and indigenous groups to burn ballot boxes and shut down roads in a boycott of the vote proved empty.

Analysts say the poll was a crucial vote of confidence in Mr. Mesa, who was not elected to the presidency and has no party apparatus under his command. Mr. Mesa benefits from an approval rating close to 70 percent, one of the highest in South America.

Ironically, he has won this support pushing an agenda not of his own making. Mr. Mesa was an outspoken champion of the free-market policies that reigned during the 1980s and 1990s, including the privatization of the gas and oil industries under Mr. Sanchez de Lozada's first term as president ending in 1997.

A popular television journalist, Mr. Mesa made his first foray into politics in 2002, when Mr. Sanchez de Lozada ran for president again and chose the political novice as his vice-presidential candidate.

But since his abrupt rise to the presidency on Oct. 17, Mr. Mesa has become a loud critic of the aggressive privatizations and market-friendly policies known in Latin America as neoliberalism.

"The dogmatic economic model of neoliberalism doesn't work and it must be changed," said Mr. Mesa.

"The pressure Bolivian society exerts is the same pressure as that in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Peru," he said.

"The political center, which was leaning toward the right in the 1980s and the 1990s, is now leaning to the left.

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