The current unrest and violence in Bolivia is another reminder of just how difficult social and economic reform is in Latin America. In some ways Bolivia is a special case. It is deeply divided, not only socially, but also geographically, between the impoverished, indigenous altiplano of the northwest, and the 'half moon' of mestizo-dominated provinces in the southeastern lowlands which have wealth from gas fields and agribusiness.
Yet, throughout the region the problems of redressing the 500 year-old imbalances of wealth, power and resources continue to to seem intractable.
On the one hand, left-wing governments often seem over-eager to write new constitutions and strengthen presidential power, opening themselves to accusations of authoritarianism. On the other, the reluctance of wealthy elites to support an orderly process of reform (eg, by giving up some land and paying more taxes) give credence to arguments that change can't happen through existing processes and institutions. The frustrated expectations in Brazil and the apparent abandonment of reformist policies in Peru are examples of why more radical approaches start to seem attractive.
This paper from Mark Weisbrot and Jorge Sandoval at the Center of Economic Policy Research is a good summation of the current distribution of land, natural gas resources and revenue in Bolivia. It provides a reasonable case for the need of the central government to push through land reform and gain a greater share of taxes from gas production. Weisbrot and Sandoval point out that in Bolivia a much greater share of these revenues go to the regions than in most parts of the word, and that the 'autonomy' demanded by provincial leaders in Santa Cruz and Tarija would be regressive:
In most developing countries, it is assumed that these valuable resources belong to the nation
as a whole, not to the particular region in which happens to be underground. This is especially important for developing countries, since their development strategy – the means by which they can eliminate extreme poverty and reduce overall poverty – is based on using the rents from their mineral wealth to diversify away from hydrocarbons, as well as investing in economic and social infrastructure.
In the media, much of the international attention has focussed on the expulsion of the US ambassador from Bolivia, and the frankly uncouth 'show of solidarity' from grandstanding Hugo Chavez in also expelling the American ambassador to Venezuela. It's disappointing that there can't be more civility at the highest political levels as an exmaple to people who take their cues from national leaders. However, whether US agencies have had any role in fomenting the current discord in Bolivia is an open question; Weisbrot et al point out that the US government has refused to release information on who it gives funds to in Bolivia.
Reports of 17 deaths have been mixed up with discussion of the overall struggle between the government and the eastern provinces. But in fact the worst violence has been in the backwater region of Pando, which has a total population of 70,000 and is hardly a front line of the struggles over land and gas. Radio interviews claim that a group of peasants intent on marching to the provincial capital of Cobija were intercepted and fired on by a group of 'paramilitaries' with machine guns, who included employees of the provincial government and Brazilian mercenaries. The reports blame Pando governor Leopoldo Fernandez for the 'massacre', and government sources have said he will be arrested.
The ten presidents of the Union of South American Nations are meeting in Santiago on Monday to discuss the situation in Bolivia, and according to Bolivian-based blogger Jim Shultz, it will require leadership from outside -- perhaps from Brazil and Argentina -- to broker a political solution between Evo Morales government and the political oppostion from the 'half moon' provinces of Santa Cruz and Tarija. But while there's hope for compromise and a sort-term restoration of stability, the ongoing conflicts over land, power and resources will take more than diplomacy to resolve.