Shawn Blore
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Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, June 28, 2005 12:00 AM Page A12



By Shawn Blore | The Globe and Mail

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA– The blockades around Bolivia's capital have been down for more than a week, and things have returned to relative calm after violent protests overturned the government of Carlos Mesa this month.

But the pressure for reform has not lessened, and the country's Congress and caretaker president, Eduardo Rodriguez, still face a challenging set of demands.

Principal among them are the nationalization of Bolivia's oil and gas sector and the formation of a constituent assembly with the power to rewrite Bolivia's constitution.

Protesters are also demanding a general election, which would most likely benefit Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and the congressman who led the protests that toppled Mr. Mesa, the former president.

Mr. Morales, leader of Bolivia's largest opposition party, the MAS, or Movement Towards Socialism, rose to prominence as the head of Bolivia's coca-growers association, and came a close second in Bolivia's last presidential election in 2002.

In a strange turn, Mr. Morales was himself "blockaded" yesterday, and prevented from entering the city of San Julian in the Santa Cruz region by people still angry at the MAS blockades, which along with achieving their political objectives kept essential supplies from being distributed to ordinary people. The incident ended peacefully.

In his office recently, Mr. Morales, 45, was flanked by a pair of self-portraits covering most of the 4˝ metres between floor and ceiling. The crisis in Bolivia has raised once again the prospect of a run at the Bolivian presidency.

"If the people did choose me, I would accept," Mr. Morales said, "not just to oversee the profound social transformations that Bolivia wants, that Latin America wants, but also to take part in the struggle of Fidel Castro and of Hugo Chavez, the anti-imperialist struggle that the government of the United States calls the axis of evil, but that I'm convinced is truly an axis for humanity."

Such anti-U.S. rhetoric plays well in Bolivia, where U.S.-sponsored coca-eradication programs have engendered deep hostility among rural Bolivians. In the 2002 presidential election, Mr. Morales's poll numbers soared only after the U.S. ambassador threatened to cut off aid if Bolivians elected him.

His incendiary rhetorical sizzle is really a smokescreen for his party's more moderate political platform.

On Bolivia's energy sector, for example, many protesters called for "traditional" nationalization: the seizing of foreign-company assets, with or without compensation.

The MAS party is demanding only that contracts with foreign energy companies such as Spain's Repsol and Brazil's Petrobras -- most of which give Bolivia an 18-per-cent royalty on natural-gas exports -- be renegotiated to give the Bolivian government a larger share.

Mr. Morales has steered a similarly two-tracked course through Bolivia's recent political crisis. Though a member of Congress, Mr. Morales encouraged the anti-government blockades and protests that forced the resignation of Mr. Mesa. Now that the crisis has abated, Mr. Morales is calling for the people to channel their desire for change back into electoral politics.

There are dangers in this double game. MAS's support for the chaos-inducing blockades has cost it support among Bolivia's middle classes. A poll published on June 15 in two Bolivian newspapers showed Mr. Morales had fallen to fourth place among voters considering potential presidential candidates.

Among one of the MAS's core constituencies, the radicalized poor of La Paz, months of blockades and years of near-constant political crisis -- Bolivia has had three presidents in the past three years -- have left a contempt for government and for politicians that may prove difficult for even a populist party such as the MAS to overcome.

From his office in Congress, Mr. Morales sees no danger that the people are losing faith in politics.

"If they march for hydrocarbons, for nationalization, if they take part in blockades, for the constituent assembly, that is political action." But in a humble neighbourhood clinging to the cliff that rings La Paz, Antonia Candia said she has soured on all politicians.
"I took part in the blockades," she said. "The only way to make the government listen is to blockade and to march."

She didn't rule out joining future barricades, but she said she doesn't plan to vote in any new elections: "I'm not going to vote for anything. So many times I voted. Put people in. Never saw anything. Next time I'm not going to vote. Not for MAS, not for anything."
Shawn Blore is a Freelance Correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro

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