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Last Updated: Monday, 13 October, 2003, 13:31 GMT 14:31 UK
Analysis: Crunch time for Bolivia leader

By Robert Plummer
BBC News Online Latin America analyst

The Bolivian Government's plan to export natural gas has been the flashpoint for weeks of violent protests, but the roots of the conflict go far deeper.

President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and the forces ranged against him are both playing for high stakes - and the outcome will play a decisive role in shaping Bolivia's future.

President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada
The president's mandate is weak
The virulence of the demonstrations has now forced the president into a temporary retreat, with his announcement that he will consult the opposition before taking a final decision on the scheme.

But from the president's point of view, it is no exaggeration to say that his entire free-market reform strategy hinges on the ultimate success of the export plan.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the Americas, but it has Latin America's second-biggest reserves of natural gas - a commodity that could transform its fortunes if it is marketed successfully.

The International Monetary Fund believes the gas export scheme could add a whole percentage point to Bolivia's growth rate over the next five years.

Anti-globalisation

However, it has long been an article of faith among Latin American economic nationalists that a country must retain control over its natural resources at all costs.

The idea of selling off Bolivia's gas to the United States was almost calculated to inflame the president's left-wing opponents, fearful of being exploited by the "gringos" to the north.

Worse still for any red-blooded Bolivian nationalist was the idea of exporting the gas by way of a Chilean port - an outlet that was in fact part of Bolivian territory until Chile seized Bolivia's coastline in their 1879-83 war.

Add in the protesters' other grievances, including their opposition to Bolivian membership of the planned Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and you have a full-blown attack on globalisation, waged by the most downtrodden members of Bolivian society.

Weak position

Graffiti:
The writing is on the wall for Goni
The main problem for Goni, as President Sanchez de Lozada is familiarly known, is the fragility of his democratic mandate.

Previously president of Bolivia from 1993 to 1997, he was returned to power last year with just 22.5% of the vote.

His big rival in that election was Evo Morales, who originally rose to prominence as the leader of coca-growing peasants in the central Chapare region but who now has a political power base in his Movement for Socialism party (MAS).

Goni's deep unpopularity leaves him poorly placed to fend off public protests directed at the central plank of his economic programme - and unsurprisingly, suspicions are growing that Mr Morales intends to achieve the victory on the streets that he could not quite win at the ballot-box.




SEE ALSO:
Bolivia clashes kill 13
13 Oct 03  |  Americas
In pictures: Bolivia clashes
13 Oct 03  |  Photo Gallery



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