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Last Updated: Monday, 20 October, 2003, 13:15 GMT 14:15 UK
Analysis: Bolivia still teetering

By Robert Plummer
BBC News Online Latin America analyst

Bolivia's hastily-appointed new president, Carlos Mesa, has told his cabinet that any mistakes they make could consign the country to the abyss.

Bolivian President Carlos Mesa
Carlos Mesa faces a tough job as Bolivia's president
The remarks - just days after his predecessor Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned in the face of violent protests that brought the country to a standstill - show Mr Mesa is acutely aware of the scale of the continuing crisis.

The swift handover of power may have bought time and temporarily defused the anger of Bolivia's impoverished indigenous Indian majority, despite the deaths of more than 60 people in the protests.

Mr Mesa was certainly quick to acknowledge the extent of the social and economic exclusion faced by indigenous Indians in Bolivia - and to state explicitly in his acceptance speech that "Bolivia is not yet a country of equals".

But Mr Mesa is likely to be just a transitional figure, without sufficient authority to play a meaningful role in shaping Bolivia's future.

Divided opinions

The new president is better known for his work as a journalist and historian than as a political figure.

His best-selling book, "Presidents of Bolivia: Between the ballot-box and the rifle", was first published 20 years ago, and a revised edition came out earlier this year.

Any future update will have to include Mr Mesa himself, but his ultimate place in history has yet to be decided.

Carlos Mesa and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada
Mr Mesa was vice-president under Mr Sanchez de Lozada
Opinions of the new president are sharply divided, with some observers notably more optimistic than others.

Some have hailed him as "a man of the people" and welcomed him as more authentically Bolivian than the US-educated Mr Sanchez de Lozada.

Others, however, see him as more elitist, pointing to his background as a millionaire businessman who turned his PAT television news production company into a national network.

Having served as vice-president under his predecessor, he will also have trouble distancing himself from the previous government's record.

Referendum

In the current mood of resentment and opposition to free-market economics that reigns in Bolivia, Mr Mesa risks being seen as just another "neo-liberal" like his predecessor.

Although he has included two Indians in his cabinet and set up a new ministry for indigenous people, Mr Mesa will still have to contend with the demands of the Bolivian masses for a greater share of the national wealth.

The problem is that according to Bolivian economists, there will be no national wealth to share unless the controversial $5bn gas export plan that sparked the protests is allowed to go ahead.

Mr Mesa is committed to holding a binding referendum on the scheme - but nationalists fear that selling Bolivia's gas reserves to the US will leave the country open to exploitation by the "gringos" to the north.

They are also angry at plans to export the gas via a Chilean port - an outlet that used to be part of Bolivian territory until Chile seized Bolivia's coastline in their 1879-83 war.

Short honeymoon

Perhaps mindful of his precarious position, Mr Mesa has made it clear that he does not want to serve out the rest of Mr Sanchez de Lozada's term in office - although the constitution entitles him to remain president until August 2007.

Evo Morales

Instead, he intends to call new presidential elections as soon as possible.

However, that may not be soon enough for protest leaders such as Felipe Quispe, who has given Mr Mesa 90 days to reverse free-market reforms or face further demonstrations.

If Mr Mesa fails to make the case for economic liberalism, the chances are that the next presidential election will be won by Evo Morales, the coca-growers' leader from the central Chapare region who came second last time.

Mr Morales, whose Movement for Socialism (MAS) is a powerful force in Bolivian politics, would like to see the gas reserves nationalised and made available solely to Bolivians - a move that economists say would merely perpetuate the country's widespread poverty.




SEE ALSO:
Q&A: Bolivian gas protests
18 Oct 03  |  Americas
In pictures: Bolivia protesters celebrate
18 Oct 03  |  Photo Gallery
Country profile: Bolivia
18 Oct 03  |  Country profiles



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