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Bolivia's Poor Proclaim Abiding Distrust of Globalization

Larry Rother

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The many Indian protesters who choked the streets and highways of this Andean nation again on Thursday may be poor and speak broken or accented Spanish, but they have a powerful message. It is this: no to the export of gas and other natural resources; no to free trade with the United States; no to globalization in any form other than solidarity among the downtrodden peoples of the developing world.

An indigenous Bolivian confronts a line of armed police during protests against globalisation in the country.

The force of that message may yet topple President Gonzalo S?nchez de Lozada, who tried to quell the unrest by offering a package of concessions late Wednesday night that the protesters rejected. Instead they vowed to continue with demonstrations meant to force his government to abandon a plan to export natural gas to the United States through a port in Chile. The protests have already left more than 80 people dead over the past month.

Sensing that public support for the president, weak to begin with, has all but vanished, opponents of the gas export plan have now moved to press their advantage. “The blood that has been spilled is something sacred,” Felipe Quispe, leader of the indigenous group that initiated the protests, said in response to Mr. S?nchez de Lozada’s offer, made in a televised speech. “So we can’t negotiate and we’re not even going to talk.”

Several thousand workers, mostly miners from the south and coca growers from the north, were reported to be marching on the capital Thursday. The armed forces demanded that they disperse, saying that the military would erect barricades to prevent them from entering La Paz, but the warning appeared to have gone unheeded. More than merely threatening the longevity of Bolivia’s government, the protesters have lent new energy to the discontent already percolating throughout the region.

Across South America, labour unions, student and civic groups and a new wave of leaders - Hugo Ch?vez in Venezuela, Luiz In?cio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and N?stor Kirchner in Argentina - are expressing similar doubts about who actually benefits from a free flow of international trade and investment. But nowhere have those doubts been expressed as forcefully as in this poor nation of eight million people, increasingly divided along class and racial lines. A majority of Bolivians have Indian blood, descended from the original inhabitants of this continent who got a foretaste of globalization centuries ago with the age of exploration and the arrival of European colonizers.

“Globalization is just another name for submission and domination,” Nicanor Apaza, 46, an unemployed miner, said at a demonstration this week in which Indian women in bowler hats and colourful layered skirts carried banners denouncing the International Monetary Fund and demanding the president’s resignation. “We’ve had to live with that here for 500 years, and now we want to be our own masters.” He and many other protesters see an unbroken line from this region’s often rapacious colonial history to the failed economic experiments of the late 20th century, in which Bolivia was one of the first Latin American countries to open itself to the modern global economy. The $5 billion gas pipeline project is only the latest gambit.

Starting with the end of a military dictatorship two decades ago, Bolivia embraced the free-market model. State-owned companies were sold off. Foreign investment was courted. Government regulation was reduced, all in the name of a new era of growth and prosperity. The policies brought to heel runaway inflation. But otherwise, the average Bolivian has had little to show for the government’s embrace of policies urged on it by the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, now the focus of so much resentment.

Exports have actually declined compared with their level 25 years ago. Growth has stalled for the past five years. Unemployment has soared, and Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America, with a per capita income of less than $950 a year - by some calculations, less than it was before the free-market reforms. “After 21 years, the economic model in place has not solved the problems of poverty and social exclusion,” said Carlos Toranzo of the Latin American Institute for Research here.

Published Friday, October 17th, 2003 - 12:28pm GMT

New York Times

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