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Is the US Helping Light the Fuse of Bolivian Violence?
posted by The Democracy Center – Tue, 07 Jun 2005

With last night's resignation announcement by President Mesa, Bolivian politics has quickly transformed into a dangerous mix of intense protests on the street and a complicated game of back door maneuvering over who will be his successor.

In declaring his intention to step down, Mesa said he was doing so in the cause of national unity, hoping that a change of government would help end the tense and volatile political standoff that has nearly shut the nation down. Of all the possible routes forward now there is one that is very clearly NOT the path toward national unity. It could even be the path toward civil war. It has a name – Hormando Vaca Díez – the President of the Bolivian Senate who is now wheeling and dealing behind closed doors to become Mesa's successor. There is reason to believe tonight that the US is behind those doors helping him.

Vaca Diez is roughly the same kind of unifying presence in Bolivian politics that Representative Tom DeLay is in US politics. He is a close ally of the deposed and reviled ex-President, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. He comes from Santa Cruz, the region whose demands for autonomy have helped spark this crisis. He is an opponent of returning the country's gas and oil to public hands. He has also called chillingly for Mesa "to govern", again, shorthand for using the military to crush protests.

It is hard to imagine a political development here that could be more divisive and which could more easily spark violent conflict. The alternative is for both Vaca Diez and the House leader to step aside and allow the Presidency to pass to the Supreme Court President as a caretaker, triggering new elections in August. In contrast, Vaca Diez would serve two more years – ample time to call out the military, block demands for recouping the gas and oil, scuttle plans for putting Sánchez de Lozada on trial, and set Bolivia down a path toward violent conflict.

Why then are the old-line parties in the Congress starting to line up behind handing such a divisive figure the presidency?

It is make-a-deal time again in Bolivian politics and a politician within reach of the Presidency has a lot to deal. When Mesa took over in 2003 he declared the administrative apparatus of government off limits for party operatives. That is a lot of lucrative patronage and opportunity for corruption snatched out of their hands. If you invested tens of thousands of dollars in your party's efforts to capture the spoils of governing and then get denies those spoils (like becoming a vice–minister), how are you supposed to get back your investment?

Watch for politicians from the MNR and MIR old-line political parties start publicly lining up behind Vaca Diez in the next few days and then watch others follow to put together a Congressional majority.

And where is the US in all of this? A very reliable source told me this afternoon that the Embassy here is in talks with Vaca Diez, helping pave the way for his succession. This should not be a surprise. Never underestimate the ability of the US government in two respects:

1. Nothing Big Happens Politically In Bolivia Without The US All Over It

Who did Carlos Mesa meet with yesterday just before tendering his resignation? The US Ambassador. Do you think he paid a similar visit to the Spaniards or the Nicaraguans? After the 2002 elections who called in the various candidates one at a time to pressure them to line up behind Sánchez de Lozada? The US Embassy. It would be utterly out of character for the US Embassy NOT to have its fingers all over the question of who succeeds Mesa and apparently it is acting in true form.

2. The US Embassy is Really Good and Being Stupid

Remember back to the elections in 2002. The US Ambassador at the time took square aim at Evo Morales as the US's chief Bolivian political enemy. To implement that view the US Ambassador publicly threatened Bolivians with a cutoff of aid if they voted for Morales, an announcement that single-handedly skyrocketed his support in the polls and put him within two points of finishing first. One would suppose that the US interest in Bolivia right now is promoting stability. By promoting Vaca Diez behind the scenes the US is really shoving Bolivia off the cliff.

What to watch for in the coming days:

A move to convene the Congress in Sucre, away from the La Paz protests, to accept Mesa's resignation and make Vaca Diez his successor.

A response from other political leaders outside the Congress warning that Vaca Diez is a recipe for Bolivian disaster.

A counter-proposal from the social movements and others for: a caretaker government led by the Supreme Court President; new elections in August for President and Vice-President; and a national vote at the same time on regional autonomy, nationalization of gas, and election of members to a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution.

The US is playing with fire these days in Bolivia and it never plays with fire here well. In October 2003, when everyone including his own Vice President had broken with Sánchez de Lozada over his violent repression against protesters, the US propped him up for another week and another few dozen needless deaths.

Here's a suggestion to my friends covering Bolivia for the foreign press. Start calling the Embassy and ask what role they are playing behind the scenes in the question of Mesa's successor. I am not saying you'll get a straight answer out of them, but you'll be onto an interesting and vitally important story.

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