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In Bolivia, a Political Landscape Shaped by Protests

Road Blockades Empower the Poor

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page A18

ETERAZAMA, Bolivia -- The skin between Leonida Zurita's thumb and index finger was stiff as cowhide, callused from grasping the stems of coca plants and yanking off leaves. In two days, she and her husband had dried and bagged about 30 pounds of coca, then hauled it to an open-air market where they sold it for about $45.

Now, Zurita sat at a village cafe and sipped beer mixed with Coca-Cola, waiting for a car that would carry her 18 hours to La Paz, the administrative capital.

Peasant activists rest along a blockaded highway near the city of Cochabamba. Such protest tactics have forced the government to reverse some U.S.-backed free market policies that protesters say hurt Bolivia's indigenous majority. (Danilo Balderrama -- Reuters)

There, she and other farmers of coca, which is used to make cocaine, planned to storm and seize the office of a senator. Their plan was to force him, and other politicians, to stand up to international fuel companies and demand a bigger share of the profits from Bolivia's natural resources.

"Bolivia has natural gas, water, coca and all kinds of natural resources," said Zurita, a 35-year-old mother of two. "But the problem is that they keep stealing it from us."

This is the refrain these days among Bolivians like Zurita, who see life as a struggle of David vs. many Goliaths: the foreign companies that drill for natural gas; the U.S. government, which has spearheaded programs to eradicate coca fields; the private companies that have taken over some municipal water utilities.

In the past several years, popular anger toward such powerful institutions has fueled a growing culture of protest, attracting tens of thousands of indigenous farmers and other disgruntled residents. The movement has gained enough clout to drive one president from office and bring a second one to the brink of resigning last month.

In 2003, protests against a plan to export fuel through neighboring Chile, considered by many to be the nation's archrival, led to the fall of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. His successor, Carlos Mesa, has since faced an average of 40 protests a day, according to one newspaper's count. In March, a series of roadblock demonstrations prompted Mesa to twice offer his resignation to Congress. The gesture was rejected, but in a televised plea, Mesa told the country that the protesters were causing Bolivia to commit "collective suicide."

The president was referring to protesters such as Zurita, who was among those standing by piles of rocks and branches in the middle of Bolivia's main highway, idling about 2,500 trucks, their cargoes of produce rotting. She helped coordinate the blockades, standing with a cell phone to her ear and directing people toward eight barricades in place near this small town.

Two weeks afterward, Zurita's cell phone rang while she waited in the village cafe. The protest at the senator's office had been postponed, the caller told her. They'd wait a week and see how votes were lining up on a proposed bill that would require foreign companies to pay up to 50 percent in royalties and taxes for Bolivia's natural gas.

Then maybe they wouldn't seize just the one senator's office, Zurita later said the caller told her. Maybe they'd take over a bunch of them.

Leading the Battle

The man on the phone was Evo Morales, 45, a former coca grower and leader of the Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, a rapidly growing opposition party. Like more than 60 percent of Bolivians, he is of indigenous descent, and his face, framed with bold black bangs, has become the face of Bolivia's protest movement.

The day after his call to Zurita, Morales sat behind a glossy desk in his office in La Paz, contemplating a document being circulated on the Internet. It showed a picture of his face, headlined with phrases that suggested he was wanted, "dead or alive."

"This is clearly an attack against MAS and the leftist social movements," Morales asserted at a small news conference as a cluster of television cameras pointed at him from across the desk. "But it doesn't scare us. It makes us stronger."

To Morales's detractors, the denunciation was classic Evo. They label him a paranoid who believes that multinational corporations and institutions are out to get him. They see an egomaniac, a hijacker of social causes, a power-hungry strongman-in-the-making. He's a friend of Venezuela's fiery president, Hugo Chavez, they say, with a brand of populist rhetoric intended to incite and divide.

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