WASHINGTON -- It is happening again in Bolivia. Protesters led by Evo Morales are bringing another administration to its knees. On Monday, President Carlos Mesa submitted his resignation after days of demonstrations threatened to paralyze the Andean country. Beyond this frustrating repetition of events, this latest crisis reveals that Washington has learned a lesson in Bolivia. And so should Morales.
Seventeen months ago, Mesa's predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, resigned after a month of violent street demonstrations choked the nation and left dozens of people dead. Sanchez blamed his downfall on Morales and a supposed international narco-socialist conspiracy.
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Marcela Sanchez also reports daily in Spanish about local Washington news on Univision. Watch the Video
Morales is a champion of the poor and indigenous populations traditionally marginalized in Bolivia. He heads the Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, now the second largest political party in Congress. More significantly, he is leader of Bolivia's coca growers -- cocaleros -- in a country where coca is a way of life, a crop as beloved as Idaho potatoes or Brazilian coffee.
Morales's association with cocaleros put him at odds with Washington which has little patience for those whose crops can become cocaine on the streets of America. Some Bush administration officials have argued that reaching out to Morales and MAS is akin to negotiating with groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, that nation's largest guerrilla movement and an international terrorist organization, according to the State Department. This anti-drug hard line has generated animosity among a great many Bolivians.
As expected, Bolivia's Congress refused to accept Mesa's resignation Tuesday night. And after reaching an agreement with congressional leaders, Mesa hoped to come out of this crisis with the kind of congressional backing he has lacked.
But by Wednesday, Mesa's hydrocarbons bill, which would set the terms for exploiting Bolivia's natural gas reserves, the second largest in Latin America, continued to face protest from Morales. Unable to earn support for his position in Congress, Morales turned to the streets to insist that royalties paid by foreign investors in the gas industry be increased from a proposed 18 percent to 50 percent.
But as he has done since he took office, Mesa insisted in extending a hand to Morales. As Mesa indicated when he announced his resignation, without Morales on board it is impossible to govern Bolivia. In a direct appeal to the indigenous leader, Mesa recognized Morales' leadership and issued this challenge: "It is very easy to strangle Bolivia,'' said Mesa, but "come to govern and you will see what it is to run a state.''
In a welcome change, Washington appeared to follow Mesa's lead this week, to a degree. Showing a more nuanced understanding of Bolivia's democracy, the State Department called on Bolivia's political leaders "to work together to reach a national consensus.'' With these words, Washington seemed to recognize that previous efforts to isolate Morales merely made him stronger and that Morales has to be part of the solution.
This is, in fact, what Bolivian experts have been saying for some time. As Eduardo A. Gamarra of Florida International University puts it, "do we want to keep (Morales) within the system or are we going to help him bring the system down?''
As of now, Morales hasn't accepted Mesa's persistent challenge nor the veiled invitation of Washington to act as a statesman. After others in Congress threw their weight behind Mesa this week, Morales appeared further isolated.
Morales has a reason to be suspicious of Washington's intentions, particularly since it was the Bush administration that barely three years ago threatened economic sanctions against Bolivia if Morales was elected president. But there are reasons now for Morales to reconsider.
Longtime observers of U.S. policy toward Bolivia believe Washington has eased pressure on illicit-crop eradication goals. In the last year, Washington has begun working with municipalities under MAS control on alternative development projects to replace coca fields and, ceding to MAS's demands, it is now lending support to a Bolivian government study to determine what amount of coca hectares can be grown legally in Bolivia for traditional uses.
Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America, is desperately in need of more economic development. Morales needs to decide if his agenda would be furthered more by accepting Mesa's invitation or by doing more of the same rabble-rousing whenever he deems necessary. Whatever calculation Morales makes, the people of Bolivia await his decision.
Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is email@example.com.