ANOTHER LATIN American democracy is on the verge of crumbling under pressure from leftist populism. The trouble comes this time in Bolivia, where a democratic president and Congress face a paralyzing mix of strikes and road blockades by a radical movement opposed to foreign investment and free-market capitalism. The insurgents, who claim to represent the country's indigenous population, drove one democratically elected president from office 18 months ago; now they are working on his successor, Carlos Mesa, who has searched valiantly but unsuccessfully for compromise. The populists ride a leftist wave of momentum in Latin America and have the rhetorical, and possibly material, support of the region's self-styled "Bolivarian" revolutionary, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The democrats could use some outside help, from their neighbors and the United States.
Accounts of political crises in Andean countries such as Bolivia sometimes portray a poor and disenfranchised indigenous majority pitted against an ethnically European and mestizo elite. The facts tell a different story in Bolivia. Mr. Mesa, polls show, has the support of two-thirds of his compatriots, while the party leading the protests, the Movement Toward Socialism, has never received more than 21 percent of the vote in an election. Nor is it the case that Bolivia's experiment with free-market policies in the 1990s failed to help the poor. Per capita incomes rose by 20 percent in the second half of the decade. Thanks to private foreign investment, significantly more Bolivians gained access to water, sewage systems and electricity.
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The populist minority, led by former coca farmer Evo Morales, is bent on using force to reverse that progress. Already it has effectively blocked natural gas exports to the United States. Its current strikes are aimed at stopping further foreign investment in that industry through confiscatory taxes and reversing the privatization of other industries. Mr. Mesa, swearing off the use of force to break up the road blockades, has countered with democratic political tactics: first a national referendum on a compromise gas policy, then an accord with Congress on political and economic reforms. Last week, in desperation, he proposed that his own term as president be cut short and new elections be held in August; Congress rejected the proposal, and Mr. Mesa later announced he would stay on. But the opposition still threatens to renew a blockade that is devastating one of the hemisphere's poorest economies and prompting talk of secession in Bolivia's relatively prosperous and pro-capitalist eastern provinces.
All of this is good news for Mr. Chavez, who along with Cuba's Fidel Castro dreams of a new bloc of Latin "socialist" (i.e., undemocratic) regimes that will join with like-minded states such as Iran, Libya and China to oppose the United States. Bolivia's neighbors, including Brazil, Argentina and Chile, ought to be alarmed by this trend; but though their own leftist governments have expressed support for Mr. Mesa they have refrained from more concerted action -- such as demanding that Mr. Chavez cease his meddling. The State Department issued a statement last week expressing "support for the people of Bolivia and a peaceful democratic process." If there is a deeper U.S. policy to head off the breakdown of democracy in Latin America, there isn't much sign of it.