Bolivia on the Brink

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

IT BECAME clear long ago that President Evo Morales's attempt to import Hugo Chávez's model of authoritarian socialism to Bolivia had polarized his country along ethnic and geographic lines -- risking its disintegration, or civil war. Rather than compromise, Mr. Morales only intensified his efforts to force through a new constitution concentrating power in his own hands and privileging highland indigenous communities at the expense of the rest of the country. The result is that Bolivia stands at the brink of a civil conflict that could destabilize an entire region.

One of the five provinces that have rejected the president's policies is now occupied by the army under martial law after fighting that has killed as many as 30 people in the past few days. Militants on both sides are resorting to force. In the province of Santa Cruz, anti-government demonstrators have sacked and occupied government offices. Anti-Morales forces have also interrupted deliveries to Brazil of natural gas, the country's most valuable export. Opposition governors deserve blame for tolerating -- at least -- violence by their supporters.

Yet Mr. Morales remains Bolivia's chief provocateur. Emboldened by his victory in a recall referendum in August, he attempted to schedule another referendum on his constitution, which would greatly increase his own authority. He ignored the fact that opposition governors also won reconfirmation in landslides -- and that the constitution itself was illegally ratified by a rump assembly from which the opposition had been excluded. Instead, Mr. Morales launched another of his anti-American campaigns. He ordered U.S. aid workers to leave a coca-growing province where they had been working on development programs, then expelled the U.S. ambassador, a respected professional, on the spurious grounds of fomenting rebellion.

A summit meeting of Latin American leaders in Chile yesterday was trying to lay the groundwork for a negotiated settlement. For that to happen, Mr. Morales will have to accept that he cannot impose his agenda on the eastern half of Bolivia but must work toward the constitutional compromise that he previously rejected. Mr. Chávez is doing his best to escalate the crisis, even threatening to intervene militarily in Bolivia. But the United States has leverage, as well. Bolivia receives more than $100 million annually in American aid, and some 30,000 jobs in South America's poorest country depend on the renewal of trade preferences that expire in December. The administration and Congress should link the trade concessions to an accord between Mr. Morales and the opposition that ends the use of force by both sides and preserves a liberal democracy.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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