Even in the best of times, Bolivia has never been an easy country to govern. But since this Andean nation won its independence in 1825, times have probably never been worse.
Nearly every day, the country of 6 million is wracked by strikes or stalled by peasant unionists' roadblocks. Inflation has spiraled out of sight, and the sidewalks brim with citizens lining up to buy meat, milk and eggs at scalpers' prices.
Disgruntled textile workers held 190 of the country's industrial executives hostage for three days last month to demand pay increases. Private banks locked their doors, fearing employe takeovers.
" 'The king is dead, death to the king,' is what we Bolivians say," quipped Jose Antonio Ursic of the Confederation of Private Enterprises, looking out over the stark gray mountainscape of this capital perched at 11,000 feet. The saying is apt for a nation that has logged 73 governments, many lasting for only days, in its 160 years and where spells of democratic rule are as rarefied as the air.
President Hernan Siles Zuazo rules by a thread. His election in October 1982 ended 18 years of nearly uninterrupted military rule. He has been virtually paralyzed by political spats within his sharply divided Leftist National Revolutionary Movement and bullied by an opposition-dominated legislature.
Although Siles survived a 10-hour kidnaping by soldiers last July, he could not resist what is known here as "the episcopate's coup" in December. The powerful Roman Catholic Church called all major political parties to the lowland second city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and persuaded Siles to call elections a year before his presidential term was to end.
Perhaps because of the pressure, the 70-year-old Siles has grown increasingly reclusive, indecisive and demoralized. Lately his strongest political gesture has been to stop eating. For the third time in his tenure, Siles declared a hunger strike but ended up caving in to the bishops and the politicians.
If elections are held as scheduled June 16, it will be the first time Bolivia's government has changed hands constitutionally in a quarter century. Yet even this retirement date looks remote now. "I wouldn't give him even odds to last out the term," a diplomat said.
Many credit the Siles government with maintaining unprecedented liberties and freedom of the press. Yet it is feared that he will be remembered less for democracy and more for other records, many of which can best be expressed on calculators.
Inflation for January was reckoned by the central bank to have reached 80 percent. Compounded annually, that renders the staggering rate of 115,000 percent.
The country's third biggest import item last year was currency notes -- $25 million worth, imported from Britain and West Germany to stoke the overheated economy's insatiable demand for more bills.
Because of the hyperinflation, the minimum salary of just under a million pesos a month is worth just $10 at the black market value, which is more than double the official exchange rate. By the end of 1985, say some analysts, one dollar could be worth a million pesos. Until last weekend's sharp devaluation, the official rate was 9,000 pesos to the dollar. It is now valued officially at 50,000, as against a black market value of 120,000 to the dollar.
"The Bolivian peso has become obsolete," said Mario Arrieta, a social scientist in Santa Cruz. Yet historically, Bolivia's currency was a stable contrast to its politics.
Minerals and gas account for nearly 85 percent of export revenues, but dropping international prices, obsolete equipment and chronic strikes have ravaged this font of hard currency. Tin, for instance, sells on the world market for $4.90 a pound, yet it costs $12 to $15 a pound to produce in the antiquated mines here.
Recently, newspapers trumpted the news that Argentina had agreed to pay back the $350 million it owes Bolivia for purchases of natural gas. No one mentioned that Bolivia owes Argentina $500 million.
Only about a fifth of Bolivia's $3.2 billion foreign debt is owed to private banks, yet the government has not managed to pay interest or principal since March and is in jeopardy of losing what thin foreign credit remains.
The Bank of Boston announced plans to close its operation here, and the Bank of America, which two years ago had 160 employes, recently shut down its Santa Cruz branch and has pared its staff to 16.
The ministers of the financial ministries plan to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund for a bail-out loan, but few here believe Bolivia can swallow the fund's austerity requirements without provoking a political rupture.
The only vibrant sector of the economy is the clandestine cocaine trade -- Bolivia produces nearly half of what the United States consumes -- yet little of this income gets plowed back into the impoverished countryside.
Blame for this economic disarray falls heavily on Siles' shoulders. He has gone through six Cabinets -- 75 ministers -- since taking office. Perhaps his most unpopular move was to "dedollarize" the economy. The government converted all dollar accounts to pesos, whose worth was gobbled up by an economy speeding toward hyperinflation.
The move ravaged the unions' pension funds, once worth $45 million. "If you had a thousand U.S. dollars in the bank, a year later -- when you could withdraw the money in pesos -- that was worth four packs of cigarettes," said Horst Greve, a former Planning Ministry official.
Yet Siles has faced stubborn opposition. One former government official said that 32 attempts to legislate income redistribution were blocked by Congress, and two bills for rigid drug control never even got to the floor for debate.
"Congress has blocked virtually everything the Siles government has tried to do, and they haven't initiated anything," said Greve. The deadlock has augured well for Siles' foes, such as Juan Lechin, head of the powerful Bolivian Labor Confederation.
Other benefactors are the two leading candidates for June's presidential election, both of them to the right of Siles: ex-presidents Victor Paz Estensorro and Hugo Banzer Suarez. Paz Estensorro, 75, presided over Bolivia's 1952 revolution and again in the 1960s. He remains popular among peasant laborers. Banzer, who seized power in 1971 and ruled until 1978, is remembered for cutting ribbons on dozens of development projects and ruling with an iron heel.
Only a herculean effort by leftist and liberal parties would appear to be able to push aside either announced candidate, but the seemingly eternal feuding on the left may well prevent that effort.