June 8, 2005

The Bolivian Mess

The backsliding of a supposedly democratizing Latin America into a reflexive leftism is a neglected story. To be sure, there is Mad Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. But Lula in Brazil, Obrador in Mexico and others represent a less maniacal, less extreme leftism.

Latin America, of course, with the exception of Chile, never really accepted the concept of limited government and development of a market system. The encyclopedic European constitution, late and unlamented, finds its enacted echo in many Latin American countries. But the trend is away from free markets and limited government, toward a statism that in theory, at least, attempts to reduce inequality or at least to improve the lot of the poor -- usually with little success and much theft and demagogy.

Bolívia is something different -- a perpetually failed state, now sinking into anarchy, or at least civil war and partition. Here's an account by Augusto Nunes, a writer for Rio de Janeiro's Jornal do Brasil, the closest thing Brazil has to the Gray Lady. Translation by me, with apologies to Senhor Nunes for any errors and infelicities of expression.:
Bolivian history is a series of irreparable defeats. In wars against its neighbors, failure has cost it, besides thousands of lives, the amputation of important territories. In internecine wars, native aristocrats associated with military chiefs invariably defeated the disarmed people -- and Bolívia was subjected to systematic and endless raids on its natural resources. The Republic, founded in 1825, in snow smaller, poorer, less stable, and more isolated than ever. And now it's mired in anothepoliticalal crisis, as has been happening for the last 180 years.

Defeated in the Pacific War, it lost to Chile, in 1884, the strategic access to the sea. In 1903, frontier disputes in the Amazon frontier led to a diplomatic war in which the Baron of Rio Branco, Brazil's Foreign Minister, easily prevailed. All he needed were many bribes and a few promises that were never kept -- the Bolivian branch of the Madeira-Mamoré Railroad, for example. The price was the annexation of what is now the state of Acre to the map of Brazil. A good deal -- for the Brazilians.

The third great fiasco would come in 1935, with the Chaco War. Before defeat came, Paraguayans and Bolivians traded lead in terrible but pathetic battles. Under the tutelage of foreign oil companies interested in the deposits in the Chaco desert, native warriors who only spoke their indigenous languages embarked for battle on board tanks they had never seen before the hour of battle. Crammed into armored vehicles, Paraguayans and Bolivians squandered bravery and ineptitude. Few learned how to drive that armored invention. Many died without having deciphered manuals published in English or Spanish. Bye-bye Chaco, bye-bye oil. Another loss among so many, to victorious and voracious neighbors.

The confiscation of many efforts and modernization was carried out by Bolivian billionaires rewarded, with the right to plunder without competition, exempt from taxes, mines unbelievably heavy with gold, silver and tin. In this field, none outdid the legendary Antenor Patiño, who wasted in Paris, the scene of movie festivals, the money he got plundering the mines of Bolivia. He rarely visited his native land. "I prefer Paris," he admitted.

"The Bolivian people is America's orphan," summarized the writer Augusto Céspedes, who died in 1998. "We survive with no relatives, without friendsrends, without allies or generous godparents. We are condemned to be alone." Today, as always lacking partners, Bolívia is trying to save the last economic gambit in sight: marketing natural gas on favorable terms.

For various reasons, it's a difficult struggle. Outside the country, it will have to outwit a huge and greedy neighbor -- Brazil, the main customer for Bolivian gas. On the internal front, an ancient threat still surrounds the lonely orphan: a dangerous geopolitical schizophrenia that divides the altiplano whose capital is La Paz from the lowlands of Santa Cruz province. In the world of Santa Cruz, the standard of living ishigherigheer and traditional families imitate the habits of exiled Spanish nobility. They want autonomy.

The Andean mountain dwellers, mostly dirt poor, are of indigenous origin, and have little money and decades of frustration. To anesthetize themselves and forget their hunger, they resort to the ancient coca-chewing habit. They cycle from apathy to rage in a few days (or hours). Lately tired of the resigning President Carlos Mesa, they have overthrown many officeholders.

In 1939, they withdrew the support they had provided two years previously to the young Col. German Busch and drove him to suicide. Busch's modernizing dreams, decorated with nationalist and leftist themes, encouraged the rise of Maj. Gualberto Villaroel, leader of the 1943 coup. That dream lasted three years.

With the support of drunks, beggars, petty criminals, hordes of the poor from the outskirts of La Paz marched on the Quemado Palace, ready to invade it. Céspedes, tghen an apprentice politician, witnessed the drama with a writer's eye. "The street people broke into the Palace, captured Villaroel, hung the President from a lamppost and beat him until he was reduced to a human paste," wrote Céspedes. "The next day, one could recognize only his green eyes. Light-eyed Bolivians are quite rare. As rare as periods of peace."

As rare as times of hope, such as they were. None lasted longer than that the Andean nation lived through from 1952 to 1964. This was the first term of Victor Paz Estensoro, leader of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), Bolivia's version of the Labor Party [of Brazil] in its origins. Tin mines were nationalized, legislative changes abolished ancient larcenies, and it seemed that Bolívia began to make out a path to the future. This hope went up in smoke with a military coup that ended the second term of an Estensoro already reduced to a hostage of uniforms and dollars.

From then until now, with a few democratic gasps, turbulence has routinely prevailed. The quick rotations of power would lead one to believe that the coup d'etat had become institutionalized as the way to change governments. The procession of general-Presidents includes oddball leftists like Juan Torres, ultrarightists like Hugo Banzer, traffickers like Garcia Meza. Even some honest people. None found a way out. Perhaps none exists.
Precolombian Bolívia was of course a centralized state that has even been called "socialist", followed by a scarcely more democratic period of Spanish colonial rule. Other than ideas that may have been imported, there is little basis in history or culture for democracy, capitalism, or even honest government.

A failed state in the Andes is hardly a pleasing prospect, and one that neighbors, Brazil, Argentina, Perú and Chile are hardly likely to look on with favor. Look for Santa Cruz to contemplate autonomy or even secession, the Aymara and Quechua highlanders to follow one Pol Pottish rebel after another, and feral dogs to feed on the corpses.

It might as well be Chinatown.

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