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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, October 20, 2003

Bolivia: it's gonna be a bumpy ride...

[Some links in earlier pieces on October 18, October 17 and October 15.]

Can I say really that, on the little I know so far? Let's just say that, on the basis of information to date, it looks like interesting times out there for the foreseeable future.

First, looking at President Carlos Mesa. Clarín has a brief interview. He's not alogether coherent - he says
Apostar a la ortodoxia es una locura. El modelo ortodoxo ya no tiene sustentabilidad. De acuerdo con nuestro peso específico debemos ser flexibles en nuestro modelo. Pero no estoy en condiciones de tomar decisiones ideológicas espectaculares cuando tenemos problemas muy concretos.

I wonder whether the IMF [1] be pleased to hear about him prioritising flexibility - I learn from the piece (that curve is vertical!) that the Bolivian budget deficit is running at 9% of GDP (3% is the, highly theoretical, maximum allowed in the Euro zone).

On the (binding) referendum to be held on the natural gas exports through Chile, he takes the Bogart line: the people have been misinformed:
El problema es que la población no está adecuadamente informa da sobre el tema. La tarea del gobierno hacia el referéndum es demostrar que nuestras reservas bastan tanto para consumo interno como para la exportación.

Was the uprising's objection to the gas export plan really that the folks thought the exports would leave Bolivia short of gas?

On the coca question, he distingushes between narcotráfico, which he's dead against, and the cocaleros with whom he'll negotiate. The MNR - the largest, but still minority, party in the lower house of Congress - apparently opposes negotation. Uncle Sam, with his War on Drugs, is unlikely to be chuffed at the idea (CRS Report (PDF) p22a). Mesa's answer is
El riesgo que corro es el naufragio total.

To which there are (at least) two responses: flat-out disbelief that things are that bad; and what the French, in the Good Old Days of the Fourth Republic used to call la politique du pire: a strong man, hoping things go really bad, with a view to stepping in and playing the National Hero - we're talking about General Charles de Gaulle, of course.

A Reuter's piece talks about Mesa's
...gabinete apartidario, integrado por independientes notables...

Mesa thinks that the parties have screwed up so badly that Bolivians wouldn't accept a party government:
En estos momentos el país no está en posibilidades de aceptar un gabinete conformado por partidos políticos y es por esa situación que se asumió la determinación de que los ministros sean destacados profesionales...

Now, the idea of a government of technocrats is far from a novel one - party politics is dirty, and the men involved are amateurs - filling ministries with technocrats kills two birds with one stone.

You have to ask the question, If it's so good, why don't we all do it?

Exactly where Mesa is mentally, one might gauge from his answer:
Se trata de "hacer un gobierno sin partidos con apoyo parlamentario, lo que parece ser una ecuación absurda, una ecuación que política y matemáticamente no va a tener un buen resultado", dijo Mesa.

Just remember who said absurda!

(In case you were wondering, the Constitution (Article 111ff) provides for a state of siege (Art 111-I):
En los casos de grave peligro por causa de conmoción interna o guerra internacional el Jefe del Poder ejecutivo podrá, con dictamen afirmativo del Consejo de Ministros, declarar el estado de sitio en la extensión del territorio que fuere necesario.

No SoS has been declared so far - this suggests it's because the previous regime feared a mutiny.

The conditions provided for the SoS are very far from carte blanche: for example, if Congress is sitting, any declaration must be authorised by Congress. (Use of SoS is no way to escape party political problems, unless - here my research stops, for the moment! - the President can keep Congress from sitting.) And the powers given to a government that has issued a valid SoS decree are not those of a dictator.)

A senator from the MIR, one of the parties supporting the old Sánchez de Lozada administration in Congress, is quoted with a jeremiad on Mesa's absurda plan:
"Los cambios planteados, como la Asamblea Constituyente, son demasiado peligrosos debido a las presiones sociales que hay en medio", subrayó el senador mirista Hugo Carvajal.

(The Asamblea Constituyente I'm not quite sure about: La Patria of Oruro, Bolivia, has a piece on the subject written before Sánchez de Lozada resigned: clearly, it's a mechanism for constitutional review and reform - like the French constituent assembly that led to the afore-mentioned Fourth Republic!) - the piece points out that the device is not in the current constitution, so will need to be legislated for - and suggests 2007 as a starting date.

Mesa has put an AC on the table - though the timescale, and the requirement for party approval in Congress, may make the proposal something of an empty gesture!)

Despite suggestions he might find it difficult to fill the cabinet positions, he has managed all bar one - the names mean nothing to me, but I see that Interior and Labour have gone to
ex militantes de izquierda
which doesn't sound apolitical to me! He's included two Indians and one woman - which, I suppose, is diversity, Bolivian-style.

A piece goes to the trouble of pointing out that
El presidente de la Cámara de Industria y Comercio, Zvoniko Matkovic, se manifestó contrario ayer a la designación de Mesa y se pronunció a favor del presidente del Senado, Hormando Vaca Diez, un hombre relacionado con Sánchez de Lozada.

Is this boilerplate, or does Señor Matkovic have some significance not ordinarily possessed by chairmen of chambers of commerce?

The military, apparently, have given Mesa their support.

A timeline of the whole farrago to October 18. And another.

What of the opposition? There are clear signs of a split between a hard-line Felipe Quispe and a rather more patient Evo Morales. (Are these signs reliable? Are they perhaps doing some sort of Mutt and Jeff for the benefit of the gullible gringos?) According to a Milenio (Mexico City) piece [2], Quispe called Mesa a
sirviente de los gringos
ie, Uncle Sam. And serves him notice to quit, at short date:
“Habrá sublevaciones indígenas” que motivarán que Mesa se vea obligado a dejar el poder “a más tardar dentro de noventa días”.

So much for the constitutional niceties: who, I wonder, does he fancy will assume the presidency when the Indians have kicked Mesa out? No doublespeak here:
Quispe, que sacó cinco por ciento de los votos en las últimas elecciones presidenciales, dijo que piensa tomar el poder en Bolivia y no descartó hacerlo por medio de una revolución armada, aunque admitió que mientras tanto “seguiremos subordinados a las leyes que nos oprimen”.

Mighty white of him, you might think!

Perhaps he's worried about Morales' ambitions - he was certainly less than fraternal about him
Ese zonzo no sabe nada. No tiene línea política.
(Zonzo means idiot - it could have been worse, perhaps.) Can he be suggesting that Morales is some kind of trimmer, apt to sell the peasants down the river in order to place him - Morales - rather than him - Quispe - (to pick a name entirely at random) behind the presidential desk?

Clearly, any sensible leader with legitimacy, authority and political experience and expertise would be operating a divide and rule strategy between Quispe and Morales - and he'd be pushing at an open door, it seems. Mesa, so far as I can see, has none of these qualities, and his fate must therefore attend on Quispe's word of command to his Indian followers!

On the gas question, Morales has been opening up a second front. Irredentism (can you say Wag the Dog) is the sentiment of the moment: he's quoted as saying
Hay cierta enemistad con Chile porque nos quitaron el mar, Y hay tantas formas para resolver el tema del mar...Chile tiene mucho interés en nuestro gas. Pues ahora sí que podemos hablar de igual a igual con Chile. Y si quiere gas, primero devuelvan el mar".

As I mentioned before (October 18), Bolivia had, at independence, possessed a Pacific coastline, but this was annexed by Chile in the War of the Pacific, starting in 1879. My understanding that the Bolivian claim for the return of this territory - known, I believe as the Atacama Corridor - had something of the status of German claims to the return of East Prussia during the period between the end of World War 2 and the coming into force of the Four plus Two Treaty of September 12 1990 [3] - a relic without emotional force, attempts at the enforcement of which by political action were inconceivable.

My mistake. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez - never knowingly undersold when it comes to líder maximising - has taken it upon himself to stake a claim for a coastline on Bolivia's behalf:
Chávez...abogó porque a ese país andino le sea restituido "su derecho legítimo e histórico de una salida al mar". .

To date, I can't trace Mesa making any such demand. That could well be lack of diligence of my part.

A BBC piece and this has some further background on the economic plight of Bolivia [4]. The main qualititive difference between Bolivia's position and, say the difficulties that Argentina has got itself in in the last few years seems to be that Bolivia actually has nothing - beyond its mineral resources - that are of much economical value.

To take a commercial comparison: there are some bankruptcies where the underlying business is sound - the product is right, production is efficient, workers have the right skills, marketing can shift the stuff as soon as its made - but the financing structure is wrong (borrowing for capital projects on short-term loans, say) or the management wrongly diversifies into a field it knows nothing about. In such cases, the underlying business can usually be sold off - and most of its workers continue as before.

Other bankruptcies happen because the underlying business fails - electro-mechanical stuff replaced by digital, say, or where low-wage alternatives make Western plants uncompetitive. In such cases, there's nothing to sell but scrap metal.

So far as I can see, Bolivia is like the second case - intrinsically lacking in economic value - apart from minerals. Mineral exploitation may bring in a tidy sum - starting with the proposed plan to sell natural gas. But, effectively, this works as rentier income: it does not employ a high proportion of the workforce, large chunks of profit go to the foreign companies that extract the minerals, deposits eventually get exhausted - it's a model that may be fine for Qatar, but scarcely for Bolivia.

What I perceive (on the basis of the limited information that has so far come to hand) is that all sides have their heads in the clouds - pun very much intended. Some may be offering false hope to the poor - who are, many of them, dirt-poor - through naivety and wishful thinking; others may have factored into their political plans a national backlash when, as seems more than likely, whatever schemes are put in place fail to alleviate the situation.

(It may be that the cavalier attitude (on the part of some) to the gas scheme and the (undoubted) hundreds of millions of dollars a year it would bring into the country comes from a (not entirely irrational) feeling that the gas revenues are in some way funny money - bunce, like the product of a lucky bet at the races. They're different in kind to the profits from agriculture or manufacturing.)

I should be delighted to be proved wrong, to be shown a thoroughly researched and eminently feasible plan to unlock billions of dollars of value from the country and put it to use in creating wealth for the poor. I'm not holding my breath.

The most cynical in me would say that, since grown-up solutions to Bolivia's problems stand no reasonable chance of success, the country ought to allow itself a few months of irrational, adolescent expectation, rather than face up to the depressing realities which will make themselves felt all too soon.

But that would be more absurda than Mesa's scheme. Wouldn't it?

  1. Latest on the Bolivia page on the IMF site: agreement on October 6 for the release of $15m under an existing stand-by arrangement.

  2. The damned site, I find, does not allow right-clicking - you have to get the source code up to cut/paste. I shan't be using the site again...

  3. The text of which, I am amazed to find, is nowhere to be found online! There is what looks like an interesting article in the European Journal of International Law.

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