Bolivia at boiling point

Bolivia’s embattled President Carlos Mesa this week called for early elections to replace him, amid protests against his government’s economic policies. In a move aimed at ending a wave of street protests that have almost crippled the country, Mesa said he would ask Congress to approve a poll in August, two years before the official end of his term.

From the potato fields to the slums, South America’s poorest country is a political time bomb that, analysts say, could explode at any moment.

Trade unions this week called a 48-hour strike, while the political leaders of Bolivia’s poor, primarily indigenous majority were poised to extend the protests nationwide unless the government gives in to their demands.

Their demand is for 50% royalty payments on exports of Bolivia’s natural gas, which are bought by foreign companies, most notably Petrobras in Brazil, Repsol in Spain and British Petroleum. The government and the private sector say this would turn the country into a no-go area for foreign investment.

“Fifty percent is like saying to investors in so many words, don’t come here,” says Eduardo Bracamonte, head of the National Exporters’ Association. “The image of Bolivia has seriously deteriorated already. The perception of the risk of doing business has gone up enormously and we all suffer because of that.’’

There are other tensions between the people and the government, ranging from pressure to kick out the French water company running services in El Alto to bus prices.

Last week Mesa strengthened his chances of bringing the situation under control when his offer to resign was unanimously rejected by Parliament. But pressure on the president from the middle and upper classes to crack down on the protests is growing, prompting rumours that he will declare a state of siege.

Since Bolivia’s revolution of 1952 petered out, the country has suffered bloody dictatorships and corrupt democratic governments interspersed by political turmoil. The passions over gas go far beyond the undisputed importance of the energy sector to the economy.

“First, they took our silver, then they took our tin, they took everything,” says Carmelo Colque, standing outside his mud-brick home. “The oil and gas is all we’ve got left. We Bolivians have woken up, we won’t let them have it.”

Bolivia’s radicalisation is part of a Latin America-wide shift to the left, partly prompted by frustration with free-market dictates from the international community.

Uncertainty hangs over the country. Ricardo Calla, a left-wing academic and former minister in the Mesa government, believes a state of siege or military coup is unlikely. A negotiated solution is possible.

But, he says: “There have always been crazies who claim that a popular insurrection is just around the corner. This time they might just be right.’’ — Â