Bolivia averts a crisis, U.S. should stay neutral as country now looks ahead to elections, says WOLA

Bolivia averted a constitutional and political crisis yesterday as an interim president was chosen to lead the country toward elections. Unable to convene in La Paz, the Bolivian congress met on June 9 in Sucre to determine whether to accept the resignation of President Carlos Mesa, and if so, who would lead the bitterly divided country. Fearing bloodshed or even civil war should either the controversial Senate president Vaca Diez or House president Mario Cossio assume leadership under constitutional rules of succession, Mesa urged both men to step aside in order to allow Supreme Court president Eduardo Rodriguez to assume the presidency and call constitutionally mandated elections. Fortunately, this is exactly what happened. "Both Mesa and the congress took the right steps, demonstrating that constitutional and democratic processes continue to function in this embattled Andean nation," stated Jeff Vogt, Senior Associate for Rights and Development at WOLA.

"Bolivia is by no means out of the woods, however, as the central demands that precipitated the recent transition of government are still unmet," explained Mr. Vogt. The social movements are demanding the convention of a constitutional assembly to amend the constitution in favor of greater indigenous participation within the political framework, and asserting greater control over the country's natural resources. These issues must be resolved before Bolivia is able to move forward.

In this transitional period, it is imperative that the United States refrain from political intervention as the country prepares for elections. The appearance of support for any potential presidential candidate, or threats of diplomatic isolation or retaliation should an "unacceptable" candidate be elected, must be avoided. Rather, the United States should support mechanisms that allow the various political and social forces to dialogue with one another with the aim of resolving the current impasse and establishing peaceful and lasting democratic institutions.

Background to the conflict:

The current conflict must be understood in the context of the political and economic marginalization of the majority indigenous and working poor population, from the colonial era (when the country's vast natural mineral wealth was extracted to enrich the Spanish crown) to the present time. Economic reforms undertaken in the mid-80s, on the advice of the international financial institutions, brought few if any benefits to the majority of the country. Austerity programs also limited public investment in vital public services while the rapid privatization of public resources contributed to the loss of state revenues and reduced the state's ability to manage strategic resources necessary for development. In this context, the demand for the nationalization of Bolivia's gas reserves is an understandable, if perhaps extreme, reaction to this experience. Further, demands for greater political participation, through constitutional reforms, are viewed as long overdue.