Bolivian state of the union
bolivia | by Miguel Centellas | 05 Jan, 2004 at 05:09 AM | comments (0) | trackback (0)

Bolivia's president, Carlos Mesa, spoke to the nation last night in what was heralded as an important address. This was his first major policy address since he was installed in office after Goni's overthrow. In the end, he said pretty much what everyone expected — though not, perhaps, what everyone hoped to hear. The realities of Bolivian politics have to be faced. And when they're faced, you end up w/ essentially the same policies that Goni (and previous governments) adopted.

Mesa chose the date of the one-hundred-year anniversary of the treaty that formally ended the War of the Pacific. Obviously, he spent some time speaking about the issue of Bolivia's claim to maritime sovereignty, demanding that Chile cooperate on this issue.

He also announced that he would (it was previously in much doubt) remain in power until 6 August 2007. He also added that Goni's overthrow meant the end of representative democracy — and that the country was now headed towards participative democracy. This part wasn't much elaborated upon, and I'm rather skeptical. There's strong strains of democratic theory that argue that "participative democracy" isn't practicable in large nation-states, and can lead to authoritarian tendencies (it's not for nothing that J.S. Mill warned against the "tyranny of the majority" against individual rights).

The issue of the gas referendum was fleshed out, w/ a date set for 28 March. Still, Mesa took the traditional (and rational) government line that the gas must be exported — it's, after all, a major source of possible income for the bankrupt country. Mesa pointed out that while some protesters in October opposed gas exports (the conflict hinged on its export through Chile, which riled nationalist sentiments), many agreed the resource must be exported. Of course, the result of the October uprising was that the California gas market was satisfied w/ another contract, effectively closing (for some time) any possibility of gas exports (unless a new buyer suddenly comes up).

In keeping w/ the gas theme, Mesa also pointed out three pillars for his administration's gas policy: 1) increase the revenues from oil & gas transnationals (which means revising existing contracts), 2) recover sovereignty over the hydrocarbons (currently, mineral resources belong to the nation when under ground, but to the company that extracts them once out of the ground), and 3) strengthen YPFB, the state gas & oil company. In addition, Mesa's government will continue Goni's project of installing home gas lines.

Of course, w/ all this talk about Mesa's policy plans for the gas & oil industry, one's left to wonder just what the referendum will decide.

Mesa also announced a new Social Emergency Fund of $50 million dollars to support the poorest regions of the country. He specifically mentioned El Alto, which he reminded was the center of the October uprising (he called it "the most conflictive" sector of the country). Money for this fund will come from the Andean Development Corporation (CAF) & the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). At this point, Mesa also called on Bolivians to be "responsible citizens" who recognize their rights, but respect the rule of law.

Perhaps the most significant social demand — the Constituent Assembly — is now postponed to the first semester of 2005. The reasoning was that Bolivans will face two decisions in 2004: the gas referendum & nation-wide municipal elections. Also, there's no constitutional provision for a Constituent Assembly, meaning that parliament must first amend the Political Constitution of the State (CPE) to allow for such a body. Beyond that, parliament will no doubt debate the structure of the assembly (e.g. how will delegates be elected?). Hormando Vaca Diez, president of the Senate, announced Friday that the Constituent Assembly might not take place until 2006.

Mesa also made two unpopular announcements: First, there'd be no "truce" in the war on illegal coca crops. We're all holding our breaths to see what Evo Morales & the cocaleros will say to that. Second, like it or not, Bolivia needs to engage in free trade negotiations w/ the US as "a matter of necessity." Ditto (but add Solares & Quispe).

Finally, Mesa announced the obvious. The country's bankrupt; it spends 40% more than it collects in revenue (the rest of the national budget is kept afloat by US, European, Japanese, and other aid). Mesa announced the need for austerity measures — meaning cuts in the bureaucracy & projects.

Note: My friend Daniel Bustillos posted a succint critique of Mesa's address (en español). Also, here's a preliminary roundup of reactions. The general consensus was that Mesa spoke for 80 minutes but made no concrete statements, only vague references & platitudes.

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"President Mesa finally announced the questions for the gas referendum. And although there are five of them, they seem rather vague & almost destined to win a "yes" vote by their very wording (which, I'm sure, was the point). But. Despite that, the questions are unclear as to what they..."
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