An Opening for Bolivia


Bolivia is one of the very poorest countries in South America. Its political instability is legendary, and the divisions among the social classes and ethnic groups are wide and widening. After centuries of government neglect, the poor often vent their frustrations with popular uprisings that have unseated presidents. These revolts, however, have done little to alleviate the country’s complex problems.

Well aware of the frailty of Bolivia’s political system, President Carlos Mesa has devised a plan to revitalize the democratic process and put the country on the right economic path. It’s an idea that could work, given support from Bolivia’s neighbors and the United States.

A referendum on Sunday -- requested by Mesa -- will decide who owns, sells and benefits from the country’s natural gas reserves. If the five propositions on the ballot are successful, they could provide the nation a long-term flow of revenue that would allow the government to finance poverty-reduction and education programs.


If the measures are approved, Mesa will have to devise a transparent mechanism to export the gas. (Lousy management of gas exports was the direct cause of last October’s uprising.) To accomplish this, he will need the cooperation of neighboring Chile, Peru and Brazil.

Chile should reach out to Mesa to achieve a deal that facilitates Bolivia’s access to the Pacific Ocean, helping to heal a historical wound that poisons their relationship and, among other things, clutters the construction of a pipeline. Brazil could play a positive role by encouraging the most radical elements of the Bolivian political spectrum to respect democratic rule and to give Mesa a chance to succeed.

The Bush administration can also be a boost to Bolivia’s future by forging with Bolivia’s neighbors a multinational strategy to deal with the biggest problem in the region: the production and trafficking of drugs. Working in coordination with the countries that make up the supply side of the coca trade, the U.S. can better assist the search for alternative rural development programs that keep pace with eradication of the coca plant and respect a small amount of traditional, legal coca leaf cultivation.

It is inexcusable that Bolivia, with the second-largest natural gas reserves in South America after Venezuela, remains a poor, unequal and politically divided country. Sunday’s referendum could mark the beginning of a new era.