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 Global Perspective

April 9, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 2

global perspective
Michael Gillgannon, a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., is director of campus ministry for the Archdiocese of La Paz, Bolivia. He has been a missionary serving in Bolivia since 1974.



"2003 will see a continued downward social spiral brought on by poverty and hunger. Bolivia boiled over. But all of Latin America smolders in the ashes of its discontents needing only a spark to burst into the flames of social conflict and violence."

Latin America Smolders

By Michael J. Gillgannon

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Latin America is a smoldering crisis that the winds of social unrest could easily fan into a conflagration. But people in the United States don’t seem to notice. With the nation’s leadership preoccupied with its war on terrorism and the public mesmerized by images of war in Iraq, Latin America’s crisis is unattended and unheeded. Not even business leaders who are seeking a hemisphere-wide free trading area seem aware of cascading events.

In February, we who live here had a foretaste of the chaos that could so easily engulf this region.

The streets of Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, filled with yelling, smoke and visible anarchic violence on Feb. 12 and 13. Sharpshooters of the Guard of the Presidential Palace opened fire on the police and a mob of  citizens gathered in the main Plaza of La Paz to protest "structural adjustment" programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund.

The violence was telecast to the whole country, which brought similar riots within hours to other cities throughout Bolivia. Thirty-four people – including 10 police officers and four soldiers – were killed.  At least 200 were wounded and hospitalized.

The immediate spark? Bolivia’s President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada came to office in August 2003 with a coalition of  parties under pressure to fix a broken economic system and calm a long-suffering populace whose patience had been exhausted.

In February, the IMF had told the president and his cabinet to announce a planned new tax program for Bolivia. (As usual, the IMF kept out of sight. Their public relations pieces will tell you that they dictate nothing. They offer advice, and democratically elected representatives make the decisions. But woe to the administration that does not take the IMF’s advice.)

The government made plans to take the tax plan to the Congress, but before they could, people heard the news of the impuestazo (literally, big tax rip-off) and took to the streets.

At this same time, the national police force was in labor negotiations with the government. The police had threatened to strike when the government denied pay raises and benefits and a government minister walked out of negotiations. On the fateful day, police special units were meeting about the strike in their quarters just off the Plaza Murillo. Meanwhile, high school students, whose teachers had told them their parents would be badly affected by the tax plan, began taunting the palace guards in protest. Someone threw rocks at the president's office windows. Tear gas was released.

Hearing the disturbances, the police ran into the plaza to be met by soldiers’ bullets. The plaza became a free fire zone televised to front of the whole country. Rioting worsened when the president ordered the military and the police to retire to their quarters. The street battles and vandalism continued for another 24 hours. A total vacuum of authority. The violence and pillage spread throughout the country: public buildings burned and the offices of political parties were sacked. Twenty-one years of democracy seemed to go up in smoke, the victim of the incendiary passions and frustrations of thousands of citizens for whom hunger, unemployment and rural migration are the only results of "structural adjustment".

The government was traumatized and paralyzed by the popular fury. The president reshuffled his cabinet and dropped the tax plan. He said the 9% budget deficit would be handled another way. As usual, the political parties -- right, left and center -- began name-calling and faultfinding. In this moment of national trauma, Bolivia had no statesperson of national vision. The country is still in shock.

Daily, democracy is debilitated; not just in Bolivia but all of Latin America. If the US media would focus its cameras south of the Rio Grande, what would you see?

  • Some 100,000 Mexican farmers converged on the Mexican capital in February to protest U.S. subsidized food imported under NAFTA free trade rules which is destroying their livelihood and their culture.
  • After a year of riots all over the country, the Argentine people are beginning to dig out of the wreckage of years of "structural adjustment". Now,  50% of the population is officially poor;  their money is worth 25% of what it was a year ago, and the country is $140 billion dollars in debt.
  • The Venezuelan government is held hostage by tragic social divisions of race and class, which do not permit democracy to function as street protests and violence replace Congressional legislation and the rule of law.
  • The United States and the IMF accept the newly elected Brazil Worker's Party Government but threaten to pull the financial rug out if Brazil tries to implement social programs instead of paying its enormous national debt:  more than $1,000 for each of its 180 million people.

Unworkable economic structures, unpayable national debts, and treaties like NAFTA and the proposed "Free Trade Areas of the Americas," daily traumatize the people of Latin America. 2003 will see a continued downward social spiral brought on by poverty and hunger. Bolivia boiled over. But all of Latin America smolders in the ashes of its discontents needing only a spark to burst into the flames of social conflict and violence.

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