Everybody Loses
August 14, 2008 - The New York Times

All sides are claiming victory in last weekend’s competing referenda to recall the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, and rival governors. But the continuing political warfare is leading the country to a destructive impasse.

More than two-thirds of Bolivians voted to keep Mr. Morales in power. His four main rivals in the gas-rich eastern lowlands also won by large margins. Mr. Morales claims that he now has the mandate to call a national referendum on constitutional reforms that would give even more power to the presidency and allow him to seek another term. All four governors have rejected those changes and insist that their wins mean they must now be given more autonomy.

The proposed reforms are already legally dubious. Virtually all opposition delegates were excluded from the constitutional assembly proceedings that approved the changes. Before the recall election, protesters blocked Mr. Morales from visiting the provinces of Tarija and Santa Cruz.

Bolivia -- especially the impoverished Quechua and Aymara populations who are Mr. Morales’s strongest supporters -- desperately needs social change. But Mr. Morales’s grab for power and his confrontational approach is likely to doom any reform effort.

His government has already taken over large swathes of the economy, nationalizing mining and telecommunications firms and tightening its grip over the natural gas industry. It has also battled the judiciary -- prompting the resignation of four of the five judges in the constitutional court. To pay for a new pension for the elderly, it took over hydrocarbon tax revenues due to the regional governments.

Mr. Morales and his rivals must tone down their rhetoric and start looking for a solution. It is possible to empower and improve the lives of Bolivia’s long-neglected indigenous peoples while also incorporating legitimate demands for regional autonomy. An equitable division of the nation’s gas wealth can be negotiated.

Bolivia’s political leaders can start by agreeing on transparent and fair political rules: appointing impartial judges to the electoral tribunal and the constitutional court and agreeing on the procedures for approving constitutional changes. If they can’t come to a deal on their own, they should ask the Organization of American States to mediate.

Without a political process accepted by all sides, we fear Bolivia will be trapped in a permanent and debilitating political crisis.