Visa quid pro quo

Bolivians seeking tourist entry to the US have the pleasure of completing the following steps:

*1* Pay $110 (twice the monthly minimum wage) for the honour of submitting a visa application and seeking an interview at the US Embassy in La Paz.

*2* Wait (usually months) for your interview to be scheduled.

*3* Travel to La Paz and wait in a long line in Arctic-like morning weather outside the fortress-like, white US Embassy.

*4* Approach the first window and have your paperwork reviewed (including all kinds of personal economic information, such as bank statements and employment letters). Have a good chance of being turned away right then for completing incorrectly the confusing, English-only forms.

*5* Advance to a second window for questioning about your intentions. You might chat through the thick glass window with someone who is friendly, or with an official who seems interested in turning surliness into a fine art.

*6* Stand a 90-per-cent chance of being denied (no refund of the $110 you paid the US Government for the experience).

I have watched the attrition process a few times while making my own visits to the ‘interview room’ at the US Embassy here. Denial, in many cases, seems just arbitrary. My landlord, an accountant at the university in his forties with a family here and two houses, got denied a visa to visit his relatives in Nebraska. Did the US Government really think he was sneaking in to become a day labourer in Virginia?

What about the opposite process? How does someone from the US enter Bolivia as a tourist?

*1* Get off the plane from Miami.

*2* Hand the friendly fellow at the immigration desk the 10-line, half-page immigration form that lists your birth date, nationality and destination.

*3* Get a free 90-day entry visa and collect your luggage. (You do have to pay $45 to leave.)

So it is no surprise that many Bolivians feel like the process between our two nations isn’t exactly reciprocal and on 1 January President Evo Morales issued an executive decree mandating that US citizens visiting Bolivia will soon need to have pre-arranged entry visas.

You might chat through the thick glass window with someone who is friendly, or with an official who seems interested in turning surliness into a fine art

Bolivia has both a legitimate right to assert whatever entry rules it desires and, as noted above, ample justification to make the process for people from the US coming here a little more like it is the other way around. Morales also raised security concerns, recalling that, last March, a deranged Californian came as a US tourist and exploded bombs in two La Paz hotels, leaving two people dead.

So, with the legitimacy of Bolivia’s demand recognized, let’s take a look at the practical side of things.

While the specifics of the new visa process for US citizens (and potentially Europeans) remain unclear, here is what the Government is considering:

*1* A birth certificate.

*2* A certificate of residency (which we don’t actually have in the US).

*3* Documentation of financial assets (bank records, etc).

*4* Documentation of employment.

This is essentially a mirror of the US requirements for Bolivians and all would-be visitors would have to solicit such a visa from the Bolivian Embassy in Washington.

Tourism officials in Bolivia were quick to express their objections to the plan, and their worries that it will cost Bolivia a lucrative chunk of its tourism trade. The Vice-Minister of Government Co-ordination dismissed those concerns, noting that ‘the number of US citizens entering the country is minimal’.

However, three airlines now offer direct daily service to and from Miami, in addition to those who arrive over land, so the number of US visitors measures in the thousands. That is a heavy visa-processing load for a skeleton staff of seven at the Bolivian embassy in Washington, along with a handful of part-time consulates in other states.

To be sure, a lot of visitors will just deal with it. I travel all over the world for work and I have had to leap through tougher hoops than this. Once I had to send my US passport by Federal Express to the Ugandan Embassy in Washington, only to have FedEx send it back to Bogotá, Colombia instead of Cochabamba, Bolivia. All those Bs, Cs and As could confuse anyone.

But a good many others won’t be so willing to jump through the new Bolivian visa hoops. A proportion of tourists who head to Machu Picchu in Peru – and then want to add on a week over the border to visit La Paz or Lake Titicaca – will respond by saying: ‘I have to send my passport and bank records to the Bolivian Embassy in Washington? Hmm, I hear Lima is nice.’ If too many do, then restaurant, hotel and other tourism-related jobs will be a lot less plentiful.

I think Bolivia has a fair point to make about the disproportionate US entry requirements. But there are other ways to handle visas that are less cumbersome. In the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, I got my visa (legally) at the airport in the middle of the night for a reasonable price. The same in Croatia. Brazil didn’t ask for any bank records but did make me pay $100 (though in Brazil they throw in beaches, which landlocked Bolivia doesn’t).

In other words, Bolivia may be faced with the dilemma that what seems fair in one way, will end up being both economically damaging and a bureaucratic mess in other ways. In the end it is a choice of which matters most.

*Jim Shultz* is the executive director of The Democracy Center (www.democracyctr.org) in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Bolivia's new politics

*On a Saturday morning last August, Alvaro Garcia Linera, a Bolivian sociologist who spent five years in jail as an accused guerrilla, stood before a union hall in Cochabamba, surrounded by leaders of Bolivia’s diverse social movements.*

Present were the men and women who had led Cochabamba’s famous revolt against water privatization, peasant leaders of the landless movement, miners, students and others who had been a part of the nationwide road blockades that had just tossed another Bolivian president out of office. In four months Bolivia was to hold unplanned elections for a new president and congress. Social movement leaders were considering their options.

Staring upwards, as if collecting his thoughts as he spoke them, Linera told the gathering: ‘In the last five years we have accomplished a great deal with resistance. We kicked out Bechtel [US-based water transnational]. We stopped the International Monetary Fund. We blocked the export of gas and oil [the plan by a former president to sell off fuel at bargain prices to the US].’

‘We’re entering government to work for the people. No-one has put limits on what we can do’

‘But now,’ Linera explained, ‘the two things we are demanding – a constituent assembly [to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution] and nationalization of the gas and oil – those we cannot win with resistance. Such demands can only be won by taking control of the Government.’

But the leading candidate on the Left, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party leader Evo Morales, while maintaining a powerful base amid _campesino_ coca growers, had strained relations with other social movements. He had compromised too far on the gas issue in the Congress, they felt, abandoning the call for nationalization in favour of higher taxes on foreign oil companies. The Left was splintering, once again, in the face of its biggest political opportunity since the 1952 revolution.

A month later Bolivia’s Left succeeded in putting aside their differences and coalesced in a united political front, a coalition that Linera played a large hand in piecing together. The man once tortured by the Bolivian army agreed to join Morales as his vice-presidential running mate and as his informal ambassador to those social movements most sceptical about MAS.

That alliance held, and on 18 December 2005 Morales and Linera won an historic victory, capturing a greater margin of the popular vote than any previous candidate in Bolivian history. South America’s most indigenous nation had elected its first indigenous president.

Outside Morales’ headquarters on election night, supporter David Jovis stood in a circle clapping and cheering, waving handkerchiefs and dancing the _cueca_, a traditional Bolivian dance. ‘This is a triumph not only of a candidate and a party, but really of a people,’ Jovis shouted over the celebrating crowd.

‘In all of my life, I’ve never seen anything like this,’ said Christian Vargas, a local lawyer. ‘That a candidate would win over 50 per cent, and that candidate be _campesino_ – someone who never went to school... This is something historic.’

For the marginalized and the poor, Bolivia has arrived at a moment of great optimism. The new MAS Government promises to reshape the country by putting an end to two decades of Washington-prescribed free-market economic policies and a wave of privatization and deregulation that has further enriched the powerful few. Now the new Government must deal with the two key issues Linera identified back in August – nationalization of Bolivia’s vast gas and oil reserves and the convening of a constituent assembly. It will not be easy.

On the gas issue, MAS’s still-vague proposals are likely to fall far short of social movement demands for total state control over gas production and industrialization. Foreign oil companies, including Repsol of Spain, British Gas, Petrobras, Shell and others, stand at the ready to take Bolivia before international trade courts if Morales and Linera tinker too much with the lucrative contracts they negotiated behind closed doors in the 1990s.

A deep regional divide marks the attitude towards the constituent assembly, the historical demand of indigenous communities. Social movement leaders, and especially the indigenous of the high, barren _altiplano_, expect elections for assembly members by July, and demand the assembly have sovereign powers; even the power to shut down the Congress if it so chooses. But the wealthy élites of Bolivia’s gas-rich lowlands are advocating for a more limited assembly while pushing for ‘regional autonomy’: a code word here for more control of and profit from the gas and oil.

Hovering over all this is the shadow of Washington. Bush Administration officials have been hammering away for months at Morales, painting him as a pawn of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro. The US Embassy in La Paz has repeatedly made public remarks warning of the danger of a MAS Government making changes to drug control laws, long a source of contention. The Bolivian Government gets 25 per cent of its budget from foreign aid and is likely to see the World Bank and IMF working hard to limit its political options.

Linera is frank. ‘Fifty-four per cent was a major victory. But the question of power has not yet been resolved. How do we use the executive power to continue increasing spaces of social power?’ He is hopeful. ‘We’re entering government to work for the people. No-one has put limits on what we can do.’ But he is also frank about potential serious consequences. ‘A major confrontation is a definite possibility. We can lose. We can fail in three months, six months – they could bury us.’

But for many the hope of change outweighs the substantial risks involved. ‘I think it’s going to be very difficult to govern, to make lines of change; but everything in time,’ says Jovis. ‘What the people have asked for, nothing is impossible.’

*Gretchen Gordon* is a researcher with The Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia. *Jim Shultz* is the Center’s executive director.

Bolivia's next challenge to globalization

Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble An’ if I stay it will be double. Come on and let me know. - THE CLASH

IS Bolivian President Carlos Mesa holed-up in his room listening to old Clash records? Watching the country’s latest political drama unfold, it appears that way.

On Sunday 6 March the telegenic newscaster-turned-President took to the airwaves to announce his resignation. Caught between conflicting protests from social movements on his left and business groups on his right, Mesa told the nation: ‘I cannot continue to govern.’ None of Mesa’s major critics, from left or right, had called on him to step down. In fact Socialist Party leader Evo Morales made it clear that he thought Mesa had an obligation to continue. Nevertheless, within hours the country’s plazas began filling with Mesa supporters – a chorus from the political middle.

Then the President announced that he would stay and it seemed he had pulled off a successful ploy to strengthen his political hand. But the President overplayed that hand. Mesa called on the Congress to move forward national elections by two years – a move that was both unconstitutional and not warmly embraced among politicians who would suddenly have to run for election all over again. When his proposal was rejected the President threatened once more to resign, only to have his potential constitutional successors decline the offer. Looking increasingly flaky, Mesa told Bolivia in mid-March that he would stick out his term.

Behind all this ‘will he go or won’t he’ uncertainty is a pitched political battle over both oil and efforts to force foreign oil companies to increase dramatically the taxes they pay into the treasury of South America’s poorest nation. Until the 1990s, Bolivia owned its oil and gas reserves, the second largest on the continent. Foreign oil companies like Shell, Exxon and BP had contracts to get the oil out of the ground, then process and market it. They split the resulting take 50-50 with the Bolivian Government. Oil revenue accounted for 40 per cent of Bolivia’s public income. But when the IMF, World Bank and other cheerleaders of market fundamentalism coerced the Government to privatize gas and oil, Bolivia’s share fell to 18 per cent. Theory had it that giving the companies a bigger stake would cause production to leap and national oil revenue to increase. Instead revenues fell and a good portion of oil and gas taxes started getting passed along to Bolivian consumers.

Mesa’s predecessor, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, was forced out of office over the oil and gas issue in October 2003. When public protests erupted over a plan to export Bolivia’s gas to California, Sánchez de Lozada sent out the troops, leaving 53 people dead and igniting a public backlash that sent him into US exile.

At the time of writing the Bolivian Congress and President Mesa are haggling over the final details of a new gas law, while oil companies are threatening to abandon the country if Bolivia demands a return to the 50-50 split. Bolivia’s debate over gas and oil is a common one to poor yet mineral-rich nations worldwide. Five years ago Bolivia became synonymous with resistance to market-driven globalization policies with its now-famous revolt against water privatization. Its handling of the gas and oil issue is quickly becoming a new symbol as Bolivians once again refuse to submit quietly to economic orders issued from abroad.

Bolivia

Bolivia is South America’s poorest nation and the most indigenous nation in all of the Americas. Appreciated by foreign tourists for its striking geography – impossibly high plains, deep Amazon Basin jungles and tranquil colonial cities – Bolivia has also recently become known as Ground Zero in Latin America’s rising struggle against a market model imposed from abroad.

Bolivia’s 500-year history since the arrival of the Spaniards is a tale of rich natural resources stolen by foreign empires. Cerro Rico, a small hill full of silver just outside the city of Potosi that was mined by Indian and slave labour, almost single-handedly bankrolled the Spanish empire for three centuries. Once the silver was gone, tin mining was responsible for roughly half the nation’s gross domestic product until the 1970s. Violent conflicts between governments and heavily unionized miners were a staple of national life, as were revolving-door presidencies and coups that were often more frequent than the changes of the season.

The collapse of the tin industry coincided by chance with the rise of cocaine consumption in the rich world and in the 1980s Bolivia became a major international source for the coca leaf, the root ingredient of cocaine. Long an indigenous sacrament and a staple for workers and peasants (chewing the leaf curbs hunger), coca became the new tin.

That in turn made Bolivia a prime target for the US ‘War on Drugs’. Under a law imposed by the US in the waning days of the Reagan Administration, the Bolivian army began destroying coca crops. Thousands were jailed, accused of drug-related activity, including many innocents. By the end of the 1990s the jails were full and 90 per cent of the coca crop had been destroyed.

Bolivia has also been one of Latin America’s prime test labs for ‘neoliberal’ economic reforms. Under heavy pressure from the World Bank and the IMF, a succession of governments privatized state enterprises, relaxed labour laws and reduced public spending.

As the new century dawned, so did a series of civic uprisings. In Cochabamba, the country’s third-largest city, local citizens rebelled in 2000 against a World Bank-imposed privatization of the local public water system, leased off to the US engineering behemoth, Bechtel. Angry over steep increases in water prices, Cochabambinos shut down their city for a week and forced Bechtel out of the country.

In February 2003 the IMF coerced Bolivia into adopting a deficit-reduction package that proposed deep cuts in public spending and substantial tax increases for the working poor. A rebellion led by the national police forced a rollback of the package but left more than 30 dead.

In October 2003 Bolivia was ablaze again with a nationwide rebellion, this time in opposition to a plan to export natural gas through Chile to California. President Gonzalo Sànchez de Lozada, a staunch US ally and chief promoter of the pro-market reforms, responded with brutal repression. Following more than 70 deaths, Sànchez de Lozada was forced out of the country.

Bolivia’s new President, Carlos Mesa (the former Vice President and before that a respected TV journalist) faces a host of tough issues. The nation’s social and indigenous movements are calling for an end to US-forced coca eradication, for constitutional reform and for government measures to address grinding poverty. The US, World Bank and IMF are pressing the Government to stay the neoliberal course.

Political conflict aside, Bolivia remains a country filled with colourful weavings, spectacular sunsets and an Andean indigenous culture that remains remarkably intact. Llama f?tuses can still be found hanging in the large outdoor markets and many children are taught their culture’s traditional dances even as they learn to walk. Even as it becomes slowly more integrated into global culture and economics, Bolivia still has a chance of protecting its indigenous soul.

Sound of the soul

In the eyes of Bolivia's élite, South America's poorest nation might as well drop off the edge of the planet if it opts out of the forthcoming economic marriage of the hemisphere - the FTAA.

A rising wave of opinion here, however, takes a decidedly different view. In January 2003 a broad coalition of social movements carried out a week-long series of street protests and blockades of the nation's two major highways. At the centre of the protest was the long-standing battle over a US-backed programme to eradicate the nation's remaining coca-leaf crop. But the next item on the list was something new - the FTAA, and a call on the Government to drop Bolivian participation in it.

Faced with a political stand-off that he could not end with repression (three people were killed and scores of others injured in the conflicts), President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada agreed to formal negotiations on all of the protesters' demands - including the rejection of the FTAA.

'We need a different model of integration,' says Oscar Olivera, the Cochabamba labour official who helped lead Bolivia's celebrated revolt against water privatization. 'We need a model that respects our rights, one that is participatory instead of secret, one that is voluntary instead of forced - all of which is completely contrary to the FTAA.'

It should come as no surprise that Bolivia - a landlocked country of 10 million people, that spreads across lush green jungles, fertile valleys and impossibly high mountain tops - might take a leading role in the battle over free-trade laws. As a result of history, both ancient and recent, Bolivians know all too well the greed and exploitation that can disguise itself as global economic enterprise.

For example, underneath the skin of a modest hill on a freezing high plain at Potosí, Spanish conquistadors discovered in the mid-1500s a hidden mountain of silver so never-ending that it bankrolled the Spanish Empire for three centuries - leaving behind an estimated eight million corpses in the process. Public suspicion over the FTAA touches a resistance to foreign exploitation that is buried deep in the Bolivian soul.

Developments in national politics over the past year have played an important role in directing that spirit of resistance towards the FTAA. In presidential elections held here last July the big event was the surprisingly strong second-place finish of Evo Morales, the charismatic leader of Bolivia's coca growers' union. Morales' candidacy became a rallying point for opposition to the neoliberal economic model, helped a good deal when the inept US Ambassador threatened to end US aid if he won. Since the election Morales has worked hard to expand his base beyond the coca issue. Rallying national opposition to the FTAA serves just that purpose.

In addition, a small group of activists has worked diligently for more than a year to educate community leaders, journalists and the public at large about the perils Bolivia faces under the FTAA, and to organize that opposition into a real campaign. The first national organizing workshop, last April, drew more than 200 people - students, campesino farmers, labour leaders, environmentalists, women's leaders and others. Those people fanned out across the country to spread the word and mobilize support.

Campaigners have already accomplished a good deal more than they expected. The first step, public education, has stained the FTAA with deep public scepticism that is expressed regularly here - in public forums, radio talk shows, private conversations. The second step, to force the Government into formal discussions, is now under way. Their objective is to make participation in the FTAA subject to a referendum.

'The people understand that the politicians and the business leaders have had a monopoly over the information, the discussions and the decisions about these policies that have a huge affect on our lives,' says Olivera. 'What we're doing now is breaking that monopoly so that the people can understand, debate and decide these issues for themselves.'

A deadly new chain of political events may have an even more profound affect. In mid-February, under heavy pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reduce the nation's budget deficit, President Sánchez de Lozada announced plans for a stiff new income tax that fell heavily on a beleaguered middle class. Protests erupted nationwide, but most especially in the capital, La Paz, where the anti-tax rebellion was led by the national police force. On 12 February (now known as 'Black Wednesday') police and other protesters ended up in a bloody day-long stand-off with military forces in the city's central plaza. More than 20 people - including a nurse, who had rushed to the aid of an injured protester - were killed, most of them at the hands of military sharpshooters.

Whatever public credibility Sánchez de Lozada still had (he was elected with just 22 per cent of the vote) he lost. In a desperate effort to save a presidency on the brink, he sacked his entire cabinet, swore non-allegiance to the IMF and even suggested a willingness to reconsider the pro-privatization economic policies that have been the hallmark of his long political career.

When you talk to the Bolivians organizing against the FTAA - especially young people - you hear about enslavement to an economic future that casts aside everything that is human and of the earth, in favour of making the world safe for the movement of goods, dollars and synthetic values.

Resistance to the FTAA is about something far deeper than an international trade accord. It has taken on the sound of a battle to protect a nation's authentic soul. In some of the most humble people in the world, the would-be makers of the economic commandments may well have met their match.

In some of the most humble people in the world, the would-be makers of the economic commandments may well have met their match

Developments in national politics over the past year have played an important role in directing that spirit of resistance towards the FTAA. In presidential elections held here last July the big event was the surprisingly strong second-place finish of Evo Morales, the charismatic leader of Bolivia's coca growers' union. Morales' candidacy became a rallying point for opposition to the neoliberal economic model, helped a good deal when the inept US Ambassador threatened to end US aid if he won. Since the election Morales has worked hard to expand his base beyond the coca issue. Rallying national opposition to the FTAA serves just that purpose.

In addition, a small group of activists has worked diligently for more than a year to educate community leaders, journalists and the public at large about the perils Bolivia faces under the FTAA, and to organize that opposition into a real campaign. The first national organizing workshop, last April, drew more than 200 people - students, campesino farmers, labour leaders, environmentalists, women's leaders and others. Those people fanned out across the country to spread the word and mobilize support.

Campaigners have already accomplished a good deal more than they expected. The first step, public education, has stained the FTAA with deep public scepticism that is expressed regularly here - in public forums, radio talk shows, private conversations. The second step, to force the Government into formal discussions, is now under way. Their objective is to make participation in the FTAA subject to a referendum.

'The people understand that the politicians and the business leaders have had a monopoly over the information, the discussions and the decisions about these policies that have a huge affect on our lives,' says Olivera. 'What we're doing now is breaking that monopoly so that the people can understand, debate and decide these issues for themselves.'

A deadly new chain of political events may have an even more profound affect. In mid-February, under heavy pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reduce the nation's budget deficit, President Sánchez de Lozada announced plans for a stiff new income tax that fell heavily on a beleaguered middle class. Protests erupted nationwide, but most especially in the capital, La Paz, where the anti-tax rebellion was led by the national police force. On 12 February (now known as 'Black Wednesday') police and other protesters ended up in a bloody day-long stand-off with military forces in the city's central plaza. More than 20 people - including a nurse, who had rushed to the aid of an injured protester - were killed, most of them at the hands of military sharpshooters.

Whatever public credibility Sánchez de Lozada still had (he was elected with just 22 per cent of the vote) he lost. In a desperate effort to save a presidency on the brink, he sacked his entire cabinet, swore non-allegiance to the IMF and even suggested a willingness to reconsider the pro-privatization economic policies that have been the hallmark of his long political career.

When you talk to the Bolivians organizing against the FTAA - especially young people - you hear about enslavement to an economic future that casts aside everything that is human and of the earth, in favour of making the world safe for the movement of goods, dollars and synthetic values.

Resistance to the FTAA is about something far deeper than an international trade accord. It has taken on the sound of a battle to protect a nation's authentic soul. In some of the most humble people in the world, the would-be makers of the economic commandments may well have met their match.

Jim Shultz is the executive director of The Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and the author of The Democracy Owners' Manual, Rutgers University Press..

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