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Bolivia's Populist Temptation

In April 2002, violent demonstrations known as the "water war" in Bolivia forced President Hugo Bánzer to cancel the contract with the only international corporation interested in taking on the most ambitious water project ever proposed in the country. Recently, another major popular upheaval ended a project to export natural gas to Mexico and the United States through a Chilean seaport.

This was the "gas war," which its leaders used to overthrow President Sánchez de Lozada and hold back the modernization process of strengthening institutions, opening markets, and integrating Bolivia into the global economy. These so-called "wars" are part of the same conflict that prompted the peasant blockades of September 2000, the continuing protests by coca growers against efforts to eradicate their crops because of their role in the cocaine trade, and the withdrawal earlier this year of a progressive tax project.

In essence, these are all part of an ongoing conflict between democracy and populism, with Bolivia's future caught in the crossfire. Neither side trusts the other, so social wars have replaced meaningful political progress. As the violence of the social mobilizations and the level of discontent have grown, Bolivia's intellectuals and politicians remain in a state of shock, afraid of contradicting the masses. For their part, the populists can rouse the masses but fail to offer alternatives. They are nostalgic for the past and fearful of globalization.

As the two sides collide, the country suffers: the outcome of the water war has meant that the poor still use the same dirty and expensive water, while the result of the gas war could mean that we remain without new export revenues. Bolivia needs leaders who can move the country beyond social wars that translate into stagnation.