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President Carter's Bolivia Trip Report: Dec. 16-21, 2003

By Jimmy Carter

Bolivia is a small landlocked country in South America that has been torn apart by poverty and political strife. Following public disturbances and harsh responses in February and October of this year, during which about 60 demonstrators were killed, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (known as 'Goni') was forced to resign and leave the country two months ago, after being elected in 2002. With about 65 percent of the population, the indigenous people have demanded greater participation in the political process and a more equitable share of the country's wealth.

Although I had planned to visit Bolivia in October, the overthrow of Goni forced us to postpone that trip. After receiving an invitation from the new president, Carlos Mesa, for consultations and from legislative leaders to address a joint session of the Congress, we scheduled this trip. I had definitive briefings from Dr. Jennifer McCoy, Laura Neuman, former President Sanchez de Lozada, and experts on Latin America. Dr. McCoy directs The Carter Center's Americas Program, and Ms. Neuman is our primary staff person in transparency and fighting corruption.

Our primary official task is to work with President Carlos Mesa and the Congress on drafting and implementing a freedom of information law, which we have learned in other countries will greatly reduce corruption and enhance confidence of disaffected people in their government. All the political leaders have promised to accept assistance from The Carter Center in this crucial effort, for which we have funding for the next two years. In addition, I wanted to meet with as many leaders as possible to understand better the root causes of the recent violence, to promote peaceful resolution of differences, and to explore additional ways in which our Center might help to promote democracy and economic progress.

Rosalynn, Dr. McCoy, our son Chip, and I arrived in La Paz early on Wednesday, Dec. 17, joining Ms. Neuman and intern Justen Thomas. After breathing some oxygen to help us acclimate to the high altitude, we received our first briefing from U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee and his staff, who pointed out that their top priorities in Bolivia are to preserve democracy and to conduct a massive coca eradication program.

We then began a series of meetings that were arranged with political leaders, beginning with Goni's MNR party. (He is still the official leader, although in exile.) During these first two days, we also met with leaders of MIR, MAS, NFR, ADN, and UCS parties. Felipe Quispe, radical head of the MIP, left our meeting place and refused to return, claiming that we were two minutes late. Subsequent efforts to communicate with him were unsuccessful.

All the party leaders professed a commitment to resolve issues peacefully, to support President Mesa's serving his remaining four years in office, and to participate positively in key political decisions. The issues on his agenda are those inherited from Goni, whom he served as vice president: a) to change the hydrocarbon law regarding tax payments by foreign extractors of natural gas, to clarify contractual terms and use of revenues; b) to orchestrate a national referendum on whether and how to export natural gas; and c) to convene a constituent assembly to write a new constitution.

I urged all party leaders to consult more closely with each other concerning congressional deliberations, and they all professed willingness to do so. It was interesting that everyone took for granted the deep involvement of the United States in the internal political affairs of Bolivia. Two of the party leaders expressed resentment at having been forced by the United States during previous elections to join coalitions against their will, claiming threats that they would be denied visas and "blackballed" re their political futures.

On Friday, we met with media executives, civil society, indigenous groups, union leaders, and church representatives. They also were eager to see a peaceful resolution of the contentious issue of coca production, which has shaped the political landscape and was a major factor in the downfall of Goni and his government. They agreed that the present harsh eradication program often violates human rights and encourages violence, results in the deaths of many coca growers and police, provides minimal compensatory income for those who shifted to other crops such as pineapples, bananas or citrus fruits, and divides the nation politically and socially.

For centuries, the people have used coca leaves for chewing, brewing tea, and for medicinal purposes, and an official allowance of 12,000 hectares (about 29,000 acres) of coca plantings has been legalized in a mountainous region near La Paz known as the Yungas to meet this domestic need. Cocaleros claim that the legal acreage is inadequate to supply domestic needs, and there has been an indeterminate planting above this limit, both in this legal region and in an area at lower altitude known as the Chapare.

After consulting with the president and party leaders, I tried to articulate their ideas into a plan that might permit a brief "freeze" on the present level of production of coca, not to exceed six months, during which an international assessment of domestic needs and market for legal exports would be conducted by the United Nations, Harvard University, some representatives of Bolivian universities, and other qualified groups. The legal acreage would then be adjusted accordingly, and subsequently the cocaleros and their leaders would cooperate in controlling any excess plantings. During the freeze period, which could not be extended, eradication efforts and new plantings would be held in abeyance. I outlined this proposal in my speech to the Congress, and there seemed to be wide acceptance among Bolivian leaders. An additional requirement, among others, would be to get a commitment from the Yungas area to honor such an agreement. Whether or not this particular proposal proves feasible, creative proposals should be encouraged to address coca growing and alternative development strategies.

I met with representatives of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, United Nations, Organization of American States, U.S. Agency for International Development, other donors, and ambassadors of key countries, including Japan, Argentina, and Brazil, and urged them to move Bolivia to a high priority on their foreign assistance list and to be more flexible in their conditions.

We had wide-ranging discussions with President Carlos Mesa, who is governing without a political party base and with a cabinet comprising mostly non-politicians (like himself). As a professional newsman, he communicates with the public very successfully. He now has an 82 percent approval rating, but hasn't yet addressed some of the more difficult and controversial issues that confront Bolivia. This will have to be done early next year.

My Thursday speech to a joint session of the Bolivian congress (beginning with greetings in three native dialects before I shifted to Spanish) was well received, with most applause when I expressed hope that Bolivia might gain access to the sea and our willingness to help when/if good faith negotiations are begun among Bolivia, Chile, and Peru.

On Friday we attended a nice ceremony, during which I was given the nation's highest "Condor of the Andes" award, and then had lunch with President Mesa and his cabinet.

With our official duties completed, Friday night we attended a musical concert by the Moxos Youth Choir, young people from a small village whose mayor had been assassinated that same morning. We spent Saturday driving on the Altiplano (high plains) and visiting places around and on Lake Titicaca. We sighted 27 species of birds (20 new to us), enjoyed a hydrofoil trip to the Isle of the Sun from Huatajata, where we met the two brothers who constructed Thor Heyerdahl's reed boat in which he crossed the Pacific. (They gave me a small model.) We also visited a remarkable museum at Tiahuanacu, an archeological site that preceded those of the Incas by almost 20 centuries. If further developed, it would be one of the key tourist attractions of South America.

We left La Paz Sunday morning, pleased with an enjoyable and productive visit but still deeply concerned about the future of Bolivia. It is a wonderful country, dedicated to democracy, having recently granted indigenous people a stronger voice in the government, suffering economically from lack of access to the sea, greatly influenced by Washington policies, heavily dependent on foreign assistance, eager to resolve its problems and capitalize on natural gas and productive land, and searching for ways to resolve political differences without further violence. The greatest threat to the country is the possible uprising of the people and another overthrow of their president if foreign assistance is inadequate, poverty is not addressed, and trust in government is not restored.

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