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What If?

Our Grandkids have a habit of asking “Why?”  It is refreshing when one of them asks

“What if?”          


AA crisis is growing in the poorest of South American republics. This summer my wife and I, and two of our adult children went to Bolivia on a work team.  We were there during Independence Day celebrations, but there was obvious tension and uncertainty about Bolivia ’s political future.  Bolivia might find itself in a civil war within a couple of months.  But “what if” this war could be prevented non-violently?

The provinces of Santa Cruz and Tarija have huge natural gas reserves to export.  Some people in that region want autonomy or separation from the rest of Bolivia .  The La Paz region has a large, poor Aymara and Quechua population.  Very few benefits trickle down to them, though they are a majority and do vote. They include unemployed miners, subsistence farmers who have moved to the cities looking for work, and even coca leaf producers who have no viable alternative crop.  The middle class suffers too. This year, 160,000 Bolivians emigrated to Spain , looking for work and cash to send home.  

How revenue from natural gas and oil exports is distributed is crucial.  Argentina , Brazil , Chile , Mexico and the USA all would like a piece of the action, which means pipelines, access to the sea, and contracts with large companies.  Historically most contracts have invited corruption nationally and internationally.  Oil, gas, ethnic divisions, drug trafficking, control of water resources and corrupt power brokers make for an explosive mixture.  (Does this sound like Iraq ?)

The marginalized population uses protest tactics of transportation blockades, general strikes and boycotts.  Generally the blockades are non-violent.  Typically the troops are called out and protesters killed or injured.  Often there is escalation to martial law, closure of the universities and jail for protesters. 

The result of the May 2005 protests over the natural gas issue has given time for negotiations!  Breaking with precedent, President Carlos Mesa refused to call out the troops. The protesters lifted the blockades and peaceful negotiations began.  He resigned when he saw he could not govern.  The respected president of the Supreme Court is now interim president.  An assembly to review the constitution is being formed, with representation by all sectors, and a new election for the legislature and presidency is scheduled for December 18!  The issues are still there, but so far no one has been killed at the protests, as they were in 2000 and 2003, over the issues of water and gas resources.

  “What if” a peaceful solution prevails? Could the second poorest nation in the hemisphere become a model for other countries in crisis?  What if President Carlos Mesa’s courageous refusal to use force actually brings peace with justice to a beautiful but troubled country?  I hope and pray it will.

  Thoburn Thompson , MD

Dr. Thompson is a member of Paths to Peace in Freeborn County .  He and his family lived in La Paz , Bolivia for seven years..