How Bolivia's Unrest Will Affect Latin America

When Evo Morales became president of Bolivia in January 2006, many people in Latin America held their breath. Half the nation feared what would come if Morales made good on his promise to re-engineer the impoverished Andean nation into a socialist utopia. The other half feared what would happen if he failed. Two and a half years on, even the darkest predictions are looking optimistic—and not just for Bolivia.

The barricades have been dismantled and the bullet casings swept away. The angry rebel youths of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and the opposing columns of peasants marching in from the highlands have stood down for now. But the remarkable spasm of protests, street fighting and armed repression that broke out earlier this month has shaken this country—and the continent—to the core. At least 15 people (and maybe twice that) were killed and dozens more injured in street clashes in the lowlands, where provincial leaders fiercely resist attempts by the Morales government to curb local autonomy.

Both sides were emboldened by a recent recall vote, which boosted Morales (with 67 percent of the popular vote) and also the provincial governors who oppose him, practically assuring more conflict. The September protests turned bloody (Bolivia's 9/11 it was called) as Morales stumped for a sweeping new national constitution that would concentrate power and tax revenues in La Paz. So toxic is the political atmosphere that pundits and diplomats openly speculate over when, not if, Bolivia will pitch into civil war, and what the gathering chaos portends for an already conflicted region. "The Bolivian crisis has turned into a hemispheric challenge," says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. "If regional leaders can't work this out, it reflects badly for the inter-American system of peace and cooperation."

Not long ago, Bolivia's distant neighbors might simply have fired off the obligatory bromides of diplomacy about peace and understanding, and then hoped for the best. But with chaos in Bolivia threatening to split the country, shut down the continent's natural-gas supplies and further inflame the continental ambitions of self-styled Latin liberator Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, the continent's diplomatic corps has become suddenly galvanized. Now is the time to act, said Argentina President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at an emergency summit of South American nations in Santiago. "In 30 years we may be watching documentaries about Bolivia like those we see today about Salvador Allende," she warned, alluding to Chile's former socialist president, who died in a bloody 1973 military coup d'état.

How effective the emergency diplomacy will be is an open question. "It's a cliché that when Latin Americans face a grave problem, they form a committee," says Bolivian economist Roberto Laserna. But this time more than just another perishable Bolivian presidential mandate is at stake. One reason is that with some 70 years of natural-gas reserves below their feet, Bolivians have become continental energy brokers. Brazil and Argentina (and to a lesser extent Paraguay and Chile) look to the Bolivian gas fields to power their growing economies, and any shortfalls would leave the two Latin giants vulnerable to blackouts and factory shutdowns. Another is Chávez who counts Morales among his closest allies. After Morales ousted the U.S. ambassador to La Paz for allegedly meddling in Bolivian politics, Chávez gave the U.S. envoy to Caracas 72 hours to pack up, touching off a daisy chain of incidents from Washington to Tegucigalpa (Honduras also rejected the incoming U.S. ambassador) that could set diplomacy in the Americas back for years. Washington answered by sending off the Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors, and even suspending Peace Corps operations.

To be sure, a cold war is not in the making. For all his bluster, Chávez has never dared to shut off oil exports to the United States, his best customer, and outside of a few left-leaning compañeros in the Andes and Central America, few pulses race to his call for a Bolivarian insurrection. Nor does Morales have much to gain by alienating Washington, its major source of aid. With Latin neighbors hurrying to ramp up alternative suppliers, Bolivia's lock on continental gas supplies will also fade in the long run. But the real test now is whether South America's newly energized diplomacy can turn rhetoric into rescue—and help save Bolivian democracy from itself.