If Bolivia's chief supreme court justice is amazed at his own unexpected rise to the national presidency, he knows better than to believe he is in charge. That distinction belongs to a cabal of union leaders and leftists who have paralyzed the country for a month with street protests. After succeeding in forcing out President Carlos Mesa in early June after 19 months in office, they pledged to stop the demonstrations-but threatened to restart at any moment.
The breather at least allowed Bolivians to restock on dwindling stores of food and gasoline in major cities. Street protests, complete with hurled sticks of dynamite and demonstrator-manned roadblocks, are not news. The land-locked Andean nation has grappled with civil unrest for decades. Even so, the latest round has longtime observers and missionaries saying it is the worst they have ever seen.
Since mid-May, a hodgepodge of leftists, unionists, and indigenous Indians have demonstrated against the government's energy policy, which they say benefits foreign oil corporations at the expense of the local poor. What is unusual is how long the demonstrations have lasted. Marchers blockaded roads into La Paz, the capital. Gas stations ran out of fuel in early June. Residents found food supplies virtually exhausted. Travelers arriving at the capital area's John F. Kennedy International Airport found no public transportation in service; they had to walk nine miles to reach La Paz.
The trigger for the latest protests is a battle over Bolivia's natural gas resources, which are second only to Venezuela's on the continent. Protesters succeeded in paralyzing 13 percent of the country's crude output, and many are calling for the nationalization of the industry.
Meanwhile, the eastern provinces and its elites, where the reserves are located, are on the verge of seceding from Bolivia.
The demonstrators' disruptions and intransigence so hamstrung President Carlos Mesa, he resigned on June 6. "This is as far as I can go," he told Bolivians in a television address. He first tried to exit in March, but the Bolivian congress did not accept his resignation.
Nonetheless, Mr. Mesa's removal has not quelled the protesters' anger. They refused to accept next-in-line Senate or House leaders as his successor. Now they are manipulating Supreme Court Chief Justice Eduardo Rodriguez in his new role as president. In the demonstrators' eyes, many such national leaders are scions of long-established parties who have oppressed Indians for centuries. But the David-versus-Goliath narrative is not the whole story.
Such protracted protests only began in the last few years. Before, protesters eventually had to pack up and return to work for survival's sake. Now, they have "food, water, transportation, and medical supplies," said Jeanette Windle, a novelist on Bolivia and for 16 years a missionary serving there. "Where is the money coming from if these people are poor and living in mud huts?" she asked. That, she said, is a question few observers are asking.
One possible answer is Bolivia's thriving narcotics traders. Many of the protesters are coca-leaf farmers, or cocaleros, whose crops are refined to make cocaine. Their main leader, congressman Evo Morales, has positioned himself against coca eradication and alternative development. He heads the Movement Toward Socialism party, a new front in a political field long dominated by a few powerful families.
Mr. Morales inhabits two personas: one as a cynical political opportunist, the other as indigenous hero. He rose to prominence as head of a federation of cocalero unions, and since then has become a powerful player, almost winning the country's presidency in 2002. The United States has long accused him of connections with drug traffickers, and questions loom over the source of his personal wealth and how he funded his new party. But European politicians and the United Nations have always revered him; in 1995, groups such as the Green Party even nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
"He has far more allies among leftist Europe and America than among average Bolivians," Ms. Windle said.
Coca-leaf farming is still an attractive trade for Bolivians. Bolivia is the world's third-largest cocaine producer, and despite a U.S.-backed program to destroy almost 20,000 acres of coca crops last year, coca-leaf cultivation increased 6 percent.
Nonetheless, it is a myth that Bolivia's Indians have grown coca leaf on a large scale for centuries. While they have historically chewed coca leaves to combat complaints such as altitude sickness, widespread coca cultivation did not take off until demand for cocaine skyrocketed in the 1970s. Much of the growth has been in the central Chapare region, where the coca is too bitter to chew and instead bolsters cocaine production. Dogged farmers, well adjusted to drug revenues, refuse to quit; when Bolivian authorities destroy their crops, they just find other acres to plant.
"The bottom line is that coca wasn't a food crop and so had minimal impact until it was turned into cocaine," Ms. Windle said. "Few cocaleros ever grew it until it was already illegal. That it pays far more than legitimate food crops is based entirely on an artificial and criminal economy. Unlike potatoes or coffee, it retains its current value only so long as the drug flow is continued." With such enticing incentives, coaxing cocaleros into growing other crops has been arduous.
And with Mr. Morales and other radical socialists leading the charge, farmers have a reason to dig in their heels. Now the fight against coca eradication has morphed into an epic class struggle. Farmers view the United States as a bully seeking to rob their livelihood. Mr. Morales himself has been known as "Senor Coca." In the 1990s his signature cry was, "Long live coca! Death to the gringos!"
In all, the narcotics trade gets a boost from the instability-and in the long term, from little economic development. Meanwhile, Bolivia's mostly Indian population of Quechuas and Aymaras, however, have legitimate grievances. The Andean nation is the poorest in South America, with a Hispanic elite that has ruled for centuries, controlling the majority of the land and the government. Corruption is endemic, with an arcane legal system resembling the Napoleonic code. Members of government, for example, are immune from prosecution.
The problem is many Indians advocate "concentrated power and less freedom," said Stephen Johnson, a Heritage Foundation expert. "On the other hand, the lowland elites understand property rights but they don't want to talk to the Indians. As long as that's the case, they're headed for civil war."
Still, some Indians disagree with Mr. Morales and his fellow leaders, but find themselves stuck: "They don't have anything else to cling to," Mr. Johnson said. "What really needs to happen is for the indigenous community to come up with moderate leaders. They have them but they don't have the backing radical leaders do."
Whether civil war will ignite is the biggest question facing Bolivia. The deepest worry for the United States is if a civil war turns into an international conflict, with Venezuela and Cuba sending troops and support to Bolivia's leftists. Whatever the outcome, the country's radicals are on the ascendancy for the first time in its history, and they are making the most of it.
The nation has had some 200 governments since its founding in 1825. In his 19-month tenure alone, Mr. Mesa weathered about 820 protests. The country has a knack for surviving turmoil, but the latest round may prove too much.