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U.S. Envoy Criticized in Messy Aftermath of Bolivian Vote

July 06, 2002|HECTOR TOBAR and ANDREW ENEVER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LA PAZ, Bolivia — The election to pick this Andean nation's next president has devolved into a morass of accusations and conspiracy theories, with an American diplomat and a former coca farmer at the center of the controversy.

Did U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha shape the outcome of the election by publicly attacking a leftist candidate who is critical of U.S. foreign policy? Three of the top four vote-getters in Sunday's election seem to think so.

After six days of vote counting, nearly complete official returns Friday left the race a virtual three-way tie. Bolivia's Congress will meet Aug. 6 to choose the next president from the top two vote-getters.

Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the center-right candidate who served as president from 1993 to 1997, appeared likely to win, despite having garnered just 22.5% of the vote as of Friday evening.

But Evo Morales, the Aymara Indian and former coca farmer who founded the Movement Toward Socialism, could also be a big winner. Long an opponent of U.S.-backed efforts to eliminate the farming of coca leaves--used, among other things, to make cocaine--Morales is now poised to become the leader of the largest opposition party in Congress.

All 157 seats in both houses of Congress were at stake in the election. Morales' party won seven seats in the 27-member Senate and 26 seats in the 130-member Chamber of Deputies, making the Movement Toward Socialism the second-largest party in both houses of Congress, behind the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, or MNR, of Sanchez de Lozada.

"I am happy. There is enormous satisfaction, above all for the people, the people who are discriminated against," said Morales, best known for organizing coca farmers in the region around Cochabamba in central Bolivia. "The people have voted against any further eradication of coca, not only in Cochabamba but in all Bolivia."

Morales and his followers say that coca is a traditional crop used for home remedies and that the farmers who grow it would go broke if forced to grow something else. Most analysts here say support for Morales grew--from 4% in polls earlier this year to 20.8% in Sunday's election--thanks in large measure to Rocha's repeated attacks on the coca growers.

Just days before the vote, Rocha suggested that a Morales victory would mean the end of U.S. aid.

"The Bolivian electorate must consider the consequences of choosing leaders somehow connected with drug trafficking and terrorism," he said in a speech in the rural region of Chapare on June 26.

To many, Morales became a symbol of national honor in the face of "Yankee imperialism."

Now, his strong showing has thrown the political process into turmoil. The leaders of all the major parties have said they would not join a coalition government with Morales. But leaders of those same parties do not seem keen to make a deal with Sanchez de Lozada and the MNR either.

On Thursday, spokesmen for two major parties claimed that the U.S. ambassador's statements were part of a plan to help Sanchez de Lozada win. The ambassador, the argument went, attacked Morales to divert votes from more centrist candidates, including the second-place finisher, Manfred Reyes Villa, the mayor of Cochabamba, who received 20.9% of the vote.

Victor Gutierrez, a spokesman for Reyes Villa, claimed the ambassador's statements had caused a 10% shift of votes to Morales, costing Reyes Villa a clear victory. Reyes Villa boycotted a July 4 party at the American Embassy in protest. Jaime Paz Zamora, of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, which finished fourth, called the ambassador's statements "a form of electoral terrorism."

Morales has said that his party will not ally itself with any of the major candidates and that his block of deputies and senators will form an alternative legislature that will rule "from the street."

Morales is likely to find allies in at least one other party that made strong gains in the election. The Aymara-Quechua Indian coalition led by Felipe Quispe is projected to take eight seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

Quispe has suggested that Bolivia's impoverished Indian population might soon launch an insurrection against a government that continues to be dominated by descendants of Europeans.

*

Staff writer Hector Tobar reported from Buenos Aires and special correspondent Enever from La Paz.

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