February 13, 2004
Center for International Policy
In November 2002, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a pro-business, pro-U.S. figure known by his nickname “Goni,” paid a visit to the White House. The two presidents discussed Bolivia’s U.S.-supported program of military and police-led eradication of coca, the plant used to make cocaine.
Goni was worried about the eradication program’s economic impact. Without a $150 million boost in emergency aid to cushion the blow to thousands of coca-growing families, Goni told Bush, “I may be back here in a year, this time seeking political asylum.”
President Bush was reportedly amused. According to The New York Times, Bush “told his visitor that all heads of state had tough problems and wished him good luck.” 
Goni’s prophecy turned out to be right on target. In October 2003, eleven months after being sent back to La Paz empty-handed, a month of escalating protests forced him to take a one-way journey to Miami. The demonstrations, blockades and other unrest, which met with a violent reaction from Goni’s security forces, were sparked by plans to build a natural-gas pipeline from landlocked Bolivia to the Chilean port of Mejillones (which belonged to Bolivia until a 19th-century war).
The protests soon became an outlet for expressing a variety of pent-up grievances against the government. These, the Andean Information Network’s Katherine Ledebur notes, included “demands for better wages, reform of anti-drug legislation, rejection of a law imposing prison terms for people participating in road blockades, and repudiation of the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).”  Anti-pipeline and anti-globalization sentiment were only part of a larger set of demands; Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
Indifference to the unpopular president’s predicament cost the U.S. government one of its strongest allies in the Andean region. However, Goni’s vice president and immediate successor, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, has assured Bush administration officials that Bolivia will continue the U.S.-mandated coca eradication program.
Mesa’s days could be numbered, though; renewed protests may be imminent. As the former journalist and political unknown came into office, leaders of the September-October protests announced that they would grant him 90 days to heed their demands. That period has now expired. “More than 100 days have passed and there are no signs of change,” radical labor leader Roberto de la Cruz recently argued. “After 100 days we can say he is the face of neo-colonization, he has shown continuity”with the Sánchez government. 
The same forces that brought down his predecessor will soon engulf Mesa unless La Paz and Washington change course.