One country bent on change

Despite its name, La Paz is rarely peaceful these days. The crescendo of protest that has paralysed Bolivia for most of the past month and forced the resignation of President Carlos Mesa has been christened the "second gas war", linking the events to a more violent bout of disorder in 2003 which left scores of dead on the streets. Barely a week has passed quietly since then, and the issue of who should benefit from the exploitation of the country's natural resources remains as explosive as ever.

In the past two years the formidable alliance of peasants, miners, students, teachers and unionists that represents Bolivia's indigenous majority has become a well-honed extra-political force capable of shutting down the nation's economic and legislative life at will. From their power base in El Alto, a vast open wound of poverty and disaffection that borders La Paz, the protesters have employed roadblocks, strikes and rioting to turn the capital into "a defenceless city taken hostage", according to La Razon newspaper.

The trigger for the latest unrest was the introduction of a law raising the amount of tax paid by energy companies on gas exports. The protesters insist that the measure doesn't go far enough and demand that the country's $250bn reserves be nationalised. But gas is merely one issue among the many which have brought South America's poorest nation to the threshold of revolution. Since the 1980s, the Bolivian economy has been ravaged by free-market monetarism. The US has portrayed Bolivia as the success story of its war on drugs; yet the real consequence of the destruction of coca crops has been to radicalise thousands of subsistence farmers who see no reason why decadent western forces should prevent the cultivation of a traditional Inca plant. Meanwhile, a lingering racism continues to drive the division between the privileged descendants of Bolivia's colonial settlers and their native fellow countrymen.

The man with most to gain from the current situation appears to be Evo Morales, the leader of Bolivia's main socialist opposition. The former cocalero, who galvanised his fellow farmers in their opposition to coca eradication, is the best-respected politician on the left and finished a close second in the 2002 presidential election. He has also benefited from the patronage of President Chavez of Venezuela, even appearing on his weekly television show IAlo, Presidente! this year.

Morales has been careful not to say anything that would damage his democratic credentials, but he has already flexed his muscles by ensuring the appointment of the Supreme Court justice Eduardo RodrIguez, the protesters' choice for interim president, over the better constitutional claims of the leaders of Bolivia's two congressional chambers, and by laying down the condition that elections be held before the end of the year.

Yet there is little doubt that, should he be elected, Morales would seek a radical redistribution of political power. His goal is "the refounding of Bolivia and the transformation of the economic and political system. We want a new constitution in the hands of the Bolivian people."

While Mesa's departure appears to have defused the immediate crisis, all the signs are that Bolivia is marching irrepressibly leftward, and that the current order may be breathing its last gasp in the rarefied Andean air.