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Bolivia Winds Up Presidential Campaign

Once South America's most unstable country, it now celebrates 11 years of democracy

THE streets of La Paz are crowded with cars, their occupants waving banners, blowing horns, and scattering leaflets calling for an end to corruption and a vote for "Goni," Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, one of Bolivia's presidential candidates.

Supporters of his chief rival, Gen. Hugo Banzer Saurez, stand along the sidewalks whistling, waving their fists in defiance, and shouting "Banzer, Banzer."

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Such political displays are commonplace during this campaign in what has historically been South America's poorest and most unstable country. On June 6th, Bolivia will celebrate 11 years of democracy. Voters will elect a new president from 14 candidates campaigning mainly on economic and anticorruption issues.

"These will be the most open, honest, and transparent elections Bolivia has ever had," says Charles Bowers, United States Ambassador to Bolivia. "They've had chaos and massive human rights abuses. They don't want that anymore."

Bolivia's Constitution requires a candidate to garner more than 50 percent of the vote. None of the 14 candidates is expected to reach that mark, however, which means that Congress will probably have to decide who becomes president.

In 1989, Mr. Sanchez de Lozada won the popular vote, but was deprived of the presidency when no candidate received the required 50 percent, and the contest was decided by Congress. General Banzer, who came in second, agreed to support the left-leaning Jaime Paz Zamora, even though he came in third.

Sanchez de Lozada is a wealthy mining executive. His running mate is Victor Hugo Cardenas, a leader in the indigenous culture movement.

General Banzer is a former dictator who has joined forces with Oscar Zamora, a former Marxist guerrilla.

"It's significant because it shows how democracy has been consolidated," says Peter McFarren, a Bolivian publisher and journalist. "You have an ex-dictator who is now an avowed democrat, who is now running with a former guerrilla he persecuted. That is quite an event."

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A third popular contender is Max Fernandez, who in 10 years rose from truck driver to owner of Bolivia's largest beer brewery. His campaign has had to fend off allegations of ties to drug traffickers, in part because of Mr. Fernandez's rapid accumulation of wealth.

To varying degrees, the candidates support the current economic policies that were put in place in 1985, when Bolivia's economy collapsed under raging inflation that peaked at 24,000 percent.

Almost 30,000 public employees were fired, the tax code was reformed, and foreign investment rules were liberalized. It was the first fiscal austerity program in Latin America, and it has kept inflation under 20 percent since 1987.

In 1992, Bolivia's gross domestic product grew at a rate of 3.4 percent, while the population of 6.3 million increased at 2.2 percent. Some analysts contend the stability has improved the quality of life, because inflation no longer eats away at their incomes.

But others charge the tough austerity program has stripped health and education systems and created a subculture of the "semi-employed." Thousands of peasants pack the streets, some selling oranges and apples, most hawking foreign perfume, electronic gadgets, and watches. Some of the wares are counterfeit, and none bear official stamps showing an import tax has been paid.

In Bolivia's countryside, subsistence farming remains the predominant way of life. Most farmers in the high plateau herd sheep or llamas and grow only enough to feed themselves.

A recent study by the International Fund for Agricultural Development found that 97 percent of the rural population lives below the poverty level.

"There's just too much corruption," says Alceada Alvear, a government employee who was standing in line waiting to buy her ration of kerosene. "This is a country rich in resources. It makes no sense that there's no kerosene."

Weeding out corruption is the other main issue in this campaign, as it was in 1989, when current President Zamora took office (Bolivia's Constitution prevents a candidate from running for successive terms).

His administration has been praised for codifying the many economic reforms that were enacted between 1985 and 1987 by presidential decrees. But it has also been criticized for failing to move ahead with reforms of its own.

Corruption reportedly remains rampant in the public sector. The reform of the judicial system has been criticized as inadequate, and few publicly owned companies have been privatized as originally proposed.

The two major candidates stop short of calling for the privatization of Bolivia's major state-owned enterprises, but they do propose to open them to foreign investment. Sanchez de Lozada, who was one of the architects of the 1985 economic reforms, would allow foreigners to buy up to 49 percent of Bolivian mineral, oil, and telecommunications companies. Banzer is proposing the "capitalization" of public firms, which would allow for a less well-defined type of investment. Fernandez would sell only unproduc tive companies.

Analysts say Bolivia's inadequate infrastructure, rough terrain, and poor educational system are also barriers to investment. But with a renewed political will on the executive level, many believe the country's considerable reserves of minerals, hydrocarbons, and natural gas can be tapped. They already make up 65 percent of the country's $927 million in exports.

As South America's poorest nation and the world's second largest producer of coca, Bolivia has attracted high levels of foreign interest.

Roughly 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product comes from foreign aid, a combination of direct financial assistance, antinarcotic aid, and development projects.

The aid has created both resentment of foreign interference and a high level of economic and environmental awareness.

Regardless of who wins the June 6 elections, Sanchez de Lozada is calling on the lawmakers to respect the will of the people and elect whomever garners the most votes in the popular election.

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