Breakdown in the Andes

Courtesy Reuters


Twice in recent months, the historically troubled but chronically neglected nations of the "southern crescent" of the Andes-Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia-have made international headlines. First, in April, an angry mob set on the mayor of Ilave, a small city in Peru's impoverished highlands, and lynched him for corruption. Two months later, the same fate befell the mayor of a town in the Bolivian high plains: he was publicly lynched and his body set on fire, also for alleged misuse of public funds.

With a drug-fueled armed conflict raging in Colombia and a political crisis plaguing oil-rich Venezuela, developments in the southern Andes fall under the radar of most U.S. policymakers and outside observers. The recent autos-da-fé, however, should serve as reminders of the region's turbulent past and warnings of a possible return to violence and instability in the near future. Washington has responded to the prospect of renewed turbulence with a mix of indifference and fatalism: indifference because Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia are considered largely unimportant to U.S. interests; fatalism because all too many view them as hopeless anyway.

And indeed, there is much to worry about in all three cases-broken nations, with imminent political crises and other significant problems in need of urgent attention. They are all still struggling to become coherent, well-functioning states. The social, ethnic, and geographic divides that predate their founding continue to widen, and recent changes have created a profound and unsustainable gulf between the political sphere and the rest of society.

The clearest sign of political instability is the desperation of the region's leaders. In the past five years, public outrage-stemming from some combination of unacceptable corruption, faltering economic reforms, and deepening social distress, and inflamed by opposition demagogues-has unseated a president in each of the three nations. Today, the political survival of Peru's Alejandro Toledo, Ecuador's Lucio Gutiérrez, and Bolivia's Carlos Mesa is similarly in doubt. All three lack any prior experience in elected office, and public

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