THIS MONTH, the World Bank issued a report on inequality in Latin America. Among its findings, the study offered this snapshot of Bolivia: The poorest 10 percent of the country's 9 million people earned 0.3 percent of total per capita income in 1999, while the richest 10 percent received 42.3 percent.
That disparity lies at the heart of the recent mass protests by Bolivia's indigenous poor that led to the forced resignation last week of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. A proposal to export natural gas to the United States and Mexico via Chile ignited the street demonstrations that brought thousands to the capital. But the perceived loss of yet another natural resource to outsiders was symptomatic of the greater issue - the failure of nearly two decades of democratic and economic reforms to improve the standard of living of Bolivia's masses.
The resignation of Mr. Sanchez de Lozada, a former mining executive who was raised in the United States, is the latest public indicator of Latin American discontent with pro-market reforms and democratization promoted by the United States. Venezuela's president, a friend of Cuba's Fidel Castro, survived an attempt to oust him from office by the country's powerful business interests. Brazilians elected as their president a trade unionist who guaranteed his fellow citizens three meals a day by the end of his term. Argentina's new president is an outspoken critic of neo-liberalism and free trade.
The Bush administration continually finds itself on the wrong side of the populist movements under way in Latin America. Its pro-democracy, free-trade, anti-drug policies collided head on with the concerns of the Bolivian protesters.
Evo Morales, a former presidential candidate and leader of the protest demonstrations, vigorously opposed U.S.-sponsored coca eradication programs as head of the coca growers. But when Mr. Sanchez de Lozada reportedly pressed Washington for more economic aid to encourage coca growers to give up the lucrative crop, the administration refused.
In Bolivia, as elsewhere, the United States can't expect democracy to thrive and succeed if the majority of Latin Americans don't share in the social, economic and political benefits of democratization. Six out of 10 Bolivians are poor. The country's new president, Carlos Mesa, recognized the need to give average citizens a greater voice in the decisions of the day. He has promised a referendum on the natural gas deal, a constituent assembly to discuss political change, and new elections. But it's unlikely that the Bush administration will invigorate U.S. policy in Latin America, with Iraq consuming its interest and an election year coming soon. The votes just aren't there.