This weblog was created to provide a fuller and more accurate picture of the current situation in Bolivia. Our principal effort to try to pull things together and place them in proper perspective is the penultimate post below, titled "Main Story."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A new new Constitution

New Day Dawning?
Cautious optimism seeps across Bolivia

A remarkable and quite unexpected change has taken place in the political landscape of Bolivia in the last week, resulting mainly from the startlingly moderate version of the proposed new Constitution put forward by the national Congress last Monday. The Congress was threatened by a group of thousands of campesinos marching from various parts of the country to “cerco” or surround the Congress until they passed the constitution and gave Congress a deadline of just a few days to do finish their work. And finish quickly they did.
The result is that there were compromises on both sides, Surprisingly, President Morales gave in on the issue of being able to be reelected two more times and settled with a provision that allowed him one more term, and made a number of other concessions.
A national referendum on the constitution has been set for next Jan. 25, and there are indications that some groups, such as the Comite Pro Tarija, and some political leaders that have been militantly pro-“autonomia” will support its passage.
On the other hand there is a hard-core fringe of leftists and indigenous leaders who accuse President Morales of having sold out. “This is not the Constitution we approved,” said one such leader who had participated in drafting the prior version in Oruro when it was approved under armed guard with only the MAS party constitutional convention delegates present.. He added, “This looks like the Constitution of PODEMOS,” the principal opposition party to the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party headed by President Morales.
The new prefect of Oruro, who was recently appointed by President Morales, has said he will oppose the Constitution too.
Opposites oppose newest Constitution.
Opposites oppose
The civic leaders of Santa Cruz who reflect the opposite end of the political spectrum, have called for a national effort to vote NO on the proposed constitution. However, by week’s end the Cruceño leaders were still having a hard time articulating a compelling case against the reviswed version of the constitution.
The Constitution in its new form or its old form is no simple document like the US Constitution. It goes on for scores of pages of fine print Spanish legalese, and the devil or divinity of the document has always been in the details. It may be weeks before constitutional scholars and others are able to comb completely through the thickets of obscure verbiage to find any lurking snakes.
However, a first reading indicates that the major areas of concern have been either removed or rectified to a considerable degree in the more than 100 changes that were made. Private property is specifically guaranteed, as is the right of parents to send their children to private schools. (Both of these had been matters of concern in regard to the previous version.)
The unicameral Congress that many considered way for the MAS party to take total control of the Congress much less just poor political science, has been replaced with a two-chamber legislative branch that will have a single name. The set-asides for various administrative and other bodies guaranteeing that 40 percent of the members be pure-blooded Indians are out.
Crash course for Morales?
Public officials must, however, know at least two languages. This could conceivably pose a problem for many office-seekers including President Morales who reportedly speaks only Spanish, and knows no Indian language. Presumably this can be fixed with a fast immersion course. The exact level of fluency required, in any event, is not specified.
Certain nettlesome questions such as far-reaching land reform are omitted from the Constitution and left for future governments to hash out, though there are limits to how much land one can own.
Perhaps most importantly, the newly proposed Constitution recognizes a limited form of autonomia for the departments (states) as well as for indigenous areas, which will have their own elected governors and legislatures with certain designated powers in their regions.
About 30% of autonomia okayed
Juan Carlos Urenda, the architect of autonomia and the man who wrote the “estatutos autonomias” approved by referenda in four of Bolivia’s nine departments, estimates that only 30 percent of the powers allocated to the department in those estatutos are permitted under the new Constitution. Urenda argues that this is not enough, but others, such as the civic leaders of Tarija, who had been in the vanguard of the autonomia movement, think it’s a lot better to have 30 percent than the zero percent permitted under the previous proposal It could be considered as a solid first step in developing a federalist system and they´ll take it, thank you.
In any event many neutral observers had thought that the statutes included some items of dubious wisdom, such as giving autonomous departments the authority to conclude treaties with foreign governments without the approval of the national government.
Moreover, many observers thought that the exact details of the sharing of power between the national and departmental governments did not lend themselves to specific delineation in a constitution, but could only be worked out in a gradual process of negotiation, trial and error, and repeated tests of strength.
The Constitution does provide for centralized authority in the country, and would allow the imposition of socialist schemes to, basically, spread the wealth. So do most other Constitutions, including the US Constitution, if those are the policies advocated by the country’s elected authorities The difference, of course, is that Bolivia’s socialist president is more likely to take that centralized authority, as can be seen in his frequent use of governing by decree and skirting judicial processes for opponents who are in jail without being legally charged.
The threat of re-election
One issue that opponents of the new proposed constitution have latched onto is the provision allowing the president and vice president to be re-elected to a second five year term Morales and Garcia Linera and supporters had wanted that provision to be applied in a way such that it would allow them to have two more five-year terms. In a crucial compromise, this provision will not apply to the first president elected under the new constitution, who everyone presumes will be President Morales. If he is elected in an election in 2009, as is expected if the constitution passes, he would be able to remain in office until 2014 not 2019.
The issue of re-election in Latin America is a treacherous one. Many times re-election has been tantamount to lifetime appointment since Latin American electorates often seem to be so malleable to corruption, intimidation, patronage, and graft. However, allowing a second re-election seems to work fairly well in other countries, such as, for instance, the United States.
As has been the case in Venezuela, it is hard to oust a president who is democratically elected, but after elected, acts in many ways like a dictator and uses all types of methods – legal or not legal- to assure his reelection. Or, the administration, after solidifying power could urge another constitutional amendment to allow for indefinite reelection.
Confession of weakness
The objection to the re-election provision is also in large part a confession of weakness on the part of the opposition to President Morales. Here we are, almost three years into the Morales Era, and the opposition is nowhere close to being united and having leaders who could represent an alternative to Morales. The opposition party, PODEMOS, seems to be falling apart and due to the ill-advised recall referendum held in August, the opposition lost two of its five prefects. There is no apparent leader to act as a counter balance to Morales. The opposition thus far has done only a fair job of explaining what it is against, and as President Morales demonstrated in the recent recall referendum that if Bolivians are asked to vote si or no on him, a big majority will vote si.
“Autonomia,” the banner under which the opposition has gathered, remains a gossamer political precept whose precise meaning very few seem to be able to express in concrete terms. The most prevelant thought about what autonomia means seems to be something akin to the federalist system in Spain.
Autonomia is not "separatism"
President Morales, in a turn-around on some of his provocative oratory, this week took back what he had said about autonomia being a code word for “separatism,” but with even that misleading definition gone, the concept of autonomia seems even more diaphanous, and the opposition looks more and more like the Key Stone Cops. cops.
Passage of time is needed to see how many of these issues are going to be worked out (if they are). The major fact of the moment is the dramatic change in the mood of the country, particularly the city of Santa Cruz. In two weeks the prevailing sentiment has gone from expecting Armageddon any day now, probably in the form of a bloody shootout between Cruceños protecting their families and homes against the onslaught of an armed column of campesinos marching on the city to maim and kill, at the orders of the president.
Just 10 days ago the President was promising that the proposed Constitution would be passed, without even a comma changed, “come hell or high water.” The campesinos encamped in a “Woodstock Andina” in La Paz, it was feared, would blockade the Congress, preventing participation of non-MAS congresspersons, and effectively ending yje concept of representative democracy in the country.
Peace in our time?
Now the mood is much more sanguine. Friends who only weeks ago were talking about the inevitability of civil war, have reinstated previously canceled vacation plans. People we know were sitting around on back porches on a sunny afternoon yesterday explaining to one another how they always knew this was going to happen. (The most popular explanation for the sudden rapprochement: President Morales feels he needs a period of calm to insure his orderly re-election.)
The modified (and mollifying) Constitution is not the only sign that peace may be at hand (at least for a while). The government this week canceled bans on the export of soy and corn, which had been filling silos in eastern Bolivia to the bursting point. The agriculturalists are unhappy to have missed the high prices for their products that were in place until the current international financial crisis broke, but pleased to be back in business. (The government had claimed the export bans were in effect to reduce food prices, but it was widely believed that the bans were mainly an effort to punish the agricultural interests in the eastern plains, particularly Santa Cruz – the autonomistas.)
The long dormant Supreme Court has started making noises about giving jailed Pando prefect Leopoldo Fernandez a trial, and one that would take place in pro-autonomia Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia where the Supreme Court is located, rather than in MAS-controlled La Paz. where Fernandez is being held.
Gas at last?
The government also claims it is at long last taking steps to end the shortages of diesel, gasoline, propane and other petroleum products facing Bolivians daily, but there are no apparent signs of relief yet. Some had thought that the shortages, occurring most often in autonomista areas, were a type of castigation but it appears, however, to be more ineptitude than planned punishment
The national pipeline company, formerly known as Transredes, appears to have been placed firmly in the hands of hacks and boodlers in its most recent wholesale change of personnel, where the Board of Directors decided that they wanted to become management and appointed themselves to the executive positions of President, Vice-president, etc. while many of them still remain on the Board.
The newest government appointee to the embattled national oil company board is an indigenous activist who cheerfully admits he doesn’t know nothin’ about pumpin´ no gas. He explains that he’s there to deal with the “social” rather than the “technical” aspects of the oil and gas business, but this is at a time when the oil company, falling behind on all fronts, is in desperate need of people who know at least whether or not pipelines should gurgle.
In short, the situation while more hopeful overall, remains confused and conflicted.
A friend reminds us that, as he has always said, the time horizon in Bolivia is never more than six months. But for now the next six months are looking pretty good.(if one discounts the dark cloud on the horizon presaging a global recession).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Racist comments complicate things

The Melgar Case Revisited

Jorge Melgar Quette, the Riberalta televisión commentator arrested in the middle of the night by hooded men last week, is still in jail and likely to remain there for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, a separate set of controversies has arisen around him related to racist and inflammatory statements made by him
At the time we first wrote about Melgar we were not aware, or at least no fully aware, of the nature of the statements he made, many of which we find shocking and objectionable, as do many others who might otherwise be inclined to rush to his defense.
Still, we think the case raises serious questions regarding freedom of speech and the rule of law in Bolivia, and deserves international attention.
What has Melgar said? To begin with, he has said that President Morales and various ministers of his government “should be shot” for their actions in arming and inciting to violence the campesinos involved in the so-called “Pando Massacre.”
While the government’s alleged actions in regard to the Pando Massacre are reprehensible as wekk as its repeated calls for indiscriminate armed attacks on, for example, the citizens of the city of Santa Cruz, give Melgar the opportunity to say he was just fighting fire with fire, we do not condone calls for assassination.
Beyond that, Melgar’s daily 15-minute broadcasts have often been laced with racist remarks against Indians, often mixed with profanity. A former editor of the editorial page at a leading Bolivian newspaper said, “I was appalled at the detention until I saw a recording of Mr. Melgar's hatemongering.”
What's a journalist, anyway?
Next there is the question of whether Melgar is, in fact, a journalist. One leading Bolivian journalist wrote to an international body that seeks to protect journalists saying of Melgar, “This person is NOT a journalist. He is a political activist who buys time on achannel in his region. The channel is the property of a leader of the opposition [to President Morales], He is not affiliated with any organization of journalists.”
These are true facts, but they in turn raise the question of when a journalist is a journalist. Does he or she need to be a member of an association of journalists? On this point, there is disagreement. In Bolivia, affiliation with professional and social organizations is seen as more important than it is in other countries such as the United States. . A columnist for a major La Paz newspaper and television commentator (who is more famous as an economist) says, “In Bolivia, erroneously, it is believed that a journalist is someone who has registered in the Association of Journalist, even though he may have 15 years of experience in journalism.”
Journalism is his crime
A man who is the former editor of two major newspapers in Bolivia says, “The majority of the news commentators in Bolivia are not credentialed journalists [“periodistas titulados”], but citizens exercising their right to free expression of opinions.”
Moreover, he adds, it is clear that Melgar was arrested for being a journalist. “Melgar has been detained for divulging a video of the Minister of the Presidency , Juan Ramon Quitana, urging the political lynching of Leopoldo Fernandez the Prefecto of Pando the day before the massacre, (saying that Fernandez would soon be sleeping with the worms) and also for revealing the testimony of the families of people who died saying the government was directly involved in the planning of the violent confrontation. The government contends that Melgar was arrested for being involved in the takeover of government buildings and the airport in Riberalta. However, he is so far the only ordinary citizen arrested and charged in connection with those acts. There is something special about Melgar, and its hard not to believe that it was his journalistic activities that caused him to be singled out.
Irregularities are troubling
His arrest, indeed, is disturbing on many levels other than freedom of expression. Even the former editorial page editor appalled by Melgar’s “hate-mongering” adds, “Nevertheless, I am worried at the downplaying of the fact that Mr. Melgar -- journalist or not -- was arrested/kidnapped in the small hours by hooded men. That goes expressly against the constitution and is a violation of Mr. Melgar's rights. It also confirms a dangerous trend of snapping opposition members from their regions and getting them hurriedly to La Paz, another serious legal irregularity.”
Yet another point needs to be made.Freedom of speech is only guaranteed when it also includes speech that shocks and disturbs. Otherwise the distinction between permissible and impermissible speech becomes too fine a line, too easily moved or stretched by governmental authorities.
Free speech often offends
We should not forget that in the United States the Constitutional guarantee of free speech has protected the pro-Nazi speeches of Father Charles Coughlin on the eve of World War II, and, more recently, the anti-Semitic hate-mongering of Gerald L. K. Smith.
Moreover, freedom of press has famously figured in cases that did not directly involve journalists. In the case of the New York Times vs. Sullivan, widely regarded as the most important decision ever made by the US Supreme Court in regard to freedom of the press, the text at issue was not a news story written by journalists. It was an advertisement paid for by civil rights activists.
Before we are inclined to dismiss Melgar as “an activist with a TV program,” let us reflect a little on where such thinking might lead us. Does Matt Drudge then become in a legal sense merely an “activist with a website?” Should we think of the late William F. Buckley as merely “an activist with a magazine?” And should such people be denied freedom of the press protection and due process of the law?
This is indeed a slippery slope.
And before we cast the intemperate Mr. Melgar into the outer darkness, we might think of another comment made by the economist-columnist: “It is painful what is happening in Bolivia. People every minute have more fear of writing something.”

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Human Rights Foundation Report on Bolivia

We thought it important to publish a summary of the recent report issued by the Human Rights Foundation about the political situation in Bolivia. For the actual report go to the HRF website shown after the following article.

The Human Rights Foundation released a 14-page report detailing the crisis that claimed 21 lives in the month of September of 2008, and left hundreds of people injured throughout Bolivia. The report was sent to Bolivian President Evo Morales with a letter outlining HRF’s concerns regarding the political violence and the repeated statements by the Bolivian head of state defending racial hatred, threatening the freedom of the press and inciting conflict.

“It is appalling that the president of a country that is a signatory to the majority of the world’s human rights treaties is literally calling on the people of his nation to choose between his political agenda and death,” said Thor Halvorssen, president of HRF. “Unfortunately, as long as the government’s official discourse continues to promote conflict and racial hatred between Bolivians, the human rights situation in Bolivia is going to continue to deteriorate,” he added.
The report criticizes Morales for repeatedly using terms such as “racists,” “fascists,” “separatists,” and “traitors” to describe the leaders of the opposition. The report states that Morales’ calls for supporters to “die” in “defense of the revolution” are in direct violation of article 13 of the American Convention of Human Rights, which prohibits any propaganda for war or racial hatred. Similarly, the report links a growingly belligerent discourse by the government as responsible for physical assaults against members of the press by supporters of the government.

According to the report, since the beginning of Morales’ presidential term in 2006, Bolivia has become the Latin American country with the second highest number of deaths due to political conflict—second only to Colombia, which has been engaged in an ongoing internal struggle with the terrorist organization FARC. The deaths and injuries on the 11th, 12th and 13th of September add up to the more than 40 deaths and thousands of injured as a consequence of the political violence which has spread since Morales took office.

HRF believes that political tensions will only be resolved through dialogue and by the categorical commitment, both by the Bolivian constitution as well as the recently approved local government statutes, to respect and improve the individual rights of all Bolivians regardless of their race, color, gender, language, religion, national or social origin, economic position, place of birth or any other social condition. HRF urges both the President of Bolivia and the governors of the country to operate within the framework of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights.

HRF is an international nonpartisan organization devoted to defending human rights in the Americas. It centers its work on the twin concepts of freedom of self-determination and freedom from tyranny. These ideals include the belief that all human beings have the rights to speak freely, to associate with those of like mind, and to leave and enter their countries. Individuals in a free society must be accorded equal treatment and due process under law, and must have the opportunity to participate in the governments of their countries; HRF’s ideals likewise find expression in the conviction that all human beings have the right to be free from arbitrary detainment or exile and from interference and coercion in matters of conscience. HRF’s International Council includes former prisoners of conscience Vladimir Bukovsky, Palden Gyatso, Armando Valladares, Ramón J. Velásquez, Elie Wiesel, and Harry Wu.

(From Human Rights Foundation:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ominous turn

Journalist arrested
for telling too much

In the off and on political crisis through which Bolivia is living, last week had seemed like an off week.
So little of import happened we were going to violate our rule of posting something each week -- until Monday, when thirty uniformed men with their faces covered broke into the home of a TV commentator in Riberalta, the capital of Beni.
According to news accounts, they beat the man up, ransacked the house, smashed the windows in his car, and spirited him off to La Paz, where he was charged with sedition, conspiracy, and possibly terrorism. (The accounts are unclear.)
Jorge Melgar Quette, who has had a fifteen-minute daily commentary program on a local television station for eight years, has unquestionably been a pain in the neck for the government in recent weeks.
Recorded Quintana's "worms" speech
It was he who recorded and made public inflammatory speeches made in the Department of Pando by the minister of the Government, Juan Ramon Quitana, calling for the death of Pando's elected governor, Leopoldo Fernandez, promising in Godfather-esque terms that the pro-autonomia governor would "lie with the worms." (Fernandez was arrested after the referendum and imprisoned without a trial or the prospect of one.)
Melgar had also reported that Quintana had been visiting this section of Pando, which adjoins Beni in northern Bolivia, three times a week during the recent recall referendum to stir up groups of indigenous people in the area.
It was in this area that the so-called "Pando Massacre" occurred when there was a shoot-out between supporters of President Evo Morales and supporters of autonomy. A still undetermined number of persons died. Martial law was declared, and Fernandez arrested.
Melgar's reporting, based on interviews with the families of people involved, and with people who had fled to Brazil, had also substantiated the reports that the pro-Morales contingent had been armed by a local functionary of President Morales' party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).
MAS demonstrators paid
Melgar's interviews also disclosed that the campesinos in the MAS group were being paid by the government.
Melgar's son, Percy, is a leader of the Union Juvenil of Riberalta, a sort of pro-autonomy proto-militia, which had a proment role in the takeover of government buildings and the airport by pro-autonomy demonstrators.
Percy Melgar told the press he thought the soldiers or police who arrested his father were also looking for him, but that he had not been at the family's house when the arrest squad broke in.
At least one other prominent advocate for autonomia in the city was reportedly in hiding after Melgar's arrest.
So it has come to this -- the imprisonment without trial of an elected opposition leader, and now the arrest of a hostile journalist.
The mask is off.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tension lurks below the surface

Bistro brawl shows restive mood

One of the difficulties in assessing the crisis level in Santa Cruz is the exquisite ordinariness of everyday life.
Yes, there are lines for diesel fuel, and disquieting headlines in the paper -- but there are diesel lines and disquieting headlines every year. Meanwhile, traffic continues to be horrendous, new construction is ubiquitous, the 12-screen movie theater and associated mall are packed, and the restaurants are full.
It was in one of those crowded restaurants that a huge brawl broke out last Saturday night demonstrating that only centimeters below the surface hot and dangerous currents are flowing. According to an account phoned in by alert reader Mary Bernasconi, who was dining with her family across the street from the fight, together with reports of another direct witness and newspaper accounts, here is what happened.
Embattled Morales supporter
Entrepreneur Salvador Ric, Santa Cruz' most conspicuous supporter of President Evo Morales, was at a bistro on Avenida Monseñor Rivero, which is Santa Cruz' modest response to Madrid's Prado or Rome's Via Veneto.
Ric, who owns the local Kia dealership and a chain of supermarkets and department stores among other enterprises, was a major funder of Morales' election campaign, and served in the cabinet as minister of public works for the first year of Morales' government. He resigned, but remained a Morales supporter.
An unidentified man approached Ric and his party and began berating Ric loudly for having brought Bolivia's current problems upon it. People from that restaurant and adjoining ones began to congregate around the table, and words became angrier. Ric's huge bodyguard took out a camera and began snapping pictures, causing some in the crowd to sieze and smash the camera.
The owner of a nearby cafe, a tiny woman with a large voice, now inserted herself into the situation. She and Ric had apparently had a previous altercation during which Ric had told her to take down her sreen-and-white "AUTONOMIA!" banner. She screamed insults at him, and finally hauled off and hit Ric in the face, while others in the crowd almost simultaneously began punching the bodyguard and knocked him down. The crowd had by now swelled to several hundred persons, including the waiters from the Bernasconi's restaurant (who had not run out to rescue Señor Ric -- quite the contrary).
Ric then retreated inside Fridolin, and, after a goodly portion of the crowd pushed in after him, went to the restaurant's upstairs office. Police were called. They arrived, dressed Ric in riot police gear, including helmet and shield, and expeditiously escorted him out of the building, adroitly ending the episode.
Talks break off
There were other developments in the country over the past week that may have lacked the drama of the restaurant brawl, but also pointed up the dangerous and rising level of tensions. The president and the prefects of the "autonomista" departments broke off talks without reaching any agreement. President Morales said he would now go to Congress and ask for a law setting up a referendum on his proposed Constitution.
The opposition -- a fragmented coalition without a clear leader -- said it would oppose this effort, and technically has the votes in the Senate to do this. However, in the past the President has been able to bring over enough votes to his side, by methods that can only be darkly hinted at, to get through measures he really wanted, like the new contracts forced on oil companies operating in the country.
Good news for Santa Cruz -- for now
The good news for Santa Cruz, at least in the short term, is that campesino groups allied with the President announced that they will march on La Paz this month to pressure the Congress, thereby apparently at least postponing their plans to march on Santa Cruz.
The next step for the opposition would presumably be to launch a campaign to defeat the proposed Constitution. Serious articles criticizing the constitution for its contents, rather than just its provenance, have started circulating. The major objection is that the Constitution sets aside 40 percent of the voting power in every public or quasi-public endeavor for certifiable indigenous persons.
Juan Carlos Urenda, a lawyer who is the foremost advocate of autonomia, wonders in his article why, if Bolivia is 70 percent indigenous as the government claims, such set-asides are needed. "Why not just stick with representative democracy?" he asks. He also raises the question of how, in this country where birth records are scanty or non-existent, anyone would be able to show that they were pure-blooded Indians all the way back to pre-Conquest times (a requirement to qualify for the set-asides).
Economic turblulence ahead?
Another factor here are some rapidly forming economic storm clouds, which included falling prices for tin, gas, and other commodities that Bolivia exports.
Also on the economic front, Bolivia also has its own potential credit mess resulting from the large number of adjustable rate home mortagages that have been taken out in recent years. Another potential economic problem area is the Boliviano, which the Bolivian central back has artificially strengthened against the dollar and other currencies in recent years.
Should the economy turn down in Bolivia, and the dollar continue to strengthen, there could be a "dam breaking" effect on the Boliviano, causing a rush to acquire dollars and triggering rapid inflation.
Finally, Bolivia has benefited in recent years from money sent back by Bolivians who emigrated to Spain. In fact such remittances were greater than all the outside private investment in the country. However, many of those emigrants are now returning because of the economic downturn in Spain.
Where will it all end? We think we'll go down to Monseñor Rivero, have a coffee and cake at Fridolin -- and think it over.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A quiet week

Talks continue, fears build
of looming confrontation

Not much of major importance has occurred over the past week, but there seems to have been a marked rise in concern over what may happen in the middle of October.
The negotiations in Cochbamba are continuing, with both sides saying they need more time, but hopes for a successful conclusion seem to be dimming.
Part of the reason has been the harsh rhetoric of President Evo Morales, who earlier this week declared that he would put into effect his proposed constitution "por las buenas o las malas," which translates as something pretty close to "come hell or high water."
The constitution is bitterly opposed by the five eastern departments that have voted for "autonomia" who dislike its increased centralization, its weakening of property rights, and its setting aside of political power for indigenous people, among other things.
But the talk from the would-be autonomous departments has not done much to pour oil on the troubled waters. Many people here noticed that Branko Marinkovic, head of the pro-autonomy Committee for Santa Cruz, was quoted in the International Herald-Tribune as saying that without international arbitration a bloody showdown was likely.
What has been more chilling for us has been the growing acceptance among people we know of the likelihood of a violent clash. People who just a couple of weeks ago were certain that "it won't happen here," reassuring us that Bolivians always go to the brink and then back off, now seem resigned to violence arising from another campesino march.
The stage has certainly been set. Leaders of the campesino groups allied with President Morales have said that if the talks in Cochabamba don't come to an agreement by October 13, campesinos will encircle and cut off that city.
If no agreement is forthcoming after that, they will march on Santa Cruz the 15th.
There are still no overt preparations for battle in the city, but many people say that they are underway covertly. We are thinking of going to Brazil or Peru for that mid-month period.
Meantime, Cruceños are discussing with great gusto three recent news stories that we cannot verify personally, but are definitely the talk of the town.
* Numerous news stories report that the two sisters of the highest ranking woman in President Morales Party, the Movement Toward Socialism, were arrested near Cochabama by police when 147 kilos of cocaine paste was found in their luxury SUV during a traffic stop. One of the sisters had a large wad of cash hidden in her underwear. The husband of one of the sisters was also arrested.
* One Caracas daily reports that six Venezuelan military personnel in civilian clothes were killed in the recent armed clash in Pando known as the Porvenir Massacre. The bodies of the Venezuelans, the paper said, had been airlifted back to a military base in Venezuela.
* The buzz on the Internet is an unsourced story, with pictures, reporting that President Morales' representative in Santa Cruz drives her kids to Collegio Aleman, one of the city's tonier prep schools, in a canary yellow Humvee, the most expensive SUV sold in Bolivia.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Another Bullet Dodged Dept.

STRIFE-TORN CITY? -- Cruceños cool off Wednesday, Santa Cruz Day, at one of the city's two aquatic parks. El Deber

Marchers threaten crisis,
then disappear -- sort of

All week long we have been meaning to post a story about the looming clash involving between besieged citizens of Santa Cruz and the columns of thousands of marching, machete-wielding, shotgun-brandishing campesinos who were ostensibly threatening to lay waste to the city when they got there.
We were just waiting for the pending cataclysm to take shape -- who would be doing what, when, where,why, and maybe how.
But it never happened. Things never coalesced. By yesterday afternoon the news was spreading that the marchers had decided not to storm the city after all. Some other day perhaps, but not today.
Stores that had begun boarding their windows earlier Tuesday began taking the boards down as evening fell, and the city seemed to give a blasé, can-you-beat-that? shrug of the shoulders to the
whole affair.

ARMED AND DANGEROUS --Scenes from the campesino march. OGLOBO

This was in keeping to an attude
maintained all week of studied
indifference to the affair on the part of most Cruceños, who, when asked about the possibility of a Gunfight-at-the-OK-Corral-type showdown within the city, dismissed it with a downward flip of the hand that implied, "It will never happen here."

This flies in the face of the fact that it has happened here. Truckloads of campesinos were trucked into Santa Cruz in the late 1950s when the same issue was in play, with Santa Cruz demanding its legislated portion of revenues from the country's petroleun industry. Although the Cruceños eventually got the payments restored that time, the invasion by the campesinos wrought all manner of mayhem, particularly in the outer regions of the city, where there were incidents of torture and killings. In earlier conversations many long-time Cruceños acknowledged a desire to extract revenge for those historic atrocities.
One did not, in fact, have to go that far back in Bolivian history to find an episode in which a city's political confrontations escalated to the scale of civil war. For two weeks in October 2005 something close to a state of war existed in La Paz as followers of Evo Morales, the current president, sought to drive one of his predecessors from office by shutting down the city. People who didn't want trouble stayed inside their houses.
In 2006 the city of Cochabamba was the scene of a city-wide fist-fight between pro-Morales and anti-Morales factions.
And this time the campesinos marching on Santa Cruz were clearly carrying shotguns, World War I mauser, cattle-killing .22s, and assorted other firearms. (See pictures.)

What -- us worry?
Nonetheless, the entire citizenry of Santa Cruz seemed to decide to turn the other cheek. While the Union Juvenile Cruceñista, a sort of proto-militia for the Santa Cruz government, was reportedly holding nightly meetings to examine possible responses to the marchers coming in on at least three different approaches, the UJC leaders didn't share their thoughts with the populace at large, and there were no messages from other civic leaders giving instructions for how to receive the marchers, or even noting that the marchers were on the way.
Foreigners, on the other hand, along with some more affluent Crcueños, were transfixed with fear, constantly asking one another where the marchers were, and how many hours march from the city they were. One student reported that her mother was "watching TV news 24 hours a day," and considering making a hasty exit from the country.

"I´ll bring my machete"
But far more typical was the reaction of my veterinarian. On Tuesday he had begun treating our horse for blood parasites, and said he would be over on Wednesday to start the next phase of treatment.
Wasn't he worried, I asked, about the possibility that the region might be engulfed in civil war be then?
"I´ll bring my machete," he said sardonically, as he climbed into his muddy red SUV.
Some people suggested that the outward indifference built on an understanding that if push had really come to shove, the people of Santa Cruz could turn out in overwhelming numbers. "There are a lot of guns in Santa Cruz," one American communications expert who has been in Bolivia for decades told me.

A different city today
I was also reminded that when the campesinos overran Santa Cruz in the 1950s, it was a tiny city of around 50,000 in which only the four streets around the central plaza were paved. Today it has a population of 1.5 million, and a lot more paved streets.
Also, the marchers would have been entering the city through, or past, districts that had voted for autonomia by as much as 90 percent to 10.
Anyway, the cloud seems to have passed. Negotiations between the autonomous governors and the national government are continuing, albeit fitfully, in Cochabamba. The word on the street is that we're probably safe for another month.
Gasoline is available again, along with propane and diesel in limited quatities. (There are often lines.)
Here's a list of what one cannot find at the supermarket, presumably as a result of the various blockades: Strawberries, peaches, the canned whipped cream that comes from New Zealand by way of Argentina, Dr. Pepper soda . . .and, well, that's all I noticed. Oh, and Betty Crocker Pancake Mix and Aunt Jemimah imitation maple syrup.

Boom in luxury condos?
In fact it would be hard to overstate the mood of normalcy with which the city is gripped at present. The cover of the real estate section today talks about a coming boom in luxury condominiums, which tend to be favored by refugees from La Paz. These are nice places with swimming pools and gyms, but not that expensive -- $55,000 for two bedrooms.
The big thing to do this past weekend (and again today, Wednesday, on Santa Cruz Day) is to go to the big trade fair -- Expocruz -- which runs through Friday. We were there Sunday when 41,000 people paid there way in, and it was packed to capacity. It was hard to walk down the midway because of the press of the populace.

Long lines for USA pavillion
There long lines in front of many pavillions, incuding the USA pavillion, which consists mostly of exhibits by export-import firms of products like double-door General Electric refrigerators, Hewlett Packard computers, and silicone breast implants. (You could pick them up and check the natural feel.) All were on sale with special Expocruz markdowns.
When one tired of the corporate attractions, including immense agricultural equipment with airconditioned cabs, there are the cows -- hundred of huge white and brown cattle that gave the impression of having been crossed with elephants.
Scattered throughout Expocruz were the stars of the show, the female presenters, or "azafatas" -- magificently beautiful women wearing fashions created by designers who had clearly been ordered to conserve material by using as little as possible.
The passageways were filled with the full array of Santa Cruz denizens -- oligarchs, Indians, mestizos, people of all shapes and colors, with kids in tow, happily eating ice cream and taking in the show. Pairs of policemen strolled throuygh the crowds. Constantly circulating trash trucks picked up the trash gathered by the seeming numberless crews of santiation workers in yellow and green uniforms.
All in all, the crowd scene seemed to offer a picture of another
possibility for Bolivia, one that may not be getting proper consideration at the Cochabamba talks.