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."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Reporters' Notebook

Round-up of recent events

We haven't posted many items lately both because there haven't been that many earth-shaking events, and the things of possible interest that have occurred have tended to be in other cities where we haven't had direct knowledge. (Our information comes from news accounts.) But here are some of the recent happenings that are worth noting at least in passing.
US Embassy threatened by mob
A large angry crown consisting mostly of people from El Alto, a large city located close by La Paz and a stronghold of support for President Morales, attempted to storm the US Embassy in La Paz earlier in June.
Police prevented this with tear gas and riot gear, but it was a reportedly a close call.
The crowd was said to be protesting the granting of political asylum in the United States to the former defense minister of Bolivia, who was blamed for deaths that occurred during riots when Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was president, before he was driven from office in 2004.
The US ambassador, Philip Goldberg, was recalled to Washington for consultations shortly after the attack on the embassy.
Morales' travel in country curtailed
Anti-Morales protestors took control of the airport in Tarija and forestalled a planned presidential visit to that city June 17. The president was coming to campaign against the "autonomia" referendum that will take place Sunday (June 22), and to announce public works projects that would benefit his adherents in that department.
It was the latest in a series of canceled presidential visits. He was a no-show at a bridge dedication outside the city of Santa Cruz earlier this month (June), and has now made three unsuccessful efforts to land at the airport in Sucre to visit supporters in the department of Chuquisaca, of which Sucre is the capital.
During the referendum on autonomia in Beni a government minister, also on a mission to announce public works projects, was prevented from landing at an airport in that department by protestors.
Nationalizations: a phone company and four oil companies
President Evo Morales celebrated May Day (May 1) by announcing the the government would take over a controlling stake in Entel, a telephone company, and four oil companies.
Entel was once a government-controlled monopoly providing phone service to the entire country, but was privatized in the 1990s and now is one of several companies offering cell phone and long distance services. President Morales said the takeover would result in improved phone service in rural areas.
The four oil companies in which Morales demanded a controlling stake for the government are Andina, a subsidiary of the Spanish oil company Repsol; Chaco, a subsidiary of BP; CLHB, a Bolivian company that handles the delivery of petroleum products; and Transredes, the pipeline company in which Ashmore Energy International had a major interest.
Repsol and BP worked out arrangments with the Bolivia government under which they will continue as minority shareholders. The government did not reach a similar agreement with Ashmore, and, in effect, confiscated its stake. President Morales accused Transredes of conspiring against his government, but didn't offer any list of overt acts.
Ashmore's subsidiary that holds the shares in Transredes, and the Italian phone company that had held a controlling stake in Entel, have both said they will take their cases to international arbitration.
The curious case of Roberth Lenin Sandoval Lopez
The arrest in Sucre and subsequent release in El Alto early in June of Roberth Lenin Sandoval Lopez was both chilling and, ultimately, somewhat reassuring (at least for the moment).
Judging from his name, Sandoval was evidently a "pink diaper" baby from a leftist background. But he apparently had rejected his Marxist ideological inheritance, and had gone over to the other side, becoming a key aide to
the campesina woman who is running for prefect of the department of Chuquisaca against the candidate of President Morales party, MAS. He allegedly was also involved in organizing various local protests, including the one that prevented the president from visiting the city.
According to his wife, Sandoval was arrested early in the morning by six masked men who arrived in a white Cherokee SUV. (Shades of Central American "death squads.") The government later said he was arrested by uniformed law enforcement officers and taken away in normal a police vehicle.
Whatever the circumstances of his arrest, by nightfall Lopez was in El
Alto, the MAS stronghold located next to La Paz, in police custody, and charged with a wide variety of offenses including terrorism, sedition, seduction of troops, abuse of the people's rights, incitement to commit crimes, and, for good measure, murder. The murder charge was interesting since no one was killed in the contretemps he was accused of fomenting.
The next day the nation was universally shocked when a judge in El Alto freed Sandoval and threw out the charges against him.
The types of reaction, however, differed widely. The residents of El Alto were livid, and promptly declared a 24-hour general strike along with other protests. Sandolval was able to escape the mob outside the courtroom only by disguising himself as a policeman.
Most other Bolivians probably emitted a silent sigh of relief and amazement that some semblance of a rule of law seemed still prevailed in the country, though it was widely assumed that the judge's days in office are probably numbered.
Price controls on chicken, eggs, beef
The central government announced price controls on chicken, eggs, and beef in mid-June that would reduce current prices on the market by about a third.
These controls are similar to those imposed in Venezuela by President Hugo Chavez, an ally of Bolivian President Evo Morales.
In Venezuela the price controls have resulted in scarcities, as farmers have refused to send their products to market at prices they say gives them insifficient return for the work and investment required.
As of our last trip to the supermarket, the new prices were not in effect, and supplies continued to be abundant. Chicken currently costs about $2 a kilo, or 91 cents a pound.

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