While we were
on vacation . . .
The news didn't stop here in Bolivia while we were on holiday in the US. Here is a brief summary of what's happened in the past month, along with a preview of what may be ahead.
MAS defector wins in Chuquisaca
Savina Cuellar, a campesina woman who had been an adherent of President Evo Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party until she recently turned against the president, was elected prefect (governor) of the department (state) of Chuquisaca by a margin of 55 to 41 on June 29. Cuellar defeated a candidate backed by MAS and the president.
She has subsequently announced that Chuquisaca will hold a referendum on whether to become "autonomous," as four of Bolivia's other departments have done, on Nov. 29. The outcome is much less certain than it was in the other departments that voted on autonomia. Chuquisaca, unlike those departments, voted against autonomy in a preliminary referendum in 2006.
While Cuellar's margin of victory in the prefectural election was ample, her opponent was much less well known, and she ran well behind him in rural areas.
Cuellar, a graduate of the government's literacy program, had been a MAS delegate to the constitional convention that was originally convened in Sucre, Chuquisaca's main city, but the convention withdrew from Sucre in disarray when rioting broke out in Sucre over the convention's refusal to consider making Sucre the full capital of Bolivia again.
The riots were also reportedly a reaction against the large number of campesinos who had come the city to support MAS' initiatives, but were accused by the citizenry of using the streets as public toilets and generally trashing up the city.
Cuellar replaces David Sanchez, who was originally elected as a member of MAS, but resigned a fled the country in protest of the Morales' government's repressive actions before and during the riots.
Recall Referendum for President, Prefects
Although there is something of a legal cloud hanging over things, Bolivians will apparently be going to the polls August 10 to vote on whether to retain in office President Morales and the prefects of the nation's nine departments.
Polls have indicated that President Morales will be retained, and by a healthy margin. The most recent polls have shown the percentage of yes votes rising to well over 50 percent, even inclkuding people who aren't sure, or plan to cast blank ballots.
The outlook in the recall referendums for the prefects is a mixed bag. Three of the four prefects in the departments that voted for autonomy seem to be safe, according to the polls. They are Ruben Costas in Santa Cruz, Mario Cossio in Tarija, and Ernesto Suarez in Beni.
However, Prefects Leopoldo Fernandez in Pando and Manfred Reyes are in danger of failing to get the necessary 50 percent plus one required under the recently revised rules for the recall referendum.
Getting rid of Reyes, who has been a real thorn in the side of the Morales government, and who has been seen as a figure around whom the opposition to Morales might rally, would be an authentic victory for the president and his supporters. It might also squelch a planned autonomia referendum in that department.
Another likely victory for Morales, though a less surprising one, would be the recall of the prefect of La Paz, Jose Luis Paredes, another critic of the government. He was originally elected based on his own personal popularity, but few expect him to survive the recall referendum against the concerted efforts of the president and his party in what is their political stronghold.
Surprisingly, the prefects of Potosi and Oruro, both MAS affiliates, also appeared to be in trouble. Local issues were apparently paramount in these races.
The legal cloud results from a decree from the only remaining judge on Bolivia's high court for determining constitutionality calling for the delay of the referendum until the full court could rule on its legality. So far the decree has been ignored, but the opponents of the referendum are continuing to press their case.
Most of the pro-autonomy forces regard the referendum as a meaningless distraction, even though the nominal opposition party in the national congress went along with it in May.
Polls also showed that a plurality of voters don't expect the recall referendum to settle the political confrontation, that half of the voters expect violence, and that 70 percent believe that there will be fraud at the polls. However, a large majority wants the recall referendum to take place.
Prefects who lose will immediately be removed from office, and their posts could be filled by presidential appointees until new elections are held. In departments that have not voted for autonomy, prefects have very little real authority. (Updated August 5, 2008)
The strange case of Lt. Nava
On June 21 a television station in Yacuiba, a small Bolivian city in the department of Tarija and on the border with Argentina, was attacked with explosives.
Very shortly thereafter Lt. George Nava, a member of an elite anti-terrorism unit also charged with protecting President Morales, was in a traffic accident a few blocks away.
Police investigating the accident allegedly found weapons, bomb fuses, and other incriminating evidence in the car, and arrested Nava, who was reportedly drunk.
The Toyota Rav-4 he was driving turned to have been rented to the Venezuelan embassy, according to receipts produced by senators opposed to the Morales government.
A flash memory stick found in the car contained, according to the same sources, information the supposed loyalty to the Morales government of various police and military commanders, apparently the result of a domestic spying effort.
The calling records on Nava's cell phones disclosed calls to the presidential palace.
Since Nava's arrest the opposition has concentrated on thwarting efforts to have the case turned over to the military justice system, and on preventing Nava's transfer from Yacuiba to La Paz. So far the opposition has succeeded.
New information gathered by the opposition indicates that other members of Nava's military unit were also involved in the TV station bombing, as well as in earlier civil unrest in the city.
The bombing, which took place early in the morning of the day on which the voters of Tarija approved an autonomy referendum, was apparently part of a larger effort to sow chaos in the department and disrupt the voting.
To understand the potential significance of the actions by Nava and others, one expert suggested trying to imagine what the result would have been in the US if the Watergate burglars had been caught been caught blowing up the Washington Post's television station, instead of just bugging Democratic Party headquarters.
If the case actually comes to trial, and it is scheduled to do so in a week or so, the plot will presumably thicken.
The gas crisis continues
Bolivia began to ration gas to some major industrial users in the Cochabama area, and the country continues to be substantially in arrears in terms of the deliveries of gas it is required by contract to make to Brazil and Argentina. This remained true even after a renegotiation of the contract with Argentina to reduce the amount Bolivia has promised.
On the bright side, Venezuela announced that it had increased the amount it will invest in Bolivia's faltering gas industry by 50 percent to $833 million.This amount is still well short of the amount experts have said Bolivia needs to develop its gas fields fast enough to meet internal demand and its international contracts.
Transredes, Bolivia's recently nationalized pipeline operator, and the government recently announced the start of contruction on a long overdue pipeline to Cochabamba. Largely skipped over in the ballyhoo of the announcement was the fact that they still have not lined up financing for the project.
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."