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."

Monday, September 1, 2008

This Is the Week That Was -- August 31

"High Anxiety" reigns
as crises threaten
Santa Cruz undertook blockades of Bolivia's principal routes to Argentina, while President Morales decreed that there will be a referendum on his proposed new constitution on December 7. The latest news, however, is that the National Election Court ruled that the referendum can not be decreed, but a law must be passed in Congress to allow for a vote on the proposed constitution.

Those were the principal events of the past week, but far from the only actions. Some of the others that are probably worth noting:
* The national government made unveiled threats to cut off more revenue from oil and gas that had been going to the departments on a formula basis. This time President Morales threatened to cut off the departments' share of royalties. He had previously cut off, by decree, the departments' share of taxes paid by oil and gas companies to Bolivia. The sharing of these revenues is required by a law that dates back to 1939, and the issue of how that money should be allocated between the national and regional governments is at the bottom of the current confrontation between the departments of eastern Bolivia, where the gas fields are located (and which have declared themselves autonomous), and the central government, which collects the taxes and royalties.
* The national government also briefly stripped the major private universities in Bolivia of their accreditation, only to restore it the following day. Our sources were unsure what to make of this. The Morales government has long been suspected of harboring hostility toward all private educational institutions, and this may have been the precursor of a larger plan to ban such institutions.
On the other hand, it might have just been bureaucratic bungling -- saying the universities were at the end of their five-year accreditation. The accreditation, which allows the institutions to declare themselves "full universities," has in fact reached its five-year time limit for those universties that received accreditaton the first year after the accreditation law was promulgated. The irony is, however, that the universities could not have renovated their accreditation because the government has not established a review process.

* The department of Chuquisaca slated a referendum for Nov. 30 on whether to become "autonomous" as four other departments have done. Chuquisaca includes Sucre, the co-national capital. (The judicial branch, which is basically non-functioning at present, has its headquarters there.) If Chuquisaca were to approve "autonomia," then five of the country's nine departments would have done so.
* President Morales was barred by demonstrators from using any of the airports in the department of Beni to fly back to La Paz after a ribbon-cutting ceremony there, and had to use an air strip at a Brazilian border town instead. It was the latest in a series of episodes in which the president has been prevented from flying into or out of airport facilities in the autonomous departments.
We're apologetic for throwing out all this information without much form or cohesion, but Bolivia is in a time of ferment ("high anxiety" accoriding to the headline in one major newspaper), and it is much more difficult than usual to separate the significant events from those that history will show to have been mere background noise.
Since this weblog is aimed at English-speakers living outside of Bolivia who want to stay abreast of the situation here without becoming immersed in it, we intend to use this format of weekly highlights until further notice. The goal will be to "skim the cream," so to speak.
The blockades and the referendum on the constitution do appear likely to be continuing themes, and deserve some further comment.
The blockades of the border crossings to Argentina are a little hard to figure out in terms of trying to see how they might bring the national government to its knees. They will probably cause some shortages and annoyance in the western part of the country, as will the decision of ranchers in the Beni to stop sending beef to La Paz.
However, the blockades are also cutting off needed truckloads of key materials to Santa Cruz and other cities in the so-called Media Luna -- the self-declared autonomous provinces. One of the most important cargos coming to Santa Cruz from Argentina is diesel fuel, which is in increasingly short supply (along with propane and, most recently, gasoline).
One well-connected CruceƱa explained to me that it is a sort of existential expression of anger, a message that will be noticed by the international community saying, "We're mad as hell, and we aren't going to take it anymore."
She says it needs to be seen as part of an escalating array of tactics designed to gradually build momentum and support, starting with the most ineffectual (hunger strikes and general strikes), and moving up toward something that will actually have an effect (shutting down the gas pipelines).
We shall see.
In regard to the Constitutional referendum, it's unclear at present whether the opposition will attempt to defeat the constitution, or whether the "autonomous" departments will simply refuse to hold the referendum.
At least one alert reader has noted that we have, as yet, not taken a firm position on the constitution. Our feeling up to now has been that its provenance is so sullied that it lacks legitimacy. It was finally approved by a rump session of the constitutional convention that met under military guard in a fort near Oruro. Only delegates adhering to President Morales' MAS party were present at those final sessions.
If there is going to be a legitimate vote on it, we will post a discussion of the pros and cons, which are not simple and clear-cut. For example one of the most frequent arguments against the constitution is that allows for a president to be re-elected one time. But that doesn't seem so terrible to us. In fact, it is probably a good idea. More troubling though are sections that would open the way for the government to seize private property more easily. The proposed constitution also provides, in a number of ways, for affirmative action for Indians that goes way beyond the wildest fantasies of the most radical civil rights leaders inthe US.
In any event, we are going to read the proposed constitution carefully and post a detailed analysis of what we feel are its strengths and defects.

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