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.
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."