Monday, January 29, 2007

The Criminals in The Guesthouse

Solidarity requested in effort to extradite ex-president of Bolivia

The National Lawyers Guild sent a delegation to Bolivia this January to study the political and legal situation in this South American country, especially the legal and political issue of the extradition to Bolivia of the ex-president of Bolivia, Sánchez de Lozada, from the United States. .


The delegation met with the Comité Impulsor, a group of lawyers and activists working towards the extradition of their ex-president. Rogelio Mayta, the lead attorney, explained the historical background of the case for extradition.


President Sánchez was elected in 2002 with strong support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and influential circles in the United States. Sánchez immediately began implementing policies, such as privatization of national industries, as demanded by the IMF. In 2003, President Sánchez planned a massive sell-off of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves to U.S. interests with the planned shipment to go through Chilean ports, which sparked protests and road blockades. Sánchez sent the army in to clear the blockades in a military operation that ended with the massacre of eight persons in the altiplano town of Serata.


Rather than quiet the protest, the government’s actions provoked more strikes, blockades, protests and hunger strikes. These actions effectively blocked gas supplies from reaching the capital. By decree, Sánchez ordered his military to carry out actions against the Bolivian people, ostensibly to bring gas to the capital.


This decree unleashed a wave of military attacks against Bolivia’s Indigenous community in September and October of 2003, and by the end of the military repression 67 people had been killed. The uprising continued with more intensity, and Sánchez was forced to flee the country. It is alleged that on his way to the U.S., Sánchez took $1.5 million from the Bolivian Treasury.



Mayta highlighted the vast amount of work that has gone into the extradition proceedings, which included reviewing hundreds of documents, orders and decrees signed by Sánchez, and unclassified military documents. Over 100 witnesses have testified in court proceedings. As required under Bolivian law, two-thirds of the congress approved the indictment of Sánchez, showing the widespread support in Bolivia for his extradition. Bolivia is now working on a formal extradition request.
Meeting families of the victims!


The delegation also had a tearful meeting with members of an association of people whose family members were killed during the Sánchez repression. One person described how her husband was shot while asleep in his house. The members of the association showed us the gravesites of their victimized family members and personally pointed out areas of their city where Bolivian troops massed against the local population.


Juan Patricio Quispe, who spoke for the committee, asked the delegation to take their stories back to the United States to help the campaign to extradite Sánchez. He emphasized that no amount of restitution will bring their loved ones back and that they want Sánchez to answer for his crimes in Bolivia.


The Bush administration has refused to serve notice of the extradition proceedings on Sánchez, and many Bolivians believe that only solidarity from people in the U.S. will force the Bush administration to comply with their extradition request. Mayta, of Comité Impulsor, explained that powerful interests in the U.S. protect Sánchez as he has a close business and personal relationship with the Rockefeller family. Bill Clinton’s campaign manager James Carville worked on Sánchez’ election campaign and Sánchez currently confers with Greg Craig, who defended Clinton during the scandal involving Monica Lewinsky.


Bolivians also believe that there are political reasons for U.S. opposition to the extradition of Sánchez. The Morales government has insured that a great majority of the oil and gas revenue stays in the country for public benefit, and these revenues now go towards funding public schools and healthcare for children instead of to the transnational corporations. The government also has recently passed a land reform bill and there are plans to carry out some form of nationalization in the mining sector. Bolivians believe that the U.S. opposes these new developments and may try to stymie the extradition process to politically weaken the Morales government.


The Bolivian people are determined, however, that unlike the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Sánchez de Lozada will not escape facing his people. The Bolivians are asking people in the U.S. for solidarity. The Bolivia Solidarity Network can be contacted at for more information.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Evo Morales' First Year

Justice and equality must prevail, and must do so in the context of growing national prosperity. That is the underlying motive and force behind what is called the left-leaning surge in Latin America. There is powerful opposition to this movement, an opposition that one sees most clearly in the virulent opposition to Castro in Cuba, to Ortega in Nicaragua, and to Chavez in Venezuela. A particularly worrisome variety of this resistance to change flared when General Augusto Pinochet died in Chile and tens of thousands lined the streets to view his casket and honor the man who suspended democracy in 1973 and terrorized the country for decades. Not surprisingly, this resistance to change has turned vicious in Bolivia as well.

Evo Morales was elected President of Bolivia in December, 2005, an avowed socialist and the first fully indigenous president ever in South America. January 18 marks the anniversary of his first full year in office. His election was the first in recent Bolivian history to be achieved by popular vote rather than referred to the legislature for deciding among top candidates, and thereby Morales completely by-passed the old elite. In office, therefore, he was not bound by commitments to other parties, and he announced determination to go ahead with his platform promises of capturing far greater profits from oil and gas, of land appropriation and redistribution in the eastern departments, of constitutional reform, of increased GNP, and of improved amenities and opportunities (especially health and education) for the indigenous peoples of Bolivia. An ambitious program indeed.

The opposition initially remained subdued. Part of the reason may have been that the program was fraught with so many inherent obstacles that practical consequences seemed too remote to fear. Furthermore, Morales’s flair for unconventional publicity, as evident in his famous striped alpaca sweater and his waving a coca leaf at the UN, probably made him look a bit flaky. The elite relaxed again on May 1, 2006, when Morales announced a six-month deadline by which oil companies must renegotiate their contracts with Bolivia or face forfeiture of their infrastructure, new contracts that would award the lion’s share of profits to Bolivia rather than to the companies. The pundits and industry analysts agreed that Bolivia had bitten off more than it could chew and that in the long run the companies must prevail. It would teach Morales a lesson. No doubt the lesson it would teach was more or less the lesson the NY Times had in mind when it editorialized that the peasants in Bolivia needed to overcome their economic ignorance.

At the end of October, however, the companies capitulated, handing Morales not only billions in much needed revenue but also substantial political capital. With the revenue he announced an increase of 10% in teachers’ salaries, and with the political capital he stepped up the campaign of land reform. Now the elite really does feel threatened, and the counterrevolution has become more vociferous and more adamant -- and more violent. The violence began in late November when Morales’s limousine was stoned as he attempted to attend a meeting of business leaders in Santa Cruz (Bolpress 11/25/06), two days after a pro-business group announced it was mobilizing against the “dictatorship” of Morales and his party. In mid-January, the week before the anniversary of his inauguration, Morales returned from the inauguration of Daniel Ortega to face the aftermath of a violent clash in Cochabamba that left two dead and dozens hospitalized.

With respect to land reform, the legislature has passed a revision of the Land Reform Act of 1952, a component of the first Bolivian revolution under the leadership of Victor Paz Estenssoro in 1952. The revision allows confiscation of latifundios, large tracts of land —we are talking about hundreds of square miles, not hundreds of acres — that are unused, potentially productive, and with dubious titles. These lands are all located in the two largest departments, Santa Cruz and Beni, where some 80% of the land (more than 12,000 square miles, or nearly 8,000,000 acres) is held by 14 families, many not resident in Bolivia. Apart from the provisions of the new law, the government also challenges the validity of many of the titles to the land, contending they were conferred as favors by previous presidents who had no right to do so. The government has also said that it will not confiscate any land being used productively, because one of its aims is to increase GDP.

Naturally the right-wing elite does not trust the left-wing government, so there are fears that all the best productive land will be confiscated. Such fears were publicized by the NY Times in a story (12/21/06) about a successful Mennonite farming community in Santa Cruz Department. The community fled persecution in Europe and has been comfortable as well as successful in Bolivia, contributing to the export of soybeans while retaining their distinctive customs and their German language. They are, of course, far from panic or violence and they hold clear title to their land, but their fear may well be real, however ill-founded. The story in the Times said nothing about the government’s intention to limit confiscation to large unproductive holdings to which there is dubious title. It is absurd to put the productive Mennonite farms in the same category as the huge latifundios. The story is slick anti-Morales propaganda, with the fears of the Mennonites no doubt fanned by the elite to try to nudge the Mennonites into becoming part of their confrontation against Morales.

A second contentious issue is regional autonomy. Four departments that form a kind of half moon from north to east to south — Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz, and Tarija — are campaigning for autonomy that will prevent them from having to share their wealth with the rest of the nation. They are the departments that contain not only the huge latifundios but also most of the mineral and hydrocarbon deposits. The government has nationalized the hydrocarbon deposits and intends to nationalize mineral deposits as well, so those with claims hope that the regional autonomy will make it easier to retain their claims. In Santa Cruz there is considerable industrial production, whose owners favor the sort of neocon globalization that Morales resists, and the elite there also fears that the land reform could tip the population mix away from right-wing industry-friendly policies. Tarija has the principal deposits of oil and natural gas, Beni has large latifundios, and both Pando and Beni have significant mineral deposits. The government believes that the wealth of these departments is important to increasing the national GDP and intends to use royalties and tax revenues for national projects.

Another matter of contention is the Constitutional Convention. The idea for it goes back several years, but the members were not chosen until after the election of Evo Morales as President. The goal of the convention is to give more formal power to the indigenous majority, which means less power for the wealthy elite. As in the legislature, Morales’s party, MAS (acronym of “Movement Toward Socialism”), enjoys a comfortable majority but lacks the two-thirds needed to force its provisions into the Constitution. The basic rule governing the convention is that its text needs to be ratified by two-thirds of the representatives before going to a referendum. The right-wing has insisted that this means that each provision must separately attain a two-thirds majority, and the left that that special majority applies only to the full text. The dispute over this procedural point has for six months and prevented the Convention from considering any matter of substance. Morales’s Vice-President, Alvaro García Linera, broke the deadlock last week by announcing that MAS will agree to the two-thirds rule for each provision, with the reservation of taking other steps if nothing of substance is achieved in the coming six months.

Like La Paz and Santa Cruz, Cochabamba is the name of both a city and a department. The city is the third largest urban center in Bolivia and one of the most vibrant. Its elevation is about 8,000 feet above sea level, and its people give strong support to the government. They are now confronting Manfred Reyes Villa, the governor of the department, one of the traditional political elite, and a rival candidate in the last presidential election, who retains lively ambitions for the next election. Thousands of peasants, who naturally support President Morales, gathered around the Governor’s mansion in Cochabamba demanding that Reyes Villa resign. The issue was the governor’s support of the call of the “half-moon” departments for autonomy. The Department of Cochabamba lacks the economic interests that band the other four departments together in their call for autonomy, and it has a greater concentration of Indians (mostly Quechua). The support of Reyes Villa for autonomy is therefore mostly political, and perhaps partly ethnic or social. As one of the powerful up-coming leaders of the right and of the old elite, he no doubt felt that his rightful place in this debate is in opposition to Evo Morales and to the determination of Indians to achieve a greater measure of equality in Bolivia.

The initial demonstrations in Cochabamba were not altogether peaceful. Streets were blockaded and windows were broken, but the damage was confined to property. After several days, however, things changed. What were described as “shock troops” in support of Reyes Villa entered the fray with bricks and baseball bats. Blood was shed, killing two of the demonstrators (a union member and a student) and sending dozens of people to the hospital. Reyes Villa was in La Paz meeting with the “half-moon” governors and did not return to take charge. So Morales returned from Nicaragua, sent federal troops to restore order, and asked his supporters to suspend the demonstrations for a time. Nonetheless, the deaths and injuries raised not only the stakes but also the indignation of the indigenous people of Cochabamba. Evo Morales is urging the legislature to pass a law allowing for recall referenda for governors and judges, so that the protesters in Cochabamba have an alternative and more democratic way of venting their anger.

The events in Cochabamba again show Morales as striving to avoid confrontations, especially bloody ones, and as moving toward democracy together with law and order. The events also show how significant regional autonomy is, and how sharp and volatile the divisions are within the country, sharpened on the one side by increasingly realistic hopes and on the other by increasing awareness of the competence and flexibility of the President. The autonomy being proposed would allow continuation or even increase of the disparity between the rich and the poor, wealth being retained in the provinces and controlled by the elite. The indigenous peoples are not, as the NY Times supposes, ignorant of basic economics. On the contrary, they realize full well that the whole point of autonomy, in the context of Bolivia today, is to keep them from sharing in the increasing GDP of the country.

Thus the events in Cochabamba in mid-January are a continuation of the drama that inaugurated a brand new act of the Bolivian drama at the end of October. When Evo Morales achieved the terms he had demanded from the oil and gas producers, and from Argentina as a long-term purchaser, everyone saw that he is a more powerful, more pragmatic, and more successful figure than they had hoped or feared. Not formidable internationally, Bolivia being so poor, but formidable indeed on the national scene, and far more formidable than anyone in Bolivia since Victor Paz Estenssoro.

In writing about these affairs, I speak of drama rather than confrontation. Violent confrontation would suit the rich elite, for they are rich enough to win a show of force. Violent confrontations also stall the economy, and if there is to be greater equality in Bolivia it must come from greater wealth, not through dividing existing wealth. It is vital for the overall program of Evo Morales and MAS that the Bolivian GDP increase dramatically. It is therefore important to avoid confrontations that impede productivity. Providing alternatives to violent confrontations is one of the challenges before the Constitutional Convention, as well as the legislature, and constitutes one of the quieter scenes of the drama — important despite its lack of glamor. The drama is complex as well as intense. One scene in the drama that receives comment in the Bolivian press nearly every week is conversations with Chile over trading natural gas (Chile has no internal energy supply other than water power) for access to the sea — a matter that the elite have no way to hinder and whose success would vastly increase Morales’s standing. Though this whole drama lacks significance on the world stage, its outcome will mean a great deal to this small country.
SUNY Professor of Philosophy Emeritus
University at Buffalo.


Monday, January 15, 2007

MAS Proposes Plan, Clashes Erupt in Cochabamba

On Wednesday Bolivia's government agreed to opposition demands that any changes to the country's constitution must pass with two-thirds support in the Constituent Assembly.

President Morales proposed a compromise plan that would permit any articles not decided by a two-thirds majority before a July 2 deadline, to be passed by a simple majority.

The work of the assembly had been deadlocked for months as political parties debated whether each element of the charter required a two-thirds vote. While President Morales supported constitutional amendments passed by a simple majority, four of Bolivia's nine states vowed not to recognize a constitution written in such a manner.

Opposition leaders organized protest marches and hunger strikes demanding that Morales approve a two-thirds vote for each individual article. They claimed that Morales sought to freeze them out of the new constitution with the opposition stronghold resting in the eastern department of Santa Cruz. Last month, hundreds of thousands marched through the streets of Santa Cruz de la Sierra demonstrating for the two-thirds vote.

This is a major concession for Morales and his political allies. Yet opposition parties do not support the new proposal and claimed MAS will actively stall any progress until the July deadline. The Constituent Assembly has been in session since August but its work remained at a standstill. This latest attempt to move along the constitutional process may be derailed if these factions are unable to reach agreement.

Meanwhile in Cochabamba supporters of President Morales clashed with supporters of provincial governor Manfred Reyes Villa last week, leaving two dead and at least 130 injured in the city of Cochabamba.

Tension grew as protesters blocked roads to the city for three days in an attempt to remove the governor. Fighting erupted on Thursday when Reyes Villa's sympathizers entered the city with reports indicating that armed supporters of the governor attacked the coca farmers.

The first casualty was Nicomedes Gutierrez a coca farmer. Cristian Urresty Ferrel, a student and member of the Young Democrats, a group supporting Reyes, was also killed during the violent clashes.

According to Bolivian military officials, an estimated 30,000 demonstrators from these two rival factions overran police in the streets of Cochabamba, armed with sticks and rocks. This is the latest event in a month of protests that filled the city’s streets.

Supporters of the national government have called for Reyes’ resignation amid accusations of corruption, including bookkeeping irregularities and using state funds to reward rural towns that support opponents of Morales.

In defiance of the central governemnt, Villa Reyes and five other provincial governors joined together to demand greater independence. He has called for Cochabamba to hold a second vote on the autonomy referendum - a measure that was voted down by 63 percent of Cochabambans in July of last year. The Cochabamban governor has also sided with opposition leaders who said each of the new charter's articles should be written by two-thirds of the assembly's delegates and publicly denounced Morales' handling of the rewriting Bolivia's constitution.

National and regional leaders blamed each other for the political violence. A senator supporting Morales placed responsibility for the two protestors’ deaths with Reyes, while six opposition governors joined in blaming President Morales. Tarija’s governor Mario Cossío and Luis Paredes, governor of Santa Cruz, insisted that Morales restore order in the region.

Authorities have said a force of 1,500 soldiers has been dispatched to Cochabamba, which is 125 miles southeast of La Paz.

Vice President Garcia Linera described the action of Villas’ supporters as "a provocation" and criticized Reyes for failing to “exercise control and resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner.” Last week Morales dismissed Cochabamba’s chief of police after he directed officers to fire tear gas on peaceful protestors.

Reyes’ opponents have called for a dialogue but most believe that the time has come for him to relinquish his position. He has refused to step down, stating he had no reason to resign.

However claiming to fear for his safety, Reyes fled to Santa Cruz after meeting with other opposition governors in La Paz. Hundreds of pro-Morales protesters surrounded the La Paz hotel where the governors were meeting.

President Morales, a native of Cochabamba, has called for Reyes to return to his state. Reyes Villa is one of the first elected Bolivian governors. Prior to 2005, the nine department governors were appointed by the president.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Promises Kept, Pendulum Continues Swing Left

President Morales ended 2006 by holding his last Cabinet session at 11:30 pm on December 31st. The session continued into the morning of January 1 when at dawn, Morales and his ministers announced the creation of new social and economic programs.

Morales issued five new executive orders, including the Universal Health Law that will give “universal, complete and free” health care to people under the age of twenty-one. The project, which is to be financed with money from gas sales to Brazil and Argentina, will have the impact of insuring 75 percent of Bolivia’s population and will also provide scholarships to young Bolivian doctors.

In a move to further Bolivia’s economic progress, the Bank of Desarrollo Productivo (BDP) was created by decree on January 1. This Productive Development bank is funded with $60 million to support smaller producers and entrepreneurs by loaning seed money with low and long-term interest rates.

Further fulfilling a campaign promise to ensure greater respect for indigenous rights, President Morales also approved a measure integrating community justice systems in indigenous communities with the judicial system of the Bolivian state. This is one of several efforts Morales has made over the past year to eliminate institutional discrimination against Bolivia’s indigenous majority.

The year 2007 begins with clear evidence of Latin America’s ideological swing to the left. January is a busy month for Morales who is expected to take part in the ceremony of Nicaraguan President-elect Daniel Ortega, attend the inauguration of Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and also Hugo Chavez’s taking of office ceremony.

Undoubtedly all eyes will be on the MERCOSUR summit in Rio de Janeiro on January 18 and 19 that will give further indication as to whether Latin America’s movement towards socialism will become a wider regional effort.

Almost a year into his presidency, Morales continues to field criticism from political conservatives and business interests yet he presses on with the platform that he was elected on: bringing justice to Bolivia’s indigenous majority by sharing the nation’s wealth and political power.