Monday, January 07, 2008

Morales and Departmental Prefects Will Hold Dialogue Meeting

LA PAZ (digitalwarriormedia) At 6:00 pm on Monday evening President Evo Morales and Bolivia’s nine departmental prefects will meet at the Governmental Palace in La Paz. The sit-down is a much anticipated first step towards dialogue after weeks of a political impasse between the central government and the five opposition-led departments.


Over the weekend, Morales met with his staff to prepare for the meeting that will also be attended by Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera and a group of governmental ministers. There are hopes that Monday’s event will initiate solutions to address the crisis that has unfolded in the country since the adoption of the new Constitution in early December.

The new Magna Carta has been rejected by the prefects and civic leaders of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Cochabamba, Beni and Pando. These departments, except Cochabamba, responded by declaring departmental autonomy measures that will assume powers similar to the Executive and Legislative branches of government.

Besides the constitution, the Morales administration is under fire for the passage of the Dignity Pension by the Bolivian Congress on November 27.

The social program, which is expected to cost the government $215 million per year, will provide an annual income of about $1200 for Bolivians over the age of 60.* It requires a redistribution of oil and gas revenue, so that the departmental governments will receive less revenue through the Direct Hydrocarbons Tax (IDH).

In both instances scores of opposition representatives boycotted official meetings and then claimed foul. Opposition parties boycotted the Constituent Assembly debates in early December, and upon the document’s approval on December 9, criticized the Constituent Assembly for moving forward without the presence of debate by the opposition delegates.

In response to these measures, the opposition led by Santa Cruz, attempted to regain power from the central government by mobilizing for more independence. On December 15, opposition leaders in Santa Cruz declared autonomy from the central government and announced measures to create departmental ID cards as well as its own police force.

The autonomy declaration also announced that two-thirds of taxes from Santa Cruz’s oil and gas industry will remain in the department, rather than going to the central government. Tarija, Beni and Pando followed suit by announcing their own autonomy measures as well.

In just over two weeks 112,000 signatures were collected in the department of Santa Cruz to call a referendum that will approve and implement the autonomy statutes presented on December 15. According to El Deber, by the January 15 deadline, the number of signatures is expected to reach 400,000.

On Saturday, while speaking in Cochabamba, Morales called the autonomous statutes illegal and that actions of the four departments, destroy the unity of the country. He warned that the dialogue meeting will occur taking into account "unity, democracy and respect for the law.” He also indicated that parties from Spain, Europe and the United States were planning attempts to derail the change taking place in Bolivia and other parts of Latin America.

Criticism of the Morales administration has been widespread, especially in the Bolivian newspapers, which recently have printed editorials calling for the administration to allow the mediation or observation of the Catholic Church or the Organization of American States.

According to governmental spokesman Alex Contreras, the people should act as observers for the dialogue meeting, not some other entity.
"Despite the negative reports by some media with reference to dialogue, the government's objective is to initiate this process with an open agenda, without mediators or observers and without guarantors, because the best guarantor will be the Bolivian people," said Contreras.

Contreras asked that residents of El Alto and La Paz, receive all of the nine governors with generosity without showing “a single action against any prefect”.

The administration has assured that all security measures have been taken for the meeting that will be widely accessible to the media and open for the public to observe. He also guaranteed that racist elements will not be allowed to perpetrate activities that have occurred in other regions of the country.

It was a tumultuous year for Bolivia as political polarization drove wedges between several different sectors of Bolivian society. Only time will demonstrate the effectiveness of dialogue between the Morales administration and the opposition. Hopefully Monday’s meeting will prove to be a positive move towards unifying the country by addressing the widespread discontent between those who support the central government’s initiatives and those who want to maintain the status quo.



Photos: El Deber, Reuters


*CORRECTION: The original version of this post incorrectly identified the annual amount of the Dignity Pension at $1200. The correct amount is 2400 bolivianos per year, which is a slightly more than $300 annually.

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