Saturday, May 31, 2008

Indigenous Demands Overshadowed by Autonomy Movement

by Franz Chávez for Inter Press Service

LA PAZ, May 30 - The autonomy movement in Bolivia’s wealthier eastern provinces has overshadowed the demand for empowerment and greater participation in political decision-making for indigenous people, who are worriedly observing the confrontation between the government of President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, and the rightwing opposition.

Morales, of the Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, was elected with 53.7 percent of the vote in December 2005, on a platform promising equality for the country’s historically marginalised and discriminated impoverished indigenous majority.

But the president’s initial agenda, which included the immediate incorporation of indigenous peoples’ demands in a new constitution, has been blocked by the delay in putting it to a referendum.

The draft of the new constitution was approved in December by the MAS majority in the constituent assembly, in a vote that was boycotted by the rightwing delegates.

Since December, the anti-Morales autonomy movements in the provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija have refused to recognise the draft constitution as legitimate, and have drawn up their own autonomy statutes, which would give their provinces the right to administer their own natural resources, collect taxes, pass laws on the use of their land, and create their own police forces.

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is basically divided between the predominantly indigenous western highlands and the much wealthier eastern provinces, which account for most of the country's natural gas production, industry, agribusiness and gross domestic product. The population of eastern Bolivia also tends to be of more European descent.

On May 1, the province of Santa Cruz held a referendum in which 85 percent of voters ratified the provincial autonomy statute.

Although the autonomy movement declared a resounding victory in Santa Cruz, Morales pointed out that his supporters had called for a boycott of the referendum, which ran counter to the country’s constitution, and that the "no" votes, combined with the high abstention rate and the number of blank and spoiled ballots, added up to 50 percent of the registered voters.

The provinces of Beni and Pando will hold their own autonomy referendums on Jun. 1, and Tarija in the southeast will do the same on Jun. 22.

"We are fully committed to this struggle, and the demands of indigenous people cannot be raffled off or lost," constituent assembly member Esperanza Huanca, who is from the poorest region in the southwestern highlands province of Potosí, told IPS.

But the demand for respect for indigenous rights is also endangered by plans for an Aug. 10 recall referendum for Morales, his vice president, and the country’s nine provincial governors.

The government’s support bases, which were working for approval of the new constitution, have now focused all of their attention and energy on the campaign to get Morales confirmed in his post, for which he will have to win as many or more votes as he took when he was elected in December 2005 (53.7 percent).

"We know that our achievements have been accomplished at the cost of bloodshed, and as indigenous people we are seeking changes and better living conditions, to put an end to poverty and slavery," said Huanca, who was elected to the constituent assembly with the hope of reviving the traditional pre-Columbian indigenous forms of organising in extended families and communities, based on "marcas" and "ayllus".

Huanca used the term "slavery" to refer to a state of forced servitude in which hundreds of indigenous families in rural areas in the east still live.

The new constitution recognizes decentralization at the provincial and municipal levels, but also grants autonomy to indigenous communities in their current territories. It would not restore to them the much more extensive ancestral lands to which they lay claim, nor would it establish "marcas" and "ayllus".

"The right has had greater organizational capacity, to impose and perpetuate the old capitalist and colonial model," sociologist Félix Patzi, a former education minister under Morales, told IPS.

Patzi said the government is "cornered" by a rightwing opposition that holds power in four of the country’s nine provinces, and whose growing influence has led it to believe that it is stronger than the national government and its indigenous, peasant and labor grassroots support bases.

The August 10 recall referendum, he said, will test the popularity of Morales and the provincial governors. The confirmation of Morales in the presidency would show that he still has strength despite the stiff opposition.

But if voters support not only Morales and his vice president but all of the governors as well, nothing will have changed, which would demonstrate weakness on the part of the government, and the stalemate would continue, he said.

Asked about the long-delayed demands of the country’s indigenous people, Patzi said there are members of the pro-Morales social movements who believe the president is unable to fully bring about the transformation they are calling for.

The former minister also criticized Morales’ cabinet, saying they had failed to interpret the call for traditional indigenous forms of community organization.

"They have never understood this demand, and have tended towards a traditional leftist model based on the nationalization of companies instead," he said.

According to Patzi, an informal survey of grassroots supporters, who are not represented in trade unions, would show that they no longer see Morales, the former leader of the country’s coca farmers, as capable of pushing through the in-depth changes he promised.

Patzi downplayed the staunch support for the president expressed by trade unions and rural leaders, saying they have dogmatically aligned themselves with the governing MAS.

Constituent assembly-member Huanca, meanwhile, sees the actions of the rightwing opposition as an attempt to topple the national government, and says she and her indigenous colleagues will continue to fight for direct representation in governing bodies and the right to their ancestral territory, "which holds the dreams of our indigenous peoples."


Monday, May 26, 2008

Violence Erupts in Sucre, Dialogue Uncertain

Outbreaks of violence forced President Morales to cancel a trip to Sucre on Saturday where liberation celebrations were to take place on Sunday, commemorating the 199th anniversary of 'the first cry of Independence in the Americas'.

According to reports, groups of drunken individuals, closely associated with the local Civic and Inter-institutional Committee, used dynamite, tear gas and stones to attack peasants - leaving more than 20 people injured.

The attackers were protesting Morales’ planned trip to the country’s judicial capital, with government supporters identifying university students and parliamentarians of PODEMOS (Social Democratic Power/We Can) as instigators.

This incident occurred in addition to brazen attacks on politicians from the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) party and a radio journalist.

MAS Parliamentarian Cesar Navarro and MAS Senator Ana Rosa Velazquez were attacked at Sucre’s airport in what appeared to be a premeditated attack, as a group of people were waiting for their arrival. Walter Valda, a candidate for prefect of Chuquisaca, was attacked at his headquarters with stones and tear gas.

A journalist from the network ERBOL was attacked as well. Marianela Paco Duran, was assaulted with rocks and sprayed with alcohol while reporting live for Radio Aclo-Sucre.

The government, eager to demonstrate that it will not respond to provocations, called for the police forces to withdrawal. As a precaution, the military and police did not attend Sucre’s civic parade to celebrate the “Grito Libertarian”, drawing criticism from local authorities.

ERBOL network blamed the civic leaders of Sucre for the violence, accusing them of violating freedom of expression and the right to information, while the Assembly of Human Rights demanded an investigation into aggression against journalists in the Chuquisaca department.

Vice-minister of Social Movement Coordination, Sacha Llorenti, attributed the violence in Sucre to racism and resistance from conservative groups against the process of change in Bolivia.

Autonomy Negotiations

Another phase of dialogue between the central government and the opposition is scheduled for this Wednesday, with the Catholic Church rejoining the process as observers.

Last week representatives from MAS, Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR), and National Unity (UN), the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Edmundo Novillo and Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, came to a series of agreements and signed a document entitled "Basis for National Reconciliation". PODEMOS members chose not to attend the discussions.

PODEMOS has set conditions for continuing the dialogue to bridge the political rift that has fractured cooperation between the national and departmental governments.

In a letter addressed to Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, PODEMAS made seven demands in order to participate in the ongoing talks, namely: some recognition of the autonomy referendums by the central government, replacement of the Indirect Hydrocarbon Tax (IDH), elimination of the ban on oil exports, participation of the Catholic Church as mediator, a redesign of the plan to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution, economic policies to lower inflation and participation of civic organizations and the departmental prefects.

Garcia’s response will determine whether PODEMOS members accept the invitation to meet within the National Congress and continue a process of dialogue with the major political parties and representatives from the departmental prefects.

Despite the conditional demands of PODEMOS, the MAS, MNR and UN, have agreed to seek solutions for that enable the autonomous statutes to become compatible the new Bolivian Political Constitution.

Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, former Bolivian president and head of the opposition’s political alliance, said it was important for that the autonomy of Beni, Pando, Tarija and Santa Cruz be recognized. The central government and CNE maintain their stance that the referendums - as they stand now without the approval of Congress and the Electoral Court - are illegal.

If the political dialogue can proceed between the opposing sides, it is possible that a negotiated agreement will be reached on the autonomy statutes.

However, if history is any indicator – the demands laid out by PODEMOS might prove to be yet another stall tactic designed to hijack the dialogue and keep Bolivia’s political future teetering on the brink.

Photos: Patrick Vanier


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Morales Signs Recall Referendum Bill, Crisis Continues

(digitalwarriormedia) The date has been set for Bolivia’s political leadership to face their fate at the hands of voters.

On August 10, the positions held by President Evo Morales, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera and Bolivia’s nine departmental governors will hang in the balance of a recall referendum outcome.

The bill was signed into law on Monday by Morales, who said the referendum will achieve a solution in a democratic manner and allow the people to “give their verdict by their vote.”

He called on the National Electoral Court to guarantee transparency of the referendum and he also invited foreign observers to monitor the vote.

The bill was originally proposed by the president late last year amidst the opposition’s staunch rejection to the draft constitution.

Bolivia's lower Congress approved the measure on December 15, but the bill was stalled in the Senate until last Thursday.

According to the law, in order to keep their respective positions, each official must win both more votes and a greater percentage of support than they did in the 2005 elections.

Morales won the Presidency with 53.7% of the vote –a margin that is unprecedented in Bolivian history. A recall would require 54% of voters, or about 1.55 million to say “no”. All of the departmental prefects were elected with less than 50% of the departmental vote.

A little more than two years into his presidency, the move is a gamble for Morales, who was elected into office until 2011. However many political analysts note that the departmental governors are in a more vulnerable position than Morales and Vice President Garcia Linera.

The opposition is riding a wave of support garnered by the departmental autonomy referendum that Santa Cruz voters approved on May 4. The central government and the nation’s highest electoral court dismiss the vote as illegal, but the large voter turnout has invigorated the boldness of the opposition and their autonomy pursuits.

If Morales loses, he must call a new presidential election that will be held within three to six months. However, departmental governors will be removed from office immediately, with Morales appointing interim prefects until new state elections are held.

While the supporters of Santa Cruz's departmental autonomy call their referendum of May 4 a victory, the departments of Beni, Pando and Tarija continue with plans to hold their own regional autonomy referendums in the coming weeks.

Over the weekend Morales called for more dialogue and reiterated an open invitation for all nine governors to convene at the National Palace for a meeting on Monday.

Despite the central government’s desire to stem the political crisis with further talks, the governors of Beni, Pando and Tarija said they will not continue dialogue with the central government until after they hold their own autonomy referendums.

None of the Media Luna departmental prefects showed up to meet with Morales on Monday even though the President indicated a willingness to address their individual demands.*

Meanwhile, the government continues to receive international and regional support. According to statements made to Rio’s daily O Globo, Brazilian Foreign minister Celso Amorim, said that South America would never accept "separatism in Bolivia". Argentina and Colombia as well as Mexico have all indicated their support and publicly condemned the autonomy referendums.

*Correction added


Thursday, May 08, 2008

Putting it all out there with a vote of confidence in Bolivia

LA PAZ, Bolivia (DigitalWarriorMedia) -- President Evo Morales agreed Thursday to stand for election in a nationwide recall vote, gambling that Bolivians will re-elect him after just two years in office.

"We politicians can't forget that the people decide the destiny of the country, the presidents, the prefects," he said in a televised address from the presidential palace in La Paz.

"Democracy is to be defined at the ballot box, not through violence," he said. "How many times have we said yes to the ballot box, no to the arms?"

The announcement came shortly after the National Congress passed the call for a vote, and a few days after a referendum on autonomy passed in Santa Cruz, the nation's richest of nine departments.Congress on Thursday passed a bill ordering the recall be held within 90 days. Morales said he will sign the measure.

Morales rejected the Santa Cruz vote as illegal, and therefore nonbinding, and criticized its supporters as opposed to his plan to share the wealth of their communities with the rest of the country, which is the poorest in Latin America.

The legislation would require Morales and Bolivia's nine state governors to win both more votes and a greater percentage of support than they did on a 2005 ballot. If they fall short, they will have to run again in a new general election.

Bolivian state governors did not immediately react to the president's announcement, but most have previously said they would participate in such a vote.

Morales first proposed a nationwide recall referendum to shore up support last December amid a fierce political battle over his draft constitution, which would give Bolivia's long-oppressed indigenous population greater power.

The idea seemed to have been forgotten until Thursday, when an opposition-controlled Senate revived it. The tactic come on the heel of Vice-resident Garcia's meeting with the United States Bolivian Ambassador.

Morales, as Bolivia's first indigenous president, would face recall at arguably the most difficult moment of his young presidency of 2 years, 3 months and 15 days.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

United States maneuvers to carve up Bolivia with autonomy vote

The illegal referendum held on Sunday to declare autonomy in Santa Cruz, Bolivia's richest province, is backed by the Bush administration in an attempt to halt the leftward drift of South America. While the US embassy in La Paz blandly declares its support for "unity and democracy" in Bolivia, the government's Interior Minister Alfredo Raba states what is widely known, that the United States "has an agenda more political than diplomatic in Bolivia, and this agenda is linked to opponents of the current government." Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of the country, bluntly declares: "The imperialist project is to try to carve up Bolivia, and with that to carve up South America because it is the epicenter of great changes that are advancing on a world scale."

Morales has aligned Bolivia with the nemesis of the United States, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Along with President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who is closing down the largest US military base on the continent, the three presidents constitute what can be called a radical axis in South America.

All three countries have convened constituent assemblies to draft new constitutions and to "refound" their nations. It is Bolivia's new constitution that is to be voted on in a national referendum that has sparked the separatist opposition of the wealthy oligarchs in Santa Cruz. It grants autonomous rights to Bolivia's majority indigenous population, places the country's abundant mineral, gas and petroleum resources under greater national control, and sets limits on the size of the large landed estates that are heavily concentrated in Santa Cruz.

The Podemos (We Are Able) Party, which is strongest in Santa Cruz, first tried to use its control of just over one third of the votes in the constituent assembly to block its actions by insisting that a majority vote was not sufficient to approve statutes to the new constitution. When that failed, it resorted to helping stir up violence against assembly members, targeting its indigenous members and its woman president, Silvia Lazarte Flores. At the turn of the year, Evo Morales, backed by popular mobilizations in the streets of La Paz, compelled the existent Congress to approve the call for a national referendum to vote on the new constitution. It was then that the Santa Cruz elite launched its referendum for autonomy, which the country's National Electoral Court has declared unconstitutional. The referendum voted for on Sunday grants the provincial government the power to tax and collect revenues, to set up its own police force and to block any efforts by the national gover! nment to carry out agrarian reform.

The US ambassador, Philip Goldberg, who was appointed by the Bush administration in September 2006, has maneuvered behind the scenes to support the political forces opposed to Morales and his governing party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). It is notable that Goldberg came to Bolivia from Pristina, Kosovo, where as the US Chief of Mission, he played a central role in orchestrating Kosovo's independence from Serbia, which it had been a province of for centuries.

Last year Goldberg was photographed in Santa Cruz with a leading right-wing business magnate and a well-known Colombian narco-trafficker who had been detained by the local police. Then in late January of this year, the Embassy was caught giving aid to a special intelligence unit of the Bolivian police force. The embassy rationalized its aid by saying "the US government has a long history of helping the National Police of Bolivia in diverse programs." US-Bolivian relations were next roiled in February when it was revealed that Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar had been pressured by an Embassy official to keep tabs on "Venezuelans and Cubans" in the country. Since Morales took office over two years ago, more than $4 million has been provided by the US Agency for International Development to the political opposition.

Bolivia's neighbors are strongly opposed to the separatist movement and its destabilizing impact on the region. Brazil and Argentina are both dependent on natural gas from Bolivia and fear that an internal conflict would interrupt their supplies. Argentinean David Caputo came to Bolivia as head of a mission of the Organization of American States to try set up a dialogue between the government and the opposition. He found the government willing to engage in discussions, but the opposition vehemently opposed. The United States has provided no support to these regional diplomatic efforts to avoid civil strife in Bolivia.


Monday, May 05, 2008

Cruceños Hold Autonomy Vote, Unity Threatened

May 4 -(digitalwarriormedia) On Sunday the eastern department of Santa Cruz held its autonomy referendum vote in a move that the Morales administration has deemed illegal and unconstitutional.

Final results will not be available for a few days, but preliminary exit polls released by Bolivian media outlets suggest that 80-86 percent of Santa Cruz’s residents voted in favor of greater autonomy.

President Morales said he will ignore the results, which are a violation of Bolivia’s legislative and electoral laws. In an address from the Governmental Palace in La Paz on Sunday night, Morales called for unity of the country.

Amid scattered incidents of isolated violence, dozens of people were injured in clashes between supporters and critics of the measure, including one march were opposing sides hurled rocks at each other.

The numbers may vary according to sources, but somewhere between 18 and 30 people were hurt, including one demonstrator who was hit by a dynamite blast in the town of Montero. This casualty has not been confirmed by authorities.

In Plan 3000, the mostly indigenous Santa Cruz neighborhood where residents were against the autonomy referendum, ballot boxes were burned in protest of the vote. There were also reports of groups blocking roads in the districts of San Julian and Yapacani.

Meanwhile in Santa Cruz, as the preliminary results were released thousands of autonomy vote supporters rejoiced in the streets of the capital city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Governmental minister Alfredo Rada offered caution when looking at the numbers. He indicated that of the 930,000 Cruceños who were eligible to vote today, nearly 40 percent failed to show up.

Examining these statistics, Minister Rada says the legitimacy of the vote is called into question.

Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca Cespedes noted that the referendum is not compatible with either Bolivia’s current constitution or the draft constitution still awaiting its own national referendum vote.

However, members of Morales’ Cabinet indicated that he is ready to negotiate on the issues of concern with the opposition, but the Media Luna governors remain unyielding.

Morales and his supporters have always charged that the opposition is only seeking autonomy in an effort to keep the land and resources in the hands of a few.

Morales’ government has been criticized by the opposition for its agrarian land reform and redirection of taxes into social programs.

The eastern lowland state is the wealthiest province in Bolivia - home to vast natural resources, large landowners, agribusinesses and some of the country’s richest families.

The opposition has remained immobile in their political and economic agenda.

On the other hand, even today President Morales asked for a continuation of dialogue with the departmental governors of the “Media Luna” opposition.

President Morales called on the Media Luna to work together with the central government in order to guarantee autonomy for all people, not just the oligarchy.

His administration has not rejected autonomy outright and ministers expressed support for a legitimate sub-state model of autonomy.

Morales accused the United States of supporting the opposition’s moves toward greater autonomy from the central government. US officials have rejected this accusation.

The U.S. government has been noticeably muted in its response to the autonomy demands, while other international organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union have affirmed support for the Bolivian government.

The vote in Santa Cruz is the first of four autonomy referendums being planned by eastern provinces. It is expected that Beni, Pando and Tarija will hold autonomy votes next month.

Sunday’s outcome could play a pivotal role in whether these departments continue with their autonomy plans, according to Hugo Siles Alvarado, Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations.
Photos: NYT, Reuters, Iran Press TV


Friday, May 02, 2008

Evo Morales in the Words of Joseph Stiglitz

Evo Morales is considered one of the world's 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine

When union organizer Evo Morales was elected President of Bolivia in 2005, it was the first time in the country's history that the indigenous people, who make up roughly 60% of the population, had one of their own as President. He moved quickly away from the neoliberal policies of his predecessors to try to help his community, the vast majority of whom live below the poverty line.

In a time of skyrocketing commodity prices, Morales, 48, earned the ire of the oil companies and the envy of other Presidents in the region by renegotiating outdated energy contracts to earn more money for the country's coffers — a portion of which he put toward increased health-care and social spending. He has resisted the temptations of his high position in favor of a low-key manner that includes an appreciation of simple food — a meat-and-potatoes man, he once took me for lunch at a local BBQ joint — and a taste for wearing his favorite old sweaters.

His government has been unable to accomplish much of what it set out to do. The bureaucrats have dug in their heels, and the country's élites hate his populist rhetoric and close ties to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. But Morales remains popular with his people. Although he will continue to find that delivering on his campaign promises is hard, his presence in the presidential palace will inspire indigenous people throughout Latin America.
Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate.
His latest book is The Three Trillion Dollar War .

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