Sunday, June 29, 2008

Uncertain Political Future in Wake of Autonomy Votes

by Franz Chávez
for InterPress Service

LA PAZ, June 23 (IPS) - The political future in Bolivia is unpredictable following the autonomy referendums in the provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, whose governors interpret the triumph of the pro-autonomy position as a vote of confidence and a victory over President Evo Morales.

Sunday’s vote in the southern province of Tarija was virtually a repeat of the referendums held earlier this year in the other three provinces, with 80 percent of voters coming out in favor of an autonomy statute adopted by the provincial government, according to the exit polls.

But as in the three earlier referendums, held on May 4 in Santa Cruz in the east and June 1 in Beni and Pando in the north, the abstention rate stood at between 30 and 40 percent.

There were only a few incidents in rural towns, where supporters of Morales set fire to ballot boxes and kept people from voting.

The challenge to the government of Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, mounted by the country’s wealthier northern, eastern and southeastern provinces, which are rich in natural gas and other resources, was further strengthened by the approval of the autonomy statute in Tarija.

The autonomy referendums, which run counter to the Bolivian constitution, have been criticized as an attempt at separatism. The four rightwing governors -- known as prefects in Bolivia -- are seeking decentralization and greater control over the revenues from the natural gas and other resources in their provinces by means of the creation of provincial assemblies and local tax collection mechanisms.

Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, the second-largest in South America after Venezuela’s, bring in $1.2 billion a year in taxes and royalties, and are the country’s main source of foreign exchange. The country’s biggest oil and gas deposits are in Tarija and Santa Cruz.

The main support base of the leftist Morales and his Movement to Socialism (MAS) are the country’s indigenous majority, based in Bolivia’s impoverished western highlands.

Another factor of uncertainty is the August 10 recall referendum for the president, vice president, and eight of the country’s nine governors that was suggested by the rightwing PODEMOS movement and approved by the legislature. (The governor of Chuquisaca is up for election on Jun. 29, because the MAS governor resigned).

The Morales administration and the rightwing governors have expressed a willingness to engage in talks on the two big issues in dispute: the four autonomy statutes approved in provincial referendums, and the new constitution to be ratified in a national referendum, the draft of which was approved in December by the MAS majority in the constituent assembly in a vote that was boycotted by the opposition.

But on Sunday, Deputy Minister of Justice Wilfredo Chávez reiterated that the autonomy votes were illegal, and the opposition has begun to talk about avoiding the recall referendum and beginning to build the autonomy process, based on the strong support expressed in the provincial referendums.

The distancing of the two sides from the possibility of dialogue comes at a critical moment for the government, which is facing difficulties in guaranteeing domestic fuel supplies and preventing the contraband of fuel to neighboring countries, where prices are much higher. Compounding these problems are the rise in food prices and pressure from public transport associations to raise bus ticket prices.

Morales is also facing a strike and roadblocks on routes leading to the province of Potosí, organized by small-scale miners who refuse to pay taxes on their production, despite the current boom in the price of tin.

In spite of the adverse political climate faced by the Morales administration, the popular movements that support the government continue to stand strong behind their demands for empowerment of the country’s indigenous people, who have long suffered discrimination, and the profound democratic and cultural changes promised by the indigenous president.

On Saturday, Morales launched his campaign in search of ratification of support for his government’s achievements, while Vice President Álvaro García Linera came out to defend the administration from accusations of poor economic performance.

García Linera noted, for example, that the current annualized inflation rate of 12 percent is no higher than the rates seen during the rightwing administrations that governed Bolivia from 1986 to 1997.

Morales is confident that he will achieve the 53.7 percent of the votes that he took in December 2005, when he was elected president. Morales, the vice president and the governors will have to take as many or more votes as they won when they were elected, in order to stay in office.

But several of the six opposition governors are worried that they will fail to gain the proportion of votes that they took in December 2005, in the first popular elections for provincial governors (until then, the prefects were presidential appointees).

Governors Rubén Costas of Santa Cruz and Ernesto Suárez of Beni are confident that they will be ratified in their posts in the recall referendum, but Tarija governor Mario Cossío is facing accusations of embezzlement and heavy opposition in rural areas, which endanger his hold on power.

In Pando, rightwing governor Leopoldo Fernández has failed to win support in rural areas and poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Cobija. Also worried is retired captain Manfred Reyes Villa, who heads the government of the central province of Cochabamba, where coca growers and other followers of Morales are opposed to his support for provincial autonomy.

In the province of La Paz, a MAS stronghold, opposition governor José Luis Paredes stands to lose the recall referendum, according to analysts.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Assassination Plot Against Morales in Santa Cruz

(digitalwarriormedia) Two men, members of the Cruceñista Youth Union (UJC), were arrested on Thursday at the El Trompillo airport in Santa Cruz, believed to be planning an assassination attempt on President Morales.

Within their possession was a Mauser rifle with telescopic sight and ammunition.

Holding long-range weapons close to El Trompillo airport - where President Morales’ plane waited for his arrival before heading back to La Paz - led authorities to believe these men were involved in an assassination plot.

Deputy Minister of Governmental Coordination with Social Movements, Sacha Llorenti, said that, "apparently these people {would} move into the Cinema Center building which is the highest in the area {and} whose roof offers a panoramic view of El Trompillo airport."

Fernando Vaca Méndez, 20, and Carlos Yovani Domínguez, 34, were arrested by the Special Force to Combat Crime (FELCC) and then later released by the Public Prosecutor of Santa Cruz as there was not enough evidence with which to keep detaining them.

Prosecuting attorney, William Tórre, defended his decision to free the two men, indicating that the possession of these items was not a crime.

Their release drew words of criticism from Vice-minister of the Interior, Rubén Gamarra, who said the District Attorney’s office of Santa Cruz acted in favor of the two men, who are linked to a group known for its violent attacks against indigenous men, women, the elderly and other supporters of the Morales administration.

Minister Llorenti said "We believe that this is a very serious fact that must be deeply investigated."

While Gamarra announced that the UJC would be punished and the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz would also be investigated.

Sources: Telesur and Agencia Boliviana de Informacion


Thursday, June 19, 2008

US Presidential Candidate Nader Commends Latin America

New York (digitalwarriormedia):

Independant, Consumer Advocate & Liberal Author Ralph Nader on foreign policy concerning Latina America & Immigration ...........

video via DWM


Sunday, June 15, 2008

U.S. Protection Re-ignites Unease, Raises Questions

(digitalwarriormedia) As of Tuesday, the Bolivian government confirmed that the United States has granted political asylum to former Defense Minister Carlos Sanchez Berzaín.

Gustavo Guzman, Bolivian Ambassador to the United States, released a series of documents to the press earlier this week confirming the June 5 announcement made by Berzaín on Radio Erbol.

The announcement sparked a protest several thousand strong at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz on Monday. Individuals threw firecrackers at the U.S. flag while helmeted Marines observed from the roof of the building.

According to Ambassador Guzman the situation, "complicates the relationship between Bolivia and the United States."

Guzman also denounced Berzaín for statements he has frequently made in the U.S. media criticizing the Bolivian government. He noted that Berzaín, who now lives in Key Biscayne, Florida, is a frequent guest on TV and Radio Marti – two U.S. funded broadcasting stations based in Miami that transmit pro-American propoganda to Cuba.

Berzaín has had indefinite asylum in the U.S. since May 1, 2007. He will lose this status if he is formally accused of committing crimes, according to the letter sent by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Political asylum could also be revoked if Berzaín’s petition was found to contain untrue statements, said Judith Chomsky - an international human rights lawyer who is part of a legal team that filed civil charges against Berzaín and Goni in the U.S. last year

According to Chomsky, Berzaín submitted documents for his asylum that claimed he did not have any criminal charges pending against him in Bolivia.

“This is not accurate,” said Chomsky, who in cooperation with the Harvard Law International Human Rights Clinic, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, is suing on behalf of 10 Aymaran plaintiffs who lost relatives during the Gas War of 2003.

The suit demands punitive and compensatory damages for the actions of these former Bolivian leaders. Without U.S. government cooperation to return Berzaín and Goni back to Bolivia, this is one of the only options available for these families within the U.S. justice system.

“If the U.S. is unwilling to extradite, then the alternative is to file a civil case in the U.S. courts,” said Chomsky. Although she believes the most appropriate place for these men to be charged is in Bolivia.

Chomsky, a human rights activist for more than 40 years, noted that "immunity defense" claims by Berzaín and Goni do not apply to human rights abuses. These charges are considered a “global reason” to prosecute violators, who cannot be protected for political reasons.
Waldo Albarracín, Bolivia’s Defensor del Pueblo (Public Ombudsman), explained that there is no justification for these men to remain in the U.S. He told El Deber that based upon the Convention Related to the Status of Refugees - adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1951 - asylum and refugee status would not apply in this case.

According to Albarracin, the statute establishes several requirements for refugees and clearly delineates that no person being charged with political crimes or crimes against humanity can benefit from refugee status.

However both men are well connected, having affiliations with powerful circles within Washington D.C.

In 2002, Goni hired Democratic strategist James Carville’s firm, Greenberg Carville Shrum, to direct his second campaign for Bolivia’s presidency. One of Berzaín’s lawyers is high-profile Washington lawyer, Greg Craig, who now serves as foreign policy advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Orders from Berzaín and Sanchez de Lozada induced the military to attack citizens of El Alto, who were protesting the export of natural gas to the U.S. via a Chilean port in October 2003.

Both men are accused of crimes against humanity, extrajudicial execution and genocide for the murder of 67 people and 400 wounded. Another nine victims died in the ensuing months due to the severity of their wounds. Among the dead were an 8-year old girl, who was shot in the chest while peering out of a window, as well as a pregnant woman and her unborn child. Most of the victims were indigenous Aymarans.

Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca called U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Phillip Goldberg, to meet with him on Tuesday and explain the position of the U.S Government for protecting these men. According to the Bolivian press, Choquehuanca left the meeting dissatisfied with the explanations leveled by Goldberg and he said the government will continue to demand more information from the U.S.

Formal papers for the extradition of Goni, Berzaín and former hydrocarbons minister Jorge Berindoague, have yet to be filed with the U.S. government, which according to Ambassador Guzman, are eight months delayed. In October 2006, Bolivia’s Congress voted by a two-thirds margin that these men could be charged as civilians for their role in “Black October”

At this time Goni’s legal status within the U.S. is unknown. Goni’s people are not saying, but Bolivian government officials expect he has received protected status as well.

*Photos: ABI and Indymedia Bolivia


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thousands Protest U.S. Asylum for Sanchez Berzaín

June 9 - Shortly after 10 am, several thousand protestors from El Alto marched into La Paz and surrounded the U.S. Embassy. The mainly indigenous protestors were demanding the return of ex-President Sánchez de Lozada and ex-Minister of Defense Sánchez Berzaín to Bolivia. Both men are facing a civil suit in the U.S. and charges in Bolivia for the death of almost 70 civilians during the 2003 “Guerra del Gas.”

On June 3, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and Carlos Sanchez Berzaín’s U.S. lawyers distributed a press release which affirms that the U.S. government granted ex-defense minister Sánchez Berzain asylum in 2007, and claiming that, as a result, he cannot be prosecuted:

To grant him asylum, under the applicable legal standard, the Executive made a finding that Minister Berzaín was credible. …. The U.S. Executive also found that, based on his application, he is a “refugee,” i.e. one who is unable or unwilling to return to the country of removal “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of . . . political opinion.” 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42)(A) (2000). A refugee cannot be prosecuted in U.S. courts for the very actions for which the United States has found he would be persecuted at home.” (p.17)

It argues further that Sánchez de Lozada is also immune from prosecution as an ex-head of state. The press release also affirms that the:

“Motion to Dismiss reveals just released and never before seen documents from the State Department that not only show the U.S. government's full support for the Sánchez de Lozada government in 2003, but also demonstrate the culpability of current President Evo Morales and his allies for the violence and casualties that lie at the heart of the action brought against the former president and defense minister.”

The text of the motion and evidence presented, including a U.S. State Department document from 2004 which contains inaccurate and misleading information, fail to convincingly argue these points. The defense team also presented U.S. Embassy cables from ex-Ambassador Greenlee obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

The press release argues that, “ would potentially reverse judgments the State Department previously made supporting the Bolivian government’s actions.”

It is erroneous to assume that U.S. State Department's documents, especially those that have been systematically refuted, can be upheld as undisputable fact in civil legal proceedings or that U.S. Courts should not have the ability to question {and} evaluate the accuracy of U.S. State Department actions.

Affirmations of strong U.S. government support for Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, has rekindled resentment over past U.S. intervention in Bolivian politics and continuing frustration among the residents of El Alto, where the majority of the deaths occurred, about the lack of judicial consequences for the deaths.

U.S. officials did not respond to letters rogatory presented by the Bolivian government to legally inform both men, currently residing in the U.S., of the charges against them. The formal extradition request should be presented to the U.S. Department of Justice in the next few months, but is expected to face extended delays and appeals.

Expressing the discontent of many Bolivians over this process, on June 8, President Morales stated, “We would like for, not just the U.S. Ambassador, but also the U.S. government to help us to bring to justice those that have hurt Bolivia a great deal.”

Protestors Surround the U.S. Embassy in La Paz

The angry crowd, that extended four blocks around the Embassy, included many students from the National University of El Alto. Protestors surrounded the embassy--some carrying Bolivian flags and chanting “Listen, listen!” They threw firecrackers over the wall of the embassy, in an attempt to get their message through the gates, and bashed in cars parked nearby. Apparently, the protest had been announced, and most embassy staff were not inside the installation.

The National Police surrounded the exterior of the embassy, wearing riot gear and attempting, at first, to peacefully control the protestors. Security vehicles were parked in front of the gates to prevent any protestors from breaking through. In response, protestors threw rocks and firecrackers at the police. Around 1 pm, the police began tear-gassing and spraying protestors with water cannons. Although protestors left the area, the tension is far from over.

Photos: ABI


Monday, June 02, 2008

Last elements of ENRON in Bolivia fall to nationalization

The Bolivian government has continued its nationalization of key resource industries - taking full control of a key gas pipeline company, Transredes.

La Paz moved to nationalize Transredes because Ashmore, continued to oppose the government's majority stake in the company.

President Evo Morales says that the government had tried to negotiate with the other shareholders, the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell and the US based company Ashmore.

Both multi-national interests operated the remnants the ENRON energy company as a way to profit from the devastation the "Enron collapse" caused.

Morales wants to further increase national revenues from its industries and natural resources.

Parts of Bolivia's energy industry were privatized in the 1990s, with foreign companies awarded 50% stakes by previous corrupt Bolivian administrations.

Last month Bolivia's state energy company paid $6.3M for a majority stake in Spanish-owned Andina, one of the country's biggest energy companies which exploits oil and gas fields, and owns a 50% stake in two giant gas fields.

It has also taken over, by state decree, the control of Chaco from British Petroleum and Pan American Energy as they had refused to re-negotiate contracts that extracted resources from Bolivia without providing for re-investment.

Transredes is not the first energy company to have been nationalized, buying back privatized companies has clearly been the main guiding principle of Bolivian government policy and the greatest reason for Bolivia's improved economic management and the rise of national GDP.

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Illegal Autonomy Referendums Held in Bolivian Departments

Two more Bolivian departments held autonomy referendum votes on Sunday, but with high rates of abstention from a process that has been discredited and ruled illegal by the national government.

The results from Beni indicate that 80.2% voted “YES” while 19.8% voted “NO”. In Pando 81.8% voted for greater departmental autonomy and 18.2% voted against it.

Abstention rates were the highest in Pando, where more than 40% of eligible voters stayed away from the polls. According to various Bolivian press sources, Pando’s abstention numbers could be as high 51% or as low as 41%. The rate of abstention was 34.5% in Beni.

In a scene that has become all too familiar in Bolivia, campesinos and union members who support President Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party, were the victims of violence provoked by pro-autonomy youth groups.

On Sunday, union headquarters in both departments were attacked by members of the Cruceñista Youth Union (UJC) and the Beni Autonomous Youth Union (UJAB).
Thousands of youths descended upon the departments, sent by opposition leaders to “guard” the voting process of the referendum, but their actions were bent upon instigating violence.

Youth wielding sticks, stones, firecrackers, knives and even firearms launched verbal and physical attacks. In the violence, women and journalists were assaulted, a motor cycle was set on fire and at least five people were injured.

Leading up to the referendum votes numerous unions, social organizations, motorbike operators and others have mobilized government supporters to abstain from casting ballots.

Indymedia Bolivia reported voting irregularities including people permitted to vote without requiring documentation, the collection of signatures from farmers telling them that there is no need to go to vote on the referendum and also residents from other departments coming in to vote.

Despite the number of voters who stayed away from the polls, both departmental prefects and their supporters considered the referendum votes overwhelming victories.

Beni and Pando are following the lead of the Santa Cruz, the nation’s wealthiest department and also the stronghold of opposition to the Morales government. Santa Cruz held the first autonomy referendum on May 4 with 85% of those voting demonstrating support for the autonomy measure and 15% against. Thirty-seven percent of the electorate in Santa Cruz abstained from the vote.

On June 22, Tarija will be the next department to hold an autonomy referendum. These electoral tools, which are invalid at a national and international level, are the latest devices contrived by the opposition, to derail the process of change taking place in Bolivia.

Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija are home to some of Bolivia’s largest agricultural and energy wealth. Each province seeks greater control over taxes, policing, land, and energy resources. The opposition-led autonomy measures would be used to undermine governmental programs aimed at redistributing land and economic resources through an agrarian land reform policy and taxes on Bolivia’s hydrocarbon sector. Greater control over police would weaken the central government’s law enforcement capability over a hostile opposition that is willing to use physical force and intimidation.

Bolivian Minister Alfredo Rada said the process of autonomy "should be legal, constitutional, democratic and based on the new Constitution of the State" instead of these referendums that are "illegal" and "separatist" and threaten to divide the nation.