Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bolivia Decides

Cochabamba – Aug 10 - More than 4 million Bolivians are expected to decide the future leadership of the country today by voting “Si” or “No” for the president, vice president and eight regional prefects (governors).

In the final days leading up to the recall referendum vote of August 10, tension within the country reached a level that leaves much of the general public concerned about peace.

Restrictions were issued by the government throughout the country presumably in the anticipation of potential acts of violence. No alcoholic beverages may be consumed in public, transportation within cities has been suspended and public demonstrations have been restricted.

Hunger strikes are taking place within parts of the country as regional leaders demand that the central government return a greater share of Direct Hydrocarbon Tax (IDH) revenue to local governments. Earlier this week the governors of Beni, Pando and Santa Cruz joined the hunger strikes which started last Sunday.

On Tuesday Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner were forced to cancel a summit meeting with Morales due to anti-government protests that shut down the airport in Tarija. And on Wednesday, Morales canceled trips to two cities due to sabotage at a stadium in Trinidad, Beni and the blockage of the road from the airport in Cobija, Pando.

The opposition blamed the level of confrontation on the Morales government, in particular the deaths of two miners when they clashed with the military police near the Huanuni tin mine, in an incident that also left at least 30 injured on Tuesday. The miners, protesting for a reformed pension law, attempted to discharge dynamite in order to destroy the main bridge connecting Cochabamba with La Paz and successfully blew up a bus.

The Organization of American States (OAS) issued two separate calls for peace and cooperation this week and even UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon chimed in. The referendum will be monitored by 300 international observers from the European Union, United States, Mercosur and the OAS in order to observe Sunday’s vote and guarantee its validity.

A journalist with Telemundo observed that usually in the days before elections, life in Bolivia remains calm as people prepare for voting, but this Referéndum Revocatorio is very different. In particular the fact that the president cannot travel to five cities; in addition to the cities of Trinidad, Cobija and Tarija, Evo’s presence in Santa Cruz de la Sierra or Sucre would undoubtedly provoke confrontation and violence.

On the streets of La Paz for most of the week, life went about as normal, with a wide spectrum of opinions about the government of Evo Morales and what the Referéndum Revocatorio will accomplish.

Many seem to agree that the economy and employment are the most important areas that the government should focus its attention, but that peace and tranquilidad is what Bolivia really needs right now.

Americo Pandones, a taxi driver from El Alto is critical of right-wing propaganda against the Morales government and he points to the social programs that are now available for the elderly and schoolchildren.

“The journalists in Bolivia don’t interview the poor people,” said Pandones, “and the Western media only interview the rich classes. The majority of the Bolivian people support Evo Morales.”

He explained that because of Morales’ negotiations and nationalization of the hydrocarbon sector, the regional governors now have more money from the IDH tax than ever before in Bolivian history.

According to Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, who recently studied Bolivia’s land and hydrocarbon distribution, the amount that the regional governors receive from the central government is unlike any other developing country in the world.

“Bolivia is unusual. It’s the only developing country in the world that I know of where you have about half of the revenue from hydrocarbons going to the provinces and the local government,” says Weisbrot.

At the heart of the recall referendum is the stalemate that the central government and regional governors experienced over revenue from the hydrocarbon sector, land reform and the rewriting of the nation’s constitution.

Morales, for his part has said if he is not victorious, that he will return to the Chapare. This area of the Cochabamba department is where he maintains land from his days as a farmer and the place where Morales will cast his vote.

However the latest poll results indicate that Morales will win enough support to remain in office.

Besides President Morales and Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, the governors facing the recall vote are: Ruben Costas (Santa Cruz), Mario Cossio (Tarija), Ernesto Suarez (Beni), Leopoldo Fernandez (Pando), Jose Luis Paredes (La Paz), Manfred Reyes Villa (Cochabamba), Luis Alberto Aguilar (Oruro) and Mario Virreira (Potosi).

Savina Cuellar, Chuquisaca’s recently elected governor is not subject to the recall vote.

According to surveys, the governors from the four Media Luna provinces of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Beni have a high chance of being ratified, but the positions of the governors from Cochabamba and La Paz are not as secure.

Reyes Villa from Cochabamba warned that he will not observe the results of the referendum and will refuse to leave his position until the term he was originally elected to comes to a conclusion in 2009.

Voting stations opened at 8:00 a.m. and will remain open until 4:00 p.m. with the official final results unknown for a few days.







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