Thursday, October 30, 2008

"Bolivia's Democratic and Economic Changes"

with Bolivian Ministers Luis Arce and Carlos Villegas

On October 10, 2008, the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington D.C. hosted an event with Luis Arce, Minister of Finance and Carlos Villegas, Minister of Development and Planning.

With CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot, these Bolivian Ministers examine the economic and political changes occurring in Bolivia and the conflicts that have arisen in opposition to these changes.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Historic Agreement and Jubilation

(digitalwarriormedia) On Jan. 25, 2009 a referendum vote will be held for Bolivia’s new constitution. The document represents many decades-long struggles by Bolivia’s marginalized indigenous majority. Arriving at this political moment has cost much in lives lost and compromises made.

The agreement is a victory for Morales and the Movement to Socialism party (MAS). However, the question remains as to what compromises MAS and Morales made with the opposition to get the laws passed.

The MAS party majority and the opposition amended 100 articles of the 411 articles in the new constitutional text. One of the most glaring political concessions was Morales’ agreement to only run for one additional five-year term. Previously MAS had sought unlimited opportunity for presidential re-election. If re-elected in December 2009, Morales would have to leave office in 2014. There were other negotiations made on the issues of autonomy, justice and the electoral system.

Initially the reaction from government supporters and the social organizations is one of historic accomplishment and jubilation. Many consider this a triumph over neoliberalism and European imperialism. There was a long period in Bolivia's history where indigenous people could not vote and were unable to enter the Plaza Murillo. This week tens of thousands gathered in a 23-hour vigil to demand that elected officials honor their constituents.

The Union of South American States (UNASUR), Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union and United Nations have all congratulated the achievement of the Morales government on obtaining a political agreement.

The new constitution will maintain nationalization of the nation’s resources and grant rights and autonomous recognition to indigenous groups, renounce war, incorporate the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and extend social and cultural rights.

Three years and three days after Bolivia inaugurated its first indigenous president on a platform of political and social reform, the electorate will finally be able to cast their vote for a new Constitution.

Photos: ABI


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"We have worked day & night"

Bolivia's central government & the "Media Luna" opposition of the eastern lowlands say they have reached a deal on constitutional reform after months of protests and several deaths of Indigenous activists. The move came as thousands gathered outside Congress in Plaza Murillo after a week-long march demanding greater representation of the Native populations within Bolivia.

The constitutional reforms sets out greater central control of the economy though nationalization of natural resources, greater re-distribution of wealth to Bolivia's indigenous masses and land reform.

To spur the negotiations and assure passage, Morales agreed to seek only one additional term as Bolivia's president, according to the Bolivian Information Agency.

Morales told throngs of supporters Monday that all sides had agreed to hold a referendum on the proposed charter in January 2009. The agreement came as thousands crowded into Plaza Murillo in La Paz to show support for the proposed constitution.

The agreement follows weeks of negotiations between the central government of Morales, Bolivia's first leader from an Indigenous majority centered in the western highlands, and political opponents who include the governors of largely white provinces in the east.

Yet those who wished to remain shackled to the ideas of power established through centuries of Spanish Colonialism & subsequently ravaged by the beasts of the crashing free market, have recently seen the American led economies shutter & in some cases collapse. With US financial and military support drained by expenditures halfway around the world, the former ruling oligarchy may fall to the stunning defeat of US policies dating back to the days of Standard Oil that have kept them in power.

As the United States nationalizes its banks and private debt, the actions in the last three years taken by the Bolivian government, the Opposition lost its arguments against social reform. Without the United States financial support & policy leadership, the 500 years of night begins to fade as the Media Luna wanes.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Bolivian Congress Puts Constitutional Reform On Hold

Oct. 20 -(digitalwarriormedia) On Sunday, Bolivia’s Congress voted down a measure that would set the date for a national vote on the country’s new constitution. The referendum act failed to get the two-thirds vote necessary to pass into law.

Congress began its session on Saturday with the main purpose of addressing the referendum issue, however the conservative Democratic Social Power (Podemos) party submitted a proposal to discuss suspending the state of siege decreed in the region of Pando.

President Morales declared a state of siege in the department of Pando on September 12 after hundreds of indigenous peasants were ambushed outside of the city of Cobija. The attack resulted in the deaths of 18 people and the deposition of Leopoldo Fernandez who was removed as prefect of Pando and arrested on charges of genocide.

The Pando issue dominated 8 hours of debate in Congress and still did not achieve the two-thirds vote during the congressional session which ended at 2 am on Sunday morning.
Congress reconvened at 9 am, with the call for the referendum and approval of the draft new Constitution of the Bolivian State set for the agenda.

According to the Minister of Rural and Agricultural Development, Carlos Romero, the government had dealt with all of the opposition's issues on the constitutional document - including the autonomous demands and differences on agricultural reform - through the consultative committee.

The inter-congressional consultative committee, led by Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, had met in a 23-hour marathon session between Thursday and Friday in order to reach agreements between the government and the demands of conservative party members.

Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism party (MAS), does not have the necessary two-thirds majority required by law to approve the constitutional referendum without forming some political alliances with opposition parties.

For this reason, on October 10 a multi-party commission was created within the Congress to open up a process of dialogue between the government and opposition with the goal of reaching an agreement on the draft constitution and the convening of the referendum needed to ratify the document.

Last week, Garcia Linera said there was an ultra-right minority in Bolivia that was reluctant to give the country the peace and tranquility it needs. And that this ultra-right was the same group responsible for the civil coup that gripped Bolivia several weeks ago. Nonetheless, the government was willing to incorporate the demands of the opposition with respects to land reform and departmental autonomies.

While public statements from the Vice President and administration officials indicated that both sides were close to negotiating a consensus, the constitutional referendum law failed to pass the Congress.

Once again the push for a new national constitution has been derailed – at least for the moment. Morales suffered a setback on September 1 when Bolivia’s highest electoral court – the Corte Nacional Electoral (CNE) – announced that Morales could not use a presidential decree to set a December 7 vote on the constitutional referendum. The CNE stated that the referendum must be called into law by the Congress. The executive branch recognized the jurisdiction of the judiciary, which culminated in a legislative defeat on Sunday.

A new national constitution has represented one of the strongest demands from Morales’ supporters, many of them from Bolivia’s indigenous majority and social organizations. Sunday’s vote makes strike two on a major pillar of the change process taking place in Bolivia since the election of Evo Morales in December 2005.

Meanwhile, thousands of marchers were set to arrive in the capital city of La Paz on Monday. It is the final stop of a week-long demonstration demanding that Congress pass a law in support of constitutional reform.

Around 60,000 social organizations cooperated in a 124-mile march that started in the department of Oruro and was reported to have at some point reached up to 100,000 participants.

President Morales was expected to lead the last several miles of the march as government supporters arrive at the Plaza Las Armas from all parts of the country.

Sources: ABI, Telesur, La Prensa
Photos: ABI


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bolivians Make Historic March, Demand New Constitution

October 16 (digitalwarriormedia) - On Monday, thousands of Bolivians kicked off a march from Caracollo, Oruro on their way to the capital city of La Paz.

President Evo Morales led the first few miles of a week-long march that will cover 124 miles and end on the steps of the National Congress.

Various social sectors joined the march that was organized by the National Coordinator for Change (CONCALCAM) with the principal demand that Congress approve a law which will pave the way for a referendum vote on Bolivia’s new constitution. The mobilization also demands legislators legalize voting for Bolivian citizens who live abroad.

Morales was received warmly by his supporters, who took him up to a small altar prepared for an Andean ritual, where Morales made up offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for the success of the mobilization.

"We hope that the people in Congress, the opposition, see the Bolivian people's efforts and approve the constitutional reforms," Morales said.

The president also called on farmers living along the route to provide food and accommodations for the marchers who arrived from different points throughout the country and were armed with small flags and copies of the draft constitution.

Commencing the mobilization with a few thousand marchers, by Wednesday that number had grown to at least 15,000, as reported by Telesur.

According to Presidential Spokesman, Ivan Canelas, this demonstration is historic. Although long marches have been a method of protest and activism within Bolivia by miners and indigenous peoples in the past, never before have so many different sectors participated in these demonstrations.

Marchers include workers, peasants, coca growers, indigenous settlers, peasant women, university students, rural teachers, factory workers, entrepreneurs and others.

Fidel Surco, president of CONALCAM indicated that the march, supported by the largest unions in Bolivia and numerous social sectors, will conclude on Monday, October 20th in La Paz. At first the march was planned as a protest, with thousands converging to surround the National Congress building at the Plaza de Armas, but the event has been restructured to instead mark a democratic celebration.

The opposition is vehemently against the referendum, which is needed in order to put the draft constitution before the Bolivian people for a vote. They claim the draft charter does not meet their demand of greater autonomy.

The opposition-controlled eastern provinces of Beni, Chuquisaca, Pando, Tarija, and Santa Cruz have all sought greater autonomy and control over local resources, holding departmental autonomy referendums unsanctioned by the national government in recent months.

President Morales has repeatedly expressed a willingness to include departmental autonomies in the new charter - an issue that remains at the root of the opposition’s resistance to the central administration in La Paz.

On Monday, Morales invited the opposition prefects to participate in the demonstrations that support a constitutional referendum.

"If the Prefect in Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, Mario Cossio in Tarija, {other} Prefects, and civic committees wish departmental autonomies, they would have to be in demonstrations for establishing indigenous, rural, and departmental autonomies," said Morales according to ABI.

Social sectors hope the mobilization will convince legislators that they must approve a referendum law. Morales party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) controls the lower house of Congress, but the right-wing opposition holds a majority in the Senate. The referendum law must pass both houses in order to become law and permit the December 7 referendum vote sought by Morales and his supporters.

Photos: ABI


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Carrying a Big Stick - Imperialist Style

On October 2, President Morales refused a request by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration which sought to fly anti-narcotics operations over Bolivian territory.

Saying his nation wishes to be “free and sovereign”, Morales continues to repudiate U.S. activities that suppress Bolivia’s independence, while the Bush Administration tries to impose its will upon one of the poorest nations in Latin America.

"It's important that the international community knows that here, we don't need control of the United States on coca cultivation," said Morales according to the Associated Press. "We can control ourselves internally. We don't need any spying from anybody."

This is the latest incident in U.S.-Bolivia relations that may jeopardize trade preferences for Bolivia under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act - a U.S. trade program for countries participating in anti-drug efforts.

At risk are almost $150 million in trade benefits and possibly as many as 20,000 Bolivian jobs.

The program - which began in 1991 as the Andean Trade Preference Act – permits Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru to export tariff-free products to the U.S. in return for their efforts to battle international drug smuggling.

The trade preferences are set to expire in December, with a final decision on the ATPDEA expected by the White House by the end of October.

Playing Politics

Despite calls from President Bush and a group of business leaders that Bolivia no longer deserved special trade consideration, the U.S. Congress approved an extension of the ATPDEA -offering a six-month extension to Bolivia and Ecuador, while providing a one-year renewal for Colombia and Peru.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable, the Emergency Committee for American Trade and the National Foreign Trade Council sent a letter to Congress calling for Bolivia and Ecuador to lose their trade preferences.

"There are serious concerns within the U.S. business community about breaches of the basic rule of law that are occurring in Ecuador and Bolivia," wrote the group, referring to Bolivia’s nationalization of its hydrocarbon sector and the telecom company, Entel.

The Bush Administration shares the same opinion as a group of U.S. business associations, although the justifications for repealing Bolivia’s trade benefits were widely divergent.

In a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative, President Bush proposed suspending Bolivia’s preferred trade status, stating that the country failed to cooperate in anti-narcotics efforts.

Citing the recent expulsion of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) personnel and the removal of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials from the main areas of Bolivia's illegal coca production a press release from the U.S. Trade Representative also indicated that Bolivia had a marked increase in coca production.

"The Morales administration's recent actions related to narcotics cooperation are not those of a partner and are not consistent with the rules of these programs," said U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab in a statement, “the suspension could be lifted as soon as the Bolivian government improves its performance."

However, according to the United Nations, Bolivia has shown a willingness to counter domestic coca production and the world’s third largest producer of coca has demonstrated progress in combating illicit coca cultivation.

Nonetheless, President Bush recently placed Bolivia on an anti-narcotics blacklist, accusing the Morales administration of failing to cooperate sufficiently in fighting drug trafficking.

Meanwhile the Bush administration earnestly seeks a free trade agreement with Colombia – the world’s largest producer of coca and cocaine, which produces almost 3.5 times the amount of coca grown in Bolivia.

Punishing the Little Guy

US.-Bolivia relations have remained strained since the expulsion of U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg on September 10. In response the U.S. government promptly followed suit with the expulsion of Bolivian Ambassador to the U.S., Gustav Guzman.

President Morales declared Goldberg a persona non grata and accused the U.S. Embassy in La Paz of fomenting violence in Bolivia.

In early September Morales was forced to call a state of martial law in the department of Pando after the massacre of eighteen indigenous government supporters near Cobija. Opposition groups attacked and looted government buildings throughout the eastern regions of the country.

Since November of last year, Morales had accused Goldberg of conspiring against the Bolivian government in part by funneling money and resources to opposition groups through the USAID.

And while the U.S. government remained completely silent on the cold-blooded murders of indigenous peasants and the wanton disrespect for the rule of law in these provinces, President Bush spoke loud and clear on the misguided “War on Drugs”.

On Sept 15, Bush added Bolivia to a “blacklist” of countries that have failed to cooperate in the fight against illegal drugs. Bolivia was the only country to be added this year – the remaining 20 were already on the list in 2007.

Bolivia’s Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca called the U.S. government’s blacklisting “another threat against Bolivia’s democracy”. He said Bolivia would like to see the trade benefits extended but that his country would strive to strengthen economic ties with other nations.

A report from the United Nations throws into question the claims of the Bush Administration. That “performance” so coyly referred to by Schwab, was a 5% increase in coca production over the last year.

A review of the latest report on coca cultivation in the Andean Region from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states that illicit coca growth in Bolivia was up 5% in 2007. For the Andean Region, production was up 16%, largely driven by Colombia.

“The increase was driven by a 27% rise in Colombia, and smaller increases of 5% and 4% respectively in Bolivia and Peru,” said the UNODC report.

Colombia’s ATPDEA trade status was never questioned when Congress was voting on extending trade preferences even though Colombia’s production increased last year from 78,000 to 99,000 hectares.

Meanwhile Bolivia’s coca production increased from 27,500 to 28,900 hectares. Legal limits on coca cultivation remained the same in Bolivia between 2006 and 2007 at 12,000 hectares or almost 30,000 acres.

The UNODC report also indicated that Bolivia increased the eradication of illicit coca by 24% and outperformed Columbia in seizures of cocaine, which was up 29% from 2006.

In Bolivia, the coca leaf is a sacred part of Andean culture and is revered for its medicinal properties. Morales, a former coca farmer, upholds the stance that coca leaf is not a drug and his administration’s position of “Coca Yes, Cocaine No”.

New Friends & Allies

The ATP and ATPDEA were designed to reduce illegal crop production and promote economic development in the Andean region, but with certain political conditions.

President Morales has repeatedly said Bolivia wants partners not masters and relationships with nations that are based upon reciprocity and mutual respect.

Recently, one of Bolivia’s most widely circulated papers, La Razon, claimed that Bolivia is becoming more isolated because of its separation from the U.S. However, this view is shortsighted.

The Morales administration aims to improve international relations and diversify its national economic policies, inking billions of dollars in hydrocarbon and mining deals with Russia, Iran, and India as well as increasing regional contracts with Argentina and Brazil.

Bolivia’s timing could not be better as the U.S. – fraught from fighting two ill-fated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as an economic crisis that is jeopardizing the global economic system – is losing influence, not only in Latin America, but around the world.

As this economic hurricane hits countries around the globe, those most closely tied to the U.S. economy in trade, tourism and development aid will likely suffer a fate worse than those nations that choose to charter their own course and diversify.

In general U.S. policy towards Latin America is pushing former allies towards mutually beneficial trade relations with other countries, such as in the case of Bolivia and Venezuela who have earnestly sought increased economic ties with Russia and Iran. These bi-lateral relations should be looked at in the context of national sovereignty as countries seek to diversify their economies with willing partners.

As has been historically clearly demonstrated by the U.S. and in the last eight years of the Bush administration, international relationships are dictated by the priorities of the U.S. – independent-minded leaders need not apply.

Photos: ABI