¿Una nueva COB?

May 11, 2013

Leo en los medios que sectores del partido de gobierno han planteado una “refundación” de la COB. Cuidado. Se trata de algo que ya trataron de hacer otros gobiernos. Las iniciativas acabaron en un fracaso estrepitoso y en la caída de los gobiernos bajo los cuales se hizo el intento. Se lo intentó durante las dictaduras militares de las décadas de 1970-1980. Una iniciativa de cierto aliento ocurrió en las postrimerías del segundo mandato de Víctor Paz Estenssoro. Delegados oficialistas fundaron la Central Obrera Boliviana de Unidad Revolucionaria (COBUR), de escasa duración. No tuvo oportunidad de mostrar mayor fuerza, pues Paz Estenssoro fue derrocado al poco tiempo por su vicepresidente René Barrientos. Todas las iniciativas de suplantar a la vieja COB tuvieron muerte súbita.

A boomerang hits back

April 18, 2013

Annals for history (and for those unfamiliar with Bolivia’s recent history)

Santa Cruz, BOLIVIA – The five men were sound asleep at a downtown four-star hotel after busy hours likely reviewing plans and messaging relatives in Hungary, Ireland, Croatia and Romania. All stayed in their individual rooms, except for brief meal breaks and petty errands like going outside for cigarettes and returning a rented car nearby. They looked like rather bored visitors about to travel back home. But destiny had pushed them into a tragic corner of one of the most brutal cases in Bolivia’s recent crime history.

At predawn hours, a deafening explosion knocked down the door of the group’s chief and a ra-ta-ta-ta of submachine gunfire echoed accompanied by screams and shouting.

Three of the men—a Hungarian, an Irishman and a Bolivian of Hungarian and Croatian heritage–lay dead, their bodies riddled with bullets. Four years later, the episode still haunts Bolivians, most used to tear gas explosions than to elite police raiding hotels shooting and killing guests.

No witnesses offered any details. Hotel guests scurried away from the scene, including a Bolivian Interior Ministry official who left the premises as the episode took place. Prosecutors came to the crime scene hours later and talked with the hotel manager and a receptionist who provided no clues worth investigating further.

Bolivian officials maintained the five men were part of a plot to kill President Evo Morales and trigger a Balkan-style secession movement in eastern Bolivia, the country’s the most prosperous region. The survivors, a Romanian citizen and a dual Bolivian-Croatian national, were arrested and tortured and are still held in prison. Bolivian authorities also unleashed waves of arrests and questioning of political opponents and conservative business leaders during eighteen months before filing official charges against 39 people, about a dozen of them exiled in neighboring Brazil and Paraguay. Others fled as far as the United States. Nine remain in Bolivian jails while others are under house arrest.

The Hotel Las Américas affair, as it is known, has been a traumatic landmark for Morales. As Bolivia’s first Aymara Indian President, Morales came to power pledging full respect of law and human rights. He used to say there would be not even one violent death during his government. But during his seven years as president, dozens of people have been killed in police actions.

With Hotel Las Américas, extra-judicial execution emerges as a new accusation that might account heavily on the Bolivian leader’s record.

Within hours of the killings Morales arrived in Venezuela, where he told reporters he had known of the alleged conspiracy beforehand and had ordered his Vice-president to take action. “I had intelligence that international mercenaries were in Santa Cruz…preparing to kill me and other authorities,” he said.

The statement raises a disturbing question oft repeated: If the President knew of a conspiracy, why were the alleged conspirators not arrested instead of what now appears to be a merciless execution?

Chief prosecutor Marcelo Soza says the police were attacked and soldiers fired

back, killing three. But no soldier was hurt in the attack, which occurred while the

five men were sleeping and either naked or wearing only underwear.

When Irish, Hungarian and Rumanian diplomats first expressed concern for their citizens, Morales furiously retorted with a threat to sue the diplomats “for sending mercenaries to kill us”.

These countries (Ireland, Hungary and Romania) have also filed complaints to international courts.The Inter-American Human Rights Commission is studying the case, while Human Rights Watch noted that an Irish state pathologist who examined the body of Michael Dwyer, the Irish citizen killed in the attack, concluded he had been shot dead by a single bullet in the heart, fired by someone standing over him, “most likely as he was sitting up in bed.”

One of the victims, Rózsa Flores, was well known in Central Europe. Decorated by the Croatian government, his life was the subject of a film, “Chico,” which received a prize in an international film festival.

Seven bullets hit Rózsa Flores. One blew his brain; each shoulder showed one shot, three other shots hit his thorax right side; a seventh bullet hit his right inch, apparently while he was on a crawling position.

Hungarian musician Magyarosi got six bullets, one through his trachea that asfixiated him in blood, Hungarian experts said.

More recently tape recordings have surfaced, allegedly with the voice of chief prosecutor Soza admitting that the police set up the supposed crime scene.

They had planted weapons in the rooms of those killed, even shooting at the walls to

simulate cross fire.

The voice warns that if the trial fell apart, “Evo (Morales) will fall too.”

Soza adamantly denies the voice is his, but experts in Spain and Brazil have determined otherwise.

Jimena Costa, a political analyst and professor at Bolivia’s Catholic University says that most Bolivians believe the killings were part of a strategy to subdue opposition to Morales’ government. “President Morales so far appeared not implicated. Now those tapes incriminate him,” she said.

Not the end of the world but the end Coca-Cola?

July 18, 2012

The indigenous leader stood before the cheering crowd,  Lake Titicaca on the cloudless horizon, and made the announcement of the year: The world will not end on Dec. 21, as Maya calendar believers say. Instead, that day will mark the end of Coca-Cola, replaced by Mocochinchi, a popular Bolivian beverage made of dried peaches, boiled in water and cooled overnight.

Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, speaking in Spanish rather than one of Bolivia’s 36 indigenous languages, added: “It will be the end of capitalism and the beginning of communitarianism. Dec. 21 will be the end of Coca-Cola and the beginning of  Mocochinchi…” A few women had Mocochinchi displayed on small tables, as though anticipating demand from newly Mocochinchi converted.

The Bolivian foreign minister, an Aymara Indian ideologist, is known for making  outlandish remarks.  In past speeches he has informed us that stones have sex and that Papalisa, an Andean tuber, is more powerful than Viagra (he boasted its benefits urging foreign colleagues to try it). And this statement, endorsed by President Evo Morales: it is not necessary to read books because studying the wrinkles of the elderly yields far greater knowledge. Ironically,  Choquehuanca’s speech was made near a landmark of the ancient Incas, whose empire conquered the foreign minister’s Aymara ancestors.

(On Dec. 21, he went on) “it will be the end of hate and selfishness, and the beginning of love; it is the end of capitalism and the beginning of communitarianism”, Choquehuanca stated to a crowd at the Copacabana resort, 80 miles west of La Paz, after Morales announced the construction of an airport. It was not clear the meaning of “communitarianism”, but it was thought to allude the way of life in poor Aymara communities known as “ayllus” where everything –or nearly- is shared.

Evoking ayllus is not pleasant these days, at least for foreign investors. A month ago, five local employees of Vancouver-based South American Silver Corp. were kidnapped by ayllu people angrily demanding cancelation of a contract under which the company was exploring the silver-rich Malku Khota mountainous region.

The hostages were released after ayllu judges applied a sort of community justice. The quintet, charged with spying on community customs, was sentenced to make 1.000 adobe bricks. The punishment seemed not enough and villagers upgraded it asking for outright nationalization of the company, which it says has already invested $16 million out of planned investments of $50 million.

Morales has been on an ambivalent campaign to attract foreign investments, badly needed in the mineral-rich country. He had nationalized 15 foreign firms from Brazil, England, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland as, in another step back, he gave in to the new demand. If any, it proved ayllus have a nationalizing clout.

Ayllus were already under scrutiny. Usually made up of a few hundred people, ayllus have been applying a “community justice” of their own, which has even meant a free license to kill. Two years ago, four policemen were brutally tortured, lynched and secretly buried. Police could not investigate the case, which came to light only under pressure of relatives of the victims.

Choquehuanca’s mix of astrology, culinary, botanics, and tuber roots-induced sexual vigor views were cheered as Morales announced construction of the airport, a long felt need in a traditional Bolivian Mecca for pilgrims coming in penance –some by foot. How an airport will contribute to the end of capitalism was not elaborated.

Both Choquehuanca’s and Morales’ display of news at the Titicaca lake sanctuary were viewed as an attempt to stem months of protests __and sharp dropping in approval rates (from 64% two years ago down to 28%-30% a few weeks ago, according to respected Catholic TV broadcast station Fides).

Earlier, Amazon Indians had completed an exhausting 400-mile long march to oppose building a road that would split their pristine land; in those days, thousands of doctors and nurses went on a country-wide strike and street protests defending their wages (the government wanted to increase schedules without increasing salaries); all was compounded by a nasty nation-wide police strike, reinforced by relatives and girlfriends staging riots demanding better pay for their men. An average police agent makes about $200 monthly. So, analysts concluded, it was good at least reassuring those gripped by predictions the world will finish soon, as they say is written on Maya calendars. It was like “don’t worry, be happy “ ritornello to many.

Political analysts also believe it will take more than an airport or reassurances about the world fate for Morales and his government to recover from ongoing political decline. The government is falling in public support since a December 2010 failed attempt to end costly oil subsidies. A liter of gasoline costs in Bolivia US$ 0.70, compared to $US 0.76 in the U.S., US$ 0.96 in Argentina, and US$ 1.58 in Brazil. Subsidies will cost national coffers about $800 million this year, or 3.5% of the country’s GDP. Morales rushed to calm down protests taking place even in his stronghold of Chapare, the humid subtropical valley where coca grows mostly for cocaine.

Subsidized fuels are among the ingredients to make drugs. Not surprisingly gasoline consumption has been on the rise in those places where soaring drug prices have created a boom not seen in other regions. The bonanza has turned Chapare towns into prime buyers of Hummers. Morales is also president of the union of coca growers, these days his staunchest supporters. When they joined in the protests saying they would remove support to the Indian leader if gas subsidies were removed, he backed off.

The end of Coca Cola Choquehuanca predicted would mean also the end of the strongest subliminal ally of coca leaf. It was out of it that American pharmacist John Styth Pemberton invented the drink in 1886 in Columbus, Georgia, starting one of the world’s richest capitalist empires, with up to 1.7 billion servings per day, as Wikipedia teaches us. The drink contains no cocaine since over a hundred years, Coca Cola executives claim, but its name persists. Morales has said he wants to amputate the word coca from the leaf’s namesake, but so far there has been no formal move in that direction.

Two years ago, the government announced plans to launch Coca Kolla, a soft drink that would come out of coca leaves. So far it is not known how successful the move was. And, importantly, nobody ever said if this brand contained any trace of cocaine. Attempts to emulate Coke success, although with other ingredients, have not trespassed national borders. Examples of Inkacola (Peru), Frescolita (Venezuela), or Guaraná (Brazil) come to mind. They never came close to Coke.

It is harder to ascertain the fate of the tea-colored Mocochinchi beyond Bolivian borders. A glass containing a small cauliflower-like seed costs about 2 pesos, or US$ 0.25. Choquehuanca implied it will take over Coca Cola, which rules unbeatable in 200 countries and territories. If the announcement was meant to boost culinary nationalism, it was at least a weak proposition. Peaches, most scholars say, did not originate anywhere in America but in Asia.

Morales and Choquehuanca spoke after a thousand trekkers from the Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro-Sécure (TIPNIS) withdrew from La Paz, where they had arrived after 62 days of walk fighting heat, rain and cold. They demanded President Morales to stop construction of a road through their territory, one of the few mostly untouched natural reserves in South America. Also, they were part of the Indian tribes that helped Morales become the first Indian representative elected as President. The government did not allowed them even enter Plaza Murillo, where the Presidential palace sits. Morales claimed they were plotting to overthrow him.

Tear gas grenades were profusely shot on the column of Indians, including babies and elders, by police guarding the plaza. After over a week in the chilly environment of La Paz, they chose to go back to the jungle. “We will defend our territory with the weapons of our ancestors: bows and arrows”, said Amazon Indian leader Adolfo Chávez.

Unless the war-like atmosphere recedes and the government scraps the road project, it seems there will be a live Avatar version.

This time it would be real earthly native Indians against forces they once thought to be their own.

Que no hable, por favor (Don’t let him talk, please)

April 25, 2012

Constitutional Court judge Mirtha Camacho Quiroga became two weeks ago a center of national attention along with another judge, Gualberto Cusi Mamani, whom she tried to shut up –albeit not quite successfully- on an embarrassing  matter for magistrates all over Plurinational Bolivia. Judge Cusi made headlines a month ago when as a matter-of-fact he disclosed that he regularly uses coca leaves to consult on complex cases brought to his attention as a magistrate in charge of interpreting Bolivia’s constitution. And, according to Judge Cusi, coca leaves always gave him the right direction for his decisions dealing with constitutional correctness.

The statement, first on a TV interview and then before lawmakers, still disturbs many Bolivians, especially those who now agonize over their cases pending on decisions by Judge Cusi and his coca leaves. Even more surprised –and embarrassed- by the revelation was judge Camacho, a musician professor before graduating from a law school in Oruro, a western city, 130 miles from La Paz. Not wanting to be identified with her colleague’s convictions, she interrupted an interview where Dr. Cusi was declaring to reporters –presumably about his coca reading ability. She told reporters to please not interview Cusi because his statements made all justice members feel bad.  “I am judge Camacho and want to tell you that the words of doctor Cusi affect all members of the Constitutional Court. He is not authorized to talk to the press”, she said bluntly.

Then she snapped some mikes and covered cameras with her hands, as cameras and remaining tape recorders turned on her.  And so, Dr. Cusi’s publicly confessed belief in the mysteries enshrined in coca, fueled debate over the virtues -or unvirtues- of coca leaves.

Reading coca is an ancient ritual in Bolivian Andes, mainly among Aymara and Quechua natives. Practiced by –but not only- “yatiris”, medical practitioners and revered healers among natives, the ritual consists of letting a fistful of coca leaves smoothly fall from the yatiri hands. The way the leaves fall and the position they take on the ground would indicate the answer to the question posed by the yatiri. It was the first time that a judge openly admitted to coca reading before making a decision.

Dr. Cusi has since made clear his firm, unbending belief that coca leaves illuminate decisions better than written laws. He was elected late last year in a controversial election in which white and null vote where far more numerous than valid vote. The Bolivian government claimed that electing judges was a world-wide innovation in search of popular participation in appointing justice administrators.

Critics, though, have objected that electing judges by popular vote is not the right way in the quest to improve justice in a developing country: On what basis, beyond career merits, a judge will look for a constituency vote? What he or she would pledge for? Besides, judges are supposed to apply the law, not to abide to interests of no one in particular, persons or groups. Added to this was a law banning media to interview candidates, which was strongly opposed by press institutions and reporters.

After the incident, judge Cusi left the unfinished meeting without saying a word. What he would do next remained in the field of speculation.

Untouchability (?)

October 29, 2011

Senator Isaac Avalos has explained the law recently signed by president Evo Morales declaring intangible the Territorio Indigena Parque Nacional isiboro Secure (better known as Tipnis). The law making the park untouchable was signed by president Morales a few days ago. “Nothing, nothing,” nothing can be done in the park. No hunting, no fishing. It is his word. I just heard him speaking on TV. Looks like a joke, but just in case, I dare to say: Beware you birds and capybaras; alert your neighbor lizards and crocodiles, jochis, snakes, especially pythons. They must understand and follow up what the honorable senator says. Or else. Big fish may not eat small ones, ants should be careful not to open holes for their homes or build trails. The Tipnis is untouchable. It is as if it had gone to the moon. It is in another dimension. Is it?

Soap opera or reality show?

July 31, 2010

All the ingredients for a soap opera at a sordid and thrilling point emerged in the last few days in Bolivia. Dirk Schmidt, a German who has been living for two decades in Bolivia was arrested by, as his lawyer says, police agents who not so long ago were friends and acquaintances with whom he used to work with and went on fishing and hunting as a supposed intelligence official of the Ministry of Interior.  Now he is accused of conspiracy and armed uprising, a charge quite common in Bolivia these days, and is held in custody in a local prison in Santa Cruz. Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti does not believe his allegations that he worked for the Government although in his service file he claims he provided critical help defusing some of the most serious threats showdowns faced by the Indian-social government of President Evo Morales. The German’s wife, Bolivian Karina Flores Villa, presents documents supporting his claim that he was appointed as a direct “informer” (euphemism for spy) of former deputy Interior Minister Gustavo Torrico, fired just a few days ago for unknown reasons. The belief that there is a power struggle going on within the government and that the fired deputy Minister is just one of  the casualties flares up. But the current Interior Ministry Sacha Llorenti denies the German has been ever appointed to anything, that documents produced trying to prove Schmidt’s point are a forgery. Schmidt, in short, was a dangerous element. In his home police found seven shotguns, two revolvers, and powerful caliber ammunition, which the German claims were all duly registered at the government’s arms control agency. The official story crashes as  ousted deputy minister Torrico discloses that the German really was an officer under his command as an “informer”—and not only recently but since the onset of President Morales’ government, that is over five years now. Now Torrico is likely to face a legal process himself.

The atmosphere is still boiling with conjectures as another scandal breaks. The amauta leader Valentin Mejillones Acarapi (55), who handed Morales the Indian sacred command baton when he was anointed president in January 2006 amid the stone ruins of Tiwanaku, had police searching his home in El Alto, the Andean plateau city that sprawls from the edges of  La Paz. Police found up to 250 kilos of liquid cocaine being processed for crystallization. Mejillones was arrested along with two Colombians who were with him, and his own son, Javier Alvaro Mejillones. Cocaine production has set foot for years in Bolivia and its trafficking, mostly smuggling it into Brazil, the U.S. and Europe, accounts for a significant slice of the country’s economy. The finding brings up questions about the illegal links of people very close to President Morales, Bolivia’s most popular president in recent decades and winner of a chain of elections and plebiscites by landslides. People now are wondering if the man who anointed Morales in an ancient colorful rite that filmmakers and TV celebrated worldwide was arrested with such a big amount of cocaine in his own home, what could be expected from other levels in the government and the official party MAS, for Movimiento al Socialismo.  The finding and imprisonment of Mejillones has coined a new term that has quickly spread across the country: Narco-amauta. Amauta is the name given since immemorial times to savvy and outstanding community Indians.  In a country which reportedly has drug cartels from Mexico and Brazil actively and clandestinely operating, it was only time for that activity to contaminate Indian leaders like Mejillones, analysts say. Cochabamba, the province (department) to which the coca-growing Chapare region belongs, reportedly holds more than two dozens of “narco-communities”, that is rural areas where Indians work on the production of cocaine.

Yet the government denies drug-trafficking has been increasing in Bolivia. But it admits an increase in coca plantation areas, as studies from the United Nations and the U.S. show. And some reaction was needed to prove the government commitment against trafficking.  It left Mejillones and its accomplices to defend by themselves alone before the justice. They remained in custody until a judge decides on the case.

To Mejillones’ chagrin -but not so much for those more familiar with human nature- his friends and colleagues are now turning away from him. Mejillones was an icon among Indians and is said to have participated in ceremonies abroad, particularly in neighboring Peru, on behalf of leftist leaders. The government’s decision of not interfering with justice not even in favor of someone as emblematic as Mejillones is hailed as a dignified move. Rarely any among Morales’ predecessors has been so harsh with people in the government. But there are some who do not give this attitude so much credit. Several times in the past the government has promised to enforce law severely, even on those who have been part of the government. One of the most outstanding cases is the summary dismissal of a president of YPFB, the country’s leading state-owned company, who hasn’t been tried yet, and that of an anti-corruption minister suspected of involvement in a corruption case. All this goes to the credit of Morales, whose anti-corruption policy means quickly acting, at the onset of any case. But in contrast there are other cases that opponents and critics remember because they remain unpunished. For instance, sisters Juana and Elba Terán González, caught with 147.5 kilos of cocaine, have not been tried yet. There also is a case of sixteen people who were killed, including two women, shortly after Morales took over, in a clash between workers of a state-owned mining company and members of a mining cooperative. There has been a series of recurrent violence situations, including the riots against a Constituent Assembly in Sucre that police quelled harshly. Three people were killed and hundreds were injured, as official members of the assembly ended up approving the current main law in a military garrison.  Many people still consider unsolved a deadly clash that left more than 15 dead in Pando, two years ago. Back then, a South American group of nations (UNASUR) issued a declaration supporting Morales and blaming the whole incident on opposition leaders. More recently, a violent incident took place in Caranavi, north of La Paz, where two people members of a group protesting against the government were killed. Something even worse happened in “ayllus”, clusters of indigenous communities in Potosí, near the Chilean border, where four police were arrested by community members in late May. They were supposedly investigating car-smuggling crimes and became victims of a brutal form of a wrongly called “community justice.” Indians executed the group and buried each in bags placing heads down, superstitiously believing that otherwise the spirits of the dead would run away and haunt their executors. Since the incident no one has been arrested and police reportedly were not allowed to enter those communities.

The incidents with the German Schmidt and Mejillones have been banners on the dailies front pages throughout the week but Bolivians still don’t have a detailed account  of what really happened. What role did actually Schmidt play? In an interview with daily El Dia he said he feared being killed “as Eduardo Rózsa”, the Bolivian-Croatian-Hungarian militant now dead and accused of leading a presumed movement that allegedly would try to kill Morales, unleash a terrorist campaign and split the country. In a desperate cry as he was been arrested by police, Schmidt called on Morales to help him. “The only thing I did was to take care of his back”, he cried aloud.

Rózsa died in a controversial episode sixteen months ago in Santa Cruz. Schmidt allusion to the case has sparked speculation that the government could have been no stranger to the presence of Rózsa in Bolivia. And Mejillones said he was a victim of his own “good faith” as he became partner of the two Colombians captured with him,   Javier Patiño Morales y Nubia Estela Garvizu Rico. He believed, he said, they were going to make some food. His son Javier Alvaro Mejillones Mamani has been indicted as an accomplice and also remains in custody. Young Mejillones was in charge of staking out the house, but he did not stake out anything. He was found sleeping and heavily drunk.

All this may be just the first chapter of long story on politics, corruption and leaders in Bolivia.

United in baldness

April 21, 2010

President Evo Morales on Tuesday displayed before thousands of environmental activists his ecological and environmental knowledge. He stated that in fifty more years the whole human race will be made up of bald people. The hairdressing salons, he said, will be shut down, its employees summarily fired. This apocalyptic scenario of a humanity of equals in baldness, will become real because of the poultry-based food and the widespread custom of eating food  containing large amounts of female hormones.

Welcome to the world of the bald.

His charge against the poultry industry went on further. He said that chicken meat induces homosexuality and girls have grown breasts prematurely.

President Morales, he himself owner of a thick, carefully groomed black hair, was seen worldwide addressing his audience of activists from everywhere, mainly from Europe and the U.S.  To them he made a display of knowledge with a conviction a far-west peddler of the 19th century would genuinely envy. He stated that the one to blame on baldness were chicken, genetically modified chicken feed, to be precise. He was opening the World Conference on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth, in Cochabamba. The conference convened about 20,000 participants in the picturesque town of Tiquipaya, known for its healthy weather and pristine natural water streaming from nearby mountains.

Throughout a great deal of his speech he lambasted capitalism as responsible for the injuries caused on the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and humanity.

His repeated example was baldness, which he considered “an illness” caused by bad eating habits. He said baldness was the fate of, specially, Europeans.

His audience appeared mesmerized. Some did welcome his words with whispers and laughter. But nobody could tell whether people laughed because they could not believe what they were hearing or because they felt they were being told a joke, or something they hadn’t thought at all. He added that food based on chicken induced to homosexuality and had girls developing breasts faster than normal. Chickens, he stated, were fed with food containing large amounts of female hormones. Unluckily, no reporters were checking how in the audience planned to have chicken in their next meals. I did not hear any comment form poultry industry either, or from restaurants.

But because of the presidential verbiage it would be likely that wigs industry may have years of bonanza coming up while the aviary entrepreneurs might have to look into different business.

Morales also charged against the Netherland potato industry, based on genetically modified seed. Bolivia grows thousands of tons of that potato: bigger and heavier than the mostly puny potato from its valleys.

Even Coca Cola was lambasted. Morales said it contained plenty of acids that made it a handy help for plumbers cleaning up dirty pipes.

It was a pity that TV reporters would have not focused also on what the audience thought about the president’s claims. But the only plausible response could be seen during the remaining two days of the conference, whether the consumption of chicken is stable or has declined in the restaurants.

The president’s lecture doesn’t find historical back up. On the contrary. Had his advisers been careful, they would have consulted specialists or at least to the internet. On a site there I learned that prophet Elisha (Kings 2:23) cursed young people who made fun of his baldness. The curse must have produced immediate effect, because two gigantic bears showed up beating badly forty of them.

Was it plain murder?

May 28, 2009

So says Gen. (r) Gary Prado, the Ranger company officer who defeated Che Guevara’s warfare in Bolivia

The Bolivia army officer who in 1967 captured Ernesto Che Guevara in Bolivia’s southeastern jungle believes the death of three alleged hitmen on April 16 in Santa Cruz was an outright assassination. If there were any evidence supporting President Evo Morales claim that the group planned to kill him, they disappeared in the predawn hours police stormed the hotel Las Americas where the alleged plotters stayed killing three of five alleged assassins-to-be, he told me. Ever since the bloody episode Bolivians have been living in shock day after day. Scant details of the police action have emerged. But in its wake the government has launched an all-out anti-terror campaign that some leaders charge is only a distraction to divert the attention of Bolivians away from their ever ending economic plights. Opposition parties claim that it is actually a government plot to allow it run undisturbed the race for presidential elections December 6.

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Gen. Gary Prado Salmón agreed to talk on the record with no specific agenda but knowing that a main topic would be his opinion about the events of last April 16, whose sequels are still playing heavily in Bolivians daily lives. He was working ahead of a lecture for his students at the Private University of Santa Cruz (UPSA) as I arrived in his house. I looked for him because I wanted to hear his views about the events that have been gripping Bolivians. His credentials are well backed up since long. Not only because of his professional performance in La Higuera and his outstanding military career (the walls of his office display pictures of his years as a Ranger officer and also of his time in London as Bolivian Ambassador) . He has also been commander of Bolivia’s 8th Army Division, one of the country’s most powerful units. And it soon will be 35 years of an action of him and a group of young officers trying to force the military regimen headed by Gen. Hugo Banzer to put the country on a democratic path. The action, which took place on June 4, 1974, did not succeed immediately but on the long run it led to restoring democracy in a country plagued by dictators and caudillos.

My first question was what he really knew of the May 16 police onslaught. “The government has changed his script so often these weeks that one doesn’t know what to believe. First, it was supposed to be a magnicide, that a team had arrived in Bolivia with the mission of killing him. The President went to Cumana, Venezuela, to complain to Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro: ‘I was going to be murdered.’ But that script has now disappeared completely from the official versions. It has turned out that there is not a slightest sign that a magnicide was on the making. There is no evidence that (Bolivian-Hungarian) Eduardo Rozsa, (Irish) Michael Dwyer, and (Romanian-Hungarian) Arpad Magyarosi were a terrorist group. But the government is still using politically the idea that those people were terrorists, even though there is no evidence either that terrorism was their business. Rozsa himself says he came to Santa Cruz to defend this region.”

Then, I said, if a jury had to decide, it would have no basis to sustain that theory beyond any reasonable doubt…

“Absolutely”, he said. “There is no evidence supporting that. If there was any, it was assassinated that day. For me, what happened at the hotel was an outright execution. Don’t forget that they were under control, it was known for months who they were, police said its agents watched them out. Well, they could have been arrested on the street, in a restaurant, or entering or leaving the hotel. Four or five people would have been enough to take care of them. They carried no guns when going out. At best they would have had a personal arm hiding in their clothes. So, they could have been caught easily alive. At least Rozsa, who was the main target, should have been caught alive. But they blew the door, entered the room and killed him. Why they didn’t want to catch him alive and have him confess what had brought him down here? Wouldn’t have been good for them to have him alive? There is a tortuous brain behind the handling all this. Well, at some point they (people involved) will have to show up and tell the truth. Otherwise we would have to say that police are so inept that the agents chickened out and broke in shooting out and killed them right there. One of two: it was a police stupidity or there was an express order for execution.”

I reminded him the episode he himself tells in his book about the guerrilla warfare about the final clash with Guevara’s, when the guerrilla leader cried: “Don’t shoot. I am Che”. The Argentine-Cuban leader was central in the insurgency and he captured him alive.

“I had order to kill no one”, he said, adding: “Two days before I had captured to guerrillas –Camba and Leon- and sent them to Vallegrande. From there they were moved to Camiri and became witnesses in the trial against Regis Debray. Why, the practice back then was to take prisoners. Then the government made a decision: To execute him. And the execution was carried out. I wasn’t at La Higuera at the time, but as soon as it became obvious that it wasn’t possible to cover the sun with a finger, then- president Rene Barrientos had the courage of announcing: ‘I have ordered it, because it was the best for Bolivia. He assumed the whole responsibility”.

A paradox

Then I asked him what could be expected, especially when there are not so many certainties and a lot of doubts still linger.

“At some point truth may surface. I think the police who acted in the episode will say something. They are people who are known up there (in La Paz) and will be identified. Here (in Bolivia) we are not prone to keep secrets. What is paradoxical is that one hears the President lambasting foreigners who come here wanting to destroy the country, looking to impose things different from what we are. And then he goes to pay homage to Ché Guevara. It is a blatant contradiction! How is that? He should have paid homage to (Eduardo) Rozsa as well, for he belongs to the same line of thought.”

Gen. Prado moves on a raw nerge, hyper sensitive for those who fought –and won- the battle over Che. “Is there any difference between Che Guevara’s guerrilla, which was a foreign movement…he came here…to impose his model, and that of these guys who came, as they say, to contribute to the defense of a region they considered threatened?” Placing both on the balance, the latter “would be little angels compared to Che. Why, Rozsa and the others came to served their region, they say, which they believe was threatened. The others, instead, were called in by nobody. They came in all alone thinking that here they would do whatever they wanted. These are different things and you cannot laud one and devilish the other. Either both are good or both are mean. Any invader is bad”.

-Do forensic reports about the bullets trajectory tell anything?

-They do, and a lot. First of all, it is being said there was a shooting lasting 20 minutes. That is a lot. However, only fifty shots have been accounted for. Jeeez! Twenty minutes and just fifty one shots. Not even three per minute, for thirty men. There could have been thousands. A hand machine-gun throws out up to six hundred shots per minute if you handle it correctly!

-Do investigators perceive these incongruencies?

-No. Investigators do not take them into account. Besides, the police chief threatens you: ‘This is the official report and whoever doubts about it will go to jail!’ Then, who is the investigator who wants to get involved in this and risking prison for expressing doubts about the police report? That is the point we have reached. ..were about to become a nation of donkeys who accept anything. Here, nobody seems surprised with the things the government says and does. We simply look at ourselves and shrug. We are witnessing a series of juridical aberrations, irregularities, violations of the Constitutions by the government, whatever you want. But since there is no one to complain, we are unprotected before a government that moves on step by step toward the goal of consolidating the country model they have dreamed about.

Our conversation switched back to the times when Interior Minister Luis Arce Gomez, of former dictator Luis Garcia Mesa, recommended all citizens to keep their will under their arms all the time.

“We are at the best times (of a dictatorship) …Because threats are permanent. He who dares to challenge it is subject of threat from authorities, from social movements who apply their own justice. Look at dailies today (May 22) and read what has happened in Cliza: A police station has been burned down and police have left their arms. They run away leaving their arms behind! We had to flee, they say. But, give me a break, at least don’t abandon your weapons. But they left their arms and looters seize them. There you have a town where people does whatever they want. They don’t respect police. But police were fifty armed men. Come on! And they could do nothing. And so you soon are told that in another place someone has been killed. Oh, yes. Community justice! We are immersed in this…one cannot show surprise when the nation’s President says: ‘If I am told that something I am doing is wrong, what can I do? I keep doing it. We will straighten it out later on. Let’s have the lawyers do it.”

I told him that a Venezuelan president, the late Romulo Betancourt, became famous for his command: Shoot now, ask later.

“Let me tell you another huge aberration. It was said by the President about 10 days now. All have to prove their innocence…! The principle of presuming one’s innocence until proved otherwise is universal, one of the most precious triumphs of civilization against injustice and authoritarianism. Not now. Now you have to demonstrate your innocence. And who has said anything? I haven’t read a lawyer, a judge saying, ‘Hey, this president is crazy. How can he say that? Nobody has uttered a word. Our capacity of surprise has touched limits and is filled out.”

I wrapped the matter up recalling the name of an Italian movie I saw years ago: We are all under Parole (L’istruttoria e chiusa), of Damiano Damiani…

“Right. We are all on parole and have to prove we are not guilty of whatevfer the government charges you with. One has to be careful because you might be arrested at any time and taken to La Paz. Not even the juridical principle of being tried in the place where the alleged crime allegedly took placed. No. You will be taken to La Paz.

-And you underline that citizens do not show any surprise, let alone react… What is left as an option?

-We are being left with not so many. We still have an electoral process (presidential elections, on Dec. 6) which I still don’t see clear, according to the latest information. Yet it is a process upon which many people are still hopeful. However, let me give you a tip I see today on the dailies. Oruro (state) disagrees with the biometric electoral registration. No, they say, we don’t want foreigners…we will hold our elections as we want… (The biometric system was agreed by all political parties represented at congress after, in the past two plebiscites, thousands of elders, people over 100 years, were allegedly voting in areas where President Morales won overwhelmingly. This in a country where life expectancy goes up to 67).

-According to their uses and customs….

-Yes. This is all a joke. Our neighbors look at us in awe, pity and concern. It is not pleasant to have roaming around you a factor of agitation. With Peru, let’s don’t talk about it. And (Brazil’s president) Lula says: ‘We will not be subject to the whims of nobody,’ when he boasts about Brazil becoming energy-self-sufficient soon (which means Brazil could no longer need buying Bolivian natural gas.) Those expressions make you feel he is tired of that jazz of playing the victim, which our President believes are an absolute truth.”

-What are the pluses?

-I think the fact that there is more people participation. We all now feel as participants, that we have to do something for we are all citizens. It is perceivable in conversations, interviews, in what you see every day. On the other hand you still have those peasants led b y the government by means of its social movements. This peasants mass is active basically because its leaders are nicely paid. However, they, the peasants, have received nothing from this government, except for one supreme decree here or there. But no real benefits… They still believe this is their government and with it they are moving forward. But there will be a time of reckoning, when they realize they have been used and that this is the same pongueaje (using peasants just for political purposes) of the past. Exactly. During MNR times (1952-1964) ballots favoring opposition leaders disappeared from electoral boxes replaced with MNR pink ballots. It was never known how many voters were registered or how many cast their vote.

-But all that broke down at some point.

-The same will happen here. There is now the community vote and we don’t seem to care. However, at some point we will all cry: Democracy is not that. Democracy means one citizen one vote. It means a secret vote, not mass vote. You don’t line up peasants and say: mark here and cast your vote this way. That is not democracy. Nor are the uses and customs Indians have. Incas did not vote. It is paradoxical it is all not handled by Quechua people, who are the majority among Bolivian indians. It is all handled by Aymara leaders, who are a minority but are charging retroactively the occupation they suffered from Quechuas during 300 years before Christopher Columbus. Aymaras are on command. That is OK, but let’s have them commanding on the highlands. They cannot impose their will, their rule and customs over a whole and diverse country.”

After a brief pause, he continues: “Imagine, to return to the community customs. It is the grandiose dream of a community republic. But look. In a community people do not prosper. They just survive keeping on a subsistence level. It is a pity. There are no incentives. We see it across the Altiplano communities. Men should to own their own stuff. Moved by that they work harder. Most Aymara who come down to Santa Cruz work hard and prosper. It is a personal effort, which doesn’t get along with uses and customs of their original community. But that is a thousand-year old model. Man, it doesn’t work anymore.”

“Because of that form of community stagnated, and so its members stagnated. Because in community you get your food working hard or not so hard anyway. You will have your share all the same, because you are a community member. As long as you abide by the community rules, it will be all right. But if you don’t, you will be whipped. A country like that is not viable”.

Smiles and paranoia

April 26, 2009

Wednesday night 4/21 was time of laughter and amusement for viewers watching TV programs. At least two news shows took the brunt of the Bolivian audience by staging the individuals who appeared in a photograph which, the night before, had been shown by Interior Minister Alfredo Rada as the smoking gun of an alleged conspiracy. It was an all local Adrian Monk episode.

As it turned out, the picture was real and so were the people dressing military uniforms that it showed. But they were not the individuals Minister Rada claimed they were. The guns seen in the picture were toys. Actually, it was a wrong interpretation of a picture. And the mistake was a further embarassment fo a government that, at least regarding the bloody episode of April 16, is losing credibility. At predawn hours that day, three people whom the government claims were plotting to kill President Evo Morales were shot dead during a police operation. Those in the picture were a group of players of two popular games, soft air and paint game. Teenagers –and not-too-young- go crazy for them. Four of those in the photograph went to TV to deny the official allegation that the group was a sort of ultra-rightist militia. They surprised an audience that didn’t know much about these games.

Furthermore, an alleged member of the team in the photo the Minister showed was someone resembling an arch-enemy, Mauricio Iturri, of the rightwing Cruceño Youth Union. Rada claimed the alleged presence of Iturri in the group proved it was mischievous. But, for the Minister’s surprise, the person was not Iturri.

Iturri himself shoveled the last bunch of dirt in the plot/militia theory by calling himself to the station from Miami, where he has taken refuge since the government is after him. “I am not that person”, he said dryly on the telephone. In reality, by direct information of one of those –positively yes- in the photo, Pedro Sandoval, the alleged Mauricio Iturri was Pedro Álvarez. A quick conclusion: The Minister played Sherlock Holmes and ended up in a mess. If prior to the fiasco it was difficult for the government to convince Bolivians about the veracity of its allegations, now it was worse.

Defense Minister Walker San Miguel fueled the fire when he said use of military-like gear and playing war games were illegal. But no Bolivian legal code includes such bans. Probably he didn’t know that shortly after the first military coup attempt led by then Col. Hugo Chavez there were lots of children dressing sort of military uniforms similtar to the rebel colonel’s during carnival days that year (1992). It was a gesture of sympathy toward the Venezuelan army commander and nobody told the kids’ parents that was illegal. More simply, Minister San Miguel probably didn’t play as a child the “pam pam” game, in which children simulate killing an enemy shouting “pam pam” when the rival appears on sight.

It is not only a Bolivian game. Italian singer Iva Zanicchi popularized it in a catchy song of the late 1960s: “Mi ricordo quando tu ed io eravamo due bambini e gioccavamo bang bang”, etc. (I remember when you and I were little kids and played bang bang).

As a result of this paranoia panic is widespread among lovers of both air soft and paint game. “We are concerned because friends and relatives have called us warning with heads up that we were being indicted of holding bonds with people we not even know. We are sportsmen”, Jose Miguel Sandoval was heard saying almost crying on TV. The picture shows him and the minister said he and others were part of a “fascist militia.”

Ernesto Justiniano, another of those photographed, said he was with the group only because he likes sports. “We have been playing for at least four years. We use game arms with compressed air”, he said as he was trying to avoid going to La Paz to be heard by a judge. People fear La Paz because it is the government’s stronghold and several of those arrested because of alleged anti-government activities are held in the city’s jail, awaiting trial.

As of this week of late April, the group was ready to travel to La Paz escorted by Santa Cruz congressmen. They were expected to appear before a judge and explain details of the two games.

An official story under fire

April 19, 2009

The official version about a bloody episode Thursday in Santa Cruz, in which three people were killed and two arrested and taken to La Paz, seems like a balloon under a dangerous attack. Three days after the bloody event, questions remain unanswered and local media has begun to openly demand for clarifications. The government of Mr. Morales is having hard time convincing  Bolivians about the veracity of its information.

Some outstanding questions waiting for answers:

  • Why the three bodies remained in the Hotel Las Americas, where the alleged gang stayed, for so many (14) hours? Was autopsy performed just there? Was it the right place for an autopsy?
  • The security video cameras were blocked since 03:00 AM and during at least six hours, according to hotel records. Why? Who gave the order for the cameras black out?
  • If the group presented fierce resistance (as they were just in underwear!) how come there were no casualties among the police force? As far as it is known, no police sustained the slightest injury and there are no signs of bullets coming from the killed group.
  • Why there were no police from Santa Cruz at all and everything was directly commanded from La Paz?
  • Last but not least, what did this group come specifically to Bolivia for? Who paid them?  

Stories published Saturday by dailies Los Tiempos (Cochabamba) and La Razón (La Paz) underline the confusion stemming from the official version. Los Tiempos quotes Santa Cruz opposition congressman Oscar Urenda as showing perplexity by the fact the entire operation took place conveniently just hours before the president showed up at the Americas Summit in Trinidad. It looked like an appropriate mise en scene for him to claim that “mercenaries” were trying to assassinate him. He also was puzzled by the absence of forensic reports certifying whether those killed and the two arrested actually fired at the police.

For Urenda, according to Los Tiempos, it is “absurd” the official information that the group had been hired on the internet by an individual identified only as “the old man”, and that each would receive a pay of $6,000. No less puzzling is the finding of a cache of weapons allegedly belonging to the group in an office of the telephone cooperative COTAS. It is no secret that government leaders covet COTAS, the main rival of ENTEL, the formerly an Italian-owned conglomerate bought in the mid-1990s at the peak of a privatization swing and nationalized two years ago by Mr. Morales. COTAS is one of Santa Cruz’s most profitable enterprises and the finding of weapons in a showroom office seemed to Urenda as an effort to build up a case against the coveted cooperative.

“There is something wrong with the government story. There is something behind all this and since in Bolivia nothing remains secret we will find out and we will unveil it. People will sing it all out.”

But official representative René Martínez found the official version plausible and asked the government to look into the relationship between the alleged conspiracy group and local authorities in Santa Cruz.

La Razón Saturday added skepticism on the government story. It quoted Hernan Rosel, the Hotel Las Americas where the group stayed, as saying that Tuesday night, when a bomb placed by the gates of the Primate Cardinal Julio Terrazas’s residence, none of the guests left the hotel. “There is no possibility they had left the hotel unnoticed”, he said. His suggests the bomb was placed by others, but not the group, as the government had been charging. The daily adds a disquieting doubt. “A report by hotel staffers who checked out the building found no signs of any bullet fired by the alleged squad…”

La Razón’s story continues on: “The police elite broke into the hotel after 04:00 AM, and blew up the door of room 458, where the alleged hit-man Eduardo Rozsa was lodged. According to the insurance report, in the room there were ten bullet holes around the place where the body was. There were no holes in the door or the doorway. Room 457 showed three orifices on the wall, close to the bed, where Rumanian Magyarosi Arpad died. In the room 456, where Irish Dwyer Michael Martin died, there was just one bullet hole. Nothing else. There were eight holes in room 455, six by the wall next to the bed, one by a TV set, and another by a decoration painting. There was blood on the floor and the door of room 454. The police squad found none in room 453 but they shot aiming at the bathroom anyway.”

Two members of the group, Mario F. Tadik, a Bolivian, and Hungarian Elod Toaso, were arrested and taken to La Paz.

El Nuevo Dia daily runs this Sunday a statement by a forensic export, Ronny Pedro Colanzi, supporting the notion that at the Las Americas hotel there was no clash. The daily quotes Colanzi as saying he had seen that at least in one case the shot at the heart was precise, leaving no traces of violence or struggle. As a rule, when there is a shooting, the crime scene is messed up, which doesn’t seem to have happened in this case, Colanzi told El Nuevo Dia.

Opposition congressman Walter Arrázola says it was a “plain execution” and police gave no chance to the alleged terrorists to defend themselves.

Santa Cruz’s El Deber this Sunday quotes senate President Oscar Ortiz as saying: “By what is being known, there was no clash but an execution. This is very serious and demonstrates there is something dirty in this affair. Long before it, President Morales was claiming that there existed a secret cell planning to attempt against his life and that of other authorities.”

Rozsa, whose Bolivian father was a leftist and had to leave the country in the 1970s, when a rightist military regime took over, was well known pro Palestine and active fundamentalist, which would hardly fit the government claim that he was a leader of a rightist squad.


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