Archive for November, 2007

Crossing the Rubicon

November 26, 2007

President Evo Morales and his MAS party have undertaken their most daring political step in 22 months in the government. Morales 138 constituent assembly followers convened alone, without opposition, in a military academy on Saturday to produce a Constitutional Text whose yes-members approved speedily . Outside, in Sucre´s outskirts, a battle between unarmed civilians and tear gas shooting-police was raging. And it was getting closer to the military academy where they met. At least four dead (including one police) and about two hundred injuries have been counted in two days of riots.

The 138 constituents (136, since two conspicuously did not raise hands) who approved the first draft melted away from Sucre at pre dawn hours Sunday.  It was as if they were not the winners who only hours before had hailed the chart. They were like the real losers who trudged away from a shameful defeat. They ran away as they could. A military bus gave them a ride till about 10 miles off Potosí. And they walked to the city.

All this after they had approved a chart that allegedly, as a year ago was said,  would reshape Bolivia, politically and socially. The chart approved Saturday by MAS alone (over a hundred assembly members did not attend) had a very unusual venue: an army academy. To date, it was the first chart approved, even in principle, within a military academy. The army, and primarily the police, protected the meeting, which had been removed from its original place, the Mariscal de Ayacucho center, in downtown Sucre, where it had been besieged for months by civilian population demanding the Assembly debated the thorny issue of the capital of the nation. The MAS majority refused to tackle the matter under the understanding that doing so would mean losing support from La Paz, the political capital for over a century, where lies the backbone of its political support. It would have been, understandably, a hara-kiri. MAS is aware that as time has gone by, La Paz has been isolating itself from most of the country and an eventual referendum over which city should be Bolivia´s capital could bring embarrassing results for both La Paz and MAS.

As of this hour – midday Monday- the whereabouts of the official assembly members are unknown.  People wonder ¿where are those who represent Chuquisaca from the ranks of MAS and what they will do next. ¿Will they continue supporting a chart that has triggered the worst wave of violence during a government supposed to change things the right way  __peacefully, since President Morales always says he represents “the culture of peace”?

Regarding the fast-track approved constitution, a question still lingering is if a first step has been undertaken, ¿what about the next? Let´s explain.  The approval “ en grande,” that is just in principle and still subject to a thorough review, happened in a dramatic way: the board of the meeting read just the subtitles __no content at all. And the chorus raised hands in approval. (When news was heard that one person had been killed and to adjourn the meeting was necessary, it has been said the reaction from Board Chairwoman Silvia Lazarte was icy cold, “There is one dead. May he enjoy Paradise. We have to continue working.”  Then, because of the heavy environment hanging over the meeting after the news,  she agreed on a 15 minute break.)

That was it. After saying yes, assembly members rushed to pack and run away.  Now the review should come, although Presdident Morales hinted yesterday that step would be dismissed.  Assuming the “headline-only draft” is OK, where the review will take place?      

This constitutional experiment has been always controversial. I shuddered when I was told about the unusually high number of illiterate members in the Assembly. But I used to look at this argument suspiciously, thinking that even illiterate people would do better than many of the rapacious politicians who ruled the country over almost two centuries. But as months went by, I began questioning myself. Drafting a constitutional chart, I said, is like holding the wheel of a bus riding over bumpy paths. In order to succeed one would choose the very best and most experienced drivers. This was not the case with the Bolivian Constitutional Experiment.  ¿Would I put my children in that bus? ¿Would I tell my wife to board that bus? I agonized over this point. 

As this official-only assembly ordered the approval of the first step Evo Morales has crossed the Rubicon. As Julius Caesar. A time of uncertainty lies ahead.        


Cold-blooded Shining Path rite in Bolivia

November 24, 2007

Bolivian Aymara Indians have performed a cold-blooded beheading of at least two dogs, saying they planned to do the same with leaders of the country´s lowlands. The tropical region opposes most policies of Indian President Evo Morales saying he is leading Bolivia on a path similar to that of Venezuela´s Hugo Chavez, his closest South American ally.

The images shown by most TV stations are revolting. The black animals, hanging from a transversal beam, had their heads severed as battle cries celebrated the ceremony and threatened Santa Cruz Civic Committee and its leader Branco Marincovick. “This will be done to them”, said one executioner of the dogs. The red-poncho dressing Indian leaders in a town near La Paz were not identified. One of them is seen producing a big machete. Then, calmly, walks close to one of the dogs, grabs the animal and in two or three sawing-like butcher strokes he dismembers the defenseless beast. The bleeding head rolls over the dirt ground as the headless body shakes convulsively for a few seconds before dying.

Indians near La Paz have formed a pro Morales government militia-like group whose uniform is a red poncho, hence their name—Ponchos Rojos. Their number is unknown. It is not known either whether they have any combat training. But a few dozens have been seen recently  in pro Morales parades.   

The merciless beheading shocked many Bolivians.  TV commentator Carlos Valverde said tonight it was a brutal action shocking the human race.  Interior Minister Alfredo Rada played  down the horror. He said the rite was “barbaic” but equivalent  to ”vandalism” by right-wing gangs in Santa Cruz.

The butchering was reminiscent of the coming to life of communist guerrilla Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Perú in early 1981. The Maoist guerrilla marked its violent entry in Peru´s political life slitting the throats of four dogs and hanging the bodies from Lima´s downtown traffic lights. The dogs represented “The Gang of Four” led by Mao Zedong´s widow and three other Chinese leaders.  The power struggle was won by modernizer Chou En Lai, whose reforms of China´s communist system set the track for current China´s rapid economic growth.

But the advent unleashed a bloody period in Peru. It is said that about 70,000 people were killed by the communist insurgents and counter-insurgence forces. The bloodshed ended only when Shining Path´s boss Abimael Guzman was captured and tried. He serves a life prison sentence in a security penitentiary.

The bloody rite hit TV screens as riots erupted in Bolivia´s legal capital Sucre, leaving tens of injuries and at least a dozen people under detention. Angry citizens were violently repressed by police after they tried to stop agents working to remove computers and electronic equipment from the building where a Constituent Assembly was convening till yesterday. The government party MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) decided to leave the building where the Assembly has not been able to meet since September.  

Under heavy military protection, it is striving now for a speedy approval of a new Constitution.  Opposition considers the new chart as an attempt to impose in Bolivia a Socialism a-la-Chavez, including perennial reelection of the President. A hundred and ten representatives of the 255-member assembly are not attending the sessions held under the weight of MAS majority.   At least four departments (states) have said they will not abide by the rules of the new chart, which is been drawn in a military academy.     

To help understanding Bolivia

November 16, 2007

It was not so long ago that one could sense that modernization was taking hold in Bolivia. The country seemed on a fast track  toward better economic times. With energy-thirsty neighbors like Brazil and Argentina natural gas was becoming the economic factotum. Investments poured by the hundreds of millions of dollars. The economy grew at a rate of 5% to 6% annually, which meant duplicating GNP in barely 12 to 15 years. Democracy appeared solid. Political parties, even former foes, formed alliances to ensure governability. Bolivians had learned, some said, to choose rulers by the ballot, no more by the bullets. In the second decade of the new millennium just around the corner, they said, this country would be different.

Wait. Let´s don´t go too fast. That was the official script. Underlying were sheer inequalities making not two but three Bolivias which at some point clashed and erupted in a hitherto dormant or even unconscious drive to engage in real progress.

James Dunkerley, one of the most lucid “Bolivianists”, shows us in his most recent book (Bolivia: Revolution and the Power of history in the present”. Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London) the ways Bolivia has undertaken over the past few years through this dimming 2007.

It is tough to face a book so dense in events and details in one single comment. I will likely come back to talk about it again. Now I just want to mention the section that leads to present days.

“It is impossible to understand the period 2000-2006 without consideration of IMF pressure over the budget deficit, the international price of oil, or US pressure over coca. It is, moreover, very hard to imagine the initial months of the MAS taking the course they did without Cuban and Venezuelan support…,” states Dunkerly. It means that pressure over a fiscal discipline often ignored by rich countries aggravated Bolivian economic problems and paved the way for subsequent events whose magnitude only now can be relatively assessed.

One can not but agree with Dunkerley that most social conflicts are tightly related to the same issues (poverty, unemployment) that permeate the three Bolivias he refers to quoting Bolivian economist and professor at the San Simón University in Cochabamba Roberto Laserna in his book “La Democracia en el Ch´enko” (Democracy in the mess), published by Fundacion Milenio.

Identification of these three Bolivias is essential to begin understanding the country. “These are still negatively correlated with each other to produce an empate catastrofico (cathastrophic draw) … One quarter of the population lives in ‘modern Bolivia’, operates according to a mindset of instrumental rationality and can at least formulate universalist projects. However, this sector lacks the intellectual and material resources to realize these projects. As a result, it is culturally inclined to be adverse to risk and engage in rent-seeking behavior, its average household income is $491per month and a third of this sector is classified as poor. A second group, of around 35 percent of the population, operates within an informal economy of essentially family-based activity…Extremely vulnerable to market disruptions of cash-flow and social shocks to a favors-based system of rents, this sector can rarely accumulate capital and often devote its savings to conspicuous consumption in carnival-based activity derived from the provincial cultures to which it still belongs. It has an average monthly household income of $299 and half of its members live in poverty. Finally, there exist some 3.5 million people, 40 percent of the Bolivian population, within a ‘natural economy’ dominated by cultivation for subsistence…” It is from the poorest segments of these groups, or about two thirds of Bolivians, that Evo Morales won most of his support.

As the economy opened under Paz Estenssoro´s fourth presidency and his 1985 decree best known by its number 21060, economic activity in these segments unleashed. Jose Luis Roca, a historian and economist, told me that from a few dozen of shops and grocery stores back then the number multiplied exponentially to easily over a million businesses. Most are informal, not legally registered and barely yield taxes. “But this explosion was the great revolution for tens of thousands of peasants who before only wandered in El Alto”(Bolivia´s third largest city after Santa Cruz and La Paz). At 4,000 meters of altitude on the Andes plateau, “this city owes its own existence to them”, Roca said. It means El Alto was born out of the “neo-liberalism” that its inhabitants are said to hate. This rejection was the driving force behind the blockades and violent protests that overthrew market-friendly government of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his successor and former Vice-President Carlos Mesa, and ultimately ended up with the election of Evo Morales as the first Bolivian Aymara Indian President.

Quoted by Dunkerley, Laserna says: “It is clear that the stagnant sectors of the economy, which are composed by the natural and familiar economies, were and remain really successful in resisting the discipline and logic of the market. There are millions of campesinos and informal workers who used the market and at the same time block its expansion… this is the structural ch´enko” (mess). I would say it is like having the cake and not eating the cake.

Dunkerley´s work is rich for those, like myself, who have been out of Bolivia for many years. It is like taking an information landslide only to come out with a sharp sense of frustration. And hope. After all nobody faces such gargantuan adversities without a strong determination to win.

That frustration feeling recedes a bit as one reads a Dunkerley´s line at the end of the first chapter of the book: “…it must be noted that it was not until MAS came into office that any Bolivian government had a coherent policy, with real support from the office of the presidency to save 22,000 infants who die needlessly each year from malnutrition. Now, under “Desnutrición Cero” …this invisible tragedy is finally being confronted. Democracy may cost lives, but it saves them too.”

The picture

November 8, 2007


This is the picture President Evo Morales spoke about to Italian Communist daily Il Manifesto, to support his allegation that there is a rightwing conspiracy in Bolivia against his government. In the picture, left to right: Gabriel Dabdoub, president of Cainco (Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Tourism and Services), U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, Colombian John Jairo Banegas (crossed arms, white polo shirt), charged with leading a burglars gang in Bolivia and currently imprisoned in Santa Cruz. The Colombian Embassy has said (El Deber today) that Banegas is clean of charges in his country. While a full police report from Banegas declaration in prison is still expected, Dabdoub has said the whole affair aims at staining his prestige. The U.S. diplomat said he was waiting for an official information request about the photo. President Morales claimed Banegas was a paramilitary. He said rightwing elements from inside Bolivia and abroad are conspiring against him. The foreign conspiracy, he told Il Manifesto, came from the U.S. Embassy. The evidence seems very weak, at least from a rationale point of view, so far. It would be strange that conspirators take a picture of themselves, to begin with.  Still stranger would be a memento-like picture of the conspirators on a main course at a National Fair in Santa Cruz. Yet, Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca´s question stands: Why the picture was taken?

Mr.Morales, the Ambassador and a paramilitary

November 3, 2007

President Evo Morales has denounced a few days ago, in an interview with Communist daily Il Manifesto, that paramilitary forces are operating in Bolivia against his government. “We have a picture”, he said, “ of the U.S. Ambassador with a Colombian paramilitary, recently taken here in Bolivia. Luckily, the paramilitary has been arrested and as of this moment is in prison. We have information of armed and organized  military forces in our country by elements from the right and criminals. When the right cannot mobilize as it did in the past, it goes to the other extreme: the paramilitarism”.

The interviewer mentions recent “attacks” in Santa Cruz and the seizure (and back-taking) of Viru Viru Airport in Santa Cruz and asks: “¿Where do these actions come from?” The president answers: “There is a domestic right and a foreign right. The domestic right comes from oligarch groups, the foreign (right) from the United States Embassy”.

The Bolivians would like to learn details about such a paramilitar.  If he is under arrest (¿since when?) he is supposed to have given  information to the police agents.  Specially, if there are photographs of him (there are, surely) they should be shown to the public. But overall, if there are armed and organized paramilitary forces in Bolivia, the public must at least be informed. ¿In what part of the country they are operating? ¿Are the Armed Forces involved -or about to be involved- in fighting them? Also, we´d like to know details of the alleged role of the U.S. Embassy. This is a very serious matter to go on the foreign press first. The episode takes place only a few days after a verbal impasse between the Ambassador and the Government (President Morales and his Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca) over changing New York as the United Nations venue was officialy settled and terminated. ¿Is another impasse coming up?

Then the journalist mentions to the president that before coming to Bolivia Ambassador Goldberg was “Chief U.S. Mission to Kosovo, and before that he was the right hand of Bosnia Ambassador Richard Halbrooke, form where Yugoslavia imploded”. Then he asks: ”¿How does he behave now?” President Morales answers: “In Bosnia Glodberg scored some points in (for) his diplomatic career, but in Bolvia he will not get it.”

The president was also asked about his relations with the United States. His answer: “We have relations with the whole world, but we do not accept provocations. Besides, one thing is the ambassador, another thing is the country (the ambassador represents). It is true that Mr. Goldberg has, without a doubt, a long experience in convulsing (disrupting) democratic governments.”

The president also talked about natural gas and criticism he is receiving from former Energy Minister Andrés Solíz Rada, considered a key man in the nationalization of oil on May 1, 2006. (The former minister, who left the government in October that year, continuously says in hiscolumn in Bolivian dailies that the government has lost its path in the nationalization). “¿What do you answer to Soliz?” “That Soliz is a resented am. I was wrong giving him a ministry.”See the full versión in Italian:;Paramilitari 

Or the translation to Spanish published by Cuban daily Rebelion: