Archive for the ‘Bolivia’ Category

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.

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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.

The mess

February 12, 2009

 

The owner and manager of a small company takes on a delicate mission: to personally deliver a ¨recognition¨ to those who facilitated his awarding of a juicy contract for $86.3 million to built an oil-and-gas separation plant in Santa Cruz. The prize is carefully stacked in a briefcase__$450,000. This was exactly ten percent of the amount his firm just days before had cashed as an advance for the oil plant. But as he reaches the house of his alleged destination, he is intercepted by motorcycle-riding hitmen.

Industrialist Jorge O´Connor struggled to keep hold of the briefcase with the money as he was fatally wounded. The briefcase vanishes. Hours later police agents, alerted of the assault and the assassination, arrested the gang (two men and a woman) in Cochabamba, 400 Kms. from La Paz. During interrogation they quickly confessed their crime. Coincidentally, in the house where the attack took place lives a brother-in-law of a national authority: the president of YPF Bolivianos, Santos Ramírez. The criminals said they had been contracted by Ramírez´s wife brothers.

Ramírez rose to Bolivia´s political zenith from his position of humble rural teacher and lawyer to the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) position Number Two, only after president Evo Morales.

This is what is the press has so far published about the episode, which has many Bolivians stuck to their radios, TV sets and dailies as details unravel knocking down the notion that President Morales´regime, because of his Aymara Indian base, would be immune to corruption. As some elements in the plot were still unknown by the public, the bloody episode showed a frivolous angle__ Ramirez, who has been Senate President and, for a very few days, interim President of the Republic (with the new constitution one doubts whether it is correct to call it Republic of Bolivia), disclosed on TV that he had decided to file for divorce of his wife, whom he had married just 40 days earlier and is pregnant with twins. ¨I have not married my wife´s brothers. I am filing for divorce,¨ he said. Opposition representative Carlos Klinsky called him ¨a coward¨, implying the former executive wanted to unload over his wife the burden of the whole affair because the money supposedly would have been delivered to a brother-in law. No word has been heard from militant feminists of the government party MAS.

So far it is still unknown the name of those who would have benefitted from the bribe. Only $80,000 have been found. But it seems clear that Cutler-Uniservice has no infrastructure to build the plant. As Ramirez spent the first evenings in a police cell, he still claimed innocence. At the beginning, President Morales refused to admit any guilt of his closest aide and blamed ¨opposition¨of a plot to tarnish Ramirez´s reputation. But in the end, before what appeared as overwhelming evidence, he had no choice but to fire him.

Ramirez´s allegations of innocence have not been able to clear up the dense atmosphere of suspicion hanging over Morales’ regime. Ramírez was a prime suspect in various other affairs, including selling for $1,000 a recommendation letter to obtain for a MAS party pal a job in the administration.

How come Ramírez reached his prominent position? He emerged as a political leader next to Morales (which makes plausible questioning how much Morales knew about Ramirez alleged wrongdoings). He was part of the very few MAS leaders who in early 2006 moved, along with Morales, to the Presidential Residence ¨in order to work more and better¨ and also better occupy the spacious mansion in a neighborhood of southern La Paz. Morales, who allegedly only finished primary school, had no administrative skills and looked after Ramirez for administrative support. Ramirez had no skills other than been a school teacher and only a limited-experience in his law career, but Morales gave him chart blanch to administer state-owned companies. From his powerful position, Ramirez got appointed Guillermo Aruquipa as head of YPFB, the state-owned company re-assembled in the wake of the takeover of oil fields from Brazilian Petrobras in May 2006. Opposition congressmen claimed that Aruquipa worked with Ramirez as just an administrative assistant.  His limitations surfaced pretty soon __gasoline, domestic gas and most fuels became scarce and long lines of patient customers were a daily occurence cross the country.  He was downgraded to Operational Manager of YPFB. TV news showed him carrying iron bottles of domestic gas at dawn hours in a personal physical effort to improve gas distribution in La Paz. TV news anchor Carlos Valverde said Aruquipa was ¨the world´ best paid gas bellboy¨.

These days Aruquipa is charged with negligence, because he was among the officials who led the Argentine company Cutler-Uniservice contract pass without completing most legal provisions. The plant was supposed to show the efforts by Morales to industrialize Bolivia´s natural gas making sure production would meet Bolivia´s domestic demand.

No bureaucrats are improvised, let alone executive bureaucrats. Otherwise sooner or later a society -and the improvisers- pay a high price.

P.S. Late in the afternoon a judge sent Ramirez to the San Pedro prison in La Paz.

Law by force

October 19, 2008

 

This is a weird congressional season. Lawmakers are convening since 10/18 in the Legislative Palace under a threatening march of thousands of peasants who want, by their own or by subrogate will, Congress giving green light to a law calling for a referendum on a constitution draft issued a year ago after violent street riots in Sucre, Bolivia’s capital, that left three people dead and, by unofficial figures, more than 300 injured.

Lawmakers are supposed to convene free of pressure, especially if they are to discuss calling for a plebiscite on a new constitution mainly drafted by the government that opposition, almost unanimously, considers illegal. President Evo Morales, whose alleged Indian condition is blatantly disputed by his mix-race lastname Morales, has told marchers and lawmakers: “Pass the law (to call for a referendum on the official draft) or else.”

What the meaning of that ‘else’ partly would be has been shown by the sticks and stone-tipped whips flaunted –and often used- by leaders of the march to keep order among peasants. On Sunday he said those opposing his new chart project would be considered “traitors to the country.”  The march is expected to end Monday, after walking over 80 miles on a paved road between La Paz and Oruro.

“They may overwhelm us or they may not. We are all ready to fight this battle to the end”, told me Javier Limpias, a former Constituent Assembly member and dissident from Podemos, the main opposition party.

The problems with the government chart starts from its inception. It was approved by the government-dominated Constitutent Assembly, which functioned for 16 months dismissing some basic democratic rules. Most assembly legislators, especially those from the government party Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) were not prepared to write a new fundamental set of laws. Many had not completed primary or secondary school and their knowledge of law was zero, or almost. The first draft was approved in a military academy building in Sucre’s outskirts, where the assembly reconvened almost in hiding while riots flared in the city and areas surrounding the army academy. After the first draft was approved, the MAS assembly members moved subrepticiously out of Sucre, fleeing from mobs infuriated by the casualties and police violence to repress protesters. They reappeared in Oruro, 200 miles away, in order to get approval of the text “in detail”, as the Bolivian norms dictate. There was no clear verification of the quorum (legislators’ turnout) required to vote (two thirds of the 255 assembly members). And the approval “in detail” was more symbolic than real. Because of the nervous hurry to put an end to the process, even out of its loegal venue, Sucre, only the text’s index was read. Legislators were simply asked to say yes by raising hands. In case that was not enough, or there were not enough hands up to sanction the draft, government leaders told them when they should raise hands because many voters appeared not to have a hint of what they were voting about.

Besides, opposition cried they were not called to the meeting within the legal notice (two or three days), and the text to be approved was not distributed in advance among attends, as rules dictate. In reality, not even all the official assembly members had a copy of it. Some claimed the draft had actually been written long before and far from the assembly. An opposition assembly member quoted some time ago a sister of President Evo Morales, Esther Morales, as having said in a private meeting that while the Constituent Assembly was still convening, there was already a written Constitution. Many thought the draft came from abroad, but without pointing at any specific place. It has vaguely mentioned Venezuela and European NGOs.    

Bolivian National Lawyers College has called the draft ilegal and called for a new constitutional asssembly as the only way for the nation’s reconciliation. “A referendum on a project born out of violence and imposition shall not take place,” it said in a statement this week.

A widespread criticism lies on the mention of 36 indigenous tribes in Bolivia, all considered as individual nations, without any scientific evidence of the existence of some of them, particularly the tiny ones. Some of them hardly represent more than a few tens. I myself wrote a story 30 years ago about the apparently irreversible extinction of one of them. Back then, there were only seven tribe members, as counted by the Summer Linguistic Institute. All surviving men were beyond reproductive age. But a recent census said there were more than 30 Pacahuara people. A conclusion seems pretty clear: either the Pacahuara tribe did not disappear and found the way for the surviving women to meet with men of other tribes,  or we are talking of different tribe. In any case, it is no longer the original group.

It is disquieting, anyway, to think that these small tribes have been counted without the necessary precautions to protect them. Who conducted this census and under whose authorization?  

Anthropologists would be eager to know.

The fact is that all these tribes might win the rights over their “ancestors” lands. Since a lot of them are nomads, I doubt it would be easy to measure the extension and bounds of their original land.

All this confusion explain, at least partially, the controversy surrounding the Constitution the government wants to be approved.  

State of the Press

September 4, 2008

Declaration of the Bolivian Tribunal of Ethics in Journalism 


 A Threatened Nation     


Bolivia has just experienced a traumatic and legally controversial recall plebiscite. Nonetheless, the behavior of the Bolivian people was remarkable. Bolivians went to vote both massively and peacefully, determined to express their right to choose.


But now we are seeing with concern that the worst forecasts about this plebiscite are becoming a tragic reality. The recent riots in Santa Cruz, Sucre, Yacuiba and a painful etcetera, are only a first sample, likely to be followed by even worse events unless the leaders of the Nation change their attitude.


 A new series of events is beginning to unroll with a recent package of government decrees calling Bolivians to vote on a Constitution draft widely considered as irregular. This move requires a law, but it ignores the Legislative Branch.


The journalists are among the first casualties in the brutal combat that covering news has become in Bolivia. They are threatened, insulted and brutally hit without the slightest respect for the role they accomplish for the society.


This is why, anguished by the down-hill way our country is getting at, under the complacent attitude of those who should look for unity and not confrontation, justice and not illegality, righteousness and not complicity with a widespread intolerance that is beginning to surpass its limits, the members of the National Tribunal of Ethics in Journalism, as it kicks off its public activities as a body of self-regulation in journalism,


 


DECLARE



  1. In Bolivia, free press and the safety of journalists are in a serious danger. They have become victims of situations of anarchy tolerated and – worse – instigated, by authorities and groups favoring authoritarianism.

  2. Bolivia offers a desolate legal landscape. The country seems living in a desert where any illegality may happen due to the induced failure of the rule of law by institutions and individuals whose mission is rather to preserve it. 

  3. This landscape is compounded by a situation of moral failure in which corruptors and corrupted work hand in hand.  

  4. Tolerance seems lost smashed by the years-old pernicious practice of disqualifying those that think differently.

  5. The country has fractionalized dangerously. The regions are forced to confrontation as opposing political and economic models promote division wherever they act.

  6. The Government should be a factor of unity, but instead it seems committed to division instead of uniting; it accentuates disagreements instead of genuinely searching to overcome them, It commits illegalities and boasts its power to “legalize” them. Several regions are moving in a direction contrary to the Government’s. Thus the country is strained by forces working for its disintegration rather than its unity. Political opposition forces show no coherence with democracy nor offers believable and convincing hope to citizens.

  7. The condition of fragile legality affecting the nation leaves it paralyzed and citizens unprotected and scared, their hopes diminished.  Uncertainty prevails equally over institutions defending individual and collective freedoms, including the freedom of press.

  8. The President adds to the uncertainty as he announces he will “deepen” a socialism he cannot explain. However, he leads the country to think it is on the brink of a system that failed wherever it was experienced and under which one of the biggest victims was the freedom of expression. It was sunk with no exceptions in an immense Gulag.

  9. It does not comfort citizens to watch their President treated like a pariah within his own country, for he cannot move freely within it.  It is not democratic that after two and a half years as President he has not been able to respond to the press’ legitimate questions in thorough and clarifying press conferences as any democratic leader should.

  10. We watch with awe and fear the recurrent attacks against the media and the multiplication of verbal and physical aggressions on journalists working on news coverage.

  11. The Legislative branch approves decisions that confuse the population, eroding the credibility regarding lawmakers. The claim that the Legislative branch lives under threatening blackmail from extra-legal forces is not enough to dispel that erosion, nor to dissipate suspicions about the integrity of some of its members.

  12. Before this succession of events that have already caused dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries, and a year practically lost in clashes ever more violent, we want to urge the society, especially journalists, to be alert against the storms that still threaten all of us in Bolivia.

  13. We call upon the President that, out of respect of his Presidential dignity and of those who elected him, he stops insulting journalists. And if he accuses anyone of us, he should do it submitting real evidence, as any President – or any citizen for that matter – should.

  14. Imbued by these motivations, we call upon the Legislative Branch to immediately start designating, for the sake of its own redemption, an honest and reliable Constitutional Tribunal, committed to Justice, as the first step to put again the nation on a firm institutional path.

  15. We reiterate to journalists that their best defense is their professional integrity and the persisting search of true, balanced and full information, thus helping the Bolivian society to better see its horizons and find civilized ways of overcoming its present difficulties.

 


La Paz, September 1,  2008

Kamikazes

July 21, 2008

Sixty three years ago, across Japan still resonated a battle cry:  “A people of one hundred million united and ready to die for the nation.” In fact, military and civilian Japanese were dying in growing numbers. The immolation created by Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi of dying but destroying, and causing widespread damage was a highly lethal weapon. Taking control of Okinawa had already proved deadly for the Americans. One third of their war casualties had happened as a result of the fierce Japanese defense. Going all the way to the heart of Japan would cost around 300,000 additional lives just during the first days of battle, strategists estimated. U.S. leaders were well aware that Japan’s fight ability was collapsing, but the most interested parties, the Japanese, didn’t see it the same way.

“It did seem that the whole island nation was being mobilized for a suicidal battle to death; even young school children were ordered to start sharpening bamboo shoots with which to kill Americans, ” says oil historian Daniel Yerguin in “The Prize” (Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, p. 365)

 Even after two atomic bombs, Japan was split between surrender and collective death. In the evening of August 14, a soldiers command tried to seize a message recorded by the Emperor to be aired hours later. They were overcome, recalls Yerguin, but not before the Imperial Guard chief was killed.

I dare to mention these episodes because President Evo Morales doesn’t seem to realize that his social and political experiment has limits and if he wants to save it he has to steer course. The latter seems impossible, because it would run against his own stubborn nature. The men surrounding him, ever since he planted coca leaves, have led him to create an image of himself far from reality. They make him believe that almost the whole Bolivia is on his side and that those who oppose him are just a few. But he is only a representation of the Andean Bolivia, on which are necessary gargantuan efforts to move on harmonically as a nation. Look at his limitations, his international gaffes and blunders, his primary stammering language. All in a leader who has managed to move ahead from a lost barren town in the interior of Oruro, in western Bolivia, become a leader and, backed up by monumental road blockages, to conquer the Presidency. One can hardly imagine the efforts that his country will have commit to promote living conditions of hundreds of thousands, the same or worst than his.

But his blindness in recognizing reality leads him to act like kamikazes. The socialist project they embody is an ill-conceived illusion. First of all, history cannot go back 500 year searching an idyllic socialism that, in truth, never existed. The one that did exist since 1917 crumbled twenty years ago squeezed by its despotic inefficiency. Save for its military complex it was never a real competition for capitalism (or neo-liberalism, to use that fashionable neologism). The advent of microelectronics marked the end of communism, without capitalist nations shooting a single missile. The Cuban process looks like a museum of socialism. The one Venezuela wants to impose orients by the dying Cuban model. There still remain North Korea and Iran.  I know no citizens lining up to travel to those countries, not even as tourists. Those leaving Bolivia go to Italy, Spain, England, the United States, from the “neoliberal” area so much cursed by President Morales. They are injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into the Bolivian economy and indirectly help Mr. Morales boast about the country’s bulging foreign monetary reserves.

It is still possible an honorable peace, that would preserve the equalitarian principles that gave way to the government of Mr. Morales. But insisting on current course is tantamount to a kamikaze flight, which obviously has no return ticket because there was no gas for a comeback.