Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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.

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.

Discordances

January 2, 2008

 As many people in Bolivia, I disagree with the MAS constitutional draft because it was brought to life ilegally. It will still be a draft as long as a plebiscite does not confirm it. But it was sanctioned out of its legal matrix, Sucre, and in a venue totally unfit for a country that has suffered the atrocities of military dictatorships__  in a military academy. Adding offense to the wound, the government assembly members vanished at down Nov. 24 as though aware of having committed something illegal. They reconvened in Oruro where, assisted by colleagues who acted like orchestra directors, they passed the draft in one single night (over 400 articles). Besides, it happened without calling members within agreed notice and without distributing the text to discuss and approve. Conclusion: False and tortuous the beginning, false and tortuous the end.

This should be known by those who believe the Bolivian process has been pristine.

A constitution is a pact that a whole country subscribes to rule itself. In this game there should not be majorities imposing their will over a minority. Assumingly it was not a war (or was it?).  Besides, the six percentage points of Mr. Morales and his party victory two years ago (53.7% vs. 47.3%) might have well have vanished by now.

MAS CPE included not a single article from opposing forces. It was all plainly ready for MAS yes-members.  At this stage, I would love to know if Sen. Peredo or the government leader at the assembly Santos Ramirez would be able to recite Art. 1 by memory, and explain it to their audience.

I like even less arts.107 and 108 regarding freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The draft I have (it is said the real original has been altered many times__ which makes it even more illegal, if that is possible), seems a minestrone of concepts that I am not sure it does exist displayed in that way in any democratic country.

Both articles are written on a lethally vague way (or was it deliberate?). Thwarting free expression means crippling democracy.  As a journalist I feel outraged by those articles.

I would like to know also in which countries it is stated by constitution that the media must “promote  the ethical, moral and civic values of the diverse cultures in the country with the production and publication of educational pluri-lingual programs…” (Poor multi-ethnic India, Canada or Brazil, I would say.)

If this is the kind of change that will be imposed in Bolivia, it is better to stick to the old 1925 press law.

What other changes? Oil nationalization hasn´t happened, according to technical criteria, although nobody denies that the drastic change in percentages benefitting Bolivia has been positive. But it wasn´t necessary to withstand eighteen months of tribulations without knowing where would Bolivia get investments to meet current export agreements with Brazil and Argentina.

What else? The bonuses for elders and primary school students? Nobody would honestly oppose them, but I wonder about their sustainability over time.

Let´s agree there are good points in the MAS draft, but to propose them it wasn´t necessary irrigating gasoline all over the country.

One also disagrees with the government insistence in placing autonomy and separatism on the same level.  I don´t like a bit the cynical statement by a high government official  saying that Dec.15 rally of Santa Cruz cívicos consisted or “five or ten families”. Maybe all he wanted was to hide the fact that there were by far much more attendants in Santa Cruz (tens of thousands, easily) to approve autonomic statutes than in La Paz to approve the MAS draft. His was a blatant lie.

On the other hand, I don´t like the Autonomous statutes because I don´t think they had been debated enough in forums, university campuses, academy groups, labor unions, etc. It was a matter of setting a difference with MAS. On one side, they are at least clear and articulated. But they should have been born fully legally. There are no specific laws dealing with autonomy. Then it would have had to wait. But over all they should have shown superiority not only in their conceptualization but in their moral consistency throughout open debate across all society segments. That would have shown a difference with MAS´s draft. 

As many other people, I don’t like “ponchos rojos”  brutality reminiscent of the blind violence Shining Path. I don´t like either the clash militia-like groups of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee.

It is a pity that President Morales had accused US Ambassador of conspiring against his government presenting as a proof a color photo of him and a Colombian citizen at a Fair in Santa Cruz. Nobody had enough political clout to tell him: “That picture is no proof at all. Stop showing it. Let´s be serious.”  

A country cannot go on under a who-makes- it- worse dynamics. Let´s hope for a brighter political interaction in 2008.

A growing fast

December 8, 2007

People staging a hunger strike since Monday evening across four out of nine departments (states) in Bolivia have said they may now be counted by the hundreds, making their movement the biggest political fast in Bolivia´s 25 years of democratic rule. Close to 400 are fasting in Santa Cruz alone, according to Branko Marinkovic, presidentof Santa Cruz´s Civic Committe and one of the movement´s leaders.

The movement is a struggle “for democracy and full respect to the rule of law”, told me Cynthia Nallar Antelo as she and three other women lay on mattresses in a tent right within the city´s main plaza. “Reason, she said, must be reinstated in Bolivia”.

Reason seems in a very short supply in this country nowadays. Three weeks ago, the official party MAS approved a constitutional chart draft all alone. It was just one-sided project of 405 articles. 

But one of the weirdest episodes took place when  the government party assembly members convened in a militiary school.  Four miles away, around  their official venue the population of Sucre, where the assembly was being held, was enraged protesting the government decision to withdraw from the draft chart Sucre´s demand to became a fully vested capital (today it is just “legal” capital; the Executive and Legislative branches are in La Paz). 

Then, since time was getting short and the protest was growing, (there were hundres of injuries and, as later was known, three people had died) they chose to approve whatever was left for approval by just reading the subtitles. When an assembly member asked why, Vicepresident Roberto Aguilar told him: “Don´t worry. That (reading and discussing each article) is a mere formality.” 

After approving the draft,  the 138 members (out of a total of 255) vanished. They run away from Sucre. Now it is said they will reconvene this coming week in Oruro, a windy, cold mining western city to give the final approval to the document.  But a small town in Chapare, the coca plantations area, was originally considered as the right place. It fitted the draft chart which upgrades coca leave, the raw material for cocaine, to the condition of Bolivia´s “cultural patrimony.”

On Wednesday President Evo Morales declared he would accept a plebiscite to decide whether he remains in power. But the next day a close aide said if the verdict turns against the president, he would abide by it only if disapproval is higher than the vote he won in December 2005, when he was elected by 1,544.37 votes, or 53.7 percent. It was the highest percentage since Bolivia returned to democracy in the early 1980s, but the new rule made many people raise the eyebrows asaking: Populational data has changed since. More people were born, more have entered voting age.  

That formula, one concedes, was entirley new for a plebisicite.

Morales said Wednesday evening he was ready to submit his presidency to the approval or rejection of the people. “If the people says, ´Evo should leave´, I have no problem. I am a democratic person”, he said on a TV address. His announcement was expected to clear up the thick environment hanging over the country with growing opposition against the Aymara Indian leader in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando,Tarija, Chuquisaca and Cochabamba. The fast is held in the first four departments.

He said “in the next few hours” he would send for Congressional approval a bill to instate the referendum. All nine governors said they accepted the challenge.

But by Friday the proposal had not been publicly disclosed. It was thightly shrouded in mistery. 

Presidential spokesman Alex Contreras said that for the president to leave the vote against him should be higher than the total he got two years ago.

“That is preposterous,” said Nallar Antelo. “He always plays tricks. But we don´t believe him anymore. He lies all the time. The go-away plebiscite should have no conditions attached. There are many population variables since 2005 election. Santa Cruz alone may have 110,000 more votes since. He is just trying to show to the world that he is a democrat, which is not true.  Now his real face is emerging.”

All nine governors who accepted the challenge were also waiting for the proposed law for the referendum.

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.        

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.”

Backing out

October 21, 2007

President Evo Morales 22-month old government had his most serious political setback Friday in Santa Cruz, the region that opposes his La Paz-controlled Indigenous Socialism and proclaims the virtues of free market instead. Less than 36 hours after deploying 400 soldiers from Altiplano garrisons to seize control of the Viru Viru international airport, he backed out.

 Soldiers were withdrawn and a peaceful crowd of thousands of Cruceños took the airport control. Authorities and technicians who had been dismissed by Morales were reinstated. Morales admitted he had ordered soldiers to be removed from their positions at the airport gates to prevent violence.

It was a massive response from Cruceños (as Santa Cruz people are called) to an attempt they saw as the beginning of a major attack on “decentralization,” a process started years ago by promoting greater fiscal and administrative autonomy thoughout the country. It was a way of overcoming traditional centralization that required approval from central government for every major decision. The Viru Viru airport, built in the early 1980s mainly under an agreement between the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and Cordecruz, a regional public corporation, became Bolivia´s central airport, a hub taking care of international and most domestic flights. Because of its geopolitical location in the center of South America, and the number of flights coming in from the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Chile, it was also the busiest airport. But in the 1990s it accumulated debts of up to Bs. 200 million (about $US 24 million), in pension contributions and other social obligations.

Sources said the shortly-sacked administration had started to payback the debt. “It was beginning to seriously respond to its payment commitments,” told me Gen. (r) Gary Prado, who took part of previous boards of directors. But Morales’ government found the situation of the airport was financially precarious.

Aasana, the name of the airport agency, has legal rules to appoint directors. Morales decided to ignore those rules and intervene militarily the institution. His government appointed new directors from his own political party, MAS (Movement Toward Socialism).

This enraged Cruceño leaders, who saw it as a major move to suffocate the region´s demand to win autonomy from the government. Other three departments (Beni, Pando and Tarija) share the same pro-autonomy campaign. Bolivia has nine departments, but the four ”autonomista” departments comprise more than a half of its territory and hold most of the country´s natural gas fields, iron ore and the growing agro-industrial sector ranging from soybeans and sugar cane to cattle.

The government asserts that of all of the airport income, 85 percent went to pay a payroll of about 200, including bloated fees to directors. But it did not elaborate. It also argues that the reinstated chairman had taken from Aasana up to $150,000 and deposited the money in a personal bank account.

It wasn´t clear why the government did not resort to a judicial process within the country’s court-system to quell and seek the corresponding legal punishment for the alleged corruption. It would have won wide public approval. But it might still pursue this matter, and if its case is proved, at least explain part of the blunder.

The government charges the demand for autonomy came from a movement of “oligarchs” and ”elites.” For what has been seen lately, including Thursday and Friday protests, that qualification hardly holds, or it is an arbitrary extrapolation. Otherwise Santa Cruz would have tens of thousands oligarchs and elites. The question now is if the political setback in Santa Cruz will bear any cost on Mr. Morales government. It may take some time to fully appreciate the magnitude of said cost.

Evo in the U.S.

September 23, 2007

As he meets this week some U.S. leaders in the United States President Evo Morales will look for support in his uphill campaign to improve relations with the superpower. In truth, he is trying to get in a house through a side door. After a few weeks ago he showed the country´s exit gate to the top U.S. representative, irritated because the diplomat said coca production has been steadily growing in Bolivia, and after Mr. Morales Chief Cabinet Staff, Mr. Quintana, charged U.S. financial aid of buttressing political opposition, the Bolivian leader wants to display a broad smile in Washington and New York. He is scheduled to meet with Democrat leaders at a symposium on environment. He will have to explain how come coca output has shot up in recent months from a top 20,000 hectares (already 60-plus % above the legally authorized plantation area of up to 12,000 hectares), to 28.000-plus hectares. The mathematics Mr. Morales will have to explain the reason for the increase, and how he comes to view a proposed cut down to 20,000 hectares as a reduction. It is like the case of an unscrupulous merchant selling his merchandise at such an exorbitant price that the previous one (20,000 hectares), already a flagrantly inflated price, should appear like an appealing bargain. His hosts might show good will towards Latin America and towards popular leaders like Mr. Morales. But they are not fools. Mr. Morales will be talking mainly with Democrat leaders, on the belief that they will win presidential elections next year. He rather be cautious and learn from history. Last time Bolivian leaders bet on a political changeover in hopes the new administration would be benevolent, they crashed their noses into a slamming door. Gen. Garcia Meza and his chief aide Col. Luis Arce Gomez thought that a Republican administration would buy their claims that all they were doing favored the cause of anti-communism. Wrong. Rather than anti-communism the U.S. foreign policy was interested in promoting human rights. The U.S. these days (Democrats and Republicans) wants to stem the flow of cocaine in their country. And expanding coca plantations doesn´t help.