Saturday, August 23, 2008

Crisis in Bolivia:  The Paro in the Media Luna and Chuquisaca


Bolivian Cameraman is Assaulted by MAS Supporters in Santa Cruz
Source:  El Deber

It is no longer just the Morales government versus the four departments of the Media Luna, all of whom have passed autonomy referenda seeking to distance themselves from the centralized control of the MAS regime in La Paz.  Now the conflict has expanded to include the Department of Chuquisaca, which has joined, at least in part, its sister departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando in a confrontation with Morales and the MAS.  The four Media Luna departments all have imposed a full-scale Paro (shutdown) of major road transit within their borders, demanding the redistribution of the equivalent of $166 million U.S. collected as the Direct Hydrocarbons Tax, or Impuesto Directo a los Hidrocarburos, a.k.a. the "IDH."  The departments are demanding a return of these tax revenues to local authorities because earlier this year, Evo Morales unilaterally cut off their distribution without the approval of the Bolivian Congress, ostensibly to use the funds to pay old age pensions (La Renta Dignidad), but also as a means of punishing the departments for pursuing their individual agendas for establishing autonomy.  The situation is tense and there are confirmed reports of violent attacks in the Department of Santa Cruz launched against news reporters by MAS activists. 

It appears that the conflict between Evo Morales and his opposition may be coming to a head.

The Four Departments of the Media Luna with Chuquisaca

Blockades in the Media Luna, Government and MAS Response, Podemos Declared Illegal

A general stoppage of transit activity in the four departments of the Media Luna began Monday in Santa Cruz as a protest manned by some 5,000 unionists, local fraternal organizations, carnival workers, and neighborhood groups to put pressure on the Morales government to accept the distribution among the departments of previously-shared IDH revenues.  The local commitment to support the effort was widespread, even extending to the point of supermarkets opening for special hours late Sunday night to permit residents to stock up on necessities in anticipation of a long struggle.  The other three departments of the Media Luna; Beni, Pando, and Tarija, also followed suit and Chuquisaca joined in supporting the demands.  Most of the first day's activities were peaceful.

Morales government officials and MAS supporters both within the five protesting departments and in the capital of La Paz immediately announced their intent to oppose the Paro.  In what may have been the most significant act, the National Electoral Court declared the opposition Podemos Party, which predominates in the Media Luna, to be an illegal organization and stripped it of official recognition under Bolivian law.  MAS activists and organizations also began organizing their own actions within the five eastern departments, often acting in concert with government organs, such as in their takeover of the offices of telecommunications provider ENTEL in Tarija, which gives them control over telephone and internet use throughout the department.  And in the municipality of San Julian, a MAS stronghold in the Department of Santa Cruz, Morales allies announced their own stoppage in protest against the Paro and, perhaps ludicrously, threatened to encircle the departmental capital of Santa Cruz de la Sierra if the protest against the central government continued.

MAS Supporters in Santa Cruz Turn to Violence on Tuesday

On Tuesday tensions began to surface in a neighborhood within the city of Santa Cruz known as Plan Tres Mil (Plan Three Thousand), a social development project organized over 24 years ago for what was originally intended to house some 3,000 families, but which has since grown to become a satellite city of tens of thousands in its own right.  The chronology of the day began at about 4:00 a.m. with initial assaults by MAS supporters against the press and the destruction of vehicles, which they later continued in a walkthrough of the vicinity terrifying local residents.  By 1:00 p.m. bands of MAS supporters roaming the Plan Tres Mil barrio were confronted by pro-autonomy activists, including members of the Union Juvenil Cruceñista, the youth group who led the violent confrontation the previous Friday against National Police units in Santa Cruz after the police roughed up handicapped demonstrators seeking government relief.  When new police units arrived on the scene, a stone-throwing confrontation ensued with the Union Juvenil and only the use of tear gas dispersed them.  By 3:00 p.m. the MAS bands in the area had begun new assaults against journalists, forcing them to abandon the scene after several of their number were injured.  And in the aftermath of this withdrawal, which evidently coincided with the retirement of the police, the MAS supporters virtually sacked the local stores adjacent to the barrio.

Cameraman José Luis Ledezma is Down
Source:  El Deber
Clash in Streets in Santa Cruz
Source:  El Mundo

It is worth noting that when the National Press Association of Bolivia denounced the violence against journalists later that day that they specifically affixed responsibility for most of the attacks upon Evo Morales and his MAS party.  A newspaper didaction of their statement said "that the head of state makes the most of every national and international occasion to present himself denigrating and demeaning the media, the [National Press Association] interprets this attitude as reflecting a government strategy."  They also criticized opposition groups for attacks on the press on various occasions, though the complaint was more subdued.

Events in Chuquisaca

From the first day of the stoppage begun in the Media Luna, Bolivian farmers affiliated with the MAS in Chuquisaca began to organize their own counter-blockades, reportedly in protest against recently-elected Prefect Savina Cuellar's refusal to accede to their demands for the naming of provincial authorities within the department, though the intent to distract her from assisting the Paro in the four Media Luna departments is obvious.  Cuellar faces an unusual situation.  Her department is mostly of Quechua ethnic origin, which distinguishes them from the largely Aymaran majority of Bolivia's west.  She is a former MAS ally who broke with the party during the deliberations of the constituent assembly last year when MAS supporters roughed up Chuquisacan protestors, three were killed, who demonstrated for the transfer of the nation's capital to the city of Sucre, in her department.  She then helped form the Interinstitutional Committee of Chuquisaca as a challenge to the MAS, which enabled her election as Prefect on June 29, making the committee the principal political power in the department.  She originally sought an accommodation with the central government, because her department is sorely in need of funds to build major highways, which she announced as her principal policy goal during the campaign.  But Morales did not act to develop a working relationship and Cuellar has since gravitated much closer to the Media Luna and she has even announced plans to schedule an autonomy referendum for Chuquisaca for November 23, following the pattern of her neighboring departments.

Chuqisacan Prefect Savina Cuellar Shares a Toast with
Prefects of the Media Luna Departments at her Inauguration Last Month

It is within Chuquisaca that the MAS appears to be focusing its primary effort to undermine the inter-departmental Paro, apparently believing that their strength among the Chuquisaqueño farmers gives them a sufficient base to act and perhaps believing that Cuellar is more vulnerable than the prefects of the Media Luna.  They have imposed a virtual blockade of the departmental capital of Sucre, which is now beginning to create a shortage of meat, and prices are beginning to rise there.  Cuellar has asked for dialog with the MAS activists and they have thus far refused and tensions appear to be running high.

The Crisis Continues

As of this moment, Saturday, August 23, it is difficult to see an end to the conflict.  In Tarija the prefect has led a closure of the main highways connecting Bolivia to Argentina, which has implications for commerce in foodstuffs destined for La Paz, and he is demanding the withdrawal of officials of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, a MAS-dominated arm of the bureaucracy, as well as a "leveling" of the price of natural gas exported from the Chaco gas fields of the department.  MAS activists in La Paz are calling for a second Cerco (siege) of the national congress to force it to submit the Morales constitution to popular referendum vote, an exceptionally dangerous idea that most certainly will aggravate tensions with the eastern departments, given that their elected representatives were violently prevented from voting against the text of the document when it was submitted in the constituent assembly in late February.  And there are significant anxieties throughout the country over the long-term consequences of the conflict for the availability of foodstuffs, since most of what the western departments consume, especially meat, either originates in or is transported through the five eastern departments of the Media Luna and Chuquisaca.

And calls for dialog seem to emanate from all parties, but the strident political positions held by those concerned are not leading to negotiations as of this moment.

El Cerco:  February, 2008
The Death of Constitutional Law in Bolivia?

My Analysis:  Imposition of Morales's Constitution, Underfunded Autonomous Government

While there are geographical, historical, demographic, and ethnic factors that form the basis for the distinct attitudes among Bolivians towards the future course of their country, the immediate underlying issues defining Bolivia's political crisis are the manner in which Evo Morales and his MAS party have attempted to rewrite and impose a new constitution outside the framework of Bolivian constitutional law and the equally unconstitutional response of the eastern departments to form autonomous governments with only limited control from La Paz, a course of action that now appears institutionally weak without the simultaneous creation of a revenue base.  Morales and his MAS allies found themselves unable to write the new constitution according to their own wishes during the constitutional assembly in 2007 as they lacked the two-thirds majority necessary to pass their proposals above opposition objections.  They then decided to move the proceedings to a military base and, at the end of February this year, they presented the final document for the assembly's approval, still not possessing the two-thirds majority required to pass it.  On the day of the vote, in an event now known as El Cerco (the siege), MAS demonstrators encircled the assembly building and violently prevented opposition delegates from entering the hall to cast their vote, thus assuring its passage, which was the penultimate stage prior to its submission as a popular referendum, whose outcome would likely favor its approval.

As a response to Morales's decision to circumvent the regular proceedings of the constituent assembly, the four eastern departments of the Media Luna began to undertake their own independent initiatives to pass referenda establishing their autonomy from the central government in La Paz.  This followed a failed attempt to secure this recognition by national referendum earlier in 2006, a procedure whose outcome would have been recognized under Bolivian constitutional law.  In December, 2007 Santa Cruz announced that it would schedule its own autonomy referendum vote within its borders and the other three departments followed suit after the MAS violently secured passage of their constitution at the constituent assembly in late February.  In a series of votes conducted between May 4 and June 22 of this year, each of the Media Luna departments approved its individual autonomy referendums, though Bolivia's constitutional tribunal -- whose authority was seriously undermined by the resignations of four of its five members -- declared the procedures illegal.  They also pronounced the MAS constitution illegal and Morales refrained from submitting it to a national referendum vote, though he has refused to take it off the table and still seeks to negotiate acquiescence to its submission to a popular referendum vote from the dissenting eastern departments.  It is precisely the possibility that Morales may be able to force a vote on a constitution that cleared the constituent assembly by means of street violence that is pushing the autonomy process ahead.

I see three possibilities for the future:  1.  Negotiate Mutual Acceptance of the Status Quo - Evo Morales and the eastern departments can sit down and negotiate a revised constitution that incorporates both the autonomy referenda and the new MAS constitution.  This is the proposal discussed most often in the press outside of Bolivia and it is what Morales is requesting, but I believe this is a highly unlikely outcome because the eastern departments have no trust in Morales to keep his word on any arrangement that will be negotiated.  They have good reason to fear this approach since Morales and the MAS have ignored the current system of constitutional law and it is therefore not unreasonable to expect that they would repeat such behavior in the future.  2.  Restart or Rollback the Constituent Assembly Process - The constituent assembly can reconvene and either begin from scratch respecting the procedures of Bolivian constitutional law as they now exist or they can simply return to the process as it existed prior to El Cerco and hold the vote on the submitted document a second time with all delegates permitted to vote.  This option would negate the relevance of the autonomy referenda and would force the constituent assembly to create a compromise document.  It has no appeal to Morales and the MAS but it is the only option that can form the basis for real dialog.  The MAS constitution only made it out of the assembly by virtue of revolutionary violence and it must be rejected if there is to be any chance of reassuring the eastern departments that they will have a future under enforceable constitutional law.  3.  Let the Current Process Play Itself Out - The present process can play itself out to determine a final victor.  This is a very dangerous route and it almost certainly will lead to widespread and tragic violence.  And it could mean the end of the nation of Bolivia as a viable state within its current borders.  I dearly hope this does not come to pass, but as of this moment it is the chosen alternative.


1 comment:

Martha Colmenares said...

Excelente reportaje, Jacobo.
Cuando aborde sobre el tema lo enlazo como relacionado.
Un gran abrazo, Martha