Friday, September 26, 2008

Bolivia Takes a Step Back from the Brink:  Victory and Defeat for Both Sides


President Evo Morales and the Eastern Department Prefects Begin Dialog in Cochabamba

A Calming Situation?

The news out of Bolivia seems to indicate an improvement of the situation as conflicts between pro-autonomy activists and supporters of the government have moved away from a civil disobedience campaign that morphed into violent resistance in the eastern departments of the so-called Media Luna and towards a negotiated solution through dialog.  The talks, which largely resulted from apparent international pressure on Morales from other Latin American leaders at the recent UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) summit, are being mediated by a group of international observers that includes official representatives from the UN, the OAS, and UNASUR; as well as the Catholic Church.

As of last Friday, September 19, those brief talks in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba produced no tangible results, though a framework for pursuing a lasting agreement to stabilize the country was reached.  A future road map for the process has been laid out in which the two sides agreed to joint participation in three commissions: one to deal with the distribution of the Direct Hydrocarbons Tax revenues to the departments and the support for old age pensions those departments will distribute -- rather than the national government, which was the original complaint of the Media Luna that produced the Paro (general stoppage) protests; a second to legitimize the constitutional validity of the autonomous status of the eastern departments; and a third to reestablish the nomination and approval process to fill vacancies in the judicial branch of the government, especially with reference to the National Electoral Court.  Direct talks between the Morales government and the Prefects have ended for the moment, and attention will now turn to the work of the commissions, which is where any agreement that is acceptable to both sides will have to be negotiated.

Bodies of Some of the Victims of the September 11 Violence in Pando
Source:  El Deber

Behind the International Pressure:  Violence, Refugees, and Gas Exports

The Paro civil disobedience campaign that began in the third week of August in the five departments of Bolivia's east continued unabated, albeit with steadily-escalating tensions, until the second week of September, when very serious violence erupted in the Department of Pando on Thursday, September 11.  According to the first reports from the Santa Cruz, Bolivia newspaper El Deber, at least eight persons died and 39 were injured in what appeared to be something of a scheduled clash between autonomists and MAS activists, though differing versions were offered as to how the violence erupted.  President Evo Morales then responded by declaring a state of siege in Pando, which is the Bolivian equivalent of martial law, and ordered in troops from the army, who retook the airport in the departmental capital of Cobija.  Control was reasserted in a manner that cannot be described as entirely "peaceful," though again details as to the particulars are difficult to grasp given the conflicting reports circulating from government and pro-autonomy sources.  It is known that others died in the violence in Pando, perhaps bringing the total to as many as thirty, and that a refugee problem began to develop as frightened locals fled to Brazil for safety, most fearing retaliation from the MAS, who began to take out their frustrations against many Pandinos after the arrival of the army, according to first-hand accounts taken from refugees in Brazil.

Edgar Balcazar, a Pandino Refugee in Brazil, Shows Evidence of Torture by the MAS
Source:  El Deber

The Pando situation was only the worst example of what went wrong with the Paro protest.  Before the violence began, numerous recognizable instances of a degenerating situation already indicated events were spinning out of control.  Confrontations between protest supporters and MAS activists became increasingly tense everywhere.  Pro-autonomy leaders of the civic committees throughout the Gran Chaco region of Bolivia's southeast acted to shut down the country's gas production and exports -- important to Brazil and absolutely vital to Argentina -- when they seized producing fields and closed pipelines and at least one bombing attack on a pipeline caused serious damage.  The pro-autonomy seizures of national government offices throughout the Media Luna continued in an ever-escalating upward spiral of confrontation with both police and military units.  MAS activists began to undertake their own "counter-encirclements" of several key cities in Bolivia's east, creating what we might describe as a "Paro within a Paro" and which was exactly the kind of confrontation that produced the violence in Pando.

There was also evidence that the protest succeeded in creating food and gasoline shortages in Bolivia's western departments, which was the Media Luna's goal from the beginning.  La Paz's La Razón newspaper reported meat shortages in the city, where some markets closed altogether and rising prices for meat exemplified the economic effect of scarcity.  Gasoline shortages forced the closure of some filling stations there as well, though the shortfall was experienced throughout the country.  It would go too far to claim that the Paro achieved its goal through economic pressure, but it cannot be denied that its effects had an impact.

UNASUR Presses for a Settlement through Dialog

With the eruption of violence in Pando making the humanitarian case for action self-evident, though perhaps also influenced by Brazilian anxiety over a developing refugee exodus and larger regional concerns over the possible cessation of Bolivian exports of natural gas, UNASUR President Pro-Tempore Michelle Bachelet of Chile called for an emergency summit to address the crisis on September 13.  Ostensibly coming together to show continental support for Morales, which the conferees demonstrated in their public utterances, UNASUR nonetheless produced a result on the ground not in keeping with the entirety of the public posture Morales had maintained within his own country. 

Though in their public statements the UNASUR members voiced their support for Evo Morales's "plan" for a dialog process to end the Paro, return national institutions to the control of the government in La Paz, and restore domestic tranquility, the real impetus for the proposals may have originated with Tarija Prefect Mario Cossio.  After seeking approval within the CONALDE group -- Spanish acronym for the National Democratic Council, an organizational entity dominated by the Media Luna departments -- Cossio met with Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linares in La Paz and negotiated an agreement to end the protest and begin a dialog with the Morales government by the early a.m. hours of Saturday, September 13.  UNASUR's announcement of the agreement later in the day represented a major success for the group and offered Evo Morales an opportunity to save face with the Bolivian people given some of the details which the plan included.

The Dialog Process Agreement

On Tuesday, September 16 representatives of the CONALDE signed an agreement with the Morales government setting terms for the dialog process, one might more accurately describe these as "parameters" given that the specifics are not spelled out very clearly, but which began an end-game for the Paro, calmed tensions, and invariably moved popular attention towards negotiation.  The details of the agreement were published as follows:

Details of National Agreement to End the Paro and Begin Dialog
IDH and royalties.  The Government recognizes the right of the departments to receive the IDH [revenue shares]; payment of the Dignity Pension [renta Dignidad] and its sustainability from established funding sources provided by law must be guaranteed.  The government also expressed its decision to respect and maintain the current distribution of [oil and gas] royalties to the departments.
Autonomies and statutes.  The government expresses its respect for the right to autonomy of [the departments of] Pando, Beni, Tarija and Santa Cruz.  It also dealt with the new Political Constitution of the State and there will be an institutional settlement for the appointment of vacant congressional seats, the [examination of the] electoral roll, the program of national identity cards and the Civil Registry; [all] the electoral processes will be covered.
Dialog.  Facilitators and witnesses will be relied upon; those invited are: UNASUR, the Church, the European Union, the OAS, and the UN.
Pacification.  There is an agreement to the lifting of all blockades and the handing over of public institutions that were taken, moreover there will be a halt to the violence all over the country.
Truce.  The government will suspend the summoning of a referendum for the text of the constitution for one month; at that time, the deadline could be extended, in accordance with the progress of dialog.  There will be no political persecution of the regional leaders and they will investigate the events of Pando.
Source:  El Deber:  17 September 2008

Cardinal Julio Terrazas (seated with Evo Morales), at the Dialog Talks
Securing the participation of Catholic Church observers was a key demand of the opposition.

The particulars of the above agreement appear at first glance to pronounce a near-complete victory for the Media Luna, but a closer examination of the terms coupled with an expanded knowledge of recent events associated with the Morales presidency makes clear that Evo retained the one thing that is still paramount in his political program; an opportunity to pursue approval of the MAS-authored Oruro Draft of a new constitution for Bolivia.  By no means has he received the certain guarantee of a national vote in a constitutionally-legitimate referendum on the document, but he is given the opportunity to put it on the table and there is the larger implication that a meaningful dialog must address the issues associated with the new framework for the Bolivian state, a process that cuts both ways, in light of the specific language in the final clause which mentions "progress" in dialog.

From the perspective of the Media Luna, their protest has been justified by the specific statement in the agreement that the Direct Hydrocarbons Tax revenues (IDH in its Spanish acronym) will be distributed to the departments.  There is no mention as to the origin of the "right" of the departments to individual shares of the IDH revenues, they derive from a popular referendum passed in a national vote, which now gives it constitutional support; language one must suspect the departments wished to see included.  There is instead a general statement from the government that the revenues must be paid to the departments.  But even here Morales gets to save face because there is specific language requiring the use of at least some portion of the funds for the payment of the renta Dignidad, which is a pension for seniors Morales wanted to disburse from the national treasury funded by his seizure of the IDH revenues.  And furthermore, there is additional language promising the departments their receipt of royalties on oil and gas production, which is a separate matter from the IDH revenues, though this is not recognized as a "right," but rather as the result of a government "decision" instead.  There is more than enough real financial gain for the departmental governments in this document to permit them to claim a victory, though by no means can they consider it complete.

The "right" of the Media Luna departments to "autonomy" is recognized, but there is no clear identification as to what autonomy means, which leaves the inclusion of the autonomic statutes -- the Media Luna at least got that term in the document -- in doubt, at least in so far as it might entail including them in their current form.  For those who have not followed Bolivia closely, be advised that this leaves open the possibility of a redefinition of autonomy that would look very different from what the Media Luna referenda have pursued.  Morales has pushed for the restructuring of the internal political processes of departments throughout the country, in his own proposal for "decentralization," which would strip the departmental prefects of their power to appoint numerous provincial "sub-prefects" and thus open the way for a rewriting of local laws within those few areas of the eastern departments where the MAS can gain control.  The real purpose of this objective for the MAS is to gain such local control where possible and then open Bolivia's east to "colonization" by western Bolivians in need of land who would receive such grants under Morales's land redistribution proposals.  On the surface this sounds quite democratic and socially just, but in practice it means giving land to coca farmers who will expand production of the narcotic-producing crop, bringing all sorts of attendant difficulties along in trail.  The Media Luna departments have fought this plan by writing their own laws to prohibit the cultivation of coca -- this was very much at the root of the violent confrontation in Pando, since the MAS activists involved were colonizadores cocaleros -- and Morales intends to use land redistribution to effect a restructuring of political power along with it.

"Decentralization" as Morales uses the term only refers to decentralizing the power of the departmental prefects; its actual result would be a much more centralized Bolivian national state, since the prefects have been the only effective check upon the power of the national government.

The agreement thus can be viewed as offering both victory and defeat for both sides and its significance for the future remains very much in doubt, given that no final settlement of the outstanding issues has been reached.

Some Analytical Comments

I think the word "Truce" contained within the published text of the agreement gives us an accurate description of where things stand at present.  The IDH revenues must be distributed among the eastern departments, as they demanded, but that only removes an initial obstacle that has prevented Bolivians from getting to the real work of making the political peace.  There has been no settlement of the major underlying issues in Bolivian political life, but a breathing space has been created within which the dialog participants might construct one.  They still must address Evo Morales's constitutional project and that will not be an easy matter.

I have written before that I believe that unless the Oruro Draft for a new constitution is either reworked significantly or scrapped altogether that there will be no internal political peace in Bolivia.  I remain convinced this is so today, though I do think something positive has emerged from the conclusion of the Paro, which is quite simply that Evo Morales and the MAS can no longer do their dirty work in the dark.  The presence of the international observers at the dialog is in my opinion significant because, especially with respect to UNASUR, they are exercising a public relations role in their pronouncements and media releases on the process that makes it impossible for Evo Morales to present a distorted interpretation of events to the Bolivian people and the world while discounting the differing version coming from the opposition as reflecting some selfish, obstructionist, or vile intent on their part to prevent the realization of the MAS program.

The recent public stance UNASUR has taken towards a solution of Bolivia's internal difficulties reflects a dichotomy between an outward expression of support for Evo Morales as the legitimate President of Bolivia and what appears to be a subtle, but noticeable, effort to use dialog to reestablish the institutions of Bolivian democracy within the negotiating process, as the Media Luna desires, rather than as a consequence of negotiations, as Morales has intended with his persistent attempts to force the adoption of the MAS-authored constitution.  In its public pronouncements UNASUR has emphasized institucionalidad (institutionality) in Bolivian political life and, in the Latin American political context, this represents a significant change for the country.  Institucionalidad means observation of and adherence to the Neoliberal goals of achieving the orderly preservation of domestic political and social stability through laws enforced by competent and legitimate institutions of the state, rather than overthrowing them by popular revolutionary agitation or illegally substituting the rule of a simple majority (popular referenda or single-party legislative sessions) where an absolute majority (two-thirds of the Congress) is required.  Morales has repeatedly and contemptuously referred to the "Neoliberal Model" as a failure in speeches to his supporters and public utterances, which goes a long way towards explaining his undermining of the Bolivian Senate and the National Electoral Court, among other institutions, which have stood in the way of his attempts to impose the Oruro Draft document outside the precepts of Bolivian constitutional law.  The terms of the agreement to begin dialog specifically state that a means will be negotiated to reestablish the legitimacy of the National Electoral Court and to fill other judicial and legislative vacancies, which obviously was a key opposition demand.

It is also worth noting that the role UNASUR has played in reestablishing internal political dialog in Bolivia qualifies the previous effort of Jose Miguel Insulza and the Organization of American States to provide international leadership and support as a failure.  The OAS is now only one of several observers to the process, whereas they previously had been considered the principal option for international mediation of the Bolivian political crisis going back to at least last November, when the violence in Sucre associated with the constituent assembly began the downward slide into what eventually became the near civil war of the Paro.  Insulza has been criticized for the failure of his organization to provide leadership in the Bolivian crisis, and justifiably so, in my opinion.  I have written earlier that he and his organization have undermined the primacy of constitutional law in Bolivia by supporting the settlement of all questions in Bolivia at the ballot box, where the MAS would only need a simple majority to pass its constitution.  This would have rubber-stamped their de facto disinstitutionalization of Bolivia's Congress and National Electoral Court, which Morales and the MAS have either ignored or delegitimized over the course of their handling of and participation in the constituent assembly through the end of February of this year.  Later, in the late spring and early summer, Insulza attempted to start a dialog process with the Media Luna prefects, but the effort came to naught, as they openly stated that Insulza was in their opinion too close to Morales and Hugo Chavez to earn their trust.  Obviously the autonomists paid attention to the OAS's handling of the Colombian incursion across the Ecuadoran border on March 1 to get FARC leader Raul Reyes, as well as Insulza's refusal to open an investigation into the contents of the Reyes laptops after the release of the Interpol report weeks later.  The OAS has been a debilitating factor in the Bolivian dialog process to date.  And Insulza's tenure as Secretary General has been nothing less than an unmitigated disaster and we can at least in part lay the responsibility for the downward slide into violence in the second week of this month at his feet.  Sí -- ¡Yo acuso!

Finally; there is the matter of who is not participating in the negotiations, by which I refer to the Bolivian Congress, which is especially important with reference to the Senate, where the opposition holds majority control.  In their history of dealing with Morales, the opposition in the Bolivian Congress has shown itself to be inept, incompetent, and perhaps even at times cowardly.  The prefects of the eastern departments have been far more politically acute and successful, as they are the ones who led the Paro that has forced Morales to come to the table.  If the terms of the agreement are completed in full, then a reconstituted National Electoral Court, coupled with a new and legitimate judiciary capable of enforcing the electoral court's decisions, should emerge from the process.  In that event Morales will then have to initiate a dialog with the Congress he has delegitimized because, under current Bolivian constitutional law, he cannot get a national referendum for his constitution unless the Congress calls for one, and opposition leaders in the Senate have recently made clear they will not call for a vote on the Oruro Draft unless changes are made to the document.  Morales, and especially his Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, have made public statements to the effect that once the dialog with the prefects is completed, the constitution will come up for a vote.  If there is anything that can bring the whole process crashing down, it will be a possible attempt by Morales to ignore the role of the Bolivian Congress.  And it will be up to the observers in the UNASUR process to guarantee that he does not get away with it if and when he attempts it.


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