Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bolivian Crisis Worsens:  Violent Takeover of National Government Offices by Opposition Begins


Smoke Rises from Plaza 24 in Santa Cruz de la Sierra on Tuesday
Source:  La Razón

Over the past three days the Paro (i.e. "stoppage") protest underway in the four eastern departments of Bolivia's Media Luna region and Chuquisaca has taken a substantial turn to open conflict with Evo Morales's national government as protestors throughout the region have begun the forceful takeover of the local offices of national government institutions and, perhaps more ominously, some petroleum producing and exporting facilities.  Additionally, the Morales government has accused the United States of encouraging what they described as the "divisionist" movement underway in the country's eastern departments and they have expelled American Ambassador Philip Goldberg, thus cutting formal diplomatic relations with the U.S.

Defeat for Morales:  Executive Decree of National Referendum on Constitution Withdrawn

Almost lost amid the escalating tensions in the eastern departments of the country is the fact that the Morales government backed down from its attempt to convene a national referendum vote on the MAS-authored Oruro Draft of a new constitution by executive decree, which Bolivia's National Electoral Court rejected and even some of his own supporters questioned.  All of the five departments engaged in the Paro promised they would not hold the referendum votes if summoned to the polls by any means other than a joint congressional resolution, as required by the Bolivian Constitution, and it looked as though the about-face might open room for dialog between Morales and his opposition.  But Morales has since refused in subsequent public statements to accept any dialog on possible amendments to the Oruro Draft and there is now talk circulating that the MAS may attempt another Cerco (siege) of the national congress when it comes up for a vote to submit it, possibly later this month on the 23rd.  The head of the police in La Paz has stated that his forces will be prepared to safeguard the legislative precincts of the Plaza Murillo in La Paz that day, but there are doubts remaining as to whether this will suffice in the event the MAS shows up in strength.

Youths in Santa Cruz Use Jeep for Assault on Government Office on Wednesday
Source:  El Deber

De Facto Autonomy?  Forcible Takeover of National Government Institutional Offices in Media Luna

Beginning last week as isolated incidents which proceeded without much in the way of serious confrontation, pro-autonomy activists in the four departments of Bolivia's Media Luna region have stepped up their pressure upon the national government to restore to the departments the revenues Evo Morales has seized from the collections of the Direct Hydrocarbons Tax with the forcible seizure of numerous local offices of national government institutions.  Included among the usual targets have been offices of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA in its Spanish abbreviation), the National Revenue Service (Bolivia's tax collection bureau), the nationalized telecommunications offices of ENTEL, along with Migration and Customs offices.  These seizures have usually been carried out by youth groups such as the Union Juvenil Cruceñista and the Federación Universitaria Local in Santa Cruz, and similar organizations in the departments of Beni, Pando, and Tarija.

Masked National Police Agent Pulls Pistol in Confrontation in Santa Cruz on Wednesday
Source:  El Deber

Injured Youth in Santa Cruz Hold Empty Shotgun Shell While Undergoing Treatment
Source:  El Deber

Though the nature of the violence reported in the Bolivian press thus far has not included reports of deaths, there has nonetheless been serious violent confrontation between pro-autonomy activists and members of the national police and, in a few instances, units of the Bolivian armed forces.  In the city of Tarija, capital of the department of the same name, local civic committee members acting together with university youths seized the customs and migration offices of the national government in separate confrontations with police agents that left a few injured on both sides, though none seriously.  In nearby Villamontes a similar scene unfolded with the takeover of the customs and revenue service offices; an action in which a local women's group joined protestors.  And there were dynamite explosions reported in the city of Tarija near other offices which were accompanied by a warning from Reynaldo Bayard, President of the Tarija Civic Committee, that "we are going to radicalize measures little by little over the course of the next few hours and days" in the continuation of their mobilization.  A protest just yesterday proved the point, as some 50 were injured, including 25 farmers demonstrating against the continuance of the blockade and eight policemen who attempted to halt the collision of a pro-autonomy group who arrived to confront them.

Mass Confrontation in Tarija on Wednesday
Source:  La Razón

In the Department of Pando, in the extreme northwestern section of the Media Luna, the takeovers of national government offices have also proceeded with an emphasis upon reversing the land use and redistribution policies the Morales government has pushed on behalf of expanding coca production in the entity, an initiative local residents have opposed strongly for what they perceive to be an increase in criminal activity associated with the narcotic-producing crop.  Not only have local pro-autonomy activists seized the INRA offices, but departmental Prefect Leopoldo Fernandez has named a replacement for the former head of the agency in the city of Cobija.  And among several demands put forth by the protestors, a noticeable one is their plea for the return of a joint task force to combat contraband activity in the department.  The Pando protestors have also seized the offices of the Bolivian Highways Administration, Customs, Migration, and the Forestry Superintendency; as well as taking over the local airport, which they encircled and prevented some 85 national police officers sent by the national government from leaving the site on September 5.

The Four Departments of the Media Luna with Chuquisaca

One of the more serious confrontations to date occurred in the city of Trinidad, capital of the Department of Beni, where a violent confrontation between autonomists and military police that lasted for ten hours on September 3rd ended with no result, as the intent of the locals to force the withdrawal of the military did not succeed.  The national government has responded by issuing warrants for the arrest of local leaders of the prefecture.  But yesterday the confrontations continued, this time with local MAS activists taking to the streets to confront pro-autonomy supporters and over 70 were injured in the ensuing conflict.

A More Ominous Development?  Takeover of Petroleum Producing and Exporting Facilities

Events in the Departments of Tarija and Chuquisaca may have more ominous portents for the future course of events surrounding the expansion of the scope of the Paro in Bolivia's east, given that they touch the national economic infrastructure more deeply than the consumer-targeted aims of the stoppage of mass transit embodied in most of the protest's activities.  Civic leaders in Tarija, acting with the cooperation of others in Chuquisaca, have seized control of some of the vital pipelines which export natural gas to Argentina and Brazil and have closed them down.  Reports indicate that the export of gas to Argentina from the Vuelta Grande field in Chuquisaca, which produces some 83 million cubic feet of gas per day, have ceased after its closure, a development which also impacts supplies destined for Brazil.  But news of the seizure and closure of the Villamontes field on the Tarija-Chuquisaca border appears to indicate much more serious actions taken, perhaps by rogue protestors or others.  According to one news release, an explosion has destroyed a section of the Yacuiba - Rio Grande gas pipeline which exports some three million cubic meters of gas per day to Brazil and damage estimates for its lost revenues may reach U.S. $8 million per day and repairs may cost U.S. $100 million.  The head of the Tarija Civic Committee Reynaldo Bayard denied that the explosion resulted from activists working with the organized protest and it may be worthwhile to point out that the Civic Committee already had control of the pipeline and had shut it down when the explosion occurred.

Civic Committee Leaders in Tarija and Chuquisaca Turn Off Villamontes Gas Pipeline
Source:  La Razón

International Reaction

There seems to be very little anyone outside of Bolivia can do to help calm the situation.  As mentioned in a previous post on this site, the Organization of American States has alienated itself from the autonomy protestors by reason of its refusal to recognize the obvious violations of constitutional law on the part of Evo Morales and the MAS that have pushed the protest forward.  Tuesday's reaction from the OAS showed no sign of promise for the future as Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza only condemned the protest and praised the national government for its restraint.  It may be that Brazil, which has spoken publicly about the need for the central government in La Paz to come to terms with the autonomy movements, will have to be the first nation to undertake some kind of initiative if there is to be any movement towards a calming of the situation within the country in which outside parties can play a mediating role.

My Comments

It is all spinning out of control.  I did not even get into a discussion of the food shortages in La Paz and elsewhere which are demonstrating that the Paro is having a serious effect upon the rest of the country, not to mention the difficulties created within the dissenting departments themselves.

Bolivia is quite simply on the verge of civil war and possibly revolution.

Unless and until Evo Morales and the MAS come to grips with the necessity of obeisance to constitutional law and its enforcement, there will be no way to get the eastern departments even to begin negotiations.  The issues of the seizure/devolution of the IDH tax revenues and the new constitution both reflect the same problem; constitutional law has ceased to exist in Bolivia and the eastern departments are determined to reassert some measure of control over their own destiny in its absence.  If this process continues for too long a period of time it will inevitably result in some degree of separation from the remainder of the country, though not necessarily by secession.  But between now and then a lot could happen and much of it could portend for tragedy if saner minds do not prevail in La Paz.

It may be that the upcoming congressional sessions to consider the submission of the MAS constitution to a possible referendum, perhaps taking place on the 23rd of this month, will give us some idea of the future course of events.  If the opposition is permitted to vote in the Senate, Morales's plan will most certainly be defeated.  Since we have yet to see any significant action by the Bolivian military to move against the autonomists, it may be that they are holding out for this critical moment when they believe Evo can be brought to his senses by the rejection of his constitutional project.  But if that awakening does not take place, or if Evo Morales and the MAS successfully intimidate their opposition once again and use violence to prevent their participation in the legislative process everything could come undone.

Bolivia is a very serious situation right now.



Martha Colmenares said...

Saludos Jacobo, lo he enlazado a un art. de José Brechner.
Un abrazo, Martha

Francisco said...

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I´ve also been covering the media´s attack againts Palin.

Martha Colmenares said...

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Un abrazo,