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In Bolivia’s highly mobilized and turbulent political climate, mayors have been pushed out not just by a formal indictment, but also by social pressure from their constituents. Such mobilizations led at least 9 mayors to step down themselves or be replaced by city councils as between April 2010 and December 2011. However, in two major cases, the national government has appealed to the courts to defend its own mayors from removal by their councils. The cities involved were Sucre, where interim mayor Veronica Berríos was pushed aside for peasant leader and councilman José Santos Romero in January 2011, and Yapacaní, Santa Cruz, where the council suspended David Carvajal for the second time in December 2011. Both of these cases involved local MAS councilmembers backing popular pressure for MAS mayors to resign. In effect, the national MAS is standing by its embattled mayors and against its own base. In terms of procedure, the national MAS is rejecting mass mobilization to topple leaders in favor of revocation referendums, which are only possible halfway through a five-year term.
In Sucre, the Guarantees Tribunal of Chuquisaca’s Superior Court of Justice restored Berríos to the post of Interim Mayor after just 17 days. However, local officials remained frustrated with the national party (as represented by Minister Wilfredo Chávez). Neither MAS nor Berríos was able to mount the kind of dramatically successful administration that could win over moderate voters for the MAS in time for December elections. When two parties in the city’s highly fractious right-wing formed an alliance last month, they won a solid plurality and ended the MAS’ hold on the Mayor’s chair.
Last week’s events in Yapacaní reprised this story, but with a tragic and fatal ending. National officials again stood by the controversial suspended mayor, David Carvajal. Again, their defense was successful in court, but resented at the grassroots level. In Yapacaní, there is no right-wing to speak of, and peasant movements predominate in the municipality. (Instead, a division between primarily rice-growing agrarian colonists and coca growers expanding from the neighboring Chapare region seem to have taken on a political dimension.)
The national government clearly expected resistance to returning David Carvajal to the Yapacaní city hall, and deployed at least 450 National Police to make that possible. The Inter-institutional Committee of Yapacaní, which had earlier organized road blockades demanding Carvajal’s resignation, organized to block his return. Clashes left three protesters dead, two from gunshot wounds: Abel Rocha (age 27) and Michael Sosa (23). Eliseo Rojas (22) was reportedly electrocuted during a crowd attack on the police barracks.
Important questions have been raised about the circumstances of these men’s deaths, including in this article by the Andean Information Network. As in at least two other incidents of protester deaths (a Movimiento Sin Techo land occupation in La Guardia, Santa Cruz in April 2010; and a regional blockade in Caranavi in May 2010), the national government claims to have prohibited the use of firearms by police, but commanders on the scene deployed them anyway. Police Commander Lily Cortez is alleged by eyewitnesses to have fired some of the fatal shots.
In another time or another country, the protesters’ aggressiveness might be enough reason for mainstream commentators to ignore such issues. But in the turbulent world of Bolivian protest, allowing things to turn deadly raises questions of good governance. The center-left Página Siete, for example, editorialized:
The terrible events of Yapacaní could have been avoided. Not in the final hours, but rather before. The City Council accepted the exit of Carvajal and nominated a replacement, also of the MAS. It was at that moment that the governing party could have acted, advising Carvajal to renounce his position definitively so that new elections could be called.
If the relevant minister, Wilfredo Chávez, was obliged to send at least 600 police troops, it was because he knew the gravity of the matter. It was logical that violence would be unleashed again, as had already occurred at the end of last year. Therefore, Minister Chávez was conscious of the explosiveness of the situation. If he himself gave the order to send no less than half-a-thousand police, it was because he feared a popular reaction against the departed mayor. Thus, he acted with the knowledge that the situation could get out of control. And today we must lament four more deaths from political repression in the history of our country.
Los terribles sucesos de Yapacaní podrían haberse evitado. No en las últimas horas, sino antes. … El Concejo Municipal aceptó la salida de Carvajal y nombró en su lugar a un reemplazante, también del MAS. En ese momento es que el oficialismo podría haber actuado en primera instancia, aconsejándole a Carvajal renunciar a su cargo definitivamente para llamar a nuevas elecciones.
Si el ministro del área, Wilfredo Chávez, estuvo obligado a enviar a por lo menos 600 efectivos policiales es porque sabía de la gravedad del asunto. Era lógico que la violencia se iba a desencadenar nuevamente, como ya ocurrió a fines del año pasado. Por lo tanto, el ministro Chávez tenía conocimiento sobre lo explosivo de la situación. Si él mismo dio la orden de enviar nada menos que medio millar de policías es porque temía una reacción popular contra el alcalde saliente. Por lo tanto, actuó a sabiendas de que la situación podría descontrolarse. Y hoy debemos lamentar otras cuatro muertes por represión política en la historia del país.
Similarly, Franklin Garvizu, who represents Yapacaní in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, voiced his frustration with the government for failing to deal with Carvajal’s corruption or to seek a negotiated solution. Garvizu visited three ministers—Carlos Romero (Presidency), Claudia Peña (Autonomies), and Wilfredo Chávez (Government/Interior)—seeking a delay to the return of the mayor. “It was requested that they generate a space for concord. There was a judicial resolution, certainly, but there had to be a moment to apply it, and that moment was not immediately through police [force].” (Audio recording by Los Tiempos) “They have not listened, they haven’t had the capacity to convene a meeting to seek an alternative solution. The attitude of the ministers is what makes it understood that they have not let the true facts of the matter reach President Evo Morales. No han escuchado, no han tenido la capacidad de convocar a una reunión, para buscar una solución alternativa. La actitud de los ministros es lo que hace entender que no han hecho conocer sobre los verdaderos hechos al presidente Evo Morales.” (El Día)
The night of the deadly clashes David Carvajal pledged to resign, and he has followed through with that pledge. Councilman and fellow MASista Zenobio Meneses has taken the mayor’s chair in Yapacaní. However, the national government’s handling of the situation illustrates the dangers of excessive partisanship and will surely call into question its commitment to a “zero corruption” standard for local officials.
Six indigenous deputies in Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly stepped forward today to form an Indigenous Bloc (bancada indígena) within the parliament. The bloc consists of Deputies Justino Leaños (Potosí, alternate), Blanca Cartagena (La Paz, alternate), Teresa Nominé (Santa Cruz, alternate), Pedro Nuni (Beni), Bienvenido Zacu (Guarayo people, Santa Cruz), and Cristina Valeroso (Guaraní people, Tarija, alternate). [Update, 19 Jan: La Razón reports that Julio Cortez (Pando) and Bertha Ramallo (Pando, alternate), special indigenous constituency deputies who had affiliated with the right-wing Progress for Bolivia Plan-National Convergence bloc have also affiliated. Initial reports have some discrepancies: La Razón does not include Leaños, while Los Tiempos omits Teresa Nomine. A final count may require a couple days. Página Siete adds Sonia Justiniano (Beni, alternate) and confirms all nine listed here: 3 voting members and six alternates.] The move, endorsed by the National Commission of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), followed a series of announcements since the late September raid on the national indigenous march in defense of TIPNIS.
All members in today’s announcement except Justino Leaños represent special indigenous constituencies and were chosen by community procedures rather than elected to represent the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party. Pedro Nuny, who will lead the bloc, emphasized this allegiance yesterday: “Nos debemos a la CIDOB, por ellos estamos en la Asamblea Plurinacional y si nos ordena votar en contra del gobierno, lo haremos, haremos todo lo que esté a nuestro alcance para proteger nuestros derechos, en especial el territorio indígena” “Our obligation is to CIDOB, it si on their behalf that we are in the Plurinational Assembly and if they order us to vote against the government, we will do that, we will do everything within in our reach to protect our rights, and especially indigenous territory.” (Opinión, 17 January)
Nonetheless, their separation from the MAS has been the most controversial aspect of the move. Indeed, at today’s press conference, the degree of separation to be expected depended on the leader speaking. The following are the disparate statements made:
Adolfo Chávez, President of CIDOB: “Tendrán una responsabilidad de asumir una bancada indígena al interior del seno del Movimiento al Socialismo que significa que no tienen la obligación de abandonar el curul tal como lo habían señalado muchos diputados del oficialismo, ya es una decisión que el diputado Pedro Nuni sea quien asuma la jefatura de bancada de los indígenas.” “They will have the responsibility of becoming an indigenous bloc inside the heart of the Movement towards Socialism, meaning that they are not obliged to abandon their seats as many governing party deputies have signalled. It has already been decided that Deputy Pedro Nuni will assume the leadership of the indigenous bloc.” (Los Tiempos)
“Nuestros hermanos diputados asumen esta gran responsabilidad para hacer cumplir los derechos que corresponden para los pueblos indígenas” “Our deputy brothers and sisters are taking on the great responsibility of ensuring that the rights which belong to indigenous peoples are fulfilled.” (El Día)
Deputy Pedro Nuni, President of the Indigenous Bloc: “Si nos reconoce o no la Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional es otra cosa, pero nosotros trabajaremos y no seremos parte de los 2/3 del oficialismo, porque muchas veces somos objetos de manipulación.” “Whether the Plurinational Legislative Assembly recognizes us or not is another matter, but we will do our work and we will not be part of the governing party’s two-thirds majority, beacuse many times we are objects of [their] manipulation.” (El Día)
The issue of a two-thirds majority has been a prominent issue for press discussions on the Indigenous Bloc. The MAS won 88 of 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies in December 2009, and has 26 of 36 Senators. However, four La Paz deputies belong to members of the Without Fear Movement (MSM) which ran in alliance with the MAS, but declared its independence in 2010. The Indigenous Bloc subtracts three more voting members from the MAS, leaving them with 82 deputies, or 63% of the lower house, and pushing them below two-thirds of the entire Assembly.
The two-thirds threshold was the subject of an extended controversy in the Constituent Assembly of 2006–2007,
but it’s unclear how effective a one-third minority will be in stopping legislation. [Update, 19 Jan: La Razón reports that a 2/3 majority is required both for impeachment and for the approval or modification of laws.] However, indigeneity is a central value of the process of change in Bolivia, and this is one more step that questions whether the MAS is the true standard bearer of that process.
A truncated version of Bolivia’s most prominent grassroots alliance, the Pact of Unity (wikipedia background), met last week in Sucre. The indigenous-campesino Pact has had various versions but generally (since 2006) consists of five nationwide organizations: the campesino federation CSUTCB, the campesino women’s federation known as the Bartolina Sisas, the agrarian colonist federation CSCIB, the lowland indigenous CIDOB, and the highland indigenous traditionalists in CONAMAQ.
Since the divide over the August–October CIDOB-CONAMAQ march in defense of Isiboro Sécure, however, disunity has prevailed. The November 17 to 19 meeting, which hosted President Evo Morales, had just three national participants, the three campesino organizations (or “the triplets”) while CIDOB and CONAMAQ stayed away. (Some Moxeños and representatives of Conisur, an organization of indigenous residents in the colonized area of TIPNIS attended.)
Early reports show no signs of rapprochement on the the TIPNIS issue from the Pact; instead they took an even harder line than the Morales administration by supporting the highway and urging indictments against a human rights activist who repeated the widespread (but unsubstantiated) reports of deaths during the September 25 raid on CIDOB’s march. However, the Pact of Unity continues to have its own agenda independent of the government it supports, and the multifaceted demands emerging from this week’s gathering serve to illustrate that fact.
Signature Agenda: The Pact of Unity is responsible for major legislation re-envisioning agriculture and environmental policy. These initiatives remain in their early stages. The Law on the Rights of Mother Earth (wikipedia), a general environmental law has become world famous, but its full, operative version has yet to pass the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. On the other hand, the Law of the Productive, Communitarian, and Agricultural Revolution, a plan for massive investment in the agrarian sector, passed in July, but major implementation challenges are ahead.
On both fronts, the Pact has been a combative force and at times a harsh critic of government. With the presence of CIDOB and CONAMAQ, the June meeting of the Pact critiqued “resistances to change, deviations and political errors” within the government, manifesting in “a nationalist bloc within the government that does not want give up the Nation-State, and does not want to build the communitarian and autonomy-based Plurinational State.” That same meeting placed the Mother Earth and Productive Revolution laws as the foundation for rewriting of Bolivian policy around all types of interaction with the environment, including new laws on consultation, mining, forestry, water, and food sovereignty.
Social control over the state: In the Pact’s June 2011 vision, social movement organizations, indigenous nations, and grassroots communities must watch over the process of change. This week they agreed to form a Supreme Mixed [that is, multi-organization] Council on Monitoring and Social Control to watch over and meet with government Ministers on a monthly basis. This represents the most institutionalized high-level step so far proposed for social movement involvement with governance, although it is unclear whether Morales will accept it. Previously, Morales traditionally held annual (and sometimes quarterly) meetings between Ministers and allied social movements, but broke the tradition before the 2010 gasolinazo.
Critique of Ministers: The La Paz delegation pressed a call for ministerial resignations. In the past the La Paz campesino federation has singled out a few ministers, notably Nemesia Achacolla, for such requests. This time, their delegation called on the entire cabinet to resign. The Pact as a whole kept this to a vague statement referring to ministers “not working for the process of change.”
Gasolinazo: Eleven months after the MAS government’s politically disastrous abandonment of fuel subsidies (quickly reversed by protests), the Pact remain unable to reach consensus on the issue. For now, however, they’re asking the administration to hold off on any new price hikes until the economy approves. Morales acquiesced, while declaring subsidies “a cancer for the country’s economy” which one day the public will ask him to eliminate. No one should hold their breath.
TIPNIS: The Pact embraced a finger-pointing strategy consistent that the movement in defense of the park and indigenous territory is an attack on the grassroots “process of change” underway in Bolivia. Accordingly, they called for lawsuits against the media; prominent activists (Alejandro Almaraz, Lino Villca, Rafael Quispe were named); and the president of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights. The three activists were blamed for “instigating violence and confrontation among social movements.” Without naming names, the Pact also resolved to expel “all the traitors to the process of change without regard to office or hierarchical rank.” They also now support building the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway, and the northern highway from La Paz to Pando.
In short, while the TIPNIS issue continues to be divisive, the peasant wing of the Pact of Unity are far from pro-government yes men (and yes women) on other issues. The common agenda they share with their absent counterparts continues to occupy their time and may lead to friction with the Morales government. The future of an alternative development model based on Vivir Bien, long demanded by the Pact of Unity and long promised by Evo Morales, remains undecided. The Pact’s legislative agenda, and tangible actions on extraction projects will be decisive on these issues.
Here is a compendium of statements from the Evo Morales government on the proposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, with Spanish and my English translation side-by-side. What started as a single controversy is rapidly spreading to a defining moment in the Morales presidency, and an illustration of its “paradigm of respect for Mother Earth.” The quotes grow increasingly disconcerting and the stakes get higher as officials repeatedly suggest that further expansion of extraction industries and megaprojects is on their agenda.