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Because the US government lies and journalists often accord those lies respect, because this country has more official secrets than it can keep track of, we live in a country where the term “secret war” is neither an impossibility nor an oxymoron.

Gary Webb showing his article on the drug fall out of supplying the Nicaraguan Contras.

Gary Webb showing his article on the drug fall out of supplying the Nicaraguan Contras.

In 1996, Gary Webb, a journalist with the San José Mercury News, broke a story of the interconnections between one secret American war, the funding and arming of the right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua, and the spiraling traffic in crack cocaine to the United States in the 1980s. Webb’s exposé broke new ground for newspaper-online collaboration and cast the contradictory politics of the US-backed drug wars at home and abroad into sharp, public relief.

Webb had found flesh and blood individuals to be the face of an already-uncovered pattern of facts. A 1989 Senate investigation had found:

On the basis of this evidence, it is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.

With the issue of Contra backers running drugs into the US out in the open, major US newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post turned their investigative energies on… discrediting Gary Webb’s reporting. The CIA looked on, relieved. Exiled to a suburban desk at the San Jose Mercury News, Webb was unable to find a full-time investigative reporting position, and took his own life in 2004. (A motion picture adaptation of his life, Kill the Messenger, opens Friday.)

Fred Branfman

Fred Branfman

Fred Branfman, exposed the secret, massive bombing of Laos by interviewing refugees as a educational adviser in the country in the 1960s. Beginning in December 1964, US bombers ran over a half-million flights to drop bombs on Laos, but the war remained “secret,” that is out of the American press, until 1969. (The New York Times maintained its silence until December 1968, then failed to discuss any bombing of northern Laos while reporting the false US government line that bombing in the country was solely to attack supply routes to South Vietnam.)

Coverage elsewhere in the West came first. French journalist Jacques Decornoy offered a lengthy on-site report in Le Monde in July 1968. (Decornoy later authored .) Two years later, thanks to Branfman and the anti-war movement, his writing appeared in American wire services, like this one published in the Harvard Crimson:

On a “usual” morning . . . at 7 o’clock and AD-6 plane prowls overhead. It circles for about ten minutes, then leaves. At 7:30 the plane returns, makes a pass and drops three loads several kilometers from the “hotel.” At 8 o’clock there is a flight of jets. At 8:30, new jets and bombs. The same operation at 9 o’clock.

One of the officials of the Sam Neua district told us that during the first three years of bombing alone, sixty-five villages were destroyed. This is a figure impossible to verify for a short report, but it is a fact that between Sam Neua and a place about thirty kilometers away, not a single house in the villages and hamlets had been spared. Bridges have been destroyed, and fields riddled with bomb craters.

At the other end of Sam Neua the sight is even more painful. Enormous craters are everywhere. Churches and many houses are demolished. In order to be sure of hitting anyone who might be living there, the Americans dropped their all-too-familiar fragmentation bombs. Here by the side of the road lies a disembowelled “mother bomb.” All around for tens of meters, the earth is covered with unexploded “daughter bombs” containing hundreds of steel pellets, little weapons that the Vietnamese know so well. One of them had rolled into a shelter, under a mat, mortally wounding three people who had taken refuge there.

SINCE the bombing of Laos began some five years ago, F-4 Phantom and F105 Thunderchief fighter bombers which carry 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of bombs, and B-52s which carry four to six times that bomb load, have made daily runs. This past year they are reported to have flown over 20,000 sorties a month. This is over Sam Neua and the Plain of Jars area alone, which does not include the saturation bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Southern Laos. The result, as U. S. Ambassador to Laos G. McMurtire Godley testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is that almost one third of Laos’ population of three million has been made into homeless refugees.

Retaliating, the US Embassy pressured Laos to expel Branfman from the country in 1971. Writing in the New York Times soon after, he reported on thousands of interviews, “Each, without exception, said that his village had been totally leveled by bombing. Each, without exception, said that he had spent months or even years on end hiding in holes or trenches dug into foothills.” Branfman died of natural causes this week, at age 72.

Of course, no war is secret to its victims. And few targets of a war can fail to imagine who is behind them.

But in a country like ours, we need people to work diligently to end the secrecy that surrounds wars. To even make the possibility of democratic decision, public reparations, and even honest history, thinkable.

While facing an election next year, Bolivian President Evo Morales is thinking about his legacy. As the strong front-runner in national politics, his governing party, the Movement Towards Socialism—Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, feels confident it will be in power for a long time to come. This self-confidence is driving the drafting of a 2025 Patriotic Agenda. Alongside the formal process, the president has spoken off the cuff of his desires for the future. And like any dreams, they provide an insight into the mind and orientation of the dreamer. In his oratory, Morales long seemed to equally embrace two visions: sovereignty through claiming natural resources for the nation and reorientation of society towards ecological harmony with Mother Earth. Now, however, he has discarded the Pachamama-centered rethinking of exploitation and dreams of technologies long criticized for their environmental destructiveness.

At the end of October, Morales declared nuclear power to be a long-term goal of the Bolivian state. Speaking at a government-organized summit called Hydrocarbon Sovereignty by 2025, he revealed that he had asked the governments of Argentina and France for assistance in launching a Bolivian nuclear power program. “We are going to advance, dear students,* we are not far off, we have the raw materials. It is a political decision that has to be made. [Vamos a avanzar queridos estudiantes, no estamos lejos, tenemos materia prima (el óxido de uranio es la principal materia prima utilizada en los procesos radioactivos), es una decisión política que hay que tomar.]” Soon after, he called it a dream: “Bolivia has all the conditions to exploit this form of energy, there are raw materials and studies, and I want you to know that alongside our brother Vice President, I am already dreaming of having atomic energy, and we are not so far from it. [Bolivia tiene todas las condiciones para explotar esa energía, hay materia prima, hay estudios y quiero que sepan que con nuestro hermano vicepresidente ya soñamos contar con energía nuclear atómica y no estamos tan lejos.]” (El País) By the middle of November, Morales had convened thirty scientists to sketch out a Nuclear Energy Commission.

In fact, the road to nuclear energy is a very long one. France has clarified that it has done no more than listen to Bolivia’s aspirations. The Argentine cooperation so far consists of scholarships for students of nuclear medicine. The country lacks both adequately trained scientific and technical personnel and the necessary infrastructure. Bolivia’s uranium remains in the ground. The complex network of processing facilities, construction capacity, and minimal safeguards would have to be built from the bottom up. Luis Romero, director of the Bolivian Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology (Instituto Boliviano de Ciencia y Tecnología Nuclear; IBTEN) estimates the process could take thirty years. Meanwhile, solar power is practical over 97% of the tropical country’s surface and renewable generation could overcome the country’s biggest energy limitation: the lack of reliable electrical connections to vast rural areas.

Meanwhile, Bolivia is set have its first communication satellite this month. Named Túpac Katari, after the late eighteenth-century indigenous rebel, it will be launched by China and controlled from Bolivia. Its transmission capabilities will save the country tens of millions of dollars a year in expenditures. Like the Hydrocarbon forum, this launch has set the Bolivian president to dreaming “of the next one”:

Some developed countries seem to have a x-ray image of our territory. They know what we have but they never tell us. And why shouldn’t we be able to have a prospecting satellite to know what we have in this Mother Earth who give us so many resources? [Algunos países desarrollados parece que hacen como una radiografía a nuestro territorio. Saben qué tenemos, pero nunca nos informan. ¿Y por qué nosotros no podemos tener un satélite de prospección para saber qué tenemos en esta madre tierra que nos da tantos recursos?] (infolatam)

While satellite imagery can be used to assess surface minerals, this x-ray idea is a fantasy.** What’s revealing about it, however, is the idea of making the entire country’s minerals, oil, and gas immediately visible to the state. Today’s Evo Morales still dreams of Mother Earth, but she always gives up her resources for the good of the economy. Those who put protecting their ancestral lands on the agenda have a different vision of territory, in which the right to preserve environmental integrity sometimes conflicts with accelerating extraction.

* The event highlighted the French oil giant Total’s awarding scholarships to future petroleum engineers.

** Much, if not all, of the NASA data is freely available.

The United States Air Force has a drone base in Niger from which it flied unmanned aircraft into Mali to provide military intelligence for the French military involved in Mali’s civil war. The United States State Department orchestrated the denial of European countries’ airspace to the presidential plane of Evo Morales on July 2.

These are now former secrets, documented in the mainstream press of the United States. Neither lasted very long. Surely the Malian rebels saw drones flying above them and guessed the US military was taking sides against them. And even more surely, Evo Morales knew that the US was behind his plane’s emergency diversion to Vienna. Yet these acts were classified; the US role in blocking the Bolivian presidential plane was publicly denied. What can we learn about United States state secrecy from them?

This is a time of highly controversial disclosures of government secrets. It’s also a time of unprecedented classification of government documents as secret: a US government audit found 3,507,782 people hold security clearance to access Confidential/Secret documents, and 1,409,969 hold Top Secret security clearances as of October 2012. In Fiscal Year 2012, the US government classified 95,180,243 documents, declaring 23 million of them top secret (ISOO annual report). The government spends $8 to $12 billion per year on keeping these documents secret.

Within this mountain of so-called secrets live millions of banal pieces of data: personnel files of agency employees, details of weapons systems, operational details of military deployments. While it’s reasonable to debate how much of this material truly needs to be secured in this way, that’s not the material people are willing to risk their freedom to bring to the world. Instead, the real state secrets are government actions that are carried out covertly. Recently whistleblowers have shown us that the military kept records of killed civilians in the Iraq War, that the US illegally spies on diplomats at the United Nations, that the United Kingdom violated the Land Mine Ban treaty, that the US could document massive government corruption in Tunisia (helping to spark revolt there)  and that the NSA spied on the electronic communication of people around the world [some of these revelations are described here]. Every day, diligent work by journalists exposes other secrets to the people whose governments try to keep them.

The drone base in Niger is an example of quasi-secrecy. About 100 Air Force troops deployed in February and set up a base. On February 22, the Washington Post described the operation, which was mentioned in a vaguely worded letter to Congress under the War Powers Act. While the paper reported on the troops, their mission and even the type of drones used, it had to resort to anonymous sources to provide these details. It also noted “Obama did not explicitly reveal the drone base in his letter to Congress.” The President of Niger has been more forthcoming, providing the basis for further reporting in March. Even in February, the Malian rebels targeted by these aircraft were already well aware of the US aircraft, “The Associated Press reported finding an al-Qaeda document in Timbuktu, Mali, that listed 22 tips for avoiding drones.”

The only ones left in the dark by this policy of secrecy are the people of the United States. When the press asks questions about drones, US officials try to avoid the word, and give pseudo-answers like this one: “What the President indicated is we’re going to continue to provide the support that we’ve been investing in this operation.  And what we’ve provided is, for instance, logistical support and other types of backing for those nations that are putting peacekeepers into Mali” (Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, June 27). For four years, the Obama administration directed its press secretary to talk like this:  “When I went through the process of becoming press secretary, one of the first things they told me was, ‘You’re not even to acknowledge the drone program. You’re not even to discuss that it exists’” (Robert Gibbs). In effect, the United States is supplying targeting information for a war in Mali, and actually killing people in half a dozen other countries, but refusing to talk about it.

The case of the Morales plane diversion went beyond secrecy to lies. Days before the operation, President Obama responded to a question explicitly raising this possibility: “Mr. President, will you use U.S. military assets to in any way intercept Mr. Snowden should he at some point in the future leave Russia to try to find safe passage in another country?” The President’s answer was unequivocal: “No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker” (transcript). On July 2, Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane was denied entry into French, Spanish, and Italian airspace and its landing to refuel in Portugal was cancelled. As reflected by the emergency gathering of the Union of South American Nations in response, this was a major violation of diplomatic protocol. It rapidly became clear that the diversion was the use of state power (backed by the possibility of force—i.e., the scrambling of jets) in an attempt to intercept Mr. Snowden.

From the beginning, the Bolivian government identified the United States as the evident cause of the incident. With Morales still on the ground in the Vienna airport, Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra stated:

“This was orchestrated, rigged, by the US Department of State which has provoked this situation utilizing certain European countries, under the suspicion that Mr. Snowden was onboard the presidential plane.”

“Esto fue orquestado, amañado por el departamento de Estado de Estados Unidos, que utilizando algunos países europeos ha provocado esta situación, con la sospecha de que en el avión presidencial estuviera el señor Snowden.” (EFE, 2 July)

This narrative is not only the most plausible one, it is backed up by Austrian press reports that the country’s Foreign Office received a late-night call from US Ambassador Ambassador William Eacho alerting them to Snowden’s presence on President Morales’ plane. It is also suggested by the Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo’s statement that “They told us that [Snowden] was onboard,” and further describing the source of the communication as a diplomatic secret.

Meanwhile, the US State Department was busy issuing a cascade of non-statements.

July 3: At the State Department, a spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki, declined to say whether American authorities had asked other countries to deny airspace to the Bolivian plane. “I would point you to them to describe why they made decisions if they made decisions,” Ms. Psaki told reporters. (NYTimes)

July 8: Journalist: And just to follow up, does – is there any more information on where the original information or the leak came from that Snowden was on that plane? Does the U.S. have any more idea -MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything for you on that, no. (State Department briefing)

July 9: QUESTION: Earlier today at the OAS, a French diplomat – a very young French diplomat, I might say –

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: – said that the French Government had, in fact, revoked permission for President Morales’ plane to go, but he said that it was a technical error based on a ()misunderstanding. Do you and the United States have any idea what that technical error – that technical reason that was based on a misunderstanding or an incorrect assumption might have been?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t. (State Department briefing)

In an interview with Spanish-language CNN, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen* (R-FL) was more direct in admitting US responsibility:

And so, for us, there was a great concern that these countries could give him sanctuary. Therefore, the United States sent that quite severe, quite direct message to—this time it was to Evo Morales, it could have been to other people. We are saying to all countries in a very open manner that this man [has] felonies against him. That he should come to the United States if he is a man of honor…

Así que para nosotros, este gran preocupación que estos países le pudieran dar santuario. Por eso los Estados Unidos envió esa mensaje bien duro, bien directo a … en esta vez fue a Evo Morales, hubiera sido a otras personas. Le estamos diciendo a todos los países de una manera bien abiertamente que este señor [tiene] felonías americanas en su contra. Que venga a los Estados Unidos si es un hombre de valor… (CNN Video posted by Ros-Lehtinen’s office [at 7:30])

So, Bolivia knew of US involvement. Other countries knew of US involvement. A senior legislator claims that the act was designed to send a message of the position of the US government. But the US government formally claims to have no idea how this action happened. The only possible target for these denials is the US public. We are meant to pretend that our government was not involved in this international incident, that such involvement is a product of Evo Morales’ paranoia rather than an obvious and widely discussed pattern of US behavior. (And so, the New York Times will continue to publish sentences full of hypotheticals like this one: “Latin American leaders condemn refusal to let plane carrying Bolivia’s Pres Evo Morales fly over European nations because of what Bolivian officials say were suspicions that Edward J Snowden was on board.”) Given the standards of American journalism, we—and we alone—will have to wait for an actual leaked document from the State Department before our press takes seriously what the rest of the world confidently knows.

Like these two examples, many state secrets are not about protecting complex operations or securing the lives of operatives. They are about keeping the public out of decisionmaking. They are about reducing accountability. They are about subverting democracy. Alongside making a mockery of such basic principles, they make dangerous, unpopular, and/or immoral behavior by government officials easier.

Fortunately, part of that dynamic is beginning to weaken.

Government without Secrecy

“We Open Governments”

“We Open Governments”

The publication of logs of the Iraq War and diplomatic cables by Wikileaks has raised the prospect of the US government being denied the prerogative of secret wars, secret foreign policies, secret decisions, and secret outcomes. The Snowden disclosures and the avalanche of additional investigative reporting that has followed in their wake have done the same for the surveillance state. (It’s worth noting that every single one of these disclosures have exposed wars, policies and outcomes, rather than the operational security that enables them to be carried out.) Snowden, Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake, and William Binney are all examples of government officials who allowed their conscience to override the classification of information.

In a discussion on Talking Points Memo, a reader (“MB”) suggests that these disclosures are just the beginning of a tidal wave. MB points to a post-Cold War generational value shift “toward a greater emphasis on issues that assumed global cooperation, such as environmentalism and humanitarianism, and … significant value on cross-cultural exchange.” Polling data backs this up: “Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world” compared with 48 to 64 percent of older generations. On foreign policy, Millennials value listening to allies more, favor diplomacy over military force more strongly, believe that excessive military force causes more terrorism, and believe it is morally acceptable to refuse to fight in a war you don’t believe in—all by 2-to-1 margins. MB observes:

The national security apparatus is designed to defend itself against Cold War threats: agents who commit espionage in the service of a foreign power for ideological reasons, or for personal gain. It seems that it is not at all prepared to defend itself against espionage committed for personal, ethical reasons, done at one’s own detriment. It may not ever be possible to do so. On some level, this line of business requires that all those involved completely accept the utility and purpose of the mission, and accept that international relations are a zero-sum game. Otherwise, anyone could walk out of their office with a thumb drive and publish the contents online.

What does the world with thousands of thumb drives look like? (Other than a half-dozen presidents of Obama’s generation ordering international manhunts to track them down.) In evaluating the impact, value, and morality of these disclosures, our focus should be on the incentives created by transparency on war, foreign policy, and surveillance. How do diplomats, warriors, and spies change their behavior when they know their deeds will be exposed? (Especially when those disclosures are more likely when the acts are morally objectionable.) There are grounds for hope that “opened governments” will be more cautious and less destructive because they have more reason to fear public awareness of their actions.

* Ros-Lehtinen is former chair and a continuing member of House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and thereby has clearance to be briefed on this kind of diplomatic activity.

Twenty-five years ago today, I brought a copy of the paper to a Fourth of July parade in Evanston, Illinois. I was 12, this was summer camp, and the news was not good. On July 3, 1988, the United States Navy shot down a civilian airliner. As Wikipedia now remembers the event:

Iran Air Flight 655 was an Iran Air flight from TehranIran, to DubaiUnited Arab Emirates, via Bandar Abbas, Iran. On 3 July 1988, at the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the aircraft serving the flight, an Airbus A300B2-203, was shot down by United States missiles fired by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes as it flew over the Strait of Hormuz. The aircraft, which had been flying in Iranian airspace over Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf on its usual flight path, was destroyed. All 290 onboard, including 66 children and 16 crew, perished.

As best I recall, there was not the slightest acknowledgment during the festivities of the attack on the commercial jet. President Reagan expressed “regret” on that July 3. No US president has ever apologized.

Before that time, I had innocently wondered why it was that the news habitually announced the death toll from lethal events overseas, followed by “including X Americans.” I remember my parents’ explanation being unsatisfying. On July 3, 1988, no Americans were killed.

Nor was a single soldier killed. Just civilians crossing to or from a neighboring country. While US ships operated in the waters between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, it was our government who notified theirs that “any approach to an American warship would be dangerous unless the intent was clearly peaceful.” I can only imagine the Airbus pilot’s—his name was Mohsen Rezaian—steely terror as he maintained course during the planned 28-minute flight that morning.

I remember little of the parade or even my feelings during it. What I would remember for years is four tween boys sitting on the grassy roof of the student center waiting for the fireworks to begin that night. As one kid closed his eyes, the other three of us “brainwashed” him, chanting the government slogans from George Orwell’s 1984: “War is peace. … Freedom is slavery. … Ignorance is strength.” We were at an age when play and reality were not fully distinct, when not a one of us had a basis to imagine what brainwashing would actually look like. Our play was more novice hypnotism than The Manchurian Candidate, but the twelve-year-old me (who had never heard of the Manchurian Candidate, but knew all about the prospect of dying in a nuclear war) wondered if it was working.

Our brainwashed friend improvised the part perfectly. Rousing himself, as if from a long sleep, he conveyed confusion and grogginess. His first words were tentative and out of sorts. He ventured slowly, “Daddy … daddy … Are nuclear weapons bad, daddy?” The fireworks must have began soon thereafter.

As it happened (as the news from the Gulf told our unlistening ears), our peace was war. The mourning we ought to have had was a celebration. Children—us—were properly disturbed by all of this; adults were impervious.

To be good American adults, we would be obliged to learn to feign a continuous innocence. To imagine that our missiles did not lead to their graves, that our government’s intentions were noble, that (US) American lives were more deserving of mourning.

In the end I could not make this transition.

A good US American could never compare July 3, 1988, to the bad downing of civilian jetliners that have so terrorized Americans and their allies in recent decades. Such terrorist acts are meant to be unforgivable, while there is endless time to analyze the thoughts and empathize with the fears of men like Captain William C. Rogers, the officer who gave the order to fire.

Perhaps he did not mean to shoot down a civilian jet. Perhaps he valued Iranian lives as much as his own family’s lives. In the end there was little need to inquire into his motives. He shot down one airplane. US government policy prolonged the Iran–Iraq War for years, providing arms and intelligence to both sides, led by Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iranians and Iraqis buried hundreds of thousands of young soldiers each, and over a hundred thousand civilians. The US goal was simple: “We wanted to avoid victory by both sides,” a senior State Department official told Seymour Hersh in 1992. Shooting down an airliner looks like terrorism. Planning for the pointless deaths of thousands upon thousands is terrorism.

There was a long gap between my disillusionment at twelve years old, and the college years I spent reading quotes like that from US officials and American papers. The disconnect between the image of American benevolence and five decades of history grew clearer with each thread I followed and pulled at. It would take nearly a decade of tracing, pulling, and following before I would stop being surprised, shocked, and sickened, rather than just saddened. Nearly a decade before I would start to assemble an understanding of the United States as an empire like any other. And by that time, through that process, it could no longer feel like mine.

In the first three months of 2013, two deeply disturbing crimes brought the problems of sexual and domestic violence to the forefront of public attention in Bolivia. Bolivian feminists have been denouncing these issues—and the general incapacity of the state and police to effectively respond to them—for years. In making their case they have cited facts and figures like the following, time after time:

While a 1996 law provides specialized institutions to receive denunciations of physical abuse, assault and violence, a climate of impunity often prevails. Of 442,056 cases brought to authorities from 2007 to 2011, just 27,133 even made it to prosecutors, and just 9.13% had resulted in guilty verdict or plea by mid-2012 (La Razón). Stated another way, just one of ever 178 complaints yielded a conviction. This builds upon the fact that justice is almost always delayed in the Bolivian justice system: of over 100,000 domestic violence cases begun in 2012, just 51 were closed by February 2013.  Even when domestic violence escalates to murder, accountability does not increase; none of the 120 gender-related murders in 2012 have yet resulted in a conviction (Erbol).

(trigger warning: descriptions of sexual and physical violence, and one deeply offensive denial are included after the jump)

Read the rest of this entry »

Bolivia, the country that became synonymous with indigenous and environmental rights on the global diplomatic stage, is about to approve a Mother Earth Law that lacks the blessing of the country’s leading indigenous organizations and undermines indigenous communities’ rights to prior consultation. Thursday (August 23), the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qollasuyu (CONAMAQ) publicly walked out of the Chamber of Deputies’ drafting session on the “Framework Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well” (Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra y Desarrollo Integral para Vivir Bien).  CONAMAQ Spokesman David Crispin explained the walk out: “We in CONAMAQ dave decided to withdraw from the drafting because we do not want to be complicit, alongside the Plurinational Assembly, in building a Law of Integral Development that will damage the Pachamama/Mother Earth. nosotros del CONAMAQ hemos decidido retirarnos del tratamiento porque no queremos ser cómplices, juntamente con la Asamblea Plurinacional, en construir una Ley de Desarrollo Integral que va dañar a la Pachamama” The government had already broken off contact with the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and the government-backed alternate leadership of the organization does not appear to be involved in the drafting process.

Readers of the English-language press may be thoroughly confused at this point. Doesn’t Bolivia already have a Mother Earth law, the strongest in the world? Many in the international environmental community know that Bolivia that introduced the concept of the Rights of Mother Earth to the world, hosted a global conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth [past coverage: 1|2|3] in April 2010, and passed the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth [Wikipedia] in December 2010.

What is less widely known is that the law that was passed was only a rough statement of principles—a declaratory “short law”—with no legal force behind it. Even the short law featured just 10 of the 12 principles worked out by the grassroots organizations in Bolivia’s Pact of Unity: right of indigenous people’s to freely consent to or reject megaprojects on their lands was cut at the last minute. In April 2011, Senator Julio Salazar (MAS) who is in charge of the law’s progress, declared, “Our indigenous brothers cannot block taking advantage of natural resources.”

Bus ad at Cochabamba Climate Summit'

“We, the peoples, are the voice of Mother Earth” reads a bus placard at the Cochabamba eco-summit, sponsored by the state-owned gas company YPFB.

Salazar’s position, embraced by the Evo Morales government as a whole, has been influential over the past two years. As highlighted by the TIPNIS controversy, the Bolivian government has prioritized national economic development over local indigenous choices; publicly vowed to ignore local opposition to transport, hydrocarbon, and mining projects; and backtracked from guarantees of indigenous rights to free, prior, and informed consent regarding projects on their territories. Alongside other left governments in the region, these policies tie continued mining, drilling, and pumping of natural resources to greater social spending, a combination called “neo-extractivism.” The transformation of the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth into a Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development reflects all of these trends.

The draft law (complete text), already fully approved by the Bolivian Senate, declares a governmental obligation to “Promote the industrialization of the components of Mother Earth,” while surrounding this objective with extensive promises about respecting the rights and development of indigenous nations and peoples, safety monitoring, clean technologies, and so on. In short, “Integral Development” in the proposed Bolivian law is about conditioning industrial extraction on environmental compliance (the environmental policy framework embraced throughout the West, from the Clean Air Act to the World Bank), not about rethinking the extractive model.

In a letter to Rebecca Delgado, the President of Chamber of Deputies, CONAMAQ argues:

The draft only keeps “Living Well as an alternative civilizational horizon to capitalism” and “Equilibrium with Mother Earth” by way of proclamation (i.e., propaganda). The Draft Law does not propose a change in the structural basis of the capitalist system, nor reconfiguration of the nation-state.

El proyecto solo conserva el “Vivir Bien como horizonte civilizatorio alternativo al Capitalismo” y el “Equilibrio con la Madre Tierra” de manera enunciativa (propaganda). El Proyecto de ley no propone un cambio de las bases estructurales del sistema Capitalista, ni una reconfiguración del Estado nación.

In CONAMAQ’s analysis, “‘Integral Development’ is introduced as a framework of processes and rights” that conflict with one another. The rights of Mother Earth, rights of indigenous peoples, rights of peasants, right to development, and the right to escape from poverty are all intermixed. CONAMAQ argues the law “incorporates the ‘right to development and the right to esacape from poverty’ so as to justify a developmentalist, extractive, and industrializing vision. [Incorpora el “derecho al desarrollo y el derecho a salir de la pobreza” para justificar un visión desarrollista, extractiva e industrializadora]” In my analysis (and here I’ll put my environmental policy degree on the line), combining these rights into a single mix will allow future Bolivian governments to decide on which right gets prioritized. Under the aegis of “integral development,” governments can decide to value oil revenues spent on antipoverty programs over an indigenous people’s rights to refuse drilling on their territory. (And the public statements of the Morales government make it clear they have every intent to make just that choice.)

The proposed law is also weaker than its well-known (but inoperative) predecessor on three key points:

  • Legally enforceable rights of the Earth and “life systems” — These rights are first the responsibility of the government itself, although “affected persons and collectivities” may intervene in court as well. However, these rights are limited to “the framework of Integral Development for Living Well,” limiting any ecological rights independent of the overall economic plan. In cases where a government agency and a private entity both step in to defend these rights, the case will be consolidated, perhaps making it difficult for independent critics to gain the ear of the courts. (It’s worth noting that the  original law was weaker than realized. The concept “life systems” that include human societies and ecosystems in a single interwoven package sounds intellectually innovative, but makes ecosystem protection much more complicated than a straightforward law like the US’s Endangered Species Act.)
  • Mother Earth Defender’s Office unspecified — Both the new law and the December 2010 call for the creation of a Defensoría de la Madre Tierra, equivalent in rank to the Human Rights Defender’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo, often called the Human Rights Ombudsman). However, other than a one-year deadline, no specifics are included in the new law.
  • Indigenous free, prior, and informed consent— As expected, the new law does not explicitly recognize indigenous communities’ right to approve or reject projects on their territories, as required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Bolivia incorporated into its national laws. The term ”free, prior, and informed consultation” does appear in a subordinate clause:“Generation of the necessary conditions for the use and appropriation of the components of Mother Earth in the framework of sustainable life systems which integrally develop the social, ecological, cultural and economic aspects of the Bolivian people, taking into account the knowledge of each indigenous, native, peasant, intercultural, and Afro-Bolivian nation and people, in the framework of free, prior, and informed consultation. Generación de condiciones necesarias para el uso y aprovechamiento de los componentes de la Madre Tierra en el marco de sistemas de vida sustentables que desarrollen integralmente los aspectos sociales, ecológicos, culturales y económicos del pueblo boliviano tomando en cuenta los saberes y conocimientos de cada nación y pueblo indígena originario campesino, comunidad intercultural y afro boliviana, en el marco de la consulta previa, libre e informada.

This verbiage makes indigenous consultation into just another phase of the approval process for “using and appropriating Mother Earth.” The protections for indigenous rights and the idea of a new relationship with the Earth and its ecosystems have been shelved for now in the Bolivian legislature.

An article by George Lakey is circulating around the Internet* under the headline, “The More Violence, The Less Revolution.” While title is a quotation from 1930s radical Bart de Ligt, the thrust of the piece is to read Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s large-scale study Why Civil Resistance Works (website) under this headline. Chenoweth and Stephan do make a serious and wide-ranging attempt to measure the outcomes of tactical choices made by movements, and both their data and conclusions should be read widely among people interested in changing their societies. Chenoweth and Stephan’s expansive category of civil resistance is actually one that spans across existing internal debates in the Occupy Movement (and earlier generations of tactical debates in the global justice movement and elsewhere). Vitally, their analysis of what conditions make civil resistance successful can help us focus our tactical conversations in a very productive direction.**

George Lakey, while an opponent of both violent tactics and property destruction, issued a strong rejoinder to Chris Hedges’ The Cancer in Occupy, arguing: “The issue of the appropriateness of property destruction and/or violence is, like any other aspect of community organizing, not settled by blanket statements or posturing but by getting in there and dialoguing, over and over again.  Advocates of nonviolent action need to learn from the Civil Rights movement and the field of community organizing in this way—there really aren’t any shortcuts.” Lakey has developed a nuanced, historically informed position on nonviolence. His strategic approach to thinking about nonviolence that has been surprisingly contagious internationally. And Lakey is willing to have difficult conversations with people who profoundly disagree with him, to his credit.

However, Lakey’s headline and overall argument are a misreading of Chenoweth and Stephan. This rankles me both as a social scientist (quibble ahead) and as a student of/participant in freedom struggles. First, the quibble: Why Civil Resistance Works and related studies divide all struggles into “nonviolent” (like the first Intifada, Lavalas against the Duvaliers in Haiti, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the Defiance Campaign in South Africa) and “violent” (like the Mexican, Chinese, Algerian, and Iranian Revolutions). 0 for “nonviolent,” 1 for “violent.” (Incidentally, I think my four examples on each side of the “nonviolent”/”violent” categorization is a fairly good representation of successful cases, biased towards things anyone reading this blog would probably recognize. A complete list is in the Methodological Appendix [pdf] they posted online.) A dichotomous variable (definition) cannot be used to produce the more x, the less y statements. Ever.

Okay, so the real problem here is the made plain by the wide, wide variety of things crammed into the nonviolent category, including nearly all of the tactical patterns Lakey and those citing this study through him are most likely to rail against inside of movements: confronting police with bricks and stones (Intifada), building burning barricades in the streets (Defiance campaign), yielding the moral high ground by defending against violence rather than showcasing differences in suffering. Both such militant, but ultimately civil revolutions and nearly pacifist mobilizations like Solidarity in Poland or the Velvet Revolution have much to teach us about how to resist.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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.

June 23: President Evo Morales lamented that other social movements had not persuaded the indigenous “that they are being confused, that they out to reject the NGOs, the enemies of integration, of the national economy, of the indigenous people who lack electricity. It’s not just on the matter of the road, but also hydroelectric dams and petroleum.”…
“Some [of the indigenous people] want the road to pass through their community, but lamentably there are some NGOs, some foundations that [under] the pretext of conserving the environment want to disadvantage [others],” explained the head of state, arguing that some sectors advance other interests because “it’s a business for them, they live off of it, and they are uninterested in the road for its own sake”
También lamentó que las fuerzas sociales de Cochabamba y del Beni no coadyuven y no persuadan a los indígenas “que están siendo confundidos, que no rechacen rotundamente a las ONG, enemigos de la integración, de la economía nacional, de los pueblos indígenas que no tienen luz. No sólo es el tema del camino, sino de hidroeléctricas y petróleo”

“Algunos (indígenas) quieren que el camino pase por sus comunidades, pero lamentablemente hay algunas ONG, algunas fundaciones que so pretexto de conservar el medio ambiente quieren perjudicar”, explicó el Jefe de Estado y argumentó que algunos sectores buscan otros intereses, porque “es negocio para ellos, viven de ello, a ellos no les interesa el camino por el camino”.
(La Razón, July 13)
June 29: Evo Morales:Whether they want it or not, we are going to build this road and we are going to deliver under [my] current administration the Cochabamba-Beni/Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos road.” “Quieran o no quieran vamos construir este camino y lo vamos a entregar en esta gestión el camino Cochabamba-Beni, Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos” (Página Siete, June 30)
Evo Morales, July 12: “Those who oppose the exploration of oil or of gas, or finally the construction of roads are not my indigenous brothers, whether they are from the Chaco, from Isiboro[-Sécure] or other places. How can they oppose themselves?; I cannot understand the indigenous brothers.”  “No son mis hermanos indígenas sean del Chaco, de la zona del Isiboro o de otras zonas que se oponen a la exploración del petróleo o del gas o finalmente a la ejecución de la construcción de caminos. Cómo pueden oponerse, no puedo entender a los hermanos indígenas.” (Erbol community radio network, July 12)
July 12: José Luis Gutiérrez, Minister of Hydrocarbons and Energy, opened the possibility of oil exploration in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, where there would be an important hydrocarbon reserve according to inhabitants of the territory itself.  El ministro de Hidrocarburos y Energía, José Luis Gutiérrez, abrió la posibilidad de realizar trabajos de exploración petrolera en el Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS), donde existiría un importante reservorio hidrocarburífero según versión de los propios habitantes de la zona. (Erbol community radio network, July 12)
Evo Morales, July 31 at a meeting of cocaleros in the Chapare: “We will consult, but they should know it will not be a binding consultation. Just because they say no, doesn’t mean it won’t be done.””You, comrades, have to explain, to orient the indigenous comrades—the mayor himself is mobilized—to convince them that must not oppose [the road]“Later, he added, “If I had the time, I would go seduce the Yuracaré female comrades [literally make them fall in love]; so then, youth, you have instructions from the president to [sexually] conquer the Trinitario and Yuracaré female comrades so that they do not oppose the construction of the road. Then he asked, “Approved?” and applause could be heard from the crowd. “Las consultas vamos a hacerlas, pero quiero que sepan que no tienen carácter vinculante. No porque ellos (los indígenas) digan no, no se va a hacer.”“Ustedes compañeras y compañeros tienen que explicar, orientar a los compañeros indígenas, el propio alcalde está movilizado, para convencerlos y que no se opongan”, dijo.Luego, agregó: “Si yo tuviera tiempo, iría a enamorar a las compañeras yuracarés y convencerlas de que no se opongan; así que, jóvenes, tienen instrucciones del Presidente de conquistar a las compañeras yuracarés trinitarias para que no se opongan a la construcción del camino”. Enseguida consultó: ¿Aprobado?” y se escucharon aplausos del público.

(La Razón, August 1)

Félix Cárdenas, Vice-Minister of Decolonization, August 4: “The Bolivian people need development and this will not be the only road that will cross through protected areas, there will be many others besides, all with the goal of connecting us internationally, of exploiting our natural resources, and to have a network of communication, in all senses, with other countries.”
Cárdenas repeated that he rejects “the fundamentalism” of environmentalists and indigenous people who “think that the paradigm proposed by the MAS of respect for Mother Earth means that we must care for all of the forests and lands. If that were so, what would we eat?”
El viceministro de Descolonización, Félix Cárdenas, aseguró que “el pueblo boliviano necesita desarrollo y éste (el que divide las tierras protegidas del TIPNIS) no será el único camino que atravesará zonas protegidas, serán muchos otros más, todo con el fin de conectarnos internacionalmente, de explotar nuestros recursos y para tener una red de comunicación, en todo sentido, con los demás países”
Cárdenas repitió que se rechaza “el fundamentalismo” de ambientalistas y originarios que “piensan que el paradigma planteado por el MAS de respeto a la Madre Tierra significa que se debe cuidar todos los bosques y tierras. Si así fuera, entonces ¿qué comemos?”
(La Prensa, August 5)

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