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In the second week of February, the federation of street vendors (or Gremialistas, which literally means “guild members”) in Bolivia’s capital La Paz carried out a brief campaign against a street redesign project that would rework the busy intersection known as the Garita de Lima. In the course of this struggle, elderly vendor Teodora Velasco de Quispe died.
The Garita de Lima is a congested intersection in central La Paz (a photo search for the site yields an image titled “vehicular chaos”). It’s also a workplace: over 200 people sell food and goods from stalls on the sidewalks, streets, and central island, while the municipality counts 299 different transport routes, most of them served by vans or small buses, that pass through the intersection. Under two administrations led by a center-left political party, the La Paz municipality has combined concrete, traffic engineers, architects, and savvy searching for funds to solve “problems” like the Garita de Lima. Their proposed redesign continues this strategy, remaking the current oval into a bridge between two plazas. The logic of the redesign is simple and clear: reduce travel delays and uncontrolled pedestrians crossing into the street while maximizing public space. To do this, they used the vertical dimension for crossovers while expanding open space horizontally.
The gremialistas are one of hundreds of sectoral organizations in La Paz. A trade unions for workers without an employer, they mobilize collectively in much the same way a union does, although they must use vigils, shop closures, blockades, and building takeovers where employees could use strikes and pickets. Solidarity and compulsory collective action are the backbone of their influence. The ghostly absence of their working-class presence—the tarps they string up, the blankets they sit on, their large pleated skirts, and gregariously space-taking bodies —from the architectural rendering shows the social distance that separates them from those who organized the project. Like many poor Bolivians, the gremialistas are accustomed to fighting for the marginal space on which they eke out their living. No wonder that they looked at this project with suspicion. As organizer Julia Manuela Hilarión said, “It is by fighitng that we have won our vending posts and now we are surprised that they are kicking us out of this place. [Luchando hemos conseguido nuestros puestos de venta y ahora nos dan esta sorpresa en la que nos están botando del lugar].”
On February 11, over a hundred vendors protested outside City Hall. They vowed, as per Bolivian tradition, to “go forward unto to the final consequences” in their protest, and put forward the maximum demands as their first bargaining position: no seller should be moved from her (or his) post. A conflict broke out with the local neighborhood association, who requested and backed the project; the local neighborhood association leader was injured. Vendors put up signs rejecting the project and sellers went on hunger strike at their posts. One of them was Teodora Velasco de Quispe. Early on the morning of February 13, she died of a heart attack.
Fourteen associations of gremialistas from across La Paz marched on City Hall, carrying forward the struggle and memorializing Teodora Velasco (video). Forty of them began a sit-in demanding negotations with the municipality. Some city officials were unable to leave and pledged they wouldn’t hold talks under such pressure. Nonetheless, four days later they met with Mayor Luis Revilla himself. He pledged none of them would lose the ability to sell in the zone, and the city’s markets coordinator offered to explain the logistics involved. They also agreed to a new process of public comment (or “socialization”) of the project before it was implemented.
This is not the first such project to occasion temporary displacement of vendors in La Paz, or to cause them to fear for their livelihoods. Two downtown markets (the Central and Camacho markets) were built in the last decade, both bringing about conflicts and city-funded temporary housing for shops during construction. These experiences do not seem to have made the city sufficiently proactive or the vendors more patient or less strident in their initial demands. Even now, their opposition to the new Garita de Lima has not been dropped, although history suggests they will get along with the planners and reopen for business during and after construction.
Was Teodora Velasco de Quispe’s death necessary? Almost certainly not. The question of who is responsible for this loss is more complex. Her passing in the middle of the night is one of a significant number of deaths that accompany Bolivian protest without being caused by violent or consciously lethal actions, but which are nonetheless an inseparable part of protesters’ experience. Others have started vigils and marches their bodies were not prepared to survive, or been trapped on the wrong side of a blockade from the medical assistance they needed, or died of cold, exposure, or disease while their community was mobilizing. Such losses of human life stand alongside deaths that provoke outrage and generate cries for official investigations. They do, however, galvanize the commitment of those who lived and struggled beside them. Almost like martyrs, but different, the burden of their deaths is carried by their comrades who struggle on.
Bolivia’s record on human rights came up for review by the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee* during its October session. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bolivia submits a report on its performance every five years. The Committee looked at that report and submissions from numerous human rights organizations in drafting a series of recommendations (Concluding Observations [es] | all documents from the process). In the UN committee’s view, the state of political freedom and social equality in the country is an uneasy balance between ambitious new legislative protections and inadequate practical implementation of national and international norms.
The Bolivian government has passed new laws to guarantee rights and combat discrimination, including norms against racism and other forms of discrimination (2010), violence against women (2013), and gendered political harassment (2012). While some regional commissions on racism are operating, the regulations to protect women from violence are still pending. A law on consultation with indigenous communities is also pending. The Committee criticized Bolivia for failing to respect the right to free, prior, and informed consent on projects and laws that affect indigenous peoples and their territories.
The Committee’s strongest criticisms refer to Bolivia’s overwhelmed criminal justice system. Investigations and prosecutions are slow, while prisons are overcrowded to 230% of their capacity. Four out of five people in Bolivia’s jails are awaiting trial, and the Committee suggested that alternatives like house arrest and location monitors could see many of them released. It said that those who remain should have the right to be housed separately from convicted criminals. A government amnesty plan is underway, but progress remains slow. Delays in prosecution are also creating a situation of impunity for those responsible for racist attacks perpetrated in 2008, the murder of two women council members in 2012, and police repression at Chaparina and Mallku Khota, among others. The Committee also urged further action to combat lynchings, as well as corporal punishment carried out in the family and traditional spheres of the justice system.
The Bolivian armed forces and police were singled out in a number of observations. A series of revelations of brutal treatment of conscripts and of beatings of prisoners have generated controversy, but there have been few successful prosecutions. The Committee also urged opening military records from the dictatorship era (between the mid 1960s and early 1980s), and the creation of an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.
Finally, the UN Committee urged expanded protection of rights on several fronts. It argues that the current obligation for women seeking a legal abortion (in cases of rape, incest, and medical necessity) to get a judge’s backing contributes to maternal mortality and should be eliminated. It also urged new action to free hundreds of Guaraní families still trapped in servitude, and to criminalize violence against sexual minorities and transgender people.
* This Human Rights Committee is a body established by article 28 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
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.
Honor Brabazon and Jeffery Webber have just released a new research article on the state of agrarian reform in Bolivia under the government of Evo Morales. The paper, available as a pre-print from the Journal of Agrarian Change, offers a disconcerting look at the state of land redistribution six years after Morales signed a law promising community-led “redirection of the Agrarian Revolution.” The paper is compelling because it puts the experiences and views of the Bolivian Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST; the same initials as its better-known Brazilian counterpart) alongside hard data on the redistribution of land produced by the La Paz-based research unit Centro de Estudios para el Desarollo Laboral y Agrario (CEDLA).
I’ve previously covered the most dramatic shift in Bolivian land tenure on this blog, the dramatic reordering of large swaths of land into “Native Community Lands,” (TCOs) collectively controlled indigenous territories throughout the country that now constitute nearly a fifth of the country. The same process of clarification of land title was promised to yield a revolution in the prospects of landless and near-landless peasants. The data presented and translated by Brabazon and Webber shows that promise was not to be.
The story of land reform in Bolivia has long been a regional one. The sweeping 1953 Land Reform Decree was the product of rural uprisings across the Altiplano and the central Valleys which left the vast eastern lowlands essentially untouched. There, a relatively small number of landowners built vast export-oriented monocultural plantations over the next five decades. Both the predominantly lowland MST and Evo Morales spoke of these large holdings as ”latifundio,” oversized properties that deserve to be redistributed for the common good. However, land reform requires one of two causes to take away land from its owner. Either the field is used for illegal labor exploitation, or it is failing to fulfill its “economic and social function.” The latter term essentially applies to fields left in disuse for long periods. As it turned out, neither cause applies to the agribusinesses of the east:
the types and delimitations of latifundio designated for expropriation by the MAS government through the LRCRA and official policy documents are not those that predominate in the structure of the Bolivian agrarian economy; therefore, the large capitalist landowners who obtain rent from the land, along with the agrarian capitalist enterprises that obtain their profits through the exploitation of their salaried workforce, have not and will not be affected by the ‘agrarian revolution’. (19)
A small number of farms have been expropriated ”due to the presence of bonded labour, semi-slavery, slavery or other illegal labour practices,” but just 54,734 hectares. Another 855,823 hectares owned by medium- and large-propertyholders were incorporated into TCOs. But when the government speaks of “land redistribution,” it pulls out far larger numbers. As Brabazon and Webber point out, “the overwhelming bulk of these redistributed lands were transfers from various forms of state-owned lands (tierras fiscales) to TCOs” or even the re-categorization from one form of collective ownership to another. Meanwhile, “one-third of the [national] territory will remain in the hands of the medium and large agro-industrial firms.”
Brabazon and Webber provide a sobering conclusion: “The same social class that ruled over agricultural production in 2005 continues to rule today in 2012” (21).
In honor of #NewResearchThursday / #NRTh, one attempt to increase the content to signal ratio on social media.
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)
Update, January 11: It’s official. Bolivia’s stance has been accepted. Thirteen nations filed objections, far fewer than were needed to block Bolivia’s readmission: the United States, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, and Sweden.
The Bolivian government campaign to alter the international legal status of chewing coca leaves (a practice known locally as acullicu) is expected to take its first major step forward later this week. On that day, unless 63 other countries step forward to block the move, the country’s objection to including the practice as a form of narcotic drug use under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs will be accepted as a reservation to the treaty. In effect, the country will stand relieved of a treaty obligation to criminalize coca chewing (which theoretically was required by 1989). Coca chewing remains a widely accepted and legal practice in Bolivia, and coca growers are an important constituency, organized into two regional unions.
The logical and more consequential step would be to remove coca chewing from the convention altogether, but this requires a consensus of parties to the convention. (Removing coca chewing from the convention would not have resulted in its global legalization, but rather left in place national laws on the substance.) A Bolivian effort to do just that failed in 2011 when the United States and 17 other countries filed objections. Anthropologists in the United States, along with drug policy and Latin American policy advocates, had urged the Obama administration to avoid taking this stance, signing on to a letter that argued, “Coca chewing is central to the cultural identity of millions of indigenous Andean people, and has been for many centuries. Rejecting Bolivia’s amendment conflicts with the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” This effort at persuasion fell on deaf ears.
Stymied in the broader effort, Bolivian diplomats began a new approach in June 2011. They moved to temporarily leave the convention—while promising to uphold its other requirements—and rejoin with a reservation concerning coca chewing. Their re-adherence was formalized in January 2012, and other parties had twelve months to file objections. That period runs out Thursday, January 10, 2013. Again, the Obama administration has raised a complaint, so far joined only by the United Kingdom, Italy, and Sweden. For Bolivia to not be accepted, this total must rise to 62 by Thursday.
So, a small diplomatic victory over the criminalization of coca chewing seems likely this week. Evo Morales announced that Peru, among other countries, may follow in Bolivia’s footsteps. Last year, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa called the criminalization “a genuine attack on collective rights and an insult to the ancestral peoples of Bolivia. un verdadero atentado a los derechos colectivos, insulto a los pueblos ancestrales bolivianos.” In Bolivia, a public celebration is planned for late this week.
Bolivia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensor del Pueblo) reports that 2012 was another busy year for social conflict in Bolivia. The office compiled a list of 500 political disputes that were the subject of protests or direct actions since January 1. (coverage: Erbol). The year is the deadliest in the country’s political life since 2008 with eight people losing their lives in these conflicts. Six of them died from violence by state forces; by my count, this is the most people killed by police responses to political actions in any one year since Evo Morales took power in January 2006.*
Those who died in 2012 were as follows:
- Abel Rocha Bustamante, 27, and Michael Sosa, 23. Shot by police in the January Yapacaní conflict. (This blog’s coverage: 1|2)
- Eliseo Rojas, 22. Reportedly electrocuted on a fence while attempting to storm police barracks during the Yapacaní conflict.
- José Mamani Mamani, protester in Mallku Khota mining dispute, died of bullet wounds to the neck apparently fired by police on July 5.
- Ambrosio Gonzáles, 45. Died from a police bullet during the July 31 operation to retake the Caranda gas plant, in Buenavista, Santa Cruz, which was seized by protesters demanding that a roadway and bridge be built.
- FSTMB member Héctor Choque. Killed by an explosion of dynamite during fratricidal protests in La Paz between his union of mining employees and cooperative miners over the disposition of the Mallku Khota mine following its nationalization.
- Óscar Omar Cruz Mallku, 17, dead from a gunshot, and Oscar Ricardo Gómez Bertón, 27, dead from wounds after a police raid on illegal used car sellers in Challapata, Oruro faced public resistance by the sellers.
*Police killed four protesters in 2007 and 2010. If one excludes the October 2012 Challapata event as a confrontation with criminal entrepreneurs during a raid, then all three years have the same number of police killings in political situations.
Update, March 4: The Bolivian Highway Administration’s (ABC) recent call for a “technical debate” on the highway route makes for headlines that sound like this impasse might clear. But the framing continues to exclude all of the meaningful alternatives presented here. ABC administrator José King continues to discuss alternatives for only Segment Two of the highway, between Isinuta and Monte Grande. Isinuta is on the southern boundary of the park (!). (ABC’s map with these cities is here) Of course, he can then insist that other alternatives that start from Isinuta cut through more forest than the proposed route. Meanwhile, despite eight months of demands to suspend construction, ABC continues to build Segments One and Three of the road (the pause, reported here, seem to have been resolved by mid-February). Until that construction stops, the only sensible read of the situation is that the Bolivian government has no intention of consulting the indigenous on the overall route of the road.
This map, produced by Cochabamba daily newspaper Los Tiempos, is the most important omission from the new round of debate on TIPNIS. It was reposted yesterday by Bolivia’s highly respected former Ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solón (@pablosolon). The map shows shows four options to the currently under-construction route that will divide the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park in half, and which is protected to accelerate deforestation in the park, leaving 64% of it deforested within 20 years.
Nowhere in the recent debate has the government put these options on the table. The Prior Consultation law, formally promulgated by Evo Morales this week, does not allow a regional discussion on these other paths. Why is the government maintaining such silence? Why is it not interested in other routes? There are three possible reasons: 1. The ink is dry on a the loan-and-construction contracts with Brazil, so the government would prefer to avoid any further complications. 2. Close allies of the government in the cocalero movement will benefit from the soon-to-be-deforested land made accessible by the road, and from a second illicit export route in a way they would not from the alternate routes. 3. The government wants to illustrate that head-on opposition from grassroots groups will not change its policies on economic planning, and so is being rigidly inflexible on re-routing the road outside of TIPNIS.
Solón and TIPNIS communities have both vocally called for alternatives to be placed on the table. It remains to be seen how much mobilization will be required for this to happen.