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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.
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.
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.