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Summary: The governing MAS party has greatly expanded its legal influence at the regional and local level since surviving the political crisis of 2008. It extended its reach even beyond its electoral successes of April 2010 by way of savvy parliamentary maneuvers and by pushing aside opponents under indictment. However, in localities like Sucre and Quillacollo, it has been unable to convert interim office-holding into a new electoral majority. Instead, 2011 saw increased frustration with the national party from within parts of its left grassroots base. At the Departmental level, the MAS has put representatives or allies into the governor’s chair, but indigenous delegates have acted independently to lead Legislative Assemblies in two departments.

much more after the jump

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The following post was written on 3 August 2010 and distributed elsewhere. Since then, two of the three non-MAS governors have been suspended following indictment. At the municipal level, a complicated sequence of indictments, suspensions, public pressures, and (finally in December 2011) special elections have played out. I’m reposting this as background to the politics of recent months.

Under Bolivian law, public officials under indictment may be removed from office. This has created a cascade of controversial suspensions and resignations across the country. So far, the most dramatic cases have been the mayors of Sucre and Potosí, whose very different crimes illustrate the broad scope of the law, and the consequences (perhaps unexpected) of multiple laws that reduce public officials’ discretion.

On April 4, Sucre elected Jaime Barrón as its new mayor. Barrón, the rector of the country’s oldest university had headed the Inter-Institutional Committee, something like an expanded Chamber of Commerce. The Committee threw itself into the political arena in 2006, demanding that all governmental powers be restored to the small, colonial city, and allying itself with the right-wing political opposition in the east of the country. Protests in support of this demand escalated into attempts to shut down the Consituent Assembly, and physical attacks on MAS-affiliated members of the assembly, particularly female representatives who wore traditional indigenous dress.

In May 2008, the Inter-Institutional Committee mobilized again, this time to prevent President Morales from coming to Sucre to attend a ceremony distributing ambulances to rural mayors in Chuquisaca, the department of which Sucre is the capital. Clearly under orders to show maximum restraint, the national police withdrew from the stadium where they were confronted by angry crowd, consisting in large part of students from Barrón’s university. Evo Morales cancelled his visit, leaving the peasant leaders who came to Sucre to endure the crowd’s wrath. That wrath played out over the ensuing hours, during which many of the peasants were surrounded inside a house, threatened with death, and escorted downtown by the crowd. In the central square, on live television, they were publicly humiliated, stripped to their underwear, forced to kneel, to kiss the colonial Chuquisaca flag, and to chant anti-Evo and anti-MAS slogans, under pressure of kicks and blows. The day has become one of the most infamous examples of racist violence in recent Bolivian history.

Pro-MAS informants I interviewed a month later claimed that Barrón used the university to encourage and organize students into such militant street groups. César Brie’s documentary on the day’s events shows Barrón as part of an Inter-Institutional Committee delegation that arranged the police force’s departure. And an a parliamentary inquiry found that Barrón joined in May 20 planning meeting to prevent Morales arrival, supplied transport in official university vehicles and weapons to the clash groups, and observed without intervening the public humiliation.

As a result, prosecutors indicted Barrón for a number of crimes in late April. Barrón took office the following month, but quickly ran afoul of the Municipalities Law, whose Article 48 forbids formally indicted officials from remaining in office. The Municipal Council formally removed Barrón on June 23, and controversially voted to replace him with a member of the MAS party, Verónica Berríos. For one chaotic day, June 24, supporters of Barrón and his PAÍS party stormed into the CIty Hall and physically prevented Berríos from entering the Mayor’s Office. Berríos announced her willingness to govern the city from an office in an outlying district strongly aligned with her party. However, the following day, Barrón called on his forces to pull back and recognized his own suspension. Nearly a month later, he announced his final resignation from office, thereby requiring a new election to fill the office (Berríos is only the Interim Mayor). That, however, is five months away fifteen months away.

Orchestrating a public, physical attack on one’s political opponents is one extreme of the application of the “suspension of authorities” provision of Bolivian law. At the other extreme is the current situation of Potosí’s mayor, René Joaquino. Joaquino is the founder of the independent left party Social Alliance, and has served as the highland city’s mayor since 1996. He, too, is under indictment, but in his case the charge is the irregular purchase of used cars for the Municipality, in 2006. Joaquino does not deny the purchase, which he claims saves the municipal government money over the previous practice of renting vehicles. A demonstration in support of him in April included the public display of the municipal vehicles involved.

Last week, the issue reached the suspension stage in Potosí’s city council, in which supporters of Joaquino have a majority. However, they felt themselves constrained by a provision of law which allows public officials to be sued for “fulfillment of responsibilities” if they fail to carry out their legal mandates. In an attempt to prevent Joaquino’s suspension, scores of his supporters also massed into city hall, and conducted a sit-in to prevent the City Council from meeting. The following day, the Civic Committee of Potosí (Comcipo) began a department-wide strike and road blockade campaign over a series of unrelated regional demands. The national government, however, has accused Comcipo of conducting the strike in political support of Joaquino. Comcipo representatives completely discount this, saying if Joaquino is convicted, he must go to jail. The prosecutor, likewise, denies political motivations in making the used car purchasing charge.

Looming on the horizon are a series of potential prosecutions of primarily opposition lawmakers. The most directly political of these involve the 2008 referendums held in the media luna departments (Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija) to approve their controversial statutes of autonomy. At the time, the government and the indigenous/popular movement held that these votes were unconstitutional and boycotted the votes. Recently, the prospect of holding the departmental governments, and their highest officials, liable for misuse of public funds in holding these referendums has come ever closer to reality. This would involve putting sitting governors of three departments—which is every governor not belonging to the MAS—on trial.

Somewhere between the alleged crimes of Jaime Barrón and of René Joaquino lies the boundary of “high crimes.” However, in today’s Bolivia, indictment rather than impeachment is the mechanism for suspending officials from office, and a lower standard is in play. Political conflicts are increasingly being played out in the prosecutor’s office. And formal complaints are often threatened or filed in the midst of verbal disputes between politicians. (For instance, Ruben Costas, who also could be indicted for the Santa Cruz referendum, baselessly accused Vice President Álvaro García Linera of narcotrafficking, for which the Vice President has now presented a charge of defamation.) At the same time, both these cases illustrate that public protest, outside or inside City Hall, also determines the outcome of these political struggles.

The Bolivian government will be seeking to hold the political leadership of Sucre’s Inter-Institutional Committee responsible for the their role in coordinating the horrifying events of May 24, 2008. On Saturday, the Prosecutor’s Office issued its long anticipated indictments on the day of racist violence, street clashes, and public humiliation. Its conclusions were backed up by reports from the Defensoría del Pueblo and the Legislature’s Human Rights Commission. The allegations, which will serve as the basis for prosecutions of many members of Sucre’s right-wing political elite, ratify the assessment of responsibility put forward by Cesar Brie’s June 2008 documentary Humiliados y Ofendidos. [Background on this blog about that day and its aftermath: 1 | 2 | 3 ].

Peasants forced to kneel in Sucre

Captured peasants are forced to kneel by civic protesters in Sucre's central square. They were required to strip to the waist, hold the Chuquisaca flag, watch as the indigenous wiphala was burned, and shout political slogans as press cameras filmed.

The accused include:

  • Savina Cuéllar, Prefect of Chuquisaca from June 2008 to May 2010
  • Jaime Barrón Poveda, former rector of the Universidad San Francisco Xavier, and Mayor Elect of Sucre
  • Aydée Nava, former Mayor of Sucre.
  • Fidel Herrera, former council member of Sucre.
  • John Cava, expresident of the Comité Cívico and recent unsuccessful candidate for governor of Chuquisaca.
  • Epifania Terrazas, member of the the Constituent Assembly

The formal accusation will suspend Barrón from taking office as Mayor.

The MAS/State newspaper Cambio editorialized about the case on Monday under the headline “Racism out of time“:

The indignation of people who have arrived in the 21st century with the mentality of this new century will not accept racist acts like those that took place in the capital of the Plurinational State. … We are sure that the Prosecutor’s Office will fulfill its duty to put Bolivia back in tune with the times.

Cambio also noted the prominence of indigenous individuals among the actors on May 24:

Racism has been and is one of the practices upon which colonialism bases its power. Many times, like in Sucre in 2008, violent actions taken against the racil condition of its victims are carried out by those who share the victim’s blood, an old practice well known among the sepoys of English colonialism in India, the caporales, blacks who managed black slaves, and the so-called kapos, Jews who managed the Jews who would be killed in Hitler’s death camps. […]

What leads these people to act against their own origins? Perhaps, like the sepoys, caporales and kapos, to enjoy a rise in social and economic status, to be Mayor or Prefect, must imply a new social relationship with the representatives of the old regime that still has so much power in colonial cities like Sucre.

The enormously long lapse of time between the events and the beginning of prosecution is not atypical of the Bolivian justice system, especially in political cases. The trial of Leopoldo Fernández, former Prefect of Beni, for the Pando Massacre has yet to begin, and he is jailed awaiting trial (none of the Sucre defendants are currently jailed).  Women jailed at Cochabamba’s San Sebastián began a hunger strike picket against judicial delays on Saturday, according to a report in Tuesday’s La Prensa.

Full story available in Spanish from Los Tiempos.

In the big news, definitely the headline: ACI candidate Savina Cuellar defeats MAS candidate Walter Valda. The final vote: 51.5% to 41.2%, far closer than the initial margin that reached the early national and international press. As expected, Sucre went for her heavily (67,38% to 26,57%), but the mostly rural provinces backed Valda in a big way. Final details en español.

So on to the experiences of the day. First the “act of good government” made for a silent city for much of the day: no vehicles on the streets except for the occasional motorbike and those cars granted a permit by electoral officials. Certain Bolivian election norms are better than the American ones: a period of reflection with no advertising before the vote, free transport for elderly voters, and an election held on a day when no one has to work. And with no one having to work, all the shops and restaurants were closed, save a small few servicing visiting gringos (which means all folks from the global North in Bolivia) and internet cafes connecting the less resourced reporters with the ‘Net.

As early reports from the city’s ballot boxes came in, Savina’s supporters gathered in the main square and rallied. Some of their chants reflected the months before, notably “Sucre de pie, Evo de rodillas! [Sucre on the march, Evo on his knees!]” Others talked of becoming the national capital and winning autonomy for the department.

Chatting with MAS election observers (each party is entitled to a representative in each precinct), it’s clear there was a legitimate ACI victory, although it was clouded by extra “observers” for the ACI in some precincts who belong to confrontation groups (read, street fighters).

The story of May 24 remains untold in Sucre’s mainstream media despite at least two attempts to show Cesar Brie’s documentary on TV. Both were interrupted by covert means–once the cable
company switched off the local channel showing it, and the other time, (and no, I’m not making this up), unknown parties pushed eucalyptus trees into the power lines that feed local broadcast transmitters.

If in the atmosphere of Sucre I’ve felt very partisan in my descriptions of what’s going on, which is quite frighteningly hostile to open organizing by the MAS, the left, etc., my personal feelings there were in fact very liberal. In the older sense of the word. While I know that the different performance of the parties contending for government will make a big difference to many in the department, probably a difference of life or death to those who depend on public services (Cesar Brie told me that infant mortality has been halved in the past few years), I couldn’t stop focusing on the absence of the ability organize openly, to do things like open an office.

I’m trying to collate all my thoughts on/experiences of the election, its national significance, and some photos. So stay tuned.

[Saturday, June 28] Walther Valda, the candidate for prefect from Evo Morales’ party, the MAS (Movement towards Socialism), in Sunday’s election in the Department of Chuquisaca, has been forced to run a largely word-of-mouth campaign in the city of Sucre. No campaign headquarters can announce itself in the all the usual ways you might expect.

So, as candidate Valdas described in yesterday’s paper, the campaign has gone underground, rooted itself in word of mouth campaigning and going door-to-door. Walking around one sees wheatpasted posters and graffiti for both candidates, but only the ACI has flags flying from windows. Those flying flags of the MAS, I was told last night, have faced attacks on their property and their person. This is an election in which one side has to campaign clandestinely.

This is not just a matter of excess precaution, or a careful reaction to the one day of violence on May 24. In fact, each of the two days before that, horrible violence was visited on supporters of the MAS as
they respectively opened a campaign office and held a fundraiser at a prominent officials home. The election is being held in the first place because the former prefect, David Sanchez, survived having his home looted and burned, and fled to Peru. A leading member of the party was attacked downtown.

Things are entirely different, of course, outside the city, although there’s no sign of similar violence in the reverse direction. The ACI-supporting paper quoted thier candidate, Savina Cuellar, as complaining about an incident in which several drunken MAS supporters in an outlying town stole stacks of posters from an office and burned them in the streeet. The perpetrators turned themselves in.

I had a long talk with one Valda supporter, who radiated seriousness but also optimism. He views the urban support for the ACI as a matter primarily of misinformation, and had all the conviction of a canvasser that reaching people directly will sway the outcome.

A book on women in Bolivian social movements co-written by Alison Spedding, that I’ve been carrying with me for the last week or so incisively observed (in its opening literature review) that texts on the 2000 to 2003 period written by women tend to describe the specific impact of events on people involved, while those by men tended to assimilate events to their political argument. Unlike Cesar Brie’s documentary, these articles seem to follow the latter trend. Still, I wanted readers to have something other than my description to go by.

 

Monday night, I went to the well known scholars group Comuna on their biweekly meeting/event in La Paz. Instead of the usual talk though, they were hosting a video screening of a new documentary (by Cesar Brie–his poorly translated take on the events) rushed to production on the events of late May in Sucre…

To take a step back, the rapid advance of a largely indigenous grassroots left in Bolivia has been met by a polarizing of the politics here. Region (the highland west/center vs. the lowland east “the Media Luna”), race (native vs. mestizo-white), and divisions that capture both (Kolla vs. Camba) have been key dividing lines that are suddenly more visible. This is in part a reaction to the biggest line crossing of all, the presence of an indigenous peasant union leader, Evo Morales, in the presidency, but it goes beyond that.

In the east, particularly Santa Cruz, the white opposition has cottoned on to a long-running aspiration to autonomy for the department (think state in the US or province in Canada; provinces here are smaller divisions). This separatism has a youth wing, whose focus goes beyond separation to attacking and intimidating indigenous leaders and offices of the MAS party in national government. This wing, often with broader collaboration from the white opposition parties, have been threatening and carrying violence to disrupt what might otherwise be run-of-the-mill state functions involving Morales. This has reached the point where the President has been avoiding certain cities because regional governments are not guaranteeing his security.

So, back to the video. On May 24 in Sucre, Evo was set to preside over the awarding of ambulances to each province across the department of Chuquisaca, whose capital is Sucre. Right-wing youth and the anti-Morales mayor’s Inter-insitutional Committee urged Evo not to come, and threatened a confrontation. With local leaders from the countryside already on their way in, Evo backed down from attending. The rightists turned on the indigenous leaders, attacking with sticks and rocks. Several dozen fled to a house on the outskirts of town, only to be surrounded there.

They were escorted forcibly from there to Sucre’s main square, where a spectacle of public humiliation unfolded over the afternoon. Stripped to their underwear, forced to kneel, they had to endure insults, punches, and watch as their banners and the indigenous flag (or wiphala) was burned. The spectacle, captured by the mainstream media, continued for quite a long time.

In the judgment of the documentarian, the withdrawal of national police on the day happened because of a strategic decision to face and reveal what the rightists would do, rather than to confront them with force. If so, the price involved was paid by the indigenous leaders, whose pained after-the-fact interviews formed a key part of the documentary.

It was a hard film to watch, and left me in a pretty pensive mood Monday night. I had known that one in a series of racist outrages had happened in Sucre in May, and that the Women’s Summit would feature a public act dis-agression (desagravio) to repudiate it. But this was the first I had seen what was actually involved.

The whole situation strongly evokes what I’ve heard of the (US) Southern response to the Civil Rights Movement. How on front lawns, in jails, and with gunshots, the ugliest parts of a history of racism were revived to terrorize people organizing for equality.

As it happened, today’s desagravio was a complete success. Leaving from the ministadium where the summit is happening, a march of over 1,000 people traversed all over Sucre, including the plaza where local leaders were humiliated. As women filed through Sucre’s streets, wiphala and Bolivian flags in hand, shouting slogans for unity and against racism, scores of people came out in the streets: a few hostile but calmed by our numbers, and many visibly relieved and excited to have the march there–applauding as the march went past.

Campesinas on the streets of Sucre

The act was a defiance of fear. For me, a little, and for the movement a great deal. It’s hoped that it can change the dynamic in the streets and in this department. The section I marched with had a frequent chant: “Viva la esperanza. Basta de racismo. [Long live hope. Enough of racism.]” For now, I just want to convey that it happened, and happened in peace and providing some inspiration.

Indigenous, Feminist and Campesina Women March through Sucre

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