Los Cobocitos, a weekly segment in the Cochabamba daily newspaper Opinión, features a cartoon- and story-filled introduction to queerness of all ages. Co-produced by Bolivia’s Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo) and Unicef, it celebrates June 28 as International LGBT Pride day. It features drawings by kids against homophobia, stories of same-sex couples in their own words, and an explanation of the constitutional rights to equality for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution and its general antidiscrimination law. (The constitution does, however, define marriage as between one man and one woman.) There’s also encouragement to teachers to give “rapid and natural responses” when they hear anti-gay myths and a reminder to parents that “There are some moms and dads who think that if they avoid the issue, their children were be less likely to be homosexual and that’s not true. It’s the parents who need to inform themselves and break the chain of silence.” Didactic? Yes, but still adorable.
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.
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.Read More »
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)
Today is the third day of highway blockades in the Department of Oruro, the culmination of what is already 29 days of pressure backed the department’s Civic Committee and its labor federation (the Central Obrera Departamental of Oruro; COD). The form and schedule of the strike follows the standard Bolivian pattern: participants declared themselves on alert to press their demands, and have held 24-hour, 48-hour, and 72-hour general strikes before proceeding to an indefinite period of pressure, which began on Monday. Road blockades are common means of ramping up pressure in the country, and in fact Oruro’s blockades coincide with blockades by peasants in La Paz department, neighborhood organizations in El Alto, and a municipal organization pursuing a border dispute outside the city of Cochabamba.
However, the topic of Oruro’s mobilization is quite unusual. Over four weeks of protests have been waged on what is a symbolic issue: the naming of the newly expanded airport (the expansion and new routes require it to be redesignated as an international airport). The pre-established name, Juan Mendoza Airport honored an aviation pioneer from the department. But on February 7, the region’s parliament chose to honor a different native son, President Evo Morales Ayma, by re-naming the airport after him. Surprise and discontent about the sudden renaming accompanied the airport’s re-opening the next day. The first strikes on the issue took place on February 27 and 28, endorsed by both the COD and the Civic Committee. Unions of miners (notably from the famous mines in Huanuni) and the ever-strident teachers have been vocal participants.
The conflict is particularly surprising given the strong and consistent backing from the region for President Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS-IPSP) political party. The department gave 79.46% of its votes to the MAS-IPSP in the 2009 general elections, and all but one of its representatives in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly belong to the party. Evo Morales migrated with his family out of Oruro to the Chapare valley region in Cochabamba, but he is a highly respected native son. During the 2010 regional strike by Potosí, Oruro’s Civic Committee was one of the counterweights to a mobilization that was highly critical of the president.
Criticisms from the Civic Committee had already begun by last December, when the national government kicked off construction a museum of the “democratic and cultural revolution” in Morales’ hometown, the village of Orinoca, Oruro. Then, Civic Committee President Sonia Saavedra questioned the priorities for investment from national government funds:
We need projects that are truly icons for tourist development. I don’t deny the value of the museum that will be built in Orinoca, but we also would like to see that the things that are really necessary to be built are built. What should be more at hand is to ensure that people of the country and from abroad come and see the richness of our department. “Necesitamos proyectos que realmente sean íconos de desarrollo turismo, no desvaloro el museo que se va construir en Orinoca, pero también quisiéramos que se construyan los que realmente van a ser necesarios y están más a la mano para que venga gente del interior y exterior del país para que vean la riqueza de nuestro departamento”
Saavedra urged funds for the Museum in Oruro commemorating the city’s world-famous festival, and suggested that water and irrigation were more important priorities for Orinoca than a stadium with 8,000 seats for a town of 2,000 people.
The past month’s discontent has been met by a series of accusations from the departmental government, who have variously accused “a press bought by the right,” conspiratorial actors intending to produce a coup, and other figures as standing “behind” the campaign. However, many mobilization are attempted in Bolivia, while only a few reach this scale. To gain this level of adherence requires a real willingness of people to stay away from work and join in mass efforts at pressure. However surprising, there is little doubt that this willingness is genuine. Moreover, the region’s political leanings are not in doubt. Rejecting the accusations of right-wing ties, Orureño journalists issued a statement declaring:
We journalists have never been from the right, to the contrary we have always been of the left, but from the humble left, wich fights for justice and equality among all, for seriousness and responsibility; on the other hand, the supposed leftists are taking on the poses of the right: self-important, irrational, and unwilling to dialogue. “Los periodistas nunca hemos sido de derecha, más por el contrario, siempre hemos sido de izquierda, pero de la izquierda humilde, que lucha por la justicia, la igualdad entre todos, la seriedad y la responsabilidad; en cambio, los supuestos izquierdistas están asumiendo poses de la derecha, soberbios, irracionales y faltos de diálogo”
More recently, Saavedra rejected the renaming in this way: “It’s a servile act by the [departmental] Assembly members who want to erase the history of Oruro. Juan Mendoza was the first Bolivian pilot born in this land.” “Es una actitud servil de los asambleístas que quieren borrar la historia de Oruro. Juan Mendoza fue el primer piloto boliviano nacido en esta tierra.”
So the current strike can best be understood as an act of resistance to the symbolic centralization of power, and the beginnings of a personality cult emerging around the president. That this resistance is coming from his own home region reflects the critical and diverse currents that make up Bolivian political culture.
The president himself has tried to remain aloof from the conflict, noting that he had never asked for any public works to bear his name and urging Orureños to work out the conflict among themselves. However, as the conflict enters a second month, national officials have begun to disqualify participants in the protest, repeating local accusations, and suggesting that the preference for Mendoza over Morales has an anti-indigenous, racial component. The Observatorio on Racism reacted skeptically on twitter.
Several proposals have been floated to resolve the conflict, including referring the matter to the Constitutional Tribunal (there are legal restrictions on naming works after living people), naming the airport Juan Mendoza and the terminal after Evo Morales, and simply calling the place Oruro International Airport. Today, however, the strike goes on.
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.
In a very busy Wednesday, Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal struck down a longstanding law criminalizing “contempt” toward public officials and limited the scope of an anti-corruption law; rounding out the court’s surge into the headlines, justice Gualberto Cusi made biting comments on the government’s failure to abide by the court’s ruling on the TIPNIS consultation.
Contempt law ruled unconstitutional: The Tribunal found, in Judicial Ruling 1250/2012, that the law prohibiting contempt (“desacato” ) towards senior public officials through defamation is an unconstitutional violation of the freedom of expression. The court advised public officials that they may use civil court procedures to deal with slander, and nullified the law in its entirety. Numerous opposition figures, including the center-left Mayor of La Paz, Luis (Lucho) Revilla, and the right-wing Governor of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, have been indicted under this very broad statute following complaints from the governing Movement Towards Socialism party.
The “Marcelo Andrés Santa Cruz” Anti-corruption Law cannot be applied retroactively: In the first legislative session under the new Constitution, the Movement Towards Socialism supermajority wasted no time in approving a new law criminalizing corruption. The law allows for severe penalties against officials who took bribes or other compensation to change policies. It was designed to give the government room to revise contracts and licenses approved under improper influence, and to recover fortunes which had been pilfered from the government. However, it was also referred to as the “Guillotine Law” (including by the Vice President) for its ability to end the political careers of past government officials. On Wednesday, the court sharply limited this aspect, finding that the law may not be applied retroactively “when the sanction [it imposes] is more severe or the act being judged would not have constituted a crime when it was carried out.”
Gualberto Cusi speaks out on TIPNIS: The Constitutional Tribunal had already ruled on the TIPNIS consultation, insisting that any process establishing the will of the communities in the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory about the proposed Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, which would cut through the region and accelerate already serious deforestation, must occur in a mutually agreed framework. Justice Gualberto Cusi—the judge who received the most votes in last year’s judicial election—denounced the current consultation process as a “disaster” that violates the indigenous inhabitants’ rights. Further, the justice suggested that the TIPNIS indigenous may need to look outside Bolivia for protection of their rights: “I believe that in Bolivia, no[, nothing can be done.] It will have to be the indigenous who appeal these acts to international tribunals. Yo creo que en Bolivia no (se puede hacer algo), tendrán que ser los indígenas quienes apelen a estos hechos en tribunales internacionales.” The most likely forum for international appeals is the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which has been a pathbreaking forum for indigenous rights.
None of these rulings would be particularly exceptional for a high court around the world, but this particular high court is in its first year, and came out of a controversial nominating and election process which was boycotted by multiple opposition forces. For it to strike down major laws embraced by the governing party and publicly embrace human rights standards around freedom of expression, indigenous consultation, and ex post facto laws makes this something* of a Marbury v. Madison moment for the new court.
* The analogy is inexact since a Constitutional Tribunal began operation in 1999.