Lliquimuni drillsite arises out of a cleared area in a cloud-shrouded forest

Lliquimuni test well in Bolivian Amazon fails

The joint Bolivian-Venezuela state oil company Petroandina has announced that its exploratory drilling well Lliquimuni Centro X1 failed to find commercially viable quantities of oil after 440 days of drilling. As previously covered here, the Lliquimuni oil block is among those posing the greatest future environmental risk in Bolivia due to its location in the fragile Amazon rainforest and the lack of any reliable infrastructure to pump oil and gas extracted at the site to outside markets.

The government of Evo Morales has made extravagant claims about the potential of the block, located in northern La Paz department, suggesting that as many as 50 million barrels of oil and 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may be lie beneath the ground there. However, the $170-million dollar effort to find this oil has yet to produce a successful result. While oil and gas exist below the site, the quantities found would not be profitable to extract.

Undaunted, Minister of Hydrocarbons and Energy Luis Alberto Sánchez pledged to La Razón:

We will continue exploratory activities in the north of La Paz. We will not rest in the search for hydrocarbons; if the first well was not successful, the news isn’t discouraging since will will continue exploration in other wells until we find the reservoir that we know is there.

“Seguiremos las actividades exploratorias en el norte de La Paz. No vamos a descansar en la búsqueda de hidrocarburos; si bien el primer pozo no fue exitoso, la noticia no es desalentadora porque continuaremos la actividad exploratoria en otros pozos hasta encontrar el reservorio que sabemos que se encuentra ahí”

Despite his perseverance, the odds against a major oil complex in Lliquimuni have just gotten longer.

LT-StreetFire

Deadly El Alto protest casts shadow on Bolivian referendum

On Wednesday, February 17, a local protest in El Alto, Bolivia, became a national tragedy as flames engulfed several rooms of El Alto’s City Hall and six municipal employees died from inhaling the fumes from the blaze.

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The protest, sponsored by the Federación de Padres de Familia de El Alto (an association of parents demanding better school facilities), arrived at El Alto’s City Hall at 9:00 am. Aggressive actions by the crowd, including using a rocks and kicks to break the front door lock, began by 10am. As protesters turned aggressive outside El Alto’s City Hall, Mayor Soledad Chapetón repeatedly sent messengers to the Regional Police Command, asking for help. (The police command is less than two blocks away, per La Razón’s graphic.)

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Letter to police seeking protection, received at 10:20am

Shockingly, they asked her to put her request in writing. A letter demanding police intervention “to safeguard the central City Hall … with anti-riot troops” was delivered to the police at 10:20am. A significant police attachment then took over an hour to arrive on scene. Protesters had seized numerous files and computers, set fires inside offices and on the street, and burned out rooms inside the building. Six municipal workers sought refuge in a rear bathroom of the building. The room was unventilated and they asphyxiated from the smoke. By the time the police arrived, the six employees had already lost their lives.

El Alto protests: Militant, destructive, but rarely deadly in the past decade

Neither property destruction nor the use of fire is unusual in El Alto protests, but these tactics have rarely led to deadly casualties. El Alto, Bolivia’s second largest city and the larger if poorer twin to the capital of La Paz, is rightly seen as the most militant place for urban protest in the country. During February 2003, protesters against a suddenly-imposed new income tax broke into government offices and burned files in El Alto and La Paz, including the property records in El Alto’s City Hall. The tax plan was cancelled. Later that year, El Alto saw the fiercest confrontations in the Gas War protests, opposing the export of natural gas by foreign corporations. Alteños’ militancy, however, is typically unarmed and involves the greatest use of force against security forces and property rather than individual opponents. While both of the 2003 events saw dozens of deaths in the city, they were nearly all protesters killed by police or military forces.

Since the 2005 election of President Evo Morales, security forces have been less aggressive in their use of deadly force on protesters. Militant crowds in El Alto have kept the looting of government offices and the setting of fires in their repertoire of tactics, used at occasional moments of public outpouring, such as the December 2010 protests against the removal of subsidies for fuel. As part of a national wave of protest, Alteños sacked and burned the toll booths on the main highway to La Paz. The protest was also marked by dissension as some pro-government organizations tried to dissuade protest. Their offices were looted by angry crowds. However, protest actions had not led to any deaths in El Alto between 2005 and this past week.

Nationally, February 18, 2016, was the deadliest day in Bolivian protest since 2008.

Political implications for Sunday referendum

Evo Morales, who is seeking public backing for constitutional amendment allowing him a fourth term, has had a very bad month. On February 3, an opposition journalist revealed his 2007 affair with Gabriela Zapata, then a young law student who has since become exceptionally wealthy representing a major government contractor. The Vice President’s claims to academic credentials as a mathematician and sociologist have been called into question. But this deadly El Alto protest may have been the worst blow to the president’s image.

Many of the protagonists of Wednesday’s protest were affiliated with the president’s Movement Towards Socialism party, and they seem to have been protecting themselves from charges of local corruption through targeted arson, and killed six government workers in the process. The tragedy was compounded, and perhaps made possible, by government inaction. Once protesters had broken down the front door, they targeted the Investigating Unit (Oficina Sumariante) of the city government’s legal office. The head of that office told the press: “They came directly to attack first the Sumariante office and have burned my filings. What they were trying to cover up was the phantom billings, illegal contracts, and legally certified photocopies concerning the 33 vehicles that were to be sent for the [ongoing] criminal process, filings on illegal land occupations and charges.” The administration of former mayor Edgar Patana, affiliated with the MAS, is now under extensive investigation for corruption. Patana himself faces at least 11 denunciations of corruption and was jailed in San Pedro Prison last December.

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One of the destroyed offices in the aftermath of the fire.

Wednesday’s conflict pitted MAS affiliates against a City Hall led by Mayor Soledad Chapetón, affiliated with the center-right Unión Nacional. Two leaders of the protest singled out by the mayor in an emotional speech Wednesday night were Braulio Rocha and Wilmer Sarzuri, both MAS candidates for the El Alto municipal council in 2015. Rocha, leader of the shopkeepers union (Federación de Trabajadores Gremiales de El Alto) had been a close ally of outgoing Mayor Patana, whose administration redirected shopkeepers’ taxes into the control of the union. When Chapetón ended this practice, Rocha declared to Chapetón, “I will be your nightmare for the rest of your life,” reports El Diario. It now seems more likely that Wednesday’s deaths will haunt Braulio Rocha.

These elements of political dispute implicate the governing MAS party, at least on a local level. It might all look like a local crisis were it not for police inaction and the words of Marcelo Elío, the Vice Minister in charge of policing. Within hours of the fire, he blamed SOL.Bo for “provoking” the fire and described it as a self-directed attack (“auto-atentado”) and “a plan orchestrated from within City Hall.” Other national government figures initially emphasized the need for investigation and clarification of events. State-run media passed on allegations that vandals had “infiltrated” the protest causing the destruction, and the state-aligned Venezuelan channel Telesur even mis-captioned the event as an act by anti-Morales protesters opposed to the Sunday referendum. But by Friday prosecutors had accepted Chapetón’s version and arrested Rocha and Sarzuri, as well as two young MAS activists and charged them with homicide and other crimes. Even with these moves, death, corruption, and state complicity with both hang in air ahead of Sunday’s referendum on the future of President Evo Morales

 

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Bolivians to vote on a fourth Evo Morales term

On Sunday, February 21, Bolivians will vote in a constitutional referendum. A yes vote would authorize incumbent President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term in 2019, and to rule the country for an unprecedented twenty years, ending in 2025. Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism party (MAS-IPSP) have a long streak of national victories stretching back to his election in 2005 (with 54% of the vote), through a special vote of confidence in 2008 (67%), and two re-elections in 2009 (64%) and 2014 (61%). All of these contests involved face-offs against right-wing politicians associated with two decades of neoliberal economic policies from 1985 to 2005.

On the other hand, regional and local government elections in 2010 and 2015 showed more mixed results for the MAS-IPSP. Independent center-left parties like the Without Fear Movement (MSM) and its successor SOL.bo have gained important ground in these elections, while right wing forces have maintained a base in the country’s eastern departments. In the 2011 judicial elections a MAS-IPSP-backed slate of nominees was elected amid heavy abstention and massive numbers of blank or voided ballots. Likewise, five western departments rejected regional autonomy statutes in a September 2015 poll. While Vice President Álvaro García Linera tried to spin the result as validation of a strong central state, all of the statutes had been drafted by MAS-IPSP legislators.

Enter the present referendum. In 2008, Evo Morales agreed to a constitutional limit of two terms. In the run-up to the 2014 vote, he re-interpreted this limit as beginning with the 2009 constitution. During the 2014 political campaign, rumors of a constitutional amendment to extend his office began to circulate. While MAS-IPSP party activists backed the campaign from the beginning, it has been framed as an initiative arising from the Pact of Unity organizations—principally the CSUTCB peasant confederation and the “intercultural” federation of agrarian colonists—as well as the COB labor confederation, whose national leadership aligned with the MAS in 2013. While his party campaigned for it to happen, Evo only “agreed to the grassroots demand” that he run again four years from now.

The present campaign has the first effective collaboration between Evo Morales’ critics on the left and his long-time opponents on the right. With no political offices at stake, these two sides have been free to collaborate for the first time. Recent polls show the race to be a toss-up. You can read more about the vote here:

A quick response to “The Charitable-Industrial Complex”

Peter Buffett’s “The Charitable-Industrial Complex” op-ed is notable because only rarely do wealthy people admit there’s something deeply morally wrong about accumulating wealth and the widespread existence of poverty:

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

While I’m happy to hear this critique and glad that it’s passed into the mainstream media so that elites are paying attention, I wish there was more of a direction here about where to go next.

What I like about it: Pointing out big problems: the classist misimpression that the wealthy know best about how to improve the lives of the poor, the idea that managerial and capitalist logic can easily be applied to problems that are essentially about public goods, the unwillingness of donors to give up control when they give their money, the notion that unconscionable gathering of wealth can be laundered by “giving back.”

What I worry about, especially among US-based radicals: The idea that simply abandoning or destroying these institutions or the flow of wealth they represent will solve things. This is why I’m resistant to naming this an “industrial complex”—something that must be destroyed.

The reality is that resources are wrongly distributed from the global South to a rich few every day, leaving behind both injustice and unmet needs. We can, and should, attack the injustice head-on, and fight the looting of the world by corporations and their corrupt associates in governments. But, we also need to build an infrastructure that provides public goods, like the eradication of polio, equitable titling of land, ambulances in rural communities, and emergency food assistance. The struggle is not to stop the institutions that distribute resources from northern donors to such ends, but to make them functional and to make them accountable to the people they serve.

Frankly, both liberals and radicals in the US are bad at putting their money where their heart is in challenging third world poverty. When I visited the Zapatistas, I saw desperately needed ambulances funded by Italian squatters. In Bolivia, left parties from Scandinavia run their own alternatives to the official aid system, while US Americans just complain about USAID without building alternatives. Indigenous and small farmer titles under agrarian reform there happened through official development assistance funds paired with a radical government.

Bottom line: change can cost money, and we need to think seriously about how to insist that it flows where its most needed.