South American Presidents Unite to Defend Bolivia Against Destabilization

Temporary president of UNASUR, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (second from right) sitting next to Bolivian President Evo Morales (first from right).

Mérida, September 16, 2008 ( — Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the leaders of 11 other South American nations held an emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in Santiago, Chile, Monday to form a joint strategy to deal with the violent destabilization waged by wealthy right wing separatist groups in Bolivia. The escalating violence claimed 30 lives last week.

Chávez called the meeting "a new page in history" because never before had chiefs of state across the continent called an emergency meeting to deal with the internal conflict of a neighboring state.

"For the first time in our history, we, the South Americans, are demonstrating that we are capable of understanding each other and searching for common solutions," Chávez said.

Bolivian President Evo Morales expressed his appreciation for the meeting. "I come here to explain to the presidents of South America about a civil-regional coup d’etat that has developed in some departments [of Bolivia] in recent days, with the takeover and robbery of state institutions, sacking, assault of police officers and armed forces, terrorist acts intended to cut off gas lines, and most of all some groups which commit crimes against humanity, massacring the poorest sectors of my country," Morales said.

Morales and Bolivia‘s provincial governors underwent referenda on their terms in office last August in an effort to settle the conflict between the president and the separatists. Morales’s presidency was ratified by 63.1% of voters and the mandates of the separatist governors of Bolivia‘s four resource-rich eastern provinces, where recent violence has broken out, were also ratified.  

Since then, the separatists have used the referendum to justify and intensify their unconstitutional demand for regional autonomy and have launched sabotage attacks against Morales’s government.

In the province of Pando, a group of hitmen who witnesses say were hired by the local separatist governor Leopoldo Fernández killed at least 16 poor farmers last week. Those killed were of indigenous descent and identified with the government of President Morales, the country’s first indigenous president.   

The UNASUR countries signed a declaration Monday in which they pledge "decisive backing of the constitutional government of Evo Morales," and said they "energetically reject and will not recognize" acts which break the constitutional or territorial order of Bolivia.

In addition, UNASUR members formed three commissions to deal with the conflict. One commission will investigate the recent massacre in the province of Pando, another will coordinate "logistical" support for the Bolivian government, and the third will help mediate dialogue between President Morales and the separatists, for which Morales has already advocated repeatedly.

President Chávez said the government of the United States is behind the destabilization in Bolivia. He compared the current situation to the coup d’etat led by General Augusto Pinochet in Chile on September 11, 1973, during which socialist President Salvador Allende died and a nearly two-decade, U.S.-backed dictatorship was installed.

"We saw Allende fall … 35 years have passed, and they are trying to take down President Evo Morales, and the conspiracy has been elaborated by the government of the United States," said Chávez.

The temporary president of UNASUR, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, also invoked the memory of "the tragic episodes that in this very place shook humanity 35 years ago."

Upon arriving in Santiago, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa said frankly, "We all know very well what is happening in Bolivia… these ghosts that we believed had been banished from the region have returned in other forms, with other clothing."

"We will never accept dictators or the breaking of the democratic order… here we came to give our unconditional support to democracy in Bolivia," said Correa. "We will see whether integration is truly effective or pure blah-blah," he added.

Chávez expressed confidence that the UNASUR meeting was a success. "We have aborted a coup in Bolivia, and if we haven’t aborted it, at least we have begun to abort it," Chávez declared on Tuesday.

Last week, President Chávez said he would support an armed resistance movement in Bolivia if the right wing coup succeeds. "Just like I’d die for Venezuela, I am willing to die for Bolivia," he said last weekend.

The General Secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, also attended the UNASUR meeting Monday.

"The situation has been worsening effectively and we are at the point where we either agree on an immediate end to hostilities and begin negotiations, or the situation becomes irreversible," Insulza said.

Bolivian opposition leaders sent a letter to President Bachelet before the UNASUR meeting in which they disparaged Insulza and the OAS for "demonstrating partiality and lack of objectivity, proven on several occasions."

In a meeting with opposition leaders late Monday, President Morales asked them to respect the UNASUR declaration. He called for an "opposition with proposals and not with violence," emphasizing that "the dialogue is always open."
Shortly afterward, the separatist governor of the province of Tarija, Mario Cossío, said 80% of the preconditions necessary to initiate a dialogue with the government had been settled.

UNASUR was constituted in May of this year. One of its principal features is the proposal to form a South American Defense Council to mediate conflicts on the continent. 

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