Over 3,000 Bolivian and Peruvian indigenous activists recently marched in El Alto in commemoration of the March 13th, 1781 siege of La Paz, Bolivia launched from El Alto by indigenous rebels Tupac Katari and Bartolina Sisa. The siege was against Spanish rule and for indigenous liberation in the Andes. At a gathering the night before the recent anniversary mobilization, Eugene Rojas, the mayor of Achacachi, said, "We, the indigenous, organized a siege of La Paz in the past, and we will do it again if we need to." Rojas alluded to the long-postponed decolonization that Katari and Sisa dreamed of over two centuries ago. Today, those dreams of liberation are at once alive and in jeopardy.
After the nationalist confetti of the January 25th constitutional referendum blew away, and the busted water balloons and foam of Carnival washed down the streets with the rain, political scandals filled the Bolivian airwaves. Besides the challenges of applying the changes in the new constitution, recent cases of government corruption, shaky relations with Washington and political unrest show that the road to the December general elections is likely to be a rocky one.
The Corruption Scandal
In late January, Santos Ramirez, a key architect and member of the Movement Toward Socialism party, (MAS, the political party of indigenous president Evo Morales) and director of the YPFB – the state oil and gas company – was hauled off to jail on corruption charges. Investigations showed that Ramirez asked for a bribe in order to provide an $86 million contract to Argentine-Bolivian Company Catler Uniservice for a natural gas plant. The investigations started when a manager at Catler was murdered and robbed of $450,000 – money that was apparently going to Ramirez’s aide, according to Reuters. Ramirez is now in San Pedro jail in La Paz, the same place former Pando governor Leopoldo Fernandez is currently held after being implicated in a massacre of MAS supporters in Pando in September 2008.
Ramirez’s arrest struck a harsh blow to the MAS administration which has always pledged to put an end to the country’s legacy of corruption. The difference this time around however, compared to what was the norm in previous administrations, is that Ramirez actually was actually sent to jail; under past governments some of the most corrupt politicians remained free.
After the Ramirez scandal blew up, Morales said, "It’s been totally proven that foreign agents, CIA agents, were infiltrated (in YPFB) … Maybe that’s the way the (U.S.) empire has to conspire against the policies that we’re pushing forward."
Alfredo Rada, the Minister of Government, accused Francisco Martinez, a US diplomat, of being a CIA agent and helping to infiltrate the YPFB. Morales accused Martinez of "coordinating contacts" with a Bolivian police officer that the government says infiltrated the YPFB, following orders from the CIA. Morales explained that "deep investigations" had proved Martinez was also "in permanent contact with opposition groups" in Bolivia. The Bolivian president then kicked Martinez out of the country. The expulsion of Martinez follows that of former US ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg in September of 2008. Goldberg was also accused of collaborating with the right wing opposition to undermine the Morales administration. (See Undermining Bolivia for more.)
"There is clearly a connection in the activities that the former ambassador Philip Goldberg, USAID, the DEA and now Martinez have been doing here in Bolivia," an anonymous official in Bolivia‘s Government Ministry said to Josh Partlow of the Washington Post. "These are suspicious acts that have nothing to do with diplomacy or foreign aid. … This conduct of interference, and it cannot be called anything else, is not tolerated here anymore."
"We reject the allegations," the US state department said in a statement regarding the events. "We can’t understand how the president can assure us that he wants better relations with the United States and at the same time continue to make false accusations,” said Denise Urs, a US embassy spokeswoman.
In a press conference on March 13, Tom Shannon, the US assistant state secretary for Latin American Affairs, commented on the expulsion of the US diplomat from Bolivia. "We need a full diplomatic dialogue and a high-quality dialogue… And regrettably, up to this point, as we have sought to engage the Bolivians around the issues that have provoked their own actions, we have yet to receive what we would consider to be a coherent or a consistent response."
Meanwhile, the Santos Ramirez corruption case is far from closed. On March 13, Ramirez demanded that he be let out of jail because he says no evidence has been produced that proves that he harmed the Bolivian government with his actions, as the supposed irregular contract with Catler has not yet been terminated.
Cárdenas’ House Occupied
On March 7, 350 people took over and occupied the country home of Victor Hugo Cárdenas. Cárdenas was vice president in the Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada administration of 1993-1997 and a harsh critic of Bolivia‘s new constitution. The group of angry locals forced Cárdenas’ wife and three children to leave the house, while reportedly beating them.
Mario Huaypa, a representative of the group that occupied the house, told the Agencia Bolivian de Información that a general meeting was held within the community in which it was decided that the house should be expropriated because the land it was built on was illegally acquired by Cárdenas. The group said they will continue the occupation until the official Bolivian justice system looks into the case. The people who occupied the home introduced the supposedly eight legitimate owners of the land, who said that the land and house should be taken over and converted into a retirement home for the area’s elderly.
Cárdenas, an Aymara intellectual, governed in the 1990s with Sanchez de Lozada speaking on behalf of the indigenous population and their rights, while at the same time pushing through repressive and neoliberal policies that led to economic depression and state violence against indigenous people. To this day, public appearances by Cárdenas are regularly met with protests. The locals who occupied his house were also protesting the fact that Cárdenas campaigned against the new constitution. It is rumored that Cárdenas will run as a possible presidential candidate for the general elections in December.
The occupation of Cárdenas’ home has rightly been condemned throughout Bolivia, as the act only worsens the polarization in the country and pushes aside much-needed peaceful dialogue between opposing political factions. Unfortunately, violence has been even more extensively used by the Bolivian right wing since Morales took office in 2006. A right wing youth group in Santa Cruz has regularly attacked indigenous people in that city (see The Dark Side of Bolivia’s Half Moon.) In 2007 alone, there were approximately eight political bombings in Bolivia, most of which were against leftist unions or MAS party officials (see String of Bomb Attacks Prompts Hunger for Truth.) In 2008, right wing thugs destroyed various government and human rights offices across the country, and murdered some 20 pro-MAS farmers in the Pando, injuring dozens of others (see The Machine Gun and The Meeting Table). While the violence against Cárdenas’ family members and the house occupation should be condemned, so should the widespread violence unleashed by Bolivia’s right wing against indigenous and pro-MAS citizens.
Misinformation and Decolonization
In other news, the US State Department recently released a human rights report on Bolivia which did not even mention the Santa Cruz Youth Group and similarly violent right wing groups, or the repression they have let loose on Bolivia’s indigenous majority. The report does mention the charges against former Bolivian president Sanchez de Lozada, but does not mention that the country in which this criminal is currently enjoying refuge is the same one that issued the human rights report. The report explains, "On October 17, the attorney general’s office formally indicted former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and former defense minister Sanchez Berzain on criminal charges in connection with the deaths of up to 60 persons in October 2003. In November the government submitted a request for Sanchez de Lozada’s extradition from the country to which he fled." (For more on the irony of the US issuing such human rights reports, see the recent article, Who is America to judge?)
On the media front, Bolivia has recently witnessed the all too common bias and misinformation from various US press outlets. A recent piece in The Atlantic Monthly by Eliza Barclay was particularly egregious. The title itself – "The Mugabe of the Andes?" – alludes to the article’s suggestions that most political violence in Bolivia comes from Morales and his supporters – not a racist right wing. In the article, Barclay fails to quote a single MAS supporter, or anyone offering a more nuanced view of the country’s political landscape. She focuses on how Morales’ "rhetoric studded with racial references aimed at his opposition" has created divisions in the country, and then goes on to mention the September 2008 violence in Pando without saying that right wing governor Leopoldo Fernandez, not Morales, was behind the massacre. She mentions that US ambassador Goldberg was expelled, but doesn’t say why. Barclay also writes that Bolivia’s "highland regions remain stuck in a poverty trap that Morales has shown little flair for unlocking" but fails to mention that, as the website Abiding in Bolivia pointed out, the Bolivian government is "running a surplus and massively expanding its budget and infrastructure spending."
Though the MAS has made plenty of mistakes and Morales is far from a perfect president, Barclay’s article leads the reader to believe that the country is brimming with people who hate the MAS government. The fact is that Morales, in his 2005 election, August 2008 recall referendum and recent constitutional vote, received significantly more support from the population than Barack Obama did in the 2008 US elections. Luckily, photographer Evan Abramson offered a much more accurate view of Bolivia in this excellent narrated photo essay, which was posted on the Atlantic’s website to accompany the article. (For more media analysis on coverage of Bolivia see Borev.net and Abiding in Bolivia.)
One example of the positive policies of the MAS government was demonstrated on March 14, when Morales redistributed some 94,000 acres in the eastern part of the country to small farmers. The land of US rancher Ron Larsen was among the acres redistributed. Bolivia’s new constitution, which limits new land purchase at 12,400 acres, has empowered the MAS government’s plans for land reform. "Private property will always be respected but we want people who are not interested in equality to change their thinking and focus more on country than currency," Morales said, upon officially redistributing the land. Many of the Guarani farmers in the area that received the land, including various families on the Larsen ranch, had been living in conditions of slavery. Morales explained that, "To own land is to have freedom, and if there is land and freedom, there is justice."
While the Atlantic Monthly misled their readers, on March 14th, the NY Times did publish an Op-Ed by Evo Morales on his demand for decriminalizing coca, a leaf widely used throughout the Andes for medicinal and cultural purposes. At a recent UN meeting in Vienna, Morales called for the legalization of the coca leaf, and even chewed coca at the meeting. Some 48 years ago the UN incorrectly classified the coca leaf as a narcotic. In his NY Times piece, Morales writes, "Why is Bolivia so concerned with the coca leaf? Because it is an important symbol of the history and identity of the indigenous cultures of the Andes."
Indeed, symbolism, history and identity have taken center stage in today’s Bolivia. Just recently it was announced that a statue of Che Guevara situated at the entrance to the city of El Alto will, after outcries and protests from numerous residents, be replaced instead with statues of Tupac Katari and Bartolina Sisa, as these two heroes more accurately represent the city’s legacy of anti-colonial, indigenous rebellion. As Bolivia continues on its rocky road to the December general elections, the process of decolonization, so often lauded by MAS government officials, takes on many forms in this country in the midst of historic transitions.
Benjamin Dangl is currently based in Bolivia, and the Spanish edition of his book "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia," including a new epilogue on current events, will be published shortly in Bolivia by Plural Editores. Dangl is also the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.