Sunday, September 14, 2008

Violent clashes in Bolivia

Michele Bachelet, moderate socialist president of Chile, has called a summit tomorrow in Santiago to address the mounting violence in Bolivian provinces where the opposition instigated violent and destructive actions to protest the redistributive policies of the Morales government. The eastern province of Pando was declared under martial law by the government after 16 were massacred by opposition paramilitaries in what Morales has called "an ambush." It remains unclear whether or not Morales will attend the summit, since he is holding talks today with an opposition governor. Chavez has already committed to attending the summit.

Opposition leaders have been demanding that Morales cancel a December referendum on a new constitution, which isn't surprising, considering the opposition does not have the votes to block the reform from passing democratically. The draft of the constitution to be ratified if the referendum goes as planned, has a host of provisions that include the transfer of land to landless peasants. The opposition's leaders, the rich, white oligarchs and descendants of colonial settlers, are casting their opposition to the central government in terms of 'decentralization', 'regional autonomy' and recognition of 'cultural differences'... however the fact of the matter is they do not want to be ruled by an indigenous socialist. (For those on facebook... check out the huge number of racist, virulently anti-Morales groups started by opposition youth).

Funny that these 'autonomists' seemed to have little problem with being part of the Bolivian nation-state when conservative forces still had a strangle-hold over the office of the President and legislating bodies. Whatever the opposition propaganda of the day has to say about the reasons for their need for 'independence' (Morales is a dictator, he's authoritarian, etc), this struggle is about the entrenched, landed elite of Bolivia resisting redistributive polices regarding energy resources and fighting tooth and nail against a movement, backed strongly by a majority of the population, committed to land reform.

Despite recently winning over 67% of the vote in a recent recall referendum (convoked by the Right-wing opposition leaders in an attempt to weaken the government), the Morales government is struggling to maintain order and to curtail violence instigated by opponents who are keen on destroying gas pipelines, preventing airplanes from landing, destroying government buildings, and slaughtering campesino supporters of Morales. Despite all of this and pressure to show a "firm hand", Morales has banned the army and police from using firearms against the population. After making serious inroads in provinces where the opposition is strong (taking over 40% in conservative Santa Cruz and over 49.6% supported Morales in Chuqisaca), it seems at least partly unsurprising that ever-desperate opposition hard-liners would resort to trying to destabilize the country through violent clashes.

I'm not sure where the military's allegiances lie, but any anti-government sentiment within the ranks or among officers could certainly be exploited by the opposition. Its also interesting that Morales's government, following a massive show of support in the recall elections, has not taken a more hard-line approach to those groups instigating the violence. It certainly seems to be the case that, in provinces where the local governments are controlled largely by the opposition, the de facto authority and power of the central government is hampered, to say the least.

Amidst this instability, the US ambassador was seen meeting with opposition leadership in east (which he denied, until TV news stations showed otherwise with video footage). Accordingly, Morales expelled him from the country (as did Venezuela, in solidarity with Bolivia). Morales accused the ambassador of inciting violent demonstrations, which the US promptly denied and followed suit by expelling the Bolivian envoy from Washington.

It will be interesting to see what comes of the summit. At least, contrary to African analogues of this situation, the all-South American summit wont be dominated by the US and Britain calling for "power-sharing" arrangements. Nonetheless, as Al-Jazeera has recently pointed out, many South American countries depend on Bolivian natural gas and have a stake in seeing that production is not affected by this instability (i.e. outright destruction of the gaslines by opposition protesters). I hope this doesn't tilt the discussion towards an agreement more inclined to pacify the violent elements of the opposition through concessions... rather than seeing the situation is brought to a just conclusion. Despite at least two very staunch allies in Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa and Hugo Chavez, there are still plenty of center-left regimes that may not be committed to fighting against a plotting, obstructionist oligarchy. Correa said today that Latin America "will not permit another Pinochet, nor will we permit the balkanization" of Bolivia, criticizing the "minority separatist oligarchy" instigating the unrest. In a show of solidarity with Morales, Correa said, "Evo... we know well how these elites are... you have the embrace of solidarity of all your brothers in the region."

Chavez, in a speech today, made clear (referring to an attempted coup d'etat) that "if anything happens to Evo, I won't stand passively with arms crossed [and not do anything] I am prepared to die for Venezuela, I am ready to die for Bolivia." This comment was, partially, a swipe at the General of the Bolivian Armed Forces for his inaction regarding the violent outbursts by the opposition within the country. Chavez chastised the general for failing to prevent, by way of inaction and passivity, the opposition's "fascist paramilitaries" from "massacring the Bolivian people". "If I'm wrong, please demonstrate how. Support the legitimate President of Bolivia and not the paramilitaries or the yankees who want to derail the President!"

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