[News] The Machine Gun and The Meeting Table: Bolivian Crisis in a New South America

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Sep 16 12:10:46 EDT 2008


The Machine Gun and The Meeting Table: Bolivian Crisis in a New South America
http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1478/1/

Written by Benjamin Dangl
Tuesday, 16 September 2008

On Monday, September 15, Bolivian President Evo 
Morales arrived in Santiago, Chile for an 
emergency meeting of Latin American leaders that 
convened to seek a resolution to the recent 
conflict in Bolivia. Upon his arrival, Morales 
said, "I have come here to explain to the 
presidents of South America the civic coup d'etat 
by Governors in some Bolivian states in recent 
days. This is a coup in the past few days by the 
leaders of some provinces, with the takeover of 
some institutions, the sacking and robbery of 
some government institutions and attempts to 
assault the national police and the armed forces."

Morales was arriving from his country where the 
smoke was still rising from a week of right-wing 
government opposition violence that left the 
nation paralyzed, at least 30 people dead, and 
businesses, government and human rights buildings 
destroyed. During the same week, Morales declared 
US ambassador in Bolivia Philip Goldberg a 
"persona non grata" for "conspiring against 
democracy" and for his ties to the Bolivian 
opposition. The recent conflict in Bolivia and 
the subsequent meeting of presidents raise the 
questions: What led to this meltdown? Whose side 
is the Bolivian military on? And what does the 
Bolivian crisis and regional reaction tell us 
about the new power bloc of South American nations?

Massacre in Pando

Image

Bolivia
On September 11, in the tropical Bolivian 
department of Pando, which borders Brazil and 
Peru, a thousand pro-Morales men, women and 
children were heading toward Cobija, the 
department’s capital to protest the right wing 
governor Leopoldo Fernández and his thugs’ takeover of the city and airport.

According to press reports and eye witness 
accounts, when the protesters arrived at a bridge 
seven kilometers outside the town of Porvenir, 
they were ambushed by assassins hired and trained 
by governor Fernández. Snipers in the tree tops 
shot down on the unarmed campesinos. Shirley 
Segovia, a Porvenir resident recalled to 
Bolpress, "We were killed like pigs, with machine 
guns, with rifles, with shotguns, with revolvers. 
The campesinos had only brought their teeth, 
clubs and sling shots, they didn’t bring rifles. 
After the first shots, some fled to the river 
Tahuamanu, but they were followed and shot at." 
Others reported being tortured; days later the 
death toll rose to 30, with dozens wounded and 
over a hundred still missing. Roberto Tito, a 
farmer who was present at the conflict, said 
"This was a massacre of farmers, this is something that we should not allow."

In 2006, Fernández, who denies orchestrating this 
violence, was denounced by then Government 
Minister Alicia Muñoz who said the governor was 
training at least a hundred paramilitaries as a 
"citizen’s protection" force. These 
paramilitaries are believed to have participated 
in the massacre. Fernández is one of the 
opposition governors that form part of the 
National Democratic Council (CONALDE), an 
organization which includes governors from Santa 
Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija, and Chuquisaca who are 
organizing for departmental autonomy against the 
Morales government and his administration's 
redistribution of land and natural gas wealth, and other socialistic policies.

After the massacre, President Morales declared a 
state of siege in Pando, sent in the military, 
and by September 15 a tense peace had reportedly 
returned to the region. Morales also called for 
the arrest of Fernandez who fled across the border, into rural Brazil.

This massacre took place just weeks after an 
August 10 national recall vote invigorated 
Morales mandate: he won 67% support nationwide, 
showing that his staunch, violent opponents are 
clearly in the minority. In Pando, Morales won 
53% of the vote, an increase of 32% from the 21% 
he received from Pando residents during the presidential election in 2005.

A few key political developments led to this 
recent increase in regional tension. On August 
28, Morales announced a presidential decree 
establishing a constitutional referendum on 
December 7. This referendum would apply to the 
constitution which was re-written and passed in a 
constituent assembly in December 2007. On 
September 2 of this year the electoral court said 
it opposed the referendum because it had to first 
be passed by Congress and the opposition 
controlled Senate. The debate revived existing 
conflicts, and opposition leaders began to block 
major roads and seized an airport in Cobija on September 5.

The days leading up to the September 11 massacre 
in Pando were full of anti-government protesters 
ransacking businesses and human rights 
organizations across the country. On September 
10, an explosion reportedly set off by opposition 
groups disrupted the flow of gas lines to Brazil from Tarija, Bolivia.

US Ambassadors Expelled

Following these tumultuous events, Morales 
demanded that US ambassador to Bolivia, Philip 
Goldberg leave the country. "Without fear of 
anyone, without fear of the empire, today before 
you, before the Bolivian people, I declare the 
ambassador of the United States persona non 
grata," Morales said. "The ambassador of the 
United States is conspiring against democracy and 
wants Bolivia to break apart."

The announcement came after a private meeting 
Goldberg had with the right wing governor of 
Santa Cruz on August 25, and a later visit to the 
opposition governor of Chuquisaca. Throughout 
Goldberg’s time as ambassador, which began in 
2006, the Morales government has accused him of 
orchestrating US funding and support to 
opposition groups in the eastern part of the 
country. [See the February 2008, The Progressive 
Magazine article 
"<http://www.progressive.org/mag_dangl0208>Undermining 
Bolivia" for more information on Washington’s 
destabilization efforts in Bolivia.] Before 
coming to Bolivia, Goldberg worked as an 
ambassador in Kosovo from 2004-2006 and consular 
in Colombia. At a press conference Goldberg held 
in La Paz before leaving for the US, he said: "I 
want to say that all the accusations made against 
me, against my embassy... against my country and 
against my people are entirely false and unjustified."

Following the US ambassador’s expulsion from 
Bolivia, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez 
announced that the US ambassador in his country 
had to leave: "He has 72 hours, from this moment, 
the Yankee ambassador in Caracas, to leave 
Venezuela." The US responded by asking the 
ambassadors of Venezuela and Bolivia to leave the 
US. This all took place during a tense few months 
in US-Latin American relations in which the US 
Navy re-instated its Fourth Fleet in the 
Caribbean after decades of inactivity, Chavez 
announced joint exercises with Russia in the 
Caribbean and Bolivia strengthened its ties with Iran.

On September 15 in Santiago, Chile, the nine 
presidents within the Union of South American 
Nations (UNASUR), including Argentina, Ecuador, 
Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile – even 
Colombia, a close US ally - met to come to a 
resolution on the Bolivian crisis. This 
organization is one of the newest in a series of 
regional networks that are making increasingly 
collaborative political and economic decisions 
throughout South America. All of the leaders 
backed Morales, condemned the opposition’s 
violent tactics and emphasized that they won’t 
recognize separatists in the country.

Bolivian Military Alliances

Though the threat of a "civic coup d'etat" 
Morales spoke about in Santiago still looms, the 
Bolivian military is unlikely to back the 
government opposition. I asked Kathryn Ledebur, a 
human rights specialist and director of the 
<http://ain-bolivia.org/>Andean Information 
Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia if the military 
might side with the opposition to overthrow 
Morales. Lebedur said, "No way, they are in a 
tough bind, and CONALDE is trying to set Morales 
up, drive a wedge between him and the military. 
But in spite of their frustrations, they [the 
military] have received more materially and in 
terms of a positive discourse from the Morales 
government than any other civilian one, and that makes a huge difference."

"CONALDE has intentionally created a messy catch 
22 for the Morales administration, a tense, 
provocative violent situation, in some cases 
targeting the security forces," Ledebur 
explained. "If Morales orders repression, or 
there are clear cut violent acts by the security 
forces, his legitimacy as a socially conscious 
president erodes. But if the security forces 
don't [act], as they didn't for a long time, the 
vandalism escalates, and the military and police 
get humiliated and attacked - which in the long 
term erodes what, at least for the armed forces, 
had been a mutually beneficial marriage of 
convenience, with friction along the way."

This past June the Andean Information Network 
released 
<http://ain-bolivia.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=119&Itemid=32>a 
report analyzing the Bolivian Armed Forces’ 
growing mission in the country under Morales. 
According to this report, part of the military’s 
support stems from the fact that Morales has 
given the military popular and lucrative jobs 
such as "enforcing customs regulations and 
confiscating contraband at the borders, including 
authorization to arrest offenders." The AIN 
report explains that "traditionally military 
officers look forward to border postings as ‘the 
most profitable part’ of their careers." In 
addition, "under the Morales government, the 
armed forces are in charge of baking subsidized 
bread (the regular price has gone up 270 percent 
in the past year), as well as passing out bonuses 
to schoolchildren and senior citizens." Improved 
wages among some officials and better equipment 
have also kept the military on Morales’ side.

The AIN report also stated that the Bolivian 
military institution "will continue to 
categorically reject aggressive regional autonomy 
initiatives or threats of secession as risks to 
both national sovereignty and the budget they 
receive from the national government." As one 
high ranking officer explained to AIN, "The only 
way the military would even remotely consider a 
coup, is if they took away most of our budget; at 
the core, we’re really a bunch of bureaucrats."

US Influence in a Changing South America

The current crisis in Bolivia and the ongoing 
diplomatic drama between the US and Latin America 
says a lot about the future of the region and its 
cooperative handling of economic and political 
questions. In an interview via email, Raúl 
Zibechi, a Uruguayan journalist, professor and 
political analyst who writes regularly for the 
<http://americas.irc-online.org/>Americas 
Program, said he believes the expulsion of US 
ambassadors, and the regional leaders’ response 
to the conflict in Bolivia, "is the manifestation 
of the fact that the USA can no longer impose its 
will on Latin America, and very concretely in 
South America." He says there are two reasons for 
this change: "the birth of a regional power that 
seeks to be a global player, such as Brazil, a 
capitalist power but with different interests 
from the USA, and the existence of governments 
born of the heat of the resistance of social 
movements in countries that are large producers 
of hydrocarbons, as in Venezuela, Bolivia and perhaps Ecuador."

Zibechi emphasized Bolivia’s importance as the 
leading supplier of gas to Argentina and Brazil, 
and how this contributes to the support Morales 
receives from these nations. "Brazil has big 
stakes in much of Bolivia and it already 
announced that it would not permit a 
destabilization of the country," Zibechi 
explained. "The key alliance in the region is 
between Brazil and Argentina. They have problems, 
but in this topic they are very united."

Back in Santiago, Chile, after six hours of talks 
between the nine South American presidents, the 
UNASUR group issued a statement which expressed 
their "their full and firm support for the 
constitutional government of President Evo 
Morales, whose mandate was ratified by a big 
majority." In the statement, the leaders "warn 
that our respective government energetically 
reject and will not recognize any situation that 
attempts a civil coup and the rupture of 
institutional order and which could compromise 
the territorial integrity of the Republic of 
Bolivia." They also decided to send a commission 
to Bolivia to investigate the killings in Pando.

Though working to overthrow leftist governments 
is unfortunately nothing new in South America, 
region-wide cooperation between left-leaning 
governments, without the presence of the US, is 
new. As Morales and other regional leaders forge 
ahead with progressive policies, there may be no 
turning back for this changing continent – 
regardless of the challenges posed by the 
Bolivian opposition. The geopolitical map of the 
hemisphere is being redrawn, in large part by the 
new alliances between South American nations, and 
the region’s increased resistance to Washington’s 
political and economic interference.

The economic and agricultural powerhouse of 
Brazil is a key part of this new regional 
defiance and independence. "In Brazil, the right 
wing in the parliament questions very strongly 
the [US Navy’s] Fourth Fleet because they say it 
is to control the new oil fields in Brazil," 
Zibechi explained. "In Brazil, things don't 
depend just on Lula being in the government. 
Brazil has autonomous politics that go beyond who 
governs... Because of this, imperial policy is to 
overthrow Chavez and Evo before there are changes 
in these countries that are so profound that they 
no longer depend on who is governing."

In Bolivia, much still depends on what happens on 
the ground, outside of the presidential meetings 
and negotiations. The opposition has lifted their 
road blockades for now, and meetings between the 
government and representatives from the 
opposition continue. Meanwhile, many of Bolivia’s 
social organizations and unions have pledged 
their support for Morales and against the right 
wing. On September 15 thousands of workers, 
families and students marched in La Paz, the 
nation’s capital, against the massacre in Pando 
and the right’s violence. "We are against the 
massacre of campesinos which has taken place in 
Pando," Edgar Patanta, the leader of the Regional 
Workers’ Center, told ABI, "We will not permit 
the repetition of these acts. We will defend 
democracy and life as we have in the past."

***

Benjamin Dangl is the author of 
<http://www.amazon.com/Price-Fire-Resource-Movements-Bolivia/dp/190485933X/ref=pd_ts_b_5?ie=UTF8&s=books>The 
Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements 
in Bolivia (AK Press), and is the editor of 
TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on 
world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website 
covering activism and politics in Latin America. Email: BenDangl(at)gmail.com

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