January 25, 2007

Update: The President Legitimates His "Popular Army" and the Opposition Has a Small Victory

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These are the Ponchos Rojos (Red Ponchos), the new "popular army" in support of the government. At least, that is what President Morales said in a speech during the first year celebrations of his government. Morales was attending a celebration in his honor in the Omasuyos province, where the Red Poncho army paraded for him. A local leader spoke of the army's readiness to stand and defend the government's policies. Morales said that the Red Ponchos army would stand together with the regular Bolivian army and both would defend the integrity of the country. This is not the first time this army is praised by Morales. In his symbolic enthronement in the touristic town of Tiahuanaku, they provided security for him. They even wanted to provide security in the official swearing-in ceremony in La Paz. However, the regular army did not let them.

The Morales government has made it a habit of calling 'the people' to action to defend the government's actions. In another infamous speech, Vice-president, Garcia Linera asked them to 'defend' this government, even with fire arms, if it was necessary. Morales is always mentioning how 'the people' will defend his so called revolution.

This image on the right is the leaflet circulated to provide information on this popular army. It describes the uniform and the weapons used. The firearm looks like an AK-47 Kalashnikova, an archaic piece of rifle left over from the Chaco War or the 1952 national revolution.

One day after this 'display' of support, the government played down the significance of this army and ordered the real military to disarm the people who still had their rifles. However, it was careful to point out that what Morales meant was that the people would 'defend' the government. The government's efforts to play down this faux pa contrasted very publicly with what was displayed that day. The media was quick to point out the inconsistencies between Morales' after explanations and what was written in the leaflet and what was said.

Of course, the issue is not that this people have old rifles, uniforms and are parading in formation for the government declaring their readiness to act if need be. Let's not forget, they are not shy of talking about armed conflict. What is problematic is the symbolism and the message the government's actions send. Alone the public legitimation of a group of people to serve as the defenders of the country is highly dangerous. What about the regular army?

In another topic, the opposition has won a small battle. As of yesterday, the opposition, which in this case is made of Podemos, MNR and UN, grabbed the president's chair in the Senate chamber. According to reports, the opposition came to this accord after weeks of negotiations and four other failed votes. The government's faction, MAS, lost the Senate's leadership and now it is the new opposition.

Another small victory came today when the government announced its decision to drop its demand to force a simple majority vote method in the Constituent Assembly. This article in the assembly's code had been the most divisive issue yet. However, that doesn't mean that the government and thus the MAS faction in the assembly is ready to accept the 2/3 option. Instead, it is proposing to submit all the articles to a referendum.

These two things mean a lot for the opposition. The first one means that now, the opposition controls the Senate and has the power to set the agenda. That is a lot of power in that chamber. It also has the power to stop the government's efforts to consolidate power, as any law has to be voted and passed by the two chambers together. Also, this means the government will have to be more ready to compromise and more accepting of the minority's opinion. The second one also means that the government will not be able to roll-over and write the new constitution alone. It will have to negotiate each and every point. In the end, it will need a lot of support to pass an article. The minor factions in the assembly win with this new development. In summary, the brakes to what I had called the attempts of this government to consolidate power are on, and now the minorities will be able to control and counterbalance even more the MAS' power in both, the government and the Constituent Assembly.