May 21, 2008

McCain, in Miami, on Latin America

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Presidential hopeful, John McCain, gave a speech in Miami about Latin America, when he actually mentioned Bolivia:
If I am elected president, the United States will not bow to the special interests seeking to block progress. Instead, we will forge a new policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean Basin, one founded on peace and security, shared prosperity, democracy and freedom, and mutual respect. We will work to prevent Venezuela and Bolivia from taking the same road to failure Castro has paved for Cuba, and we will broaden and strengthen ties with key states like Brazil, Peru, and Chile. We will make clear to all countries in the region that if they share our values of freedom and openness, they can count on us as a friend. We will not abandon our partners to demagogues, drug lords, and despair, but expand the benefits of security, trade and prosperity to all.
Here is the link to his entire speech.

I am eagerly waiting for the Obama and Hillary versions...

May 13, 2008

Recall Vote for Morales, his Vicepresident and the Prefects

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In the last days, Congress (better yet the Senate) approved a recall vote law to allow a referendum for the people of Bolivia to either give the pink slip to the current government and the departmental heads of state or to give them continuity.

The Senate chamber passed a law, which was submitted by the government in 2007 and approved by the lower chamber shortly thereafter, to recall the mandates of the president, vicepresident and the prefects of the nine Bolivian departments. This law says that the people of Bolivia will be able to vote in a referendum to recall these authorities from office. In the case of the president and vicepresident, the people voting to remove them from office would have to be more than the 53.7% who voted to elect them in December 2005. In the case of the prefects, each would have to get more votes against than what they got in December 2005 as well.

This move came as a surprise, because when the law was submitted for the consideration of the Senate chamber (controlled by the opposition), it made several observations and drew its own proposal, which was significantly different than the one submitted by the government. This decision divided somewhat the opposition. Some leaders criticized the decision ( of the Senate) as unwise and down right stupid.

From the Senate came the word that the decision was more than anything a political calculation. In their opinion, the government was preparing to go ahead and pass their referendum law to submit their constitution to popular vote. In order to stop this, the Senate allowed the recall vote referendum, because they argue that according to the law, the government cannot organize two referenda in one year. The opposition in the Senate argues that the referendum approving the new government's constitution is stopped.

The opposition in the Senate is counting that the government will take into account the law. However, the second in command in the Ministry of Government, said that the government has the legal ability to call to that referendum too.

The opposition is taking a big risk. Granted the prefects of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija are relatively secure, the ones who are afraid are the prefect of Cochabamba, La Paz and Chuquisaca. These latter have more MAS supporters to deal with.

May 09, 2008

What Will Happen Now?

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What will happen after the 4th of May?

According to the referendum organizers, once the results are official and it is established that the autonomic statutes are approved, they come into force immediately. The fist thing to be done is to provide for the departmental council to, pro tempore, assume the duties of the departmental assembly. This body will oversee the election of the new departmental assembly members, 90 days after the referendum. The Prefect of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, automatically becomes the first Governor of the province of Santa Cruz until 2011 (five year term).

According to Pablo Klinski, president of the pre-autonomic assembly, the first decisions can be in the areas of Education and Health as well as setting a minimum wage of Bs. 1000.

The next important dates are the 1st and the 22nd of June. On the first date, Beni and Pando will carry out their own referendums to approve their own autonomic statutes. On the 22nd, Tarija will do the same.

The government will desperately try to make some kind of contact with these provinces. But, the provinces will wait until their statutes are voted on to engage in any kind of negotiation with the central government.

What is the significance of the Santa Cruz referendum?

The referendum is significant in so far as to force the central government to negotiate. According to the leaders of Santa Cruz, the autonomic movement is a direct reaction to what they call the errors of the central government in the administration of the state and policy setting. The most significant example of these errors, as the opposition points out, is the actions from the part of the central government to force their constitution (the so called Oruro constitution). They argue the current government has to understand that the current autonomic movement has been forced by the erred actions of the government. They hope the government starts including all the departments (meaning opposition) in the decisions concerning Bolivia. They also warn that if the government continues on its narrow path, Santa Cruz might be further forced to take more radical decisions. With this they mean federalism (I think).

The first speech of Governor Costas opened up the road to negotiation by expressing that the statutes are not set on stone. Some aspects can be negotiated. Throughout the night I listened to the Santa Cruz leaders repeat over and over that they hope Morales negotiates with them.

It is also significant because it opens a precedent for the other provinces to carry out their own referendums. On the celebration party, symbolically, Costas handed the Bolivian flag to all the other Prefects, in chronological order.

May 06, 2008

Images from Plan Tres Mil on the 4th of May

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These are images taken on the referendum day in the Plan Tres Mil neighborhood. Thanks to Briyan Soukup for letting me use the images.

I just wanted to show you a glimpse of how does the Plan Tres Mil, the trouble spot within the city of Santa Cruz, looks like.

The above image shows people burning the ballot boxes and holding up Bolivian flags.

This image shows an ambulance going through the crowd.

This one shows the police force being deployed to stop the fights.

This shows the one main thoroughfare within the neighborhood.

This one shows the many tense moments people lived there.

Soon I will post more images!

May 04, 2008

Referendum Wins in Santa Cruz

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Official counts have already been published. As you can see in the picture, after 100% of the votes have been counted, the vote for the approval of the autonomic statutes has won with 85.1% of the vote.

The rest of the evening will be spent dancing and jumping in the main square of the city of Santa Cruz.
As the referendum slowly winds down in Santa Cruz, the first results are coming out. According to the reports, the won with an 85% of the vote against a 15% of the vote supporting the no. This results are based on an official report by Red Uno television of 80.7% of votes counted.

For its part, the government, through the Minister of Government, Alfredo Rada, declared the referendum a total failure. This judgment was based on the many violent incidents happening in and around the city of Santa Cruz.

At the same time, Santa Cruz is already preparing the big party celebrating the success of the campaign.

According to Fides, 31 thousand people did not get a chance to vote, and around 30% of voting tables were not open for different reasons.

Erbol reports that the incidents affected around 3% of registered voters. In addition, so far there are 60 ballot boxes burnt and a count of 10 wounded.

Mid-day Update on the Santa Cruz Referendum

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It is already past mid-day here in Bolivia and the Santa Cruz referendum is going ahead as its organizers predicted. As many of you already know, the people are able to vote but there are some regions in and outside the city of Santa Cruz which could not vote or have started voting with a substantial delay.

There are two kinds of reporting coming out of the media (mainly TV and radio). On the one side, the media critical of the referendum, more specifically Television Boliviana (control by the government), RTP and others, are concentrating their coverage on the various incidents of violence around the region. Especially, Television Boliviana is making sure to reflect a fraudulent referendum in Santa Cruz. The reporters have launched all kinds of accusations, such as ballot boxes being already filled with votes for the being delivered to the problematic areas of Plan Tres Mil and Yapacani. They are also showing how the grupos de choque (clash groups) sent by MAS have gone to different voting places, taken the ballot boxes and ballots (with violence or just showing their numbers, sticks and stones) and burned them. In essence, this channel is making every effort to show how illegal and fraudulent the referendum is.

On the contrary, the other side, is going out of their way to show how normal and festive the vote is going on. Channels such as Univision, PAT and Unitel are reporting the voting process taking place in the areas supporting the . For instance, the showed how Ruben Costas, Branco Marinkovic, Carlos Dabdoub and the Cardinal voted. They showed images of happy crucenos in line waiting their turn to vote. They are making sure to show how the delegates on the voting tables are showing the blank ballot before they give it to the voter. However, I have to say that these channels are also showing some of the disturbances taking place in the trouble zones like Yapacani, Montero and Plan Tres Mil.

From all this reporting, I can gather that the referendum is going on, but not without sporadic confrontations. As I mentioned earlier, the trouble spots are Yapacani, Montero, San Julian and Plan Tres Mil. What is clear now is that the voting completely stopped in the town of Yapacani. The MAS supporters, also called colonizadores (colonizers), went around in trucks to make sure the voting precincts or places were closed and nobody could vote. There was some municipal police present, but these were in the loosing side and greatly outnumbered by the colonizadores.

There were incidents in the town of Montero where MAS supporters tried to close voting places but encountered resistance from autonomistas (people who are in favor of autonomy). This situation is more unclear because the reports are not clear either. Ballot boxes were also burnt in the town of San Julian. As of right now, there are some places in that town where voting hasn't taken place yet. In one report, the delegates and jurors had no idea whether they were going to get new ballot boxes. However, the situation is not as definite as in Yapacani. There are some open voting places in San Julian where people are getting to vote.

The situation in Plan Tres Mil is more complicated. In that neighborhood, the two grupos de choque (masistas and autonomistas) are going around clashing against each other trying to close or maintain open the different voting places. However, there is voting taking place where the autonomistas have the upper hand.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country there are two important cabildos (townhall meetings) to report on. The cabildo taking place in Cochabamba, which has brought together thousands of mainly coca growers to the city of Cochabamba. These people have just finished their meeting and have decided to start a nationwide mobilization to ask the government to, once and for all, go ahead with the referendum to approve the government's proposed constitution. In addition, they want to stop the efforts of a group of citizens who want to gather signatures to start the process to write autonomy statutes for the Cochabamba department.

The other cabildo took place in El Alto. These people repudiated the referendum for autonomy as well and decided to ask the government to hurry up with the referendum to approve the proposed constitution. There were also thousands of people gathered in El Alto.

In the Rest of the Country

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While voting gets on in Santa Cruz, the rest of the country is also active. In Cochabamba, for example, there will be a large gathering of coca growers in the main square. These people are meeting to repudiate the referendum taking place in Santa Cruz. In this sense, there is also a danger of disturbances in the city. Especially, if sympathizers of Santa Cruz decide to make an spontaneous demonstration.

In La Paz and El Alto, people are gathering as well. Different sectors of society, such as the worker's union (COB) and mainly MAS supporters will gather to demonstrate their opposition to the Santa Cruz referendum. The gatherings in these two cities are expected to be peaceful, because there are not many supporters of the Santa Cruz referendum who would trust himself to go out and show his or her support. However, there is a group of young pacenos who will gather in Abaroa square showing their support for Santa Cruz. This is, of course, a potential for violence.

Voting, Confrontation and Violence in Santa Cruz

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50 minutes into the referendum of Santa Cruz, voting as usual and confrontation as expected is the result.

First of all, reports show that in many areas in the city of Santa Cruz, voting is already taking place. Neighborhoods such as Equipetrol, have opened their voting places, and people are lining up to vote.

However, as expected, hot spots like Yapacani, San Julian and Plan Tres Mil are proving troublesome. For example, there were already violent confrontations with wounded in Yapacani. Television reports show an armed group of people (around 30 to 40) arriving in mass and practically attacking the voting place, destroying the ballot boxes and physically attacking the jurors and the people representing the departmental electoral court. According to the leader of that group, these people are being driven around to specifically close the voting places. As expected, voting is very irregular in Yapacani.

In San Julian, the problems are less violent, but equally the people are trying, with any means, to close these voting places. Voting is very irregular in this region.

In Plan Tres Mil, there were also violent confrontations between armed MAS supporters and members of the Union Juvenil Crucenista. This time the UJC wins the confrontation and takes control of the voting place. The municipal police arriving and taking control of the situation. The voting place is currently opened and voting is taking place. But, who knows for how long.

It seems as though there are what Bolivians call, grupos de choque (clashing groups) on both sides. These groups are in charge of physically support the government's and the opposition's aims. On the government's side, the groups are trying to stop the voting, and on the opposition's side, the groups are trying to keep people voting.

The organizers are saying that, even though there are problems, normalcy is winning irregularity.

Update on the Referendum

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Today in the press was reported that two international organizations will observe the referendum. The US based NGO, the Human Rights Foundation and the World Federation of United Nations Associations will go to Santa Cruz to act as international elections observers. In addition, national observers will be the Professionals Confederation of Bolivia, representatives of the departmental electoral courts from Pando, Beni and Tarija, representatives from Departmental Attorneys College and independent observers Mr. Cayetano Llovet and Mr. Oscar Peña Franco. Lastly, the organizers will rely on the presence of 400 international journalist accredited to cover the event.

May 02, 2008

Potential for Violence on the 4th

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The potential for violence for the 4th in Santa Cruz is becoming clearer and clearer.

According to reports, the Union Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC) of Santa Cruz is mobilizing around 5000 members, as civil guards, to help "bring security, assure people vote and thus help the campaign to win. In addition, 1200 members of the Trinidad (the capital city of Beni) UJC will be going to Santa Cruz to support the efforts of their cruceño counterparts. Also, around 500 students from the Local University Federation (FUL) intend to support the same efforts. In consequence, there will be groups of up to 20 people guarding the ballot boxes.

In addition, since the national police and the military will not provide security for the referendum, the municipal guard of Santa Cruz will take their place.

On the other hand, MAS militants have indicated their intention of installing what they call, "resistance barraks" in three contentious towns and one neighborhood in Santa Cruz. The inhabitants of San Julian, Yapacani, and Cuatro Cañadas have announced they will prevent (at any const) the opening of voting places. In the Plan Tres Mil, similarly, people will try to prevent the opening of voting places and that people vote at all.

It is expected that out of these actions, violence and confrontations among opposing forces will take place.

The Government's Response?

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Today, as I was taking a walk through La Paz's center, I got dropped off by my taxi in front of the telecommunications company, Entel. As there seemed to be some commotion around the building, lots of people, police and others who seemed foreign nationals, I turned my attention towards it. It seemed to me they were going in to do something. At this point I had no idea what was going on. I continued my walk towards the gathering in plaza Murillo, where the government was going to celebrate the 1st May holiday. I took a look at the people gathered, noticing there weren't as many as I thought, and turned around and went back. Now, I am sorry I didn't stick around for Morales' speech.

President Morales surprised many when he announced the proclamation of 8 Decretos Supremos (supreme decrees) and one bill to regulate labor law. Among the most important DSs were the ones completing the "nationalization" process of the three major energy companies dealing with natural gas, Transredes (controlled by Ashmore and Shell), Andina (controlled by Repsol) and Chaco (controlled by Pan American Energy). Another DS ordered the taking over of DLHB (controlled by Peruvian and German investors).

The most surprising announcement was the "nationalization" of the telecommunications company Entel, which is the movement I saw. As Morales signed the DS, the company was being taken over by officials.

However, the announcement regarding the energy companies was not a total surprise. The press had already reported the government's intentions (here and here).

While the government continues its campaign "giving" gifts to the population on May 1st, the referendum in Santa Cruz continues its course.

May 01, 2008

Iyambae! Autonomia! Santa Cruz's Cry for Autonomy Goes Ahead

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Yesterday, April 30th, the department of Santa Cruz cried out loud: Iyambae! Autonomia! The cry was, in Guarani and Spanish, a loud autonomy cry. As I started to write these lines, tens of thousands of Cruceños were gathered in the already customary place, the Cristo Redentor (Christ Redeemer) rotunda, to celebrate the end of the campaña por el sí (the yes campaign).

On May 4, Santa Cruz will, against all odds, carry out a region-wide referendum to ask the people to accept or reject the autonomic statutes put forward by a group regional leaders, including the Prefect of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, the president of the civic committee, Branko Marincovich, the president of the private business owners' association, Carlos Dabdoub, and citizens such as Juan Carlos Urenda, who pretty much wrote the proposed statutes.

According to press reports, the support for autonomy in the Santa Cruz department is around 74 per cent, 13 per cent are against and an equal number are unsure. By contrast, in La Paz, 27 per cent would vote yes and 61 per cent would vote against. It is generally accepted, by all observers, that the people of Santa Cruz will indeed overwhelmingly vote (yes) in the referendum. This will happen, as I say it earlier, against all odds.

The media fight has been taking place for some time now. The national government has spent an unspecified amount of money to mount a large campaign against the referendum. In this campaign, the government calls the statutes illegal and alleges that they will the be reason why Bolivia will be divided. In the television spots the government has paid for, it asks the people in Santa Cruz not to become accomplice to an illegal referendum. The allegations are strong, however, it seems only to have an effect in the Western part of the country. On its part, the autonomic movement has also put an equally large campaign. The end of it, we saw in Santa Cruz yesterday.

One question being asked is (and reported by the international press and some international observers) what will happen on the 4th?

From inside the country, I have the impression (that is contrary to most observers not in the country and only being guided by the international press) that things are calmer as I expected them to be. The party in Santa Cruz yesterday was surprisingly festive. There was regional music and a climate of carnival. However, a bit of tension could be felt, underneath all that euphoria. During his speech, Costas referred to the various threats some leaders in La Paz were issuing against the referendum. As he was going through then, the people there started to chant: "let them come, we are not afraid." At the same time, the news reports in La Paz were full of leader statements condemning the referendum and calling on cruceños not to participate.

My impression is not so dramatic as the international press portrays the situation here. Some reports predict almost a civil war. As I say, the climate in La Paz and in Santa Cruz are surprisingly calm. Various organizations, such as the CSUTCB, COB, and Conamaq (indigenous, workers and campesino organizations) have called their members to march and demonstrate in the streets of La Paz, and all the capital cities around the country. In fact, the people from Conamaq have started a march beginning in the Andean town of Patacamaya, which is to end in plaza Murillo, in La Paz. For that reason, I am expecting marches and demonstrations from today, May 1 to Sunday, May 4. Today, the government organized a celebration/protest, commemorating the Chicago Haymarket affair. What impressed me the most, is not the peacefulness with which the people danced on the streets, but the small number of people gathered there. I expected more. At the same time, on my way to the plaza Murillo, where the event took place, life went on in La Paz. Just to cite some examples, there was a marathon organized by the newspaper El Diario, and this event went on as expected. People were (I guess already accustomed) going on with their lives. As I asked about the demonstration, the people I asked to, calmly answered it was still going on and they pointed in the direction where the government lies. As it was some remote place where some other everyday event was taking place.

The most problematic day will be the 4th in Santa Cruz. On that day, I expect some violence to take place. Especially, in some areas where the government of Morales (MAS) has support. More specifically, in the towns of San Julian and El Torno, and the neighborhoods of Plan 3000 and Villa Primero de Mayo. These places have expressed hostility towards the referendum, because they support the central government. There is even some reports about San Julian, where the majority (MAS supporters) have threatened to burn ballot boxes and to stop people from participating in the referendum. People who want to participate feel oppressed and have expressed their determination to vote. Around the neighborhoods in the city of Santa Cruz, the danger is the commandos from the Union Juvenil Crucenista (UJC) and the so called "security forces" who have said they will guarantee the right of citizens to participate and vote. What does that mean? Surely in some cases, confrontations against MAS supporters.

The other question everyone is asking at this point is: what is going to happen the day after? Since the referendum is already a fact, the people are asking what will happen afterwards.

The answer I am hearing the most is: nothing. Life will go on. The fear is that the regional government of Santa Cruz starts implementing its statutes. However, many experts say, and with much reason, that it will take time until Santa Cruz is able to start acting upon based on its statutes. The statutes make some strong claims of competencies, which are clearly at odds with the current constitution (not the government's constitution). So, for the time being, it is expected that the current constitution is still in effect. What will happen is that the government and the opposition will have to sit down and start talking. Some analysts argue that the referendum is just a strong card Santa Cruz is creating to have some weight in the negotiation process. What negotiations, you ask? Well, the very same negotiations that will have had to occur in the constituent assembly.

However, for the moment, the Santa Cruz referendum is a done deal. It means a defeat for the central government, because it tried with many means to stop it. At the same time, it means a victory for Santa Cruz, because it is gaining an ace for the bargaining coming up.