July 30, 2008

McCain and Obama on Latin America

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In the number of American elections I am following so far, there is a chronic lack of attention to Latin America. That is the reason why, in general, Latin America has to wait until the new administration is in office to find out more details on American foreign policy. But, I am surprised that this time there is very little attention to the region. As I did last time, this election year I am taking a look at the positions of the two incumbents towards Latin America.

The position John McCain, the republican candidate is not very illuminating. Basically, his position es laid out on a speech given to La Raza on July 14. There he mentions that it is important for the US to work with Latin American nations to lower trade barriers and expand commercial exchange. This is the way to, one, to fight instability and, two, to promote economic development, in the region. He does recognize there should be more attention placed in the region by the US government. (if you see more from McCain on Latin America please let us know)

On the contrary, Obama has a whole 13 page paper on Latin America policies. He has thought about it, one can see. The Obama approach to Latin America includes the reinstatement of the Special Envoy figure to deal with the region, enlarge Peace Corps and engage Latino immigrants in the US' relations with Latin America. This is based on three objectives: increase democracy and the rule of law, address common threats (drug trafficking, transnational gangs and terrorism) and combat poverty, hunger, health problems and global warming.

A significant policy change would be to weaken the Cuba embargo and allow more contact with Cubans in the island. Also, he would close Guantanamo.

On immigration, Obama is proposing to increase the number of border officers (with the aim of fighting not only immigration but crime as well).

He will continue supporting Colombia and also intends to be loud on countries who support guerrillas in the region. He will oppose the free trade agreement with Colombia.

On Bolivia, Obama wants to see 100% debt relief (as part of his debt reduction policy for poor nations).

He wants to use remittances as a form of financial incentive to work on social and economic development. He also plans to double foreign aid to 50 billion.

Obama will work to reduce global warming by working together with Latin American nations on sustainable energy such as biofuel, wind, solar and nuclear energy.

For a closer look at Obama's policies read the document linked above.

It is hard to make conclusions, though Obama has earned some points just because he has a paper on Latin America. I also agree that there is tremendous potential when integrating immigrants and first generation immigrants in the diplomatic machinery. After all, these are people who strongly identify with America and know their countries of origin very well.

August Will Be a Hot Month in Bolivia

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One can already see the wave of protests and political bickering approaching to Bolivia in August.

First and foremost will be the August 10 recall referendum. It will bring an intense campaign, as well as potential for violence with both sides trying to force the vote for either side.

At the same time there is a wave of demonstrations, strikes, marches and other actions coming. One of them is the August 8 strike by the transport sector. Mainly in Cochabamba, this group wants to increase fares, to which the government is opposed arguing the benefits from gas subsidies are enough to offset any loses. The government also announced punishment to those bus drivers who increase fares. The strike will be for 24 hours and perhaps will go beyond that.

In addition, Central Workers Union (COB) has been staging protests and marches to force the government to stop its plans for a redesign of the pensions system and instead take into account the union's own proposal. The COB was already repressed in Cochabamba where police broke the road blocks. However, the COB has announced the intensification of the protests and has indicated that these protests will take place mainly in La Paz.

In Santa Cruz, there is a hunger strike planned for these days. The civic organizations in cooperation with some groups aligned with the departmental government want to fast to force the government give back the proceeds emerging from the sell of natural gas (IDH). This includes Tarija, Beni, Pando, Sucre and Sta. Cruz.

In addition, around the country there are a number of protests and road blocks pressuring the government for this and that. In Sucre, the teacher's union has been blocking access roads because they demand better pay.

Finally, the MAS aligned cocaleros in Cochabamba have expressed their intention to stage marches and even intervene the offices of some departmental electoral courts if they do not continue with the organization of the recall referendum.

August will be a busy month for people who cover Bolivia.

July 26, 2008

The Fight Over the Recall Referendum Heats Up

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In the last two days, the future of the August 10 recall referendum has become even more uncertain. As a result of the unconstitutionality allegations, and last week's opinion issued by a Constitutional Tribunal judge urging the electoral court to stop the process until the legality of the referendum is cleared, the departmental courts are thinking it over. This action, by the departmental courts, is triggered by a resolution issued by Exeni, the National Electoral Court President, expressing the intent to continue with the organizational process. However, the Vicepresident of the CNE, Jeronimo Pinheiro, has recently voiced his disappointment because Exeni, apparently, did not take the decision in a meeting in consultation with his colleagues, but he took it himself.

As a result, the departmental courts are, first, asking the CNE to take a stand on the matter, and second, to take that stand in cosultation with all the members of the court's assembly. Some courts are even thinking, or rather, leaning towards not participating in the organization of the referendum anymore. Let's recall that the Chuquisaca court decided not to participate.

While this is happening at the courts, the campaign is getting by the day more violent. Every time Evo Morales visits a town bringing gifts, such as ambulances, computers, schools, hospitals, etc., which of course are not part of his campaign for re-election, opposing groups show up and try to hackle him and in the end result in a physical confrontation with the 'security' forces which are part of Morales' entourage.

And, of course, you have Vicepresident Alvaro Garcia, the pacifist, calling for an organized 'civil defense' to support the government or, better yet, the revolution, as he likes to call it.

July 24, 2008

The Recall Referendum is Stopped

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The scheduled August 10 recall referendum (Law 3850) has been stopped by the Constitutional Tribunal. On July 21, Silvia Salame, the only (and lonely) Constitutional Tribunal acting judge reminded the National Electoral Court (CNE) the course of the law. This, in turn, would implicitly stop the oncoming recall referendum, until, that is, the tribunal considers the matter and issues an official pronouncement.

The pronouncement was the result of a legal action UN Deputy, Arturo Murillo, started back in May (27) by formally asking the CNE to stop the referendum because it was unconstitutional. For its part, the CNE, did not want to deal with the issue and it referred the case directly to the Constitutional Tribunal.

Now, the decision is taken and neither the government nor the CNE will stop the referendum. Much less, if a clear decision is missing from the Constitutional Tribunal. The CNE has already said it will continue with the referendum, and the government will take legal action against Judge Salame.

This brings the recall referendum into even murkier legal grounds, when it had already been born in legal limbo. Let's remember that on January 19, 2007, President Morales submitted a bill to Congress. This bill, which was a response to the disturbances in Cochabamba (January 7-12), asked Congress to debate a recall referendum. This bill was never debated nor considered. On December 6 of the same year, Morales sent a bill to Congress again, challenging them to pass it. Ten days after the bill was submitted, the MAS controlled lower chamber passed the bill (December 16). It was in the Senate chamber where the proposed bill was stopped because the Senate is controlled by the opposition. Back then, there were reservations coming from both sides that the bill would have to be fair. The government was reluctant and the opposition was initially in favor. The government argued that the majorities (those incumbents who won with more than 50%) should have to be respected. The bill presented by the government on December 6, took into account the government's arguments. Precisely that was what the opposition wanted to stop in the Senate. However, and surprisingly, on May 8, 2008 the Senate passed the law, and subsequently on May 12, the president signed it into law.

The ink wasn't even dried and the legal grounds of the referendum were already being scrutinized. One argument was that the current constitution does not provide for a recall referendum. Another observation is the mechanism of acceptance or rejection. It is not clear, in the text of the law, which figure will be the measure stab, the percentage of votes or the number of votes. It could be that one person gets a different number of votes than the stipulated in the law. Also, with the change in the voting register, that number will most certainly be different (source). Finally, an argument that seemed to be uniting both, government and opposition, said that the referendum would not bring any solution to the conflict. The solution is negotiation.

The referendum novela goes on!

July 04, 2008

Attempting to Renew the Relationship USA-Bolivia

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After a heavy exchange of words between the Bolivian government and the US diplomatic service and State, there seems to be a renewed attempt at detente and rapprochement. In the last days, the US Ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg and interim Secretary of State (in Bolivia called Canciller or Chancellor) met to discuss the relationship and make amends. After the meeting, the two sides felt it necessary to acknowledge that there was a problem and to then work to solve it or them. As such, there is an agenda, which will guide the upcoming conversations. The agenda looks like this:

Agenda Estados Unidos – Bolivia

1) Diálogo Político

- Relaciones de mutuo respeto y no intervención en asuntos internos

- Situación internacional hemisférica

2) Cooperación

- Mecanismos que aseguren la compatibilidad con el Plan Nacional de Desarrollo

- Transparencia y control estatal

- Programas de cooperación

- Evaluación conjunta de los impactos de la cooperación

- Cuenta del Milenio

3) Comercio


- Acuerdo Comercial Asimétrico de largo aliento

4) Cooperación judicial

- Caso Sánchez de Lozada, Sánchez Berzaín y Berindoague

- Caso Arce Gómez

5) Lucha contra el narcotráfico

- Desarrollo Integral

- Interdicción, NAS, FELCN

6) Cooperación en temas migratorios

- Programa conjunto de Derechos humanos de migrantes bolivianos en Estados Unidos

- Cooperación en el ejercicio de del derecho al voto en el exterior (EE.UU.)

- Cédula de registro consular

7) Otros temas

Agenda US – Bolivia

1) Political Dialog

- Mutual respect relations and no meddling in internal affairs

- International hemispheric situation

2) Cooperation

- Mechanisms that will assure the compatibility with the National Development Plan

- Transparency and state control

- Cooperation programs

- Joint evaluation of the cooperation’s impacts

- Millennium account

3) Commerce


- Long run asymmetric commercial agreement

4) Judicial cooperation

- Sanchez de Lozada, Sanchez Berzain and Berindoague cases

- Arce Gomez case

5) Drug trafficking fight

- Integral development

- Interdiction, NAS, FELCN

6) Cooperation on immigration topics

- Human rights joint program for Bolivian migrants in the US

- Cooperation in the topic of absentee voting (in US)

7) Other topics (USAID perhaps?)

The topics seem too general and vague to me, but usual in such situations, I guess. The two issues I expect to dominate the agenda and the consultations or conversations (however you want to call them) are the issue of Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain and the one about meddling in internal affairs.

On the first issue is clear that the government wants to keep its promise to bring to Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain to justice. This has been a point present in almost every demand coming from the MAS supporters. If the US delivers these two people to the Bolivian government it would be able to say it fulfilled its promises.

The second issue is key for Morales and brings us into a more complex conversation. He seems to be convinced the US is working to topple his government. The funny thing is, he might not be way too off with this. Let's consider what the US says in its website. It states as its common goals for the relationship with Bolivia thus: "Some of the most important areas of bi-lateral assistance are: the strengthening of Bolivian democracy, economic prosperity, expanding U.S. exports and investments, improved family health conditions, counternarcotics efforts, and promoting alternative development in coca-producing regions as well as environmental protection."

If you look at some of these goals, in principle, they run contrary to what the Morales government is trying to achieve, i.e. they are contrary to Morales' goals. For example, if we take the goal of economic prosperity. Here we have to think about how does the US think economic prosperity comes along. A rapid and simplistic way to put it, nonetheless true, is to say that, in general, the US thinks economic prosperity is the result of commercial exchange, accumulation of capital, investment, free economy, etc. I can already hear Morales, all red and irked, yelling capitalst, neoliberal, imperialist. Take the goal of expanding US exports and investment, for example. This would be imperialist noise in Morales' ears. I think, more than Morales' ear, the ears of those around him would suffocate in an instant. In essence, there is a fundamental difference on how does the US thinks all these goals should be achieved, and what the Morales camp thinks they should be achieved.

The difference, I think is in the approach to such problems. On the one side, I think the US bases its approach on the 1+1=3 principle. In general terms, I argue, as usual. First and foremost are the national interests. I should cooperate with people, or in this case with nations, making sure I also benefit. Or put it in another way, I want to cooperate with you, but my expectation is that through that cooperation I will get something too. In the most extreme case, I will not do anything that would be disadvantageous for me. So, the US cooperates with other nations, as well as with Bolivia, based on "mutual" cooperation and "mutual" benefits expectations. I won't get on the question if this approach is good or not. That is for another post.

On the other side, although it is not entirely clear, it seems to me that the Morales government wants, or shall I say expects, cooperation in a "communal" sense. That would mean that the whole is more important than the individual. For a region such as America (the new world) that would mean that all nations cooperate disinterestedly, some times even at own costs. That way, Venezuela subsidizes gas, diesel and oil to the detriment of its own economy; Bolivia sells natural (at least it used to) gas to Brazil and Argentina at solidary prices; that would involve the US donating money without asking in exchange the opening of markets or the development of commercial networks.

The two, almost antagonist, way to approach these issues provoke friction when it comes to the diplomatic relations between the US and Bolivia. The Bolivian government feels apprehensive and distrustful, to say the least, with how the US sees and carries out these diplomatic relations. Both are, at least should be, aware of the differences, and hopefully now that they recognized there are problems, they'll be able to move forward in a more positive path.