A Journal of Three Days in Bolivia

(Author’s Note: For more background on the current conflict in Bolivia I’d recommend this piece by Roger Burbach published two days ago, or one by Benjamin Dangl )

Sunday, September 14

In the border town of Villazon, Bolivia, you’d never know that the country was on the verge of civil war. On a Sunday afternoon only the wind seems to be active here, moving red dust from one side of the city to the other in small pink whirlwinds, dancing like dervishes across the cobblestone streets. But there’s only one bus to La Paz tonight, and, because of the highway blockades created by the opposition, it has to take an eight hour detour over some of the roughest dirt roads in South America before it turns onto a paved two-lane in Potosí and heads on into La Paz. By the time we reach La Paz, surprisingly only half an hour behind schedule due to our determined bus driver who endured the seventeen hours drive only running onto the shoulder the last few kilometers, we arrive covered in dust and our luggage is now also red as the dirt roads we left behind.

Monday, September 15

Very few tourists are willing to suffer eight hours of breathing the road dust and arranging travel by uncertain bus schedules, or brave airports, often occupied by armed groups, to visit one of South America’s poorest countries where armed gangs of fascist thugs are ransacking government offices and killing civilians. As a result, tourism has dropped off in the past two weeks, impacting Bolivia’s economy, heavily dependent on the trade. In addition, the blockades have created havoc in the daily life of Bolivians. In La Paz the prices of meat and other products originating in the Media Luna (Half Moon) opposition regions have skyrocketed, in some cases doubling. But the economy, while the most immediate concern of most Bolivians, is overshadowed by a conflict that has the potential of exploding into full-fledged civil war.

The conflict between the five opposition states demanding autonomy and the central government under President Evo Morales and his party, Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) was perhaps inevitable from the moment the indigenous leader took power in early 2006. The five opposition states of Beni, Pando, Tarija, Chuquisaca and Santa Cruz which make up the Media Luna are dominated politically, for the most part, by “white” or people of mixed race who not only distinguish themselves from the indigenous Aymara and Quechua of the Altiplano, but who also consider themselves superior to their indigenous compatriots. Not surprisingly, the European and mestizo populations occupy the the most fertile and energy-rich areas of the nation and they would prefer to keep that wealth to themselves rather than to share it with the poor, indigenous majority. Specifically, the Direct Hydrocarbon Tax (IDH) which the Morales government has imposed to raise money to provide a minimal pension for the nation’s poorest elders, has been a great source of resentment on the part of those departments of the Media Luna rich in natural gas.

President Morales has expelled the U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, accusing him of instigating much of the civil strife. While nothing other than circumstantial evidence has yet been presented (such as evidence that he has met with opposition leaders), the charge is reasonable and likely true given Goldberg’s past work in the U.S. State department in Bosnia and Kosovo during the periods of intense separatist strife. In solidarity with Bolivia, Hugo Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, calling him and his staff “Yankees de mierda” or “Yankee shits.” As might be expected, the U.S. responded in kind, expelling the Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors.

Tuesday, September 16

La Paz is living a hopeful, but turbulent, moment. For the past two days there have been so many demonstrations that they blurred into one massive protest aimed at the Half Moon, but particularly at Pando, to the north of La Paz, where the massacre of campesinos (farmers) was carried out last week by fascist paramilitary groups evidently under the command of the prefect (governor) of the region, Leopoldo Fernandez. The 25 persons confirmed dead at this moment include children, in some cases killed execution style, men and women who, as autopsies reveal, were sometimes tortured to death, or machine gunned as they leapt into a nearby river, hoping to escape the three gangs of paramilitaries attacking the unarmed campesinos. The number of dead is certain to rise, given that there are 106 campesinos missing or disappeared and twenty five wounded, some seriously.

While Vice President Alvaro García Linera negotiates with the prefect of Tarija, Mario Cossío, who represents the Half Moon National Democratic Council (Conalde), the Morales government has made clear that the massacre is not up for negotiatiion and that the perpetrators will be punished.

The army was sent into Pando over the weekend to bring the city of Cobija and El Porvenir, where the massacre took place, back under control. An arrest warrant was also issued for the prefect of the department, Leopoldo Fernandez, named “the butcher of Pando” by Presidential Minister Juan Ramón Quintana. The demonstrations which have convulsed La Paz have been in support of the MAS government’s decision to prosecute Fernandez on charges of genocide, charges which would carry a thirty year sentence.

Fernandez told El Diario of La Paz that he was innocent of the massacre and that the massacre “has been orchestrated by the [Morales] Government. They needed deaths to call a state of seige and create a beach head in Cobija.”

Virtually no one takes that charge seriously. But most find the charges that the paramilitaries who committed the massacre of El Porvenir and Filadelfia had trained on Fernandez’s land and were under direct orders of the prefect, to be quite convincing. The Morales government is furthermore alleging that Fernandez has ties, through those same paramilitary organizations with narcotics traffickers.

Leopoldo Fernandez is a recent convert to the idea of “autonomy.” Until he became prefect of Pando he spent his life serving the central government in several roles, including national senator. While he had no qualms serving in the very centralized government of the right wing dictator Colonel Hugo Banzer, who ruled Bolivia with an iron hand for seven years, Fernandez apparently became a convert to U.S. style democracy, which included a passion for regional autonomy, only when he took power as prefect and Evo Morales became president of Bolivia.
Leopoldo Fernandez was captured this morning and within a short time indigenous elders marched into downtown La Paz where they blockaded Plaza Murillo, effectively bringing most government activity to an end for most of the morning. They were calling for justice for the murdered campesinos and the imprisonment of Fernandez. That demonstration was followed a few hours later by another, larger demonstration of as many as twenty thousand students, workers, indigenous, in fact, a whole cross-section of Bolivian society. These two protests followed the four massive demonstrations yesterday which marched on the U.S. embassy and were led by groups from El Alto and Las Yungas and included the FEJUVE (Federacion de Juntas Vecinales) of El Alto and numerous religious and union organizations.

Meanwhile, MAS supporters in Cochabamba have decided to blockade the blockaders of Santa Cruz until they turn back to the government the offices they have taken over and ransacked. This could negatively impact Expocruz 2008 Fair now under way and damage the Santa Cruz economy.

Another hopeful sign for the Morales government and the majority of Bolivians, has been unprecedented international solidarity. For the first time in history, the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, founded this past May 23 in Brasilia, has convened to help Morales resolve this crisis. As President Morales put it during his press conference after the meeting, “For the first time in South American history, the countries of the region have decided among ourselves to resolve the problems of South America” without including the United States in the process.
UNASUR made the most unequivocal statements of support for the Morales government, saying they “wouldn’t recognize any situation that implied an attempted civil coup, the rupture of the institutional order or the compromise of the territorial integrity of the Republic of Bolivia.” The newly-formed UNASUR also resolved to send three separate committees to Bolivia to help investigate the massacre of El Porvenir and help resolve the conflict.

Statements of support for Morales have come from all sides, some of them quite emphatic. President Lula, known for cautious diplomacy, stated in uncharateristically strong terms that Brazil wouldn’t “tolerate” an institutional rupture in Bolivia and said he was “profoundly worried” about the situation in the country that supplies half of Brazil’s natural gas.

The Group of Rio, representing 23 Latin American nations and with its rotating seat now in Mexico, sent out a message of support for the Morales government which spoke of the need to “reach a solution to conflict in the framework of the state of law and the Bolivian institutional order” and it went on to condemn the attacks on the institutions of the government.

Nevertheless, not all statements of solidarity were as well received or as diplomatically stated. President Hugo Chavez’s hint that Venezuelan military might intervene if the situation worsened and his criticism of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Bolivia, General Luis Trigo, for not acting more aggressively, caused some outrage in Bolivia, even among MASistas who have always looked up to the Venezuelan leader. General Trigo spoke for many who felt Chavez’s comments were inappropriate and counterproductive when he responded by saying that “we won’t allow any foreign intervention, no matter where it comes from.” Minister of Defense Walker San Miguel responded to Chavez saying, “We Bolivians resolve our own problems. We don’t need foreign intervention.” An editorial in today’s edition of La Razon headlined “Why doesn’t someone Shut Chavez Up?” recalling the words of the King of Spain to Chavez a few months ago. The editorial ended: “Enough, Mr. Chavez. With Bolivia you’ve gone too far.”

In any case, the impact of the solidarity of all Latin America and much of the world with the Morales government has solidified Evo’s standing in Bolivia where he recently won two thirds of the vote in a referendum on his rule. The message of the world to the Media Luna couldn’t be more clear: it’s time to work out a deal with your president because you’ll get no recognition from anywhere as an independent or “autonomous” force outside of the institution of the Bolivian government.

Tonight, on the way back to my $4 per night penthouse room in downtown La Paz, I stopped at a store a few doors down from my hotel. A young woman who looked indigenous was watching the news. I asked for a liter of water and she went behind the counter and brought out a large bottle of Villa Santa.

“Terrible situation,” I said, referring to images of the recent riots in Santa Cruz then flickering on the tv screen. “I hope the problem can be solved.”

“We have to solve it. We have no alternative. Look.”

She glanced up and down the alley where all the tourist shops were beginning to close for the night. There wasn’t a tourist in sight.

“See? The tourists have stopped coming. They’re afraid of the violence. We have to bring all this to an end.”

“How?”

“We have to stop the racists who killed all the campesinos. We have to stop those fascists.”
“How can you do that?” I asked. “They’re educated people, those fascist racists. How do you educate people who think they already know? You have to know you’re ignorant to be able to learn anything, and they don’t know that. How do you change what’s in their hearts?”
She nodded and stacked my change on the counter next to my large bottle of water.
“We need to deepen this revolution. We need to deepen our love,” she said. I nodded and swept the change off the counter into my pocket. Then I turned to leave.

“Chao, amigo,” she said.

“Chao, amiga,” I replied.

Epilogue, Wednesday morning, September 17

The morning news offers the most concrete hope so far: The representatives of the two sides of the conflict have agreed to end the blockades, freeze the IDH and halt movement toward the new Constitutiion so as to begin dialogue in Cochabamba, viewed as a neutral location by both the MAS and Media Luna governments.

The question on everyone’s mind, however, is whether or not the social movements on one hand will end their counterblockades and demonstrations to protest the September 11 massacre, and, perhaps more importantly, whether the armed paramilitaries and fascist groups like the Cruceña Youth Union will respect the dialogue now that they’ve had the taste of blood.

Clifton Ross is a writer and videographer. His book, Translations from Silence won the 2010 Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence from Oakland PEN and has just been published in Spanish by Editorial Perro y Rana, Venezuela. His film, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out was published in 2008 by PM Press. He can be contacted at clifross1(at)yahoo.com. Read other articles by Clifton.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Frank said on September 17th, 2008 at 11:59am #

    I wish I could be home now to see it all!
    So who is right on this crazy game between Moralles and the Meia Luna, We dont know, Moralles sound like he is a Good man, but this Friendly relation ship with Chaves Dont look to Good!
    What hart me is to Know that Brazil is leting Bolivia go Down or thats Just leting thing get worse it they come and take it all over?
    I dont know But for Many Bolivian that would be Great , brazil is Great nation and Would give all The Bolivian A Better Life!

  2. Poilu said on September 18th, 2008 at 10:14am #

    Clifton: Many thanks for the first-hand perspective. I’ve been watching this scenario unfold for the past week or so, virtually holding my breath in anxious anticipation. Morales has made great steps already in restoring a semblance of social equity in Bolivia, and I’ve long feared he might be toppled by his cutthroat, US-backed adversaries — Bolivia’s modern-day analog to the Batista cartel of Cuba.

    Nice to see that Evo is now exercising a strong hand against those Fascist thugs and receiving the vigorous support of a significant number of South American nations, among others. Viva the Bolivarian Revolution! To hell with the Media Luna “mafiosi”and their Brownshirt goon squads!

  3. Poilu said on September 18th, 2008 at 12:12pm #

    Looks like I may have spoken too soon, based on today’s news. It’s BAD. Hope you are well and safe, Clifton.