Bolivia´s Warring Leaders Have a Talk
This week brought important political developments in Bolivia, with the meeting in La Paz on Monday between President Morales, Vice-President Garcia Linera, and all nine regional Governors – a meeting broadcast live on national television.
Here is a Blog post from Aldo Orellana and Elliot Williams of The Democracy Center team, about these developments and what they might mean for Bolivia.
Bolivia´s Warring Leaders Have a Talk
The year 2007 in Bolivia ended in an escalation of tension that seemed to bring Bolivia to the breaking point. Two years into the Morales presidency, and in the wake of bloody battles over the Constituent Assembly, the tensions culminated on December 15th when two competing political paths were presented to the nation – one in the east and one in the west – the new Constitution presented in La Paz by the national government and the autonomy statutes presented in Santa Cruz and announced in the departments of Beni, Pando, and Tarija.
During these final months of the year, leaders on both sides continued to provoke, pushing further polarization, and drawing the country closer to its limits. Only the arrival of the holiday season succeeded in interrupting the tension. Many here imagined that 2008 would open with tensions just as high, as the New Year did exactly a year ago today, when three men were left dead as a result of political conflicts in Cochabamba.
The announcement of a meeting for Monday, January 7th between the national government and the regional governors produced a new hope for peace for many Bolivians. The meeting set out to discuss three central points: the new Constitution approved by the MAS-dominated Constituent Assembly; the autonomy statutes proposed by the eastern regions; and the distribution of the Impuesto Directo a los Hidrocarburos (IDH), one of the key mechanisms through which revenues from foreign oil companies are allocated and spent here.
The climate of the meeting was very calm, despite various altercations occurring in past days. The state television channel directly transmitted the dialogue to the nation, starting at 6pm and lasted for nearly eight hours. The President, Vice President, various cabinet members, and the nine Governors were all in attendance. There discussions produced three important preliminary agreements: to review the conflict-ridden themes of the new Constitution; to move ahead with the autonomy processes; and to create a compensation fund for the departments. The work of following-up on those proposals was to be done by specific commissions with teams of people from both sides of the debate.
The first commission began meeting on January 9th in La Paz to discuss the IDH. The commission tackling the problems of the new Constitution and autonomous statutes will begin their work next Monday, when the Governors and the national government are scheduled to meet again in La Paz.
January 7th was critical in many ways. It marked one of the few times that President Morales met with all nine Governors together. The leaders, who had up until this point been pursuing rival courses that were driving the country apart, began a process to potentially bring the country together. The balloon of political tension that seemed ready to burst in December, began to deflate, if just some.
Signs of cooperation continue since Monday. Morales and Cochabamba’s Prefect, Manfred Reyes Villa, two of the bitterest political rivals in the country, met this week to discuss the distribution of the IDH. This is the first time the two had spoken since they cut off contact a year ago. Morales has also proposed to make the some of the autonomy statutes of the media luna compatible with the new constitution. A large gap between the parties surely remains, but attempts to decrease this divide seem to be genuine.
While public opinion seems to support efforts at compromise, the issues on the table don’t have easy solutions. For example, the autonomy statutes planned by Santa Cruz call for departmental control of land and resources, but the new Constitution clearly put the national government in charge of these matters. Given the wide gaps involved, the question remains, how far can this discussion go? Do the discussions that began in La Paz on Monday offer a lasting or temporary peace? How will the citizens of Bolivia respond to the calls of unity issued by the government? Have the divisions that have been fomented for so long created too large a gap to bridge?
In Cochabamba we may get an answer to these questions sooner than other parts of the country. January 11th marks the one-year anniversary of violent clashes that left three people dead and the city divided. Many events will take place this day. It remains to be seen whether these events will occur as billed – a way to honor those whose lives were taken a year prior – or if they will be used to rally the two sides and reinvigorate the schisms of 2007. This anniversary could be a preview of the future.
But for now, those who predicted that Bolivia would careen off the side of a cliff as 2008 began, will have to put those predictions on hold. For now, both sides of the east-west divide have decided that dialog, rather than conflict and sharp rhetoric, are in their better interest, and the nation’s.
Written by Aldo Orellana and Elliot Williams.