Where is Bolivia's Violence Headed?
The Massacre in Pando
The death toll from Thursday's massacre in Pando, outside the city of Cobija continues to climb. On Saturday the Minister of Government in Bolivia announced that another ten bodies had been founding in the fields surrounding the site of the violence, bringing the total to 30, according to a report from Radio Erbol. The deaths occurred when armed operatives of the local Governor set out to intercept a group of campesinos coming in from the countryside for a meeting. Their weapons included machine guns. The remote department of the country has been under a declared "state of emergency since Friday night, declared by President Morales. Shortly afterwards supporters of the Governor reportedly broke into a local gun store and left with a fresh supply of arms and ammunition.
For those wondering why the Morales Government decided to take the extraordinary action of sending in troops to Pando this weekend, taking control of its capital, the massacre of the campesinos is the answer.
In the face of a week of bloody conflict, the Morales government has taken the decision to dispatch the country's military force to the areas of conflict. The moves were first signaled by twin statements yesterday by Morales and the head of the nation's Armed Forces, General Luís Trigo, then followed by the declaration of a "state of emergency" in Pando and the taking of the airport there by force. Now Saturday morning there are solid press reports of the movement of tanks and troops towards the nation's eastern departments.
Friday in a speech in Quillacollo (near Cochabamba), Morales took responsibility for leaving soldiers and police defenseless against mobs in Santa Cruz and Tarija. “I want to say a truth, that perhaps I am guilty for telling the Armed Forces and the National Police not to use arms against the people and perhaps because of that some groups took advantage to offend and humiliate the Armed Forces and to the National Police,” said Morales.
Later, General Trigo announced Friday that, "We are not going to tolerate any more the actions of radical and violent groups that are only bringing confrontations between Bolivians, causing pain and suffering between brothers and threatening the nation's security." The General also sent a public message to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that the Armed Forces would also not allow any intervention by Venezuelan troops in the current crisis. Yesterday Chavez declared the he was prepared to send in troops to "defend' Bolivia if the Morales government is toppled by the violence in the country's east.
Then on Friday night Morales declared a formal "state of emergency" (estado de sitio) in the department of Pando, the site of yesterday's massacre of campesinos trying to reach the city of Cobija. The declaration invokes a wide variety of suspensions of rights, among them: a curfew between midnight and 6am for any group of more than three people; a prohibition on carrying arms and explosives at any time; prohibitions against political meetings and protests; and the required closure of all bars and restaurants by midnight. The decree is similar to one issued by then-President Hugo Banzer in April 2000 in Cochabamba during the Water Revolt, though that curfew began at 10pm.
This morning La Razon and other news outlets report a movement of tanks and troops from La Paz and Cochabamba in the dorection of Santa Cruz and the east. A military commander is quoted, declaring that any movement of troops is strictly to protect public safety and to uphold the constitution, an intended response to underlying fears that the military might have some intent more sinister in mind.
No Gas in Cochabamba
As a result of sabotage against gas pipelines in the nation's east, at least come gas stations in Cochabamba have posted signs that they no longer have gas for cars and don't known when they will. A very large portion of the region's vehicles run on gas, in particular public transit vehicles such as Taxi Trufis. While many will switch to gasoline for now, which apparently is still available, this will certainly make transit more difficult and will raise the fares to cover the higher price of fuel.
Brazil Readies an Evacuation Plan for its Citizens
A Brazilian newspaper, Correio Braziliense has published a report that that the Brazilian government is preparing an evacuation plan for its citizens in the embattled regions of Bolivia. "The government now has a plan to remove the Brazilians from the regions of Bolivia where the conflicts between the government and the opposition are taking place, principally Santa Cruz," an official is quoted. The Brazilian government has also called on its citizens visiting Bolivia as tourists to leave and for those planning to go to cancel their visits.
Two Congress Members Reverse Position on Bolivia Trade Pact
In the wake of the Morales government kicking U.S. Ambassador Phillip Goldberg out of the country, two members of the House, Republican Dan Burton and Democrat Eliot Engel, have announced their withdrawal of support for extension of an important trade agreement with Bolivia that is key to textile exports from the highlands that are a part of Morales' political base.
"In the past, I have been a firm defender of the long term extension of the package of commercial preferences for Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia," said Burton. I have indicated time and time again that the people we help with these preferences are creating profitable jobs as alternatives to the illegal activities. Nevertheless, today I must say that, due to the decision of Bolivian President Evo Morales to declare to the Ambassador of the United States in Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, 'persona non-grata' that I can no longer support the extension of commercial preferences for Bolivia."
Tarija's Governor Heads to La Paz for Negotiations with Morales
The one good piece of news today is that Tarija Governor Mario Cossío announced that he was headed to La Paz this afternoon to open a negotiation on the current crisis with the Morales government. Radio Erbol also reported that Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas has endorsed the negotiation effort. "I am completely convinced that this is the last opportunity to begin a process of reconciliation and leave behind the process of confrontation," Cossio told reporters.
What an End to the Conflict Would Look Like
There is no question that these conflicts this week have pushed Bolivia farther toward the abyss than at any time since the return of democracy a quarter century ago. And what makes it so is the absence of any obvious way for it to end. This isn't October 2003 and the crisis surrounding President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. His popularity was at rock-bottom lows and his departure was inevitable. Morales, freshly backed by 2/3 of voters, is not going anywhere (nor should he). On the other hand, the rebelling Governors also enjoy popular support in their regions and the mobs behind them aren't likely to back down.
So I look back to January 2007 in Cochabamba when I was at ground zero of the violence there that turned the city into a war zone for an afternoon and left three men dead. How did Cochabamba go from that violence to a fragile peace?
Most importantly, the leaders on both sides took the deaths as a wake-up call, a warning about how bad it could get. The backers of Morales took to the streets more peacefully. The stick wielding-youths of the city's middle class who backed the Governor stayed home. The angry cats of politics unarched their backs and stopped trying to scratch one another's eyes out.
The leaders in these conflicts, on both sides, have a huge moral obligation to call on their followers to abandon violence. In Santa Cruz those leaders only fanned it. But maybe blood will make even them wiser. We can hope. Then those leaders must use the fragile truce that comes to negotiate, for time to begin with, and then for some longer way forward with the time they buy.
The danger of course is that violence like that this week tends to only lock people into more opposing positions. Reconciliation with people you believe to be racists is not easy, nor is being on the minority end of the political stream roller that MAS has become.
The question in Bolivia tonight is whether those headed toward deeper conflict love their political positions better than they love their country. Let’s be clear. The issue is not gas and oil revenue, that's an easy fix. The issue isn’t even a new Constitution, a harder issue but also one where compromise could be found if both sides wanted it. The nuclear core of this meltdown is emotional and deeply rooted, wrapped in race, and history and privilege and fear.
But you can also bet on this. Those affluent owners of businesses in Santa Cruz – the cafes and the factories and the hotels – they aren't sitting around tonight happy as clams that their city has become globally synonymous with violent mobs. Their most prized week of the year, Epocruz, is less than two weeks away and there isn’t a hotel room to be had in the city for that week. If both sides are smart they'll use that as an opportunity to buy a week of peace and use that week to find a way forward that can hold. Or they can hold hands and jump over the cliff together, each side convinced in the rightness of their view.