Saturday, August 30, 2008

Missed It

Timing is everything, and my timing is off. A day after I left the city of Santa Cruz, a mass confrontation between Morales supporters and the opposition occurred in the plaza where I had spent the previous day, waiting for an email from the Pro–Santa Cruz Committee. The email never came, I suspect for good reason: The leaders were probably busy planning the action that resulted in several bloodied Morales supporters. According to La Razón, when a group of pro-government demonstrators approached the Plaza 24 de Septiembre, a group of autonomy supporters viciously attacked them, shouting, "Shitty highlanders," "Indians, return to your own land," and "We don't want your bad race in our land." The paper even reports that women who were dressed in traditional attire--who weren't even participating in the demonstration--were also attacked.

But don't call it racism!

In other news, I left my camera in Cochabamba, so don't expect too many pictures.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bush's Departing Gift to Bolivia: Coup D'État?

This is fascinating:

La Paz, Aug 26 (Prensa Latina) Bolivian media revealed a secret meeting between the opposition governor of eastern Santa Cruz province Ruben Costas and the US Ambassador in La Paz Philip Goldberg.

National Gigavision television network showed clips of the meeting, although the issues tackled are still unknown.

Could we be looking at a behind-the-scenes U.S. intervention à la Venezuela 2002? It's mind-boggling that the U.S. ambassador would meet with a rebel prefect who doesn't even allow the democratically elected president--with 67%(!) percent of the vote--to enter his department, in addition to calling him a "totalitarian," not to mention referring to Morales' ally as a "big foreign monkey." But don't call the opposition racist.

Book Club Suggestions

I'm halfway through my friend Richard Fleming's book Walking to Guantánamo, an at-times hilariously funny, other-times melancholy account of his epic walk across Cuba. Well, it was supposed to be a walk, but he ends up cheating (although his method of cheating--a heavy bike that quickly falls apart--doesn't help shave off too much time). I'm loving the book, especially his descriptions of being a huge, bearded gringo with orange hair. It makes me feel almost like a native down here. I'll be finishing it as soon as I can get the pdf to open on my computer without it crashing. It's a recommended read that'll come out in October. Order today!

Waiting in Santa Cruz

I've been kicking around Santa Cruz, the center of the opposition movement against Evo Morales, for the past few days. It's a nice enough city--tropical and sunny, a nice change from frigid La Paz. Yesterday I stopped by the offices of the Pro–Santa Cruz Committee, the main opposition group composed of wealthy landowners (and, some would say, crypto-fascists). I was treated politely, but wasn't able to score an interview. Today, though, I received an email from a representative from the committee that hinted at the possibility of an interview with Branko Marinkovic, the leader of the group. If it happens, it would be a good story.

But I'm also itching to get out into the countryside. There's all sorts of interesting things going on: roadblocks have been set up around Sucre by pro-Morales campesinos; other roadblocks have been set up blocking access to the border of Argentina by the Morales opposition. And here I am, sitting in a café with an eye on my inbox, at the mercy of others in planning my day.

If the interview with Marinkovic falls through, I might visit Plan 3,000, an impoverished neighborhood here in Santa Cruz that is one of the few Morales strongholds in this city. I strolled through it yesterday, before meeting with the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee people, but time was tight and I couldn't do much more than take a few pictures before I had to turn back.

Unlike other areas in Santa Cruz, which is a particularly wealthy city, Plan 3,000 has few paved roads, and it has a semi-open sewer. There's trash everywhere, and the wind whips up the dry, sandy soil. While Santa Cruz's city center is chock-full of new S.U.V.s and late-model sedans, on Plan 3,000's streets are rusted taxicabs and horse-drawn carts. In Plaza 24 de Septiembre--the main tree-lined park where families stroll and lovers spoon on benches--there is a large poster of Christian Urresti, a young man who was killed during the 2007 Cochabamba riots (the poster reads: Youth martyr for democracy. Assassinated on Jan. 11, 2007, in Cochabamba while crying out for democracy and liberty by a group of coca farmers who killed him with a machete and by choking him to death. For this we ask for justice for him and the other victims of the authoritarianism headed by Evo Morales). In Plan 3,000, there's graffiti calling department prefect Ruben Costas a son of a bitch (hijo de puta) and a cock. (First picture at the top.)

It's a city divided in a country divided.

Now, back to the email.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Coca Market

Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city (after La Paz and Santa Cruz), is a welcome relief after visiting the brutal altiplano region to the west. The city is temperate year round, and it's unnecessary to dress in layers merely just to go to bed, which one must do in mountainous La Paz. Because of its mild, eternally springlike climate, Cochabamba has been the agricultural center of Bolivia since its founding in 1571. Throughout the 17th century, when nearby Potosí was one of the largest and richest cities in the world (due to its seemingly inexhaustible silver mines), Cochabamba's importance increased because the mountain cities' dependence on it for food (Potosí is far too high above sea level to grow all of its own food).

In 2000, following World Bank–mandated reforms, the departmental government of Cochabamba decided to privatize its water supply, through Bechtel, a U.S. corporation. After the price of water tripled in price (and rainwater collection was outlawed), the city saw a spasm of violent rioting that didn't end until the government canceled the deal.

In 2007, when then-prefect Manfred Villes Reyes kept pushing for departmental autonomy--even after a majority of Cochabambinos voiced their opposition to the move--campesinos from the outlying communities occupied the city center for several days in protest and in support of President Evo Morales. Finally, city residents (who were more copacetic to the idea of autonomy) and campesinos (who militantly supported Morales) battled on the streets, leaving several dead. Incidentally, Villes Reyes lost his department recall referendum this past Aug. 10. Instead of refusing to acknowledge the vote, as he promised, he left office with a whimper.

Coca growing is an important industry in the region surrounding Cochabamba, and it's no surprise that the campesinos reacted violently to Villa Reyes' repeated provocations against the president. Morales was a coca farmer himself and still is the president of the coca-farmers' union, itself a militant workers' organization. (Morales tried to resign his position in the union this year, but its members re-elected him anyway.)

Cochabamba is also home to one of the few legal coca mercados in the world. Located in the sleepy and sunny suburb of Sacaba (which, in 2002, also saw riots when the government tried to close the mercado, resulting in several dead), it's a small open-air warehouse tucked among houses and junior-high schools. Women in traditional dress and men in jeans and button-up shirts mill around the space that is full of 50-kilogram reinforced-plastic sacks of the best coca leaves. These plants are bound for the legal coca market, ready to be turned into tea, chocolate, and traditional medicine, in addition to the omnipresent wad of vegetable matter gripped between a campesino's teeth and gum. The chaff and unaesthetic leaves are used in the production of cocaine. (Pictured are 50-kilogram bags of coca, which sell for 300 bolivianos--or approximately $40. According to various sources, two of these bags can be transformed into a kilogram of cocaine paste--a compound nearly identical to crack cocaine. Assuming a street value of $100 per gram for powdered cocaine, that's $100,000 worth of drugs produced from $80 worth of raw coca leaves--quite a markup, although chemical costs, transportation, and legal challenges narrow the profit margins considerably.)

In the 2007 film Cocalero, which traces Morales' ascendancy to the Bolivian presidency, the future leader can be seen exhorting a crowd in the mercado to vote for him, shouting "Death to the Yankees!" (For good reason, too, as previous Bolivian administrations had worked hand in hand with the U.S. government in a coca-eradication program that threatened not only the livelihoods of thousands of coca growers, but also aimed to eliminate a eons-old source of traditional medicine; furthermore, the U.S. had no beef with Coca-Cola continuing its use of the plant to manufacture its product, and Bolivians certainly did not invent the process of turning their sacred leaf into cocaine--nor is there a market there for it nearly as large as in the U.S.)
But yesterday at the mercado, perhaps because of Morales' staggering victory in the polls, Villa Reyes' defeat, and the obvious fact that the indigenous people of Bolivia--who for hundreds of years haven't had a political voice (or, worse, were de facto slaves of the ruling elite)--are no longer sidelined to the chorus in Bolivian society, this gringo was treated not with threats when visiting the mercado, but the usual quizzical stares, and people even granted him a picture after he politely asked.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Reconciliation? Nope.

From the IHT:

Five opposition governors are declaring a strike next week in Bolivia, vowing to "radicalize" tactics after talks with President Evo Morales stalled.

The governors are asking Morales to refund state shares of oil and natural gas income that his left-leaning government has used to give stipends to elderly Bolivians.

It's been pointed out earlier that the Media Luna states already enjoy a disproportionate distribution of natural-gas revenues. In most developing countries, natural resources are used by the federal government to develop infrastructure and fund entitlement plans. Not here, where the resources are tied up with the wealthy states to the detriment of the poor, i.e., the darker-skinned indigenous in the altiplano.

I'll be traveling around next week, visiting the lowlands where the opposition is strong. I haven't seen anything in Bolivia besides La Paz, and it's time to get a taste of the other regions.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Results Show Morales Landslide; What Next?

The results from Sunday's referenda are nearly complete (with the exception being Santa Cruz state, where, mysteriously, the rural votes--where Morales has the bulk of his support--are curiously incomplete; remember, the state is ruled by the opposition to Morales, and they might have a stake in not counting votes for Morales). To put it simply, Morales had a stunning victory, picking up 14 points over his margin of victory in 2005. The opposition is left holding an empty bag and cannot claim that Morales does not represent the democratic voice of the people. (Chart to right compares Morales' vote percentages in 2005 and last Sunday; from the Bolivia Information Forum.)

But interestingly, with the exceptions of the governors of
Cochabamba and La Paz states, the opposition has strengthened its hand--particularly in the Media Luna region where it has been seeking autonomy. What does this mean? A bumpy road ahead. Both sides have come out intact, with Morales apparently a little stronger after this contest. But his reforms--particularly the drafting of a new constitution--will continue to fracture the country. The opposition, while not celebrating the downfall of the president that it was seeking, isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and its "autonomy" drive will certainly continue. But international support (outside of Latin America, which has been stalwartly supporting Morales and is a large obstacle to overcome for the Media Luna to overcome if it wants to ship its resources out of this landlocked country without federal support (see: Lula in Brazil and Kirchner in Argentina)) will likely coalesce around Morales in the near future, stifling demands from the Media Luna. (Second chart shows gubernatorial referenda results, same source.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Scenes From Morales' Victory Celebration

Evo Morales won handily in tonight's referendum, with a reported 60% of the vote; he only needed 54% to stay in office. The southeast corner of Plaza Murillo was packed with jubilant Evo supporters earlier tonight after his victory was projected. A stage was set up draped in the Bolivian colors and a group of young women played traditional songs while the crowd chanted "¡Yanquis no! ¡Evo sí!"

The opposition governor of Cochabamba state was recalled by 60% of voters; he has declared the referendum illegal and has vowed to stay in office. It remains to be seen if Morales has the power to push through constitutional changes, even after winning this crucial vote. During his victory speech, Morales didn't mention the opposition, and stressed the need for a unified Bolivia. (Pics: People celebrating in Plaza Murillo before Morales speaks; Morales at the balcony of the National Palace.)


The Democracy Center is predicting a Morales blowout, with opposition Cochabamba Governor Manfred Reyes Villa being recalled. Whether he will go is another matter.

Will this allow Morales a mandate for pushing through his constitutional reforms? Will the "autonomy" movement in the east be chastened? Stay tuned . . .

Evo Survives?

AP is announcing (unofficially) that Morales will keep his job. Three governorships look to be recalled--of which two are Morales opponents.

Keep in mind that these results are very early, though, and could be inaccurate.

Referendum Day; All Is Calm in Central La Paz

Central La Paz is quiet and relaxed today. Families are strolling along the Prado, which is devoid of its usual congested traffic. There are no buses or combis, barely a taxi cab or private car cruises down the streets. Families and couples walk on cobblestones down steep hills, past shuttered businesses to the gate of the school where the polling station is in Sopocachi. An ice-cream vendor has parked his cart just outside, hoping to take advantage of the referendum crowd.

It's finally voting day in Bolivia. Evo Morales' immediate fate hangs on the results, along with those of eight of the nine state governors. Morales is expected to hold on. The fate of some of the governors is unclear, with one, Cochabamba Governor Manfred Reyes Villa, vowing to defy the results if his term is revoked.

Plaza Murillio, where the National Palace sits, is one of the few pockets of activity in the city, albeit the traditional Sunday-afternoon kind: families in the plaza eating helados, feeding pigeons, basking in the sun.

The Prado, which runs through the center of the city, is a wide pedestrian boulevard today, with only an occasional National Police car or a line of police motorcycles zipping by, their drivers in crowd-control armor and a helmeted soldier riding on back and flexing a tear-gas gun. But aside from a small contingent of disabled-persons-rights protesters huddled in the sun near the Witches' Market on the upper Prado, there's no discontent or demonstrations in sight.

On the lower Prado, approximately 50 police officers in fatigues huddle
outside of the Electoral Department Court. TV crews hang around in front and Curious onlookers (many of them gringos) sit in the park outside, snapping photos and wondering if anything is going to happen. There's a air of expectation in the air, but nothing, for now, is happening. Time to go shopping; I think there will be a lock-down tonight.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Latin American Elections and Alcohol

Back in 2006, I was in the Federal District of Mexico for that country's presidential elections. I was flabbergasted that, come election night, I couldn't find a cantina in which to grab a beer and a shot of tequila. It turned out that alcohol sales are prohibited in Mexico the day of the election.

I always thought that a rule like that was an example of what is disparagingly referred to in the U.S. as the "nanny state," where the government has to step in to make sure the child citizens don't misbehave. Of course, there is no doubt that alcohol inflames passions, as anyone who's stepped into a bar knows. And Latin American politics are a flash point for the populaces (as the videos below illustrate). So while I can understand (barely) an alcohol ban on Election Day, I hope we estadosenidenses would never accept it up north (it's un-American, like torture.)

So imagine my bafflement, my dismay, my consternation to find out late on Friday that Bolivia law decrees no alcohol sales for 48 hours before the polls open! Shopping in my local Hipermaxi, I found row after row of wine with plastic sheeting cover each shelf, a sign announcing that sales were prohibited. Noting the hour, and seeing that store management was overzealous in its timing, I rushed to another supermarket, only to see that it too had suspended wine sales, alas. On the way, the bars that would normally be opening their doors at that time were all padlocked shut. We were on booze lockdown.

Happily, I passed an upscale bistro on my way home, where I noticed couples at tables with partially filled glasses of wine. I poked my head in and shouted out, "¿Hay vino aquí?", and when I recieved and affirmative I sat down and quickly quaffed down two glasses.

It's the day before the election now, and the city is nearly shut down. There's bound to be some action on the street today and tonight. Stay tuned for some very sober coverage.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

More on the Gas War

A couple of videos show the divisions in Bolivia that were present in early 2003, leading up to Goni's resignation in October. Also, here's a letter from Bolivia by a U.S. citizen who observed Goni's election, and which gives rise to a premonition of what lay ahead.

View of La Paz From El Alto

La Paz sits in a massive canyon in the Andes mountains (the longest mountain chain on earth) created by the Choqueyapu River. It's nearly impossible to get lost in the city, as the main thoroughfare, the Prado, runs over the Choqueyapu: Just walk downhill, and you'll eventually end up in the middle of the city. (And Illimani, the 21,122-foot-high snow-covered mountain peak that is easily visible from many city streets, makes an easy landmark--just like the twin towers were a handy southern compass hand for Manhattanites before the 2001 attacks.) But due to the staggering altitude (11,942 feet), it's best to catch a lift back uphill--if you don't want to arrive gasping and covered in sweat--in one of the many combis that prowl every street, whose young conductors shout out their destinations from the side door: "Prado, Perez, San Francisco--un boliviano! Ceja--dos bolivianos!"

Ceja refers to a neighborhood in El Alto, a city (pictured right) that sits on the rim of the canyon 2,000 above La Paz on the altiplano, the largest high plateau on earth after Tibet. Because of its elevation, La Paz is a chilly city, but it's sheltered from the frigid altiplano winds by the canyon walls. El Alto, though, is at the mercy of the winds; combined with the even greater altitude there, it makes for a harsh environment.

El Alto is a new city, sitting on land that was uninhabited as recently as a hundred years ago. In the 1950s the area exploded with growth, mainly from Aymara Indians moving from the countryside, who now make up nearly 80% of El Alto's population. (El Alto is also a stronghold of President Evo Morales, himself an Aymara Indian whose family moved from the altiplano to the Cochabamba region in the 80s after an El Niño caused a crop and livestock die-off; there, he moved into coca cultivation, the farmers' union, and eventually into the history books.) In 1987, El Alto was officially incorporated as a city, and it is now Bolivia's fourth-largest, after Santa Cruz, La Paz, and Cochabamba. With over 700,000 inhabitants, El Alto is a mishmash of mud-brick buildings thrown cheek to jowl with myriad markets and combi-congested streets. It's utilitarian, and with the only aesthetic imperative being "more": more buildings, more people, more commerce.

A center of indigenous resistance to earlier presidential administrations, El Alto is a figurative and literal weight on the rim of the canyon, whose citizens peer down on the skyscrapers and stadiums of La Paz, eying the wealth which accumulates, and occasionally lashing out in spasms of resistance: In October 2003, after a general strike and roadblocks of La Paz that led to severe fuel and food shortages during the Gas War, the army killed more than 60 citizens in El Alto. This led to the resignation of then-president Sánchez de Lozada (or "Goni the Gringo," so named for his bad Spanish, light skin, and U.S. accent--see Our Brand Is Crisis for a fascinating look into Goni's Greenberg Carville Shrum–run presidential run) and Morales' eventual ascendancy.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


A handbill given away at last Sunday's massive pro-Morales and -MAS (Morales' "Movement Toward Socialism" party) parade along the Prado in La Paz. It's a voting instruction on how to keep Morales in power and kick the opposition out.
If you vote in Santa Cruz, Tarija, Cochabamba, La Paz, Chuquisaca, Beni or Panda, vote like this:

Do you agree with the continuation of the process of change led by President Evo Morales Ayma and Vice President Álvaro Garcia Linera?

Do you agree with the continuation of the policies, actions and management of the governor?

Interesting note: There is no imprimatur on the handbill from the MAS or any other political group.

Nightly Protests More Smoke Than Fire

In the buildup to the Aug. 10 referenda that will decide the fate of President Evo Morales and eight of Bolivia's nine state governors, downtown La Paz is seeing nightly protests by interest groups eager to grab national attention while pressure on the government is fierce. For the past week, the Cochabamba Federation of People with Disabilities has been staging roadblocks in central La Paz demanding more weekly payments. (The Huanuni tin mine, in the Oruro region, 160 miles south of La Paz, has been shut down by a strike since Thursday, while workers demand steeper pension reforms than the Morales administration has proposed.)

The protests have largely been peaceful in La Paz. An overwhelming police presence effectively cordons off the roadblocks each night, and traffic is minimally affected. The protests are centered around the business sector of La Paz, at the intersection of calles Ayacucho and Potosí, near Plaza Murillo, where the National Palace sits. To the right, a disabled woman holds a sign that says, "We want to be incorporated into the change with a bond of fairness and solidarity."

Last week the government accused the right-wing opposition of manipulating the demands of the disabled groups and the miners' union to destabilize the country in the face of the crucial referenda this coming Sunday. If so, it would be a curious alliance, as the miners' union has denounce the proposed pension reform as "pro-business." The opposition to President Morales is headed by the Pro–Santa Cruz Committee, a powerful business group from the break-away state.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Good News for Evo; Land and Gas Distribution in Bolivia

With a less than a week until the Aug. 10 referenda in which Bolivian President Evo Morales and eight of the nine state governors will face possible recall, Morales has some good news: His approval rating has reached 57%. He needs only 46.3% of the vote to stay in power. (Originally, the governors of the departments needed between 52% to 62.1% to stay in power, due to electoral law; the Bolivian Electoral Court ruled to put the bar at 50%, with the Morales administration's approval.)

The referenda are in response to the recent "autonomy" votes in four departments: Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija--the so-called "Half Moon" territory carved out of the resource-rich lands of eastern Bolivia. The Center for Economic and Policy Research has a Morales and his policy of land distribution and greater state control of the country's natural gas production. Among its findings: ownership of Bolivia's most valuable natural resources, arable land and hydrocarbon reserves, is inequitably distributed to the richer and non-indigenous population (in a country where 62% are classified as "indigenous").

Morales, an Aymara Indian himself, is also trying to gain greater control of the country's hydrocarbon industry, in which natural gas is the big product. Tarija, with 60% of the country's natural-gas production and 85% of its reserves, is only 20% indigenous. Add to this a land distribution where 0.63% of land owners own more than 66.4% of agriculture land--in the poorest country in South America--and the class divide between the rich and the poor becomes pronounced. (Also bear in mind that state diesel subsidies of $335 million a year are given to to the Half Moon states, along with 49.7 percent of hydrocarbon revenues--about $750 million--to the prefectures, municipalities, and universities, a staggering amount of money that the central government doesn't see (only 25% of hydrocarbon revenues goes to the Bolivian government).)

As the paper concludes:
In most developing countries, it is assumed that these valuable resources belong to the nation as a whole, not to the particular region in which happens to be underground. This is especially important for developing countries, since their development strategy – the means by which they can eliminate extreme poverty and reduce overall poverty – is based on using the rents from their mineral wealth to diversify away from hydrocarbons, as well as investing in economic and social infrastructure. Of course, this is even more important in a time of high energy prices. The Media Luna [Half Moon] states are advocating in another direction: in a country that already distributes its hydrocarbon revenues more than any in the world to provincial and local governments, they want even more to go to the provincial governments.