Alternativa Latinoamericana
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Alberta, Mayo/May 2009
ALTERNATIVA Latinoamericana
Decolonization's Rocky Road: Corruption, Expropiation
and Justice in Bolivia
Over 3,000 Bolivian and Peruvian
indigenous activists recently marched in El Alto in
commemoration of the March 13th, 1781 siege of
La Paz, Bolivia launched from El Alto by
indigenous rebels Tupac Katari and Bartolina
Sisa. The siege was against Spanish rule and for
indigenous liberation in the Andes. At a gathering
the night before the mobilization, Eugene Rojas,
the mayor of Achacachi, said, "We, the
indigenous, organized a siege of La Paz in the
past, and we will do it again if we need to." Rojas
alluded to the long-postponed decolonization that
Katari and Sisa dreamed of over two centuries
ago. Today, those dreams of liberation are at
once alive and in jeopardy.
After the nationalist confetti of the January
25th constitutional referendum blew away, and
the busted water balloons and foam of Carnival
washed down the streets with the rain, political
scandals filled the Bolivian airwaves. Besides the
challenges of applying the changes in the new
constitution, recent cases of government
corruption, shaky relations with Washington and
political unrest show the road to the December
general elections is likely to be a rocky one.
The Corruption Scandal
In late January, Santos Ramirez, a key
architect and member of the Movement Toward
Socialism party, (MAS, the political party of
indigenous president Evo Morales) and director
of the YPFB ­ the state oil and gas company ­
was hauled off to jail on corruption charges.
Investigations showed that Ramirez asked for a
bribe in order to provide an $86 million contract
to Argentine-Bolivian Company Catler Uniservice
for a natural gas plant. The investigations started
when a manager at Catler was murdered and
robbed of $450,000 - money that was apparently
going to Ramirez's aide, according to Reuters.
Ramirez is now in San Pedro jail in La Paz, the
same place former Pando governor Leopoldo
Fernández is currently held after being implicated
in a massacre of MAS supporters in Pando in
September 2008.
Ramirez's arrest struck a harsh blow to the
MAS administration which has always pledged to
put an end to the country's legacy of corruption.
The difference this time around however,
compared to what was the norm in previous
administrations, is that Ramirez actually was sent
to jail; under past governments some of the most
corrupt politicians remained free. After the
Ramirez scandal blew up, Morales said, "It's been
totally proven that foreign agents, CIA agents,
were infiltrated (in YPFB) ... Maybe that's the way
the (U.S.) empire has to conspire against the
policies that we're pushing forward."
Alfredo Rada, the Minister of Government,
accused Francisco Martinez, a US diplomat, of
being a CIA agent and helping to infiltrate the
YPFB. Morales accused Martinez of "coordinating
contacts" with a Bolivian police officer that the
government says infiltrated the YPFB, following
orders from the CIA. Morales explained that
"deep investigations" had proved Martinez was
also "in permanent contact with opposition
groups" in Bolivia. The Bolivian president then
kicked Martinez out of the country. The expulsion
of Martinez follows that of former US ambassador
to Bolivia Philip Goldberg in September of 2008.
Goldberg was also accused of collaborating with
the right wing opposition to undermine the
Morales administration.
"There is clearly a connection in the
activities that the former ambassador Philip
Goldberg, USAID, the DEA and now Martinez
have been doing here in Bolivia," an anonymous
official in Bolivia's Government Ministry said to
Josh Partlow of the Washington Post. "These are
suspicious acts that have nothing to do with
diplomacy or foreign aid. ... This conduct of not tolerated here anymore."
"We reject the allegations," the US state
department said in a statement regarding the
events. "We can't understand how the president
can assure us that he wants better relations with
the United States and at the same time continue
to make false accusations,'' said Denise Urs, a US
embassy spokeswoman.
In a press conference on March 13, Tom
Shannon, the US assistant state secretary for
Latin American Affairs, commented on the
expulsion of the US diplomat from Bolivia. "We
need a full diplomatic dialogue and a high-quality
dialogue... And regrettably, up to this point, as we
have sought to engage the Bolivians around the
issues that have provoked their own actions, we
have yet to receive what we would consider to be
a coherent or a consistent response."
Meanwhile, the Santos Ramirez corruption
case is far from closed. On March 13, Ramirez
demanded that he be let out of jail because he
says no evidence has been produced that proves
that he harmed the Bolivian government with his
actions, as the supposed irregular contract with
Catler has not yet been terminated
Cárdenas' House Occupied
On March 7, 350 people took over and
occupied the country home of Victor Hugo
Cárdenas. Cárdenas was vice president in the
Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada administration of
1993-1997 and a harsh critic of Bolivia's new
constitution. The group of angry locals forced
Cárdenas' wife and three children to leave the
house, while reportedly beating them.
Mario Huaypa, a representative of the group
that occupied the house, told the Agencia
Bolivian de Información that a general meeting
was held within the community in which it was
decided that the house should be expropriated
because the land it was built on was illegally
acquired by Cárdenas. The group said they will
continue the occupation until the official Bolivian
justice system looks into the case...
Cárdenas, an Aymara intellectual, governed
in the 1990s with Sanchez de Lozada speaking
on behalf of the indigenous population and their
rights, while at the same time pushing through
repressive and neoliberal policies that led to
economic depression and state violence against
indigenous people. To this day, public
appearances by Cárdenas are regularly met with
protests. The locals who occupied his house were
also protesting that Cárdenas campaigned
against the new constitution. It is rumored that
Cárdenas will run as a possible presidential
candidate for the general elections in December.
The occupation of Cárdenas' home has
rightly been condemned throughout Bolivia, as
the act only worsens the polarization in the
country and pushes aside much-needed peaceful
dialogue between opposing political factions.
Unfortunately, violence has been even more
extensively used by the Bolivian right wing since
Morales took office in 2006. A right wing youth
group in Santa Cruz has regularly attacked
indigenous people in that city. In 2007 alone,
there were approximately eight political bombings
in Bolivia, most of which were against leftist
unions or MAS party officials. In 2008, right wing
thugs destroyed various government and human
rights offices across the country, and murdered
some 20 pro-MAS farmers in the Pando, injuring
dozens of others. While the violence against
Cárdenas' family members and the house
occupation should be condemned, so should the
widespread violence unleashed by Bolivia's right
wing against indigenous and pro-MAS citizens.
Misinformation and
In other news, the US State Department
recently released a human rights report on Bolivia
which did not even mention the Santa Cruz Youth
Group and similarly violent right wing groups, or
the repression they have let loose on Bolivia's
indigenous majority. The report does mention the
charges against former Bolivian president
Sanchez de Lozada, but does not mention that
the country in which this criminal is currently
enjoying refuge is the same one that issued the
human rights report. The report explains, "On
October 17, the attorney general's office formally
indicted former president Gonzalo Sanchez de
Lozada and former defense minister Sanchez
Berzain on criminal charges in connection with
the deaths of up to 60 persons in October 2003.
In November the government submitted a request
for Sanchez de Lozada's extradition from the
country to which he fled."
On the media front, Bolivia has recently
witnessed the all too common bias and
misinformation from various US press outlets. A
recent piece in The Atlantic Monthly by Eliza
Barclay was particularly egregious. The title itself
­ "The Mugabe of the Andes?" ­ alludes to the
article's suggestions that most political violence in
Bolivia comes from Morales and his supporters ­
not a racist right wing. In the article, Barclay fails
to quote a single MAS supporter, or anyone
offering a more nuanced view of the country's
political landscape. She focuses on how Morales'
"rhetoric studded with racial references aimed at
his opposition" has created divisions in the
country, and then goes on to mention the
September 2008 violence in Pando without saying
that right wing governor Leopoldo Fernández, not
Morales, was behind the massacre. She mentions
that US ambassador Goldberg was expelled, but
doesn't say why. Barclay also writes that Bolivia's
"highland regions remain stuck in a poverty trap
that Morales has shown little flair for unlocking"
but fails to mention that, as the website Abiding in
Bolivia pointed out, the Bolivian government is
"running a surplus and massively expanding its
budget and infrastructure spending."
Though the MAS has made plenty of
mistakes and Morales is far from a perfect
president, Barclay's article leads the reader to
believe that the country is brimming with people
who hate the MAS government. The fact is that
Morales, in his 2005 election, August 2008 recall
referendum and recent constitutional vote,
received significantly more support from the
population than Barack Obama did in the 2008
US elections.
One example of the positive policies of the
MAS government was demonstrated on March 14,
when Morales redistributed some 94,000 acres in
the eastern part of the country to small farmers.
The land of US rancher Ron Larsen was among
the acres redistributed. Bolivia's new constitution,
which limits new land purchase at 12,400 acres,
has empowered the MAS government's plans for
land reform. "Private property will always be
respected but we want people who are not
interested in equality to change their thinking and
focus more on country than currency," Morales
said, upon officially redistributing the land. Many
of the Guarani farmers in the area that received
the land, including various families on the Larsen
ranch, had been living in conditions of slavery.
Morales explained that, "To own land is to have
freedom, and if there is land and freedom, there
is justice."
Morales writes, "Why is Bolivia so concerned
with the coca leaf? Because it is an important
symbol of the history and identity of the
indigenous cultures of the Andes."
Indeed, symbolism, history and identity have
taken center stage in today's Bolivia. Just recently
it was announced that a statue of Che Guevara
situated at the entrance to the city of El Alto will,
after outcries and protests from numerous
residents, be replaced instead with statues of
Tupac Katari and Bartolina Sisa, as these two
heroes more accurately represent the city's
legacy of anti-colonial, indigenous rebellion. As
Bolivia continues on its rocky road to the
December general elections, the process of
decolonization, so often lauded by MAS
government officials, takes on many forms in this
country in the midst of historic transitions.
Benjamin Dangl
El Alto Anniversary Event. Photo: Quintana/ABI
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