Thursday, August 07, 2008

Heady (national holi)days in Bolivia as referendum approaches

Fiestas Patrias

Today (I mean August 6, although it's actually a few minutes into the 7th as I write) was Bolivian Independence Day - the 183rd anniversary of the republic. Said republic has been an increasingly chaotic place over the last weeks, days, and hours. If you are reading about it from far away and trying to make sense of it all, know this: it's very nearly as hard to keep track of here on the ground.

Today, while typical August 6 parades took place in many places, including here in Cochabamba, President Evo Morales was prevented by angry protesters from making planned independence day appearances in three different cities where opposition to his government is strong (Sucre, Santa Cruz, and Trinidad), and a protest by miners (one of several protests happening around the country this week) turned bloody as clashes between road-blocking miners and police left 2 dead and 38 injured.

Referéndum Revocatorio

All of this is occurring in anticipation of this Sunday's planned recall referendum, in which the president, vice president, and 8 of the country's 9 regional prefects (often translated governors, but that's become a politically loaded and not-quite-accurate translation) are to be subjected to an up-or-down vote on whether they will continue in office. This recall vote has been promoted by various politicians over the last year-and-a-half, including Evo Morales, the opposition parties leading the Senate, and Cochabamba Prefect Manfred Reyes Villa. President Morales is alone among these, however, in his consistent willingness to be subjected to the recall, regardless of current events or polling numbers.

Reyes Villa in particular has proven himself a whiplash-inducing example of what in U.S. presidential campaigns is lamentably referred to as a "flip-flopper." Just a few months ago, when the majority leadership of the Senate (opponents of President Morales) approved the recall election law in a colossal political miscalculation, Manfred went on CNN congratulating the government for passing the law, lamenting that if they had only listened to him when he first suggested the recall over a year ago, tragic deaths and conflicts could have been avoided. But when the first poll came out saying that Reyes Villa's position was far more uncertain than that of Morales, he changed his tune. Now he says that the referendum is illegal and unconstitutional, and he will not leave office even if he loses the vote. That could cause major, even very violent conflicts here in Cochabamba.

Since my last post, the other opposition prefects have kind of accepted the referendum, but debate over whether and how it will go forward has become much more convoluted as the courts and congress have become involved. The top two courts in Bolivia are currently not functioning because of judges who departed in the midst of political conflicts - basically, the executive claimed that judges, appointed by previous administrations to serve in what has always been a notoriously corrupt and political judicial branch, were acting in ways that were inappropriately political/partisan, and opposition parties then claimed that the executive was being inappropriately political/partisan by making such claims, and the firestorm resulted in several empty spots on the bench, in both the supreme court (the top appeals court) and the constitutional tribunal. Even as the opposition tries to use the situation to stop the referendum, judges and courts that are in place are acting in ways that tend to bolster government allegations of their political partisanship. The result: the referendum will almost certainly happen; it may not be uniformly administered by regional authorities; and the aftermath is anybody's guess.

Prevención de violencia

Here in Cochabamba I am a part of a working group on nonviolence and the prevention of violence in social conflicts, called Colectivo Rimarikuna. We are putting together some reports on what is happening, and planning to spend the day Sunday observing and interviewing people in some of the polling places and barrios we deem most likely to experience conflict. We are not in a position to intervene as a nonviolent peace force should clashes occur, but we do want to witness and understand what is happening. I will post more here - I believe some of our reporting will be featured on the Democracy Center blog on Sunday. We also hope that, by helping get accurate information out on what's happening, we might contribute to a diminished probability of violence in the days following the referendum. It may be a drop in a large bucket, but we believe we are playing a unique role, and we'll do what we can.

I'm a movie star: Radiografía de un Demócrata Fascista

Also, a video documentary just came out this week about Manfred Reyes Villa, entitled "Radiografía de un Demócrata Fascista"(X-Ray of a Fascist Democrat). It features segments of an interview with yours truly. Apart from that, I highly recommend it (it is in Spanish). In outlining Reyes Villa's career, from paramilitary thug for the worst Bolivian dictators under the tutelage of former Nazi S.S. officer Klaus "The Butcher of Leon" Barbie to Cochabamba prefect, prominent opposition politician, and one of the wealthiest men in city, the producers actually forget to mention the summary fact that a few months ago, el Bombon (Manfred's nickname - it's supposed to mean he's handsome) publicly called on the nation's military leadership to rise up and overthrow the Morales government.

I fully realize that the word "fascist" too often gets thrown around by people on the left, jokingly or not, to describe everyone to the right of Dennis Kucinich, rendering it an effectively meaningless epithet. If you want to see what the word was actually meant to describe, look up Manfred Reyes Villa. The first part of the video, at least, has already been posted on YouTube (link above), and I know they're working on posting the whole 40 minutes.

Las manifestaciones

The many protests that are happening around Bolivia right now are about all sorts of things - mostly particular sectors of the workforce demanding particular benefits (teachers, truck-drivers, miners, disabled people, demanding new laws dictating labor conditions, pensions, and government handouts). The fact that they are all happening with such intensity at this precise moment may be just because labor leaders figure they can use the upcoming recall vote to pressure the government to meet their demands, or it may, as the government contends, point to a more concerted political effort to destabilize the country and bring about the demise of the Morales administration.

There are more openly political protests, too, the most prominent being a "hunger strike" (read: melodramatic diet) begun by civic committee leaders (kind of chambers-of-commerce on steroids - and with 'roid rage) in the opposition-heavy lowland regions referred to as the "Media Luna." They are dredging up every major contention they've had with the national government this week in an unvarnished attempt to tilt the referendum against Morales. Today the prefects of the Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando regions joined that strike.

I'm a radio star: Buenos Dias, Berkeley

I've been trying to get a better handle on all of this - as I mentioned above, it's not easy. I hope to be able to speak coherently about it by Friday morning at 7 a.m. Pacific Time, when I will be interviewed by my friend Aimee Allison on her radio program, The Morning Show on KPFA in Berkeley. Check it out -- they archive and podcast their shows on the website, so you can catch it whenever, wherever.

About Time

In the midst of scanning the Bolivian press and trying to make sense of the conflicting, distorted, poorly reported and heavily editorialized accounts of all this stuff, I was grateful to my friend Matt Salazar for pointing out one article in English that, while it's not breaking news, is refreshingly helpful, accurate, and nuanced about a topic that is rarely covered in any of those ways in the international press. It's an article on Evo Morales' coca policy, in Time magazine of all places.

Nota personal
Since mostly my mom reads this, I always feel obligated to throw in a personal note about the scene on the ground when things get this tense here. Things are indeed tense, but I honestly believe my family and I are safe. I'm hopeful that violence in the next weeks will be minimal. But worst case scenario, I think there could be several bloody clashes in city centers (especially Cochabamba) and around mass meetings, both between protesters and government forces and between civilian groups, all of which we can fairly easily avoid.

This is very largely internal Bolivian stuff, so whatever happens, I don't think it's at all likely to turn into a kill-the-yanquis-type scene.

Regarding observing things on Sunday with Colectivo Rimarikuna: we are doing a fair amount of preparation, focused largely on safety and security, risk/threat analysis, and avoiding direct involvement in clashes. The truth is, right now I'm feeling like violence on Sunday in Cochabamba is not extremely probable, and not particularly predictable, meaning if it does happen, I'm not convinced it will be in the places we plan to be monitoring. That's frustrating for us as a group, but consoling to me as a guy who has no interest in getting hurt.

I was a little concerned about appearing in the video about Manfred, since he has thugs in his employ and has been violent with some of his enemies in the past. But I really don't talk about him in the video - I was mainly interviewed about the U.S. Army School of the Americas, of which he is a graduate. I don't think I'm being naive in thinking he has bigger fish to fry.

So, here's my personal (i.e. unqualified but earnest) threat-level assessment, comparing the probability of suffering violence in the next few weeks with what was the probability of suffering violence, say, a month ago:
Bolivia: + 60-75%
Me: + 2%
My family: + <0.2%

UPDATE: I'm not the bloggiest blogger in the blogosphere - I should have embedded the Manfred Reyes Villa documentary video in the post above. They have now posted the entire film in four parts. Here is the first one:

Weirdly, the image from the video that first pops up is of me. Not sure why, since the clip neither opens nor closes with me, and I am the worst-dressed person in the film, and appear to have hat head. Huh.

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