Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The latest as crisis slowly cools

I haven't had as much time as I'd like to blog yesterday and today. Here's a very brief update (and I'll be on KPFA morning show again tomorrow, Wednesday, at 7am Pacific Time):

The bishop, the human rights ombudsman, and the head of the Red Cross were finally able to fly to Pando today, so I hope we'll know more about the situation there tomorrow. Sounds like the government put a lot of (figurative) roadblocks in their way, delaying their trip. That's disheartening to hear, but they are not sure if this was just administrative bureaucracy or intentional smokescreens.

That said, in reviewing all kinds of press reports and other information, here's my admittedly speculative take on the violence there as of now: A campesino group was marching from Riberalta (a city on the border between the Beni and Pando departments) to Cobija (capital of Pando) for a meeting of campesino organizations (unions, basically). It sounds like they left Riberalta unarmed. There are some reports that they were then given arms and told to go take over the prefecture in Cobija. There are some reports that they were met initially by an unarmed group of citizens who tried unsuccessfully to turn them back. Then, then met an armed group. There are some reports that the campesino group fired first. There are also many reports denying that the campesino group was armed or bound for the prefecture. What seems clear is that, upon arriving at the town of Filadelfia, near the town of El Porvenir, there was a firefight. Even in the right-leaning, mainstream Bolivian media, it is being described as an "ambush" and a "massacre." Even if the campesinos were armed and fired first, it seems clear they were drastically outgunned. And many media outlets of all kinds are reporting that the people firing at them - with machine guns, rifles, and other weapons, some reportedly fired by sharpshooters in trees - were sent by Pando's prefect, Leopoldo Fernandez. At least 25 to 30 campesinos people were killed, the vast majority from the campesino group. Dozens more were injured. Still dozens more are still unaccounted for - there may be bodies in forests and rivers, and many are hiding from the mobs who still circulate in the area. There are reports of women and children among the dead.

The army has taken over most of the region. Prefect Leopoldo Fernandez has been arrested and taken to La Paz.

Meanwhile, there has been an agreement reached between the government (represented by Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera) and opposition leaders (represented by Tarija Prefect Mario Cossio). Thursday, formal dialog will begin here in Cochabamba, touching on major issues such as the reconciliation of visions for regional autonomy (the opposition has declared autonomy in the eastern "media luna" departments, while the national government is seeking to pass a new constitution that also includes regional autonomy, with different details), and the distribution of natural gas revenues. The arrest of Leopoldo Fernandez put a strain on the process of achieving dialog, but seems not to have broken it.

The opposition has agreed to abandon all of the national government offices it had taken over last week. They are also ceasing roadblocks. Things seem to be returning to normal - slowly and tentatively. It is important to the most powerful opposition leaders - those in Santa Cruz - that calm be established there pronto, because they have a major trade fair - huge annual economic stimulus to the region - coming up in a week or two.

One other thing that surely played a role: The presidents of South America (Unasur) met in Chile yesterday and declared strong support for Evo Morales and his government, and denounced the actions of the opposition. They also agreed to help investigate the events in Pando and to assist with the internal dialog here in Bolivia. This was a powerful and important show of international support, and contrasted notably with the crisis of diplomatic relations between Bolivia and the United States.

On that front, both major U.S. presidential nominees made silly statements indicating that they do not understand what's happening here, and blaming president Morales not only for the reciprocal booting of ambassadors between the two countries, but for the troubled situation within Bolivia. Ugh. Call them and tell them to wisen up.

And the U.S. Embassy (while they haven't updated their report on Ambassador Goldberg, who is already long gone) is acting like Bolivia is in the middle of their own little Armageddon. It isn't. Things are looking up, actually. I feel very sad about the past couple of weeks, and I think there is a lot that needs to happen here long-term that is not yet happening. But I'm hopeful about the coming days.

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