Bolivian adversaries step back from brink

The Constituent Assembly, situated in Bolivia’s judicial capital of Sucre, turned 1 year old on Aug. 6, and had agreed on nothing. Street protests and racial slurs directed at delegates closed it down briefly in mid-August, and on Sept. 6 it closed for a month. An assembly had been one of socialist President Evo Morales’ key campaign demands.

Morales’ opponents forced a debate on moving the executive and legislative seat of government, currently in La Paz, to Sucre. That debate, plus another over autonomy for Bolivia’s eastern departments (states), were seen as distractions from its main mission of guaranteeing economic and political rights for Bolivia’s indigenous majority. When Morales’ supporters stopped debate on the matter on Aug. 15, violent protests erupted.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linares called for an indigenous mobilization in Sucre for Sept. 10. In response, the “civic committees” of six departments, representing better-off and privileged Bolivians of European descent, organized work stoppages for Aug. 28.

The strikes had an uneven impact, with rural people generally staying aloof. For the first time, however, Chuquisaca and Cochebamba joined four separatist-leaning eastern departments as centers of right-wing protest. Demonstrators circulated flyers with racist messages.

On Sept. 4, the pro-Morales governor of Chuquisaca resigned, unwilling to face expanding violence. The next day, an Assembly decision to ignore a court order to debate the issue of moving the capital triggered right-wing attacks that wounded 80. The civic committees’ new “Democratic Junta of Bolivia” organized a one-day hunger strike. Santa Cruz’s mayor called for Bolivia to become two separate nations.

A pro-Morales “Social Summit in Defense of the Constituent Assembly” took place in Sucre on Sept. 10. The call had been for 100,000 protesters, but only 10,000 showed up. Rural people held back because of fears of violence. A summit manifesto demanded “democratic unity,” equality, indigenous rights and “nationalization of natural wealth.”

Then the two sides pulled back. The Chuquisaca governor returned to his office. On Sept. 18, six political parties agreed on a “conciliation commission,” respect for “consensus,” and the necessity for a two-thirds majority in the Assembly to adopt a draft constitution to go to a national referendum. Assembly leaders and all parties promised to work toward reviving the Assembly by Dec. 14.

In Santa Cruz, civic committee head Branko Marinkovic, whose family is accused of illegally holding almost 30,000 acres of land, offered to compensate victims of marauding right-wing youth. His counterparts in Pando, Cochabamba and Chuquisaca spoke up for resuming the Assembly.

Bolivia’s military supports the government so far. Some $10 million has been allocated toward reequipping army units, which have taken roles in producing and distributing bread in an effort to counter rising prices. Military head Wilfredo Vargas told reporters, “The Armed Forces ... are always a bastion of guarantee within the framework of the political constitution of the state.”

Washington is involved, according to Eva Golinger. A recent Internet article by the U.S.-Venezuelan lawyer documented U.S. funding of 379 Bolivian organizations and political parties. Public documents revealed payments of $13.3 million for “reinforcing regional governments,” “civic education for emergent leaders” and “the spreading of information.”

Expressions of solidarity with the Morales government are multiplying. On his weekly television program, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, with Evo Morales at his side, warned, “Imperialism has a plan to knock off this Indian. ... If that occurs, we will shout with Che Guevara ... one, two, three, four, five, or 10 Vietnams [for] Latin America.”

From Argentina, journalist Luis Bilbao demanded from President Nestor Kirchner “a public pronouncement against the conspiring of the U.S., which aims to overthrow the government of Evo Morales.” Circulating widely is a statement “of defense of the Bolivian government and no to U.S. interference” signed by unionists, intellectuals, and solidarity activists of many countries.

For Vice President Garcia, “The real issue [for] the conservative elites is ownership of land ... of forests, of water, of mining wealth and hydrocarbons.” But “no matter what happens to the Constituent Assembly, the process of change will continue.”

atwhit @megalink.net