Jim Schultz reports direct from Cochabamba

Reposted From Democracy Centre blog

January 8

This afternoon in Cochabamba’s central plaza a mass rally calling for the resignation of Governor Manfred Reyes Villa turned into a battle between police and backers of President Evo Morales. For hours the city center was filled with tear gas. The front doors and at least one inside office in the state building were burned by protesters, as were two state vehicles. At least a half dozen people have been treated for serious toxic gasification.

The Second Mass Rally in Les than a Week

The current round of intense conflict was sparked in December when Reyes Villa, a presidential candidate in 2002, jumped into the heated controversy over the constitution-writing Constituent Assembly, joining with leaders from Santa Cruz and other eastern states to call for a 2/3 super majority vote requirement for all matters before the Assembly. MAS backers view that demand as a backdoor attempt to stop the Assembly’s work altogether.

Up until then the governor, elected by a popular vote in December 2005, had stayed out of the current national fray, focusing instead on public works projects and a heavy public relations campaign to promote them. On December 14th Reyes-Villa led a rally of thousands in
Cochabamba demanding the 2/3 vote and regional autonomy. MAS backers (correctly) interpreted the Reyes-Villa move as a political challenge to Morales and began mobilizing in opposition to the Cochabamba “Prefecto”.

Last week thousands rallied peacefully in
Cochabamba to demand Reyes-Villa’s resignation, claiming that he was seeking to make Cochabamba autonomous from the national government, despite a strong public vote last July against autonomy. That rally was largely led by the regional Centro Obrero Boliviano (COB). Today’s rally, according to a variety of sources, was largely led by Morales close allies in the coca growers unions.

Over the weekend backers of Reyes-Vila ran ads in the local papers calling the demand for resignation anti-democratic.

An Attempt to Enter and a Flood of Gas

According to news sources here and eye witnesses, shortly after midday a group of the protesters tried to enter the Prefectura (Governor’s Office on the Central Plaza) and police responded with a hail of tear gas that sent protesters and uninvolved residents scrambling to escape the fumes. Shooting police followed them and the gases spread through much of the city center.

At some point afterwards angry protesters reacted by burning the front doors of the prefectura and one inside office. Others, presumably protesters, also set fire to the two state vehicles. But for a heavy rain that began falling on the city in the late afternoon, the conflict might have continued for hours more. There is much speculation tonight about what additional reaction, by protesters and authorities, might take place on Tuesday.

Political Fallout

The Morales government responded to events here by firing the local head of the police, with the Government Minister telling reporters that national officials had made it clear to police that they demanded “zero repression” and told them to take whatever measures were needed to avoid conflict like that which consumed the city center this afternoon.

For his part, Ryes-Villa denied categorically that he had issued any repression order to the police (which are under his regional authority) but defended their actions saying that they were attacked and, “had to defend themselves.” In a packed news conference Reyes-Villa also declared, “If people want to remove public officials from office then it should be done democratically. Let’s have a national referendum on the President, the Governors, and the Mayors and let the people decide.” He also said he would seek prosecution on “sedition” charges for the MAS and other leaders involved in calling the marches.

Aside from the human, material, and social toll of the day’s events, all this is also a deadly serious game of political chess, and Manfred is winning. MAS backers (other key social movements are clearly not joining this) will look more and more to the public like a mob instead of political leaders. Reyes-Villa has wrapped himself in the mantle of democracy.

The threatened referendum on public officials is very unlikely to ever take place but if it did today it seems far more likely that Reyes-Villa would be given a new mandate than Evo Morales. The political stalemate engineered by the opposition has helped widen anti-Evo sentiment.

In my opinion the sooner that MAS gets back to talking about what should be in the new constitution the better off it will be. The call for Reyes-Villa’s resignation, also in my opinion, is a political miscalculation. Reyes-Villa is the head of a complex political machine that has invested heavily to gain power. It will never just fold its tent in resignation. The time to keep Reyes-Villa from becoming Governor was a year ago in an election that MAS lost, in part because it ran a very weak candidate.

If Manfred Reyes-Villa wanted to set himself up as the real opposition to Morales he has succeeded. That said, he may soon come to regret this latest foray into national politics as much as he came to regret his last one – standing by Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada’s side while he sent out troops to kill citizens in October 2003.

The political road in
Bolivia is never an obvious route. Cochabamba’s Governor may soon wish he had stuck to cutting ribbons.

January 9

It was certainly the largest massing of people in Cochabamba that I have seen since the water revolt seven years ago. At midday, a river of people, many blocks long, was filling the city’s main plaza, at least 5,000 people. Again, as yesterday, the demand of those marching was the resignation of Cochabamba’s elected state governor, Manfred Reyes Villa.

Two Worlds

Walking through the sea of protesters and listening to their comments, then doing the same with the rest of the city seeking to go about its business (in a center essentially shut down) was like walking through two vastly different worlds.

“The people have spoken, he has to resign.” That is what one older man concluded as he surveyed the thousands of men and women, many of them from rural areas beyond the city, who filled the center. In his view the ongoing uprising was a clear and compelling measure of public sentiment, a democratic expression that had to be respected.

“Who do these people think they are? The governor was democratically elected.” That was what a taxi driver said to me as we spoke a few minutes later, looking for an open route to another part of town. In his view, the crowds occupying
Cochabamba’s core were defying democracy, not practicing it. Rule by rebellion.

For a brief moment on one of the many blocked off corners near the plaza I got to witness the two worlds and two perspectives in direct collision. A woman, who looked like a professional from her dress, accompanied by a slender man in a green necktie, was challenging a small crowd of young protesters.

“Manfred isn’t respecting the will of the people,” one of the protesters said.

“I supported Evo for president because I supported the change,” she replied. “But what has he actually changed other than telling police they can’t stop vandals
?”

Despite the heated rhetoric and emotions, the most compelling thing is that they were actually having a dialogue, a real one, about the political future of the nation. As messy as it all seemed I did pause a moment to wonder if the US would not had been better off if people had been willing to engage with such conviction in spontaneous public, street corner debates about the wisdom of the Iraq war before it was launched. Sometimes democracy pops up in strange places.

The Chess Game

Today’s march, unlike yesterday’s, resulted in no burned buildings (the outside of the governor’s office is all smoke stains and broken windows) and no gassing. It is important to note that, according to everyone I spoke with who was actually there yesterday, the police clearly started firing gas on a peaceful protest and the assault on the state building was an angry reaction. In addition to the march in the city center, protesters have also begun to blockade the highways in and out of town.

Watching it all I couldn’t help feel like the whole scene was about regular people, on both sides, being caught up in a game of political chess not of their making. All of this is about a power struggle between politicians at the highest level. Morales and MAS are fed up with the demand that a minority be given veto power over every procedural move in a Constituent Assembly that is utterly stalled. Manfred Reyes Villa wanted to get in the national political game and did so by allying himself with the anti-Evo forces of the nation’s eastern departments.

Looked at coldly, as political chess, it is easy to wonder whether Ryes Villa looked even a move or two ahead. Even though he played a central role in the water privatization here seven years ago (as Mayor he signed the local water company’s authorization of the turnover to Bechtel), Reyes Villa has never been the target of the social movements that are so powerful here. Not until now.

A month ago he was happily governing his region utterly above the fray of the national political battle over the Assembly. A month ago he looked like a future president just waiting for his moment down the road. The people of
Cochabamba voted by an overwhelming 63% against regional autonomy when it was on the ballot six months ago. Why Manfred set out to make himself a champion of what his voters so soundly rejected is anyone’s guess.

Today he has thousands of angry constituents demanding his resignation. And while some observers might say – he benefits from this, he looks like a victim of MAS strong-arming – there is one other rule in politics, be it in
Bolivia or anywhere else. Having that many people so pissed off at you that they shut down a city to get you out of office, that isn’t where you want to be.

January 11

As I write this the Center of Cochabamba has just become a war zone. Crowds of hundreds of, mostly young men, armed with heavy sticks, are in open conflict on the block below our office and throughout the Center of Cochabamba. Flying rocks fill the air. Several have come flying through our windows.

More shortly.

Further posting in comments section


5 comments:

Betsy said...

Thank you for the good information. I have been reading all I can on the Cochobamba War. My daughter is coming there with the Peace Corp and I am concerned for her and now also for all of Bolivia.

Bolivia Rising said...

January 11

Manfred Territory

On weekends Plaza Cala Cala is a small traffic circle with a fountain in the middle where families stroll from the surrounding neighborhoods to sit on the grass and eat ice cream. This afternoon, with roads in and out of it blockaded by supporters of embattled state Governor, Manfred Reyes Villa, it was the resting ground for about 250 Manfred supporters equipped with a variety of makeshift arms. These included heavy sticks, baseball bats, metal pipes, a handful of tennis rackets, and one croquet mallet.

This is where I began my walk this afternoon through the streets of Cochabamba, a battle zone waiting to happen and which became one just hours later.

A 21-year-old student at Universidad Privado Boliviano was designated by his friends to speak with me, which involved waking him from a nap on the lawn. "We're here to march for peace. These sticks we have are just for defense." He told me that the demand for Governor Reyes Villa's resignation was, "completely politicized. The cocaleros have come here from the Chapare because they are part of the union that backs Evo Morales and he is against Manfred just because he has different ideas about running the country, like autonomy."

The Plaza was relatively quiet at 2pm when I walked through it, with the only noise coming from the loud male whistles provoked by the appearance of a young woman in a mini-skirt.

Walking down Calle Libertador toward the city center things remained quiet. The chicken broaster restaurant at Calle Americas was full of people who had laid down their sticks and bats to have a meal. Sixty Manfred backers milled about the empty intersection. One smiling young couple was using their sticks to imitate a battle between Jedi knights. A poster proclaimed, "Evo, Respect Democracy!" A man's t-shirt offered the suggestion, "Cochabamba United", on a day when it had never been more divided.

"Eliana Irarte, a 43 year-old business woman in pink sneakers and a turquoise blouse was among those gathered, flat stick in her hand. "We have nothing against the campesinos," she told me, offering to be interviewed in Spanish or English. "But we can't permit their destruction of our city. We [the middle class] supported the Morales government. I believed in the change. I just want respect for democracy and to live in peace."

Continuing south toward the center the streets were mostly empty. A tiny boy rode a bright red bike. A toddler guided by her mother rode a plastic yellow tricycle. Soriada, a young woman in a red blouse was doing a brisk business at her daily street set-up of candy and soda. “The President should tell his people [the coca growers] to leave," she told me.

A few blocks later I arrived at another group of Manfred supporters just as a heavy man riding a "quad” four-wheeled motorcycle (one of the only vehicles I saw all afternoon) arrived and handed another man with a megaphone an official communication from the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz. The declaration pronounced the committee’s support for Manfred Reyes Villa and those who had taken to the street to defend him.

I took notes on a blue notepad. Suddenly a couple of the men in the crowd circled me, ordered me to leave, and ripped the notebook from my hand. I explained that I was a writer walking the route and listening to the views of their backers, which provoked the men to crush my notes into balls, which they tossed on the ground. Encircled, I asked the crowd if this was what they meant by “democracy,” picked up my papers and left.

Two hours later it was from that same spot that he afternoon’s violence would be launched.

The next two blocks were a sort of Demilitarized Zone. No one had sticks. Five police sat on one corner accompanied by five tired police dogs. The Cochabamba DMZ ended at the far end of the bridge that serves as the entrance to downtown, featuring a huge new billboard put up for the recent summit of South American presidents. “Cochabamba Unica” the sign proclaims, “Land of Encounters”. I don’t think the designers meant the kind of bloody encounters that would soon erupt directly underneath it.

Anti-Manfred Territory

Immediately on the other side of the bridge was a line of 25 erect police officers, a good portion of them young women, with shields and full riot gear facing the crowd before them, a clear barrier against their crossing to the other side. The police looked, understandably, nervous and were reluctant to speak with me.

Beyond them there was no mistaking the differences between the two crowds on either side of the river. On the other side of the bridge at the foot of the city’s Prado (the tree-lined restaurant district) some 600-1000 campesinos were sitting in patches of grass, dressed in the dark woven shirts and brown and black felt hats that are almost a uniform for these women and men. Almost all were chewing coca. I sat down to make notes on my trampled notepad and a group of about 20 surrounded me, watching me write, with great suspicion. I again tried out my, “I am a writer…” explanation, and this time with better results. They were anxious to share their perspective.

“Manfred provoked this,” Teodoro Sanchez told me, a 36-year-old man from the Chapare region of Cochabamba. “The majority of people are tired of being cheated. We are asking for his resignation and we will continue marching until he leaves.”

A clean-cut 15-year-old high school student from Cochabamba, Noel, told me, “If the people put him in, the people can put him out.” The people (el pueblo) was the power always invoked when I asked by what right those assembled felt they could oust an elected official. For the campesinos and workers I spoke with “the people” meant the people who had marched on the city. On the other side of the river “the people” meant the larger electorate.

Both sides were also utterly convinced that the people on the other were paid to be there. But here, as on the other side of the bridge, the motivation was politics not currency. “We want Manfred to leave, autonomy will divide the people.” Sabina Claros said as she squatted next to me. The 45-year-old housewife who came from the rural town of Misque added, “We have no fear, we don’t even fear death.”

The rest of the Prado was clear of protesters and sticks. A handful of restaurants remained opened. In front of one I ran into Carlos, an 11-year-old shoeshine boy who hassles me all the time to buy him ice cream. He had no opinion on the standoff but complained that no one all day had agreed to a shoeshine. I slipped him money for lunch and told him to be careful.

A few blocks later Cochabamba’s Plaza Principal was jammed, as full and as tense as I have seen it at any time since the water revolt seven years ago. A crowd of 2,000 – 3,000 people – most all coca growers from outside the city and members of the regional labor union – filed every available patch of grass and across from the plaza were lined up seventy wide sitting along side the walls of the old Colonial Cathedral.

In front of the charred entrance to the Governor’s office, burned during a confrontation earlier in the week, 70 makeshift cocalero sentries stood in a line almost a block long, armed with heavy sticks and guarding the entrance of the building. Behind them a dozen green-clad police stood guard as well. A young woman dressed in the indigenous clothing of Potosi handed out small bananas to a group of young men.

I approached the sentries, none of whom wanted to give his name. “Almost 70% of the people voted against autonomy. Manfred has violated the constitution by pushing autonomy.” When asked if he really thought Cochabamba’s governor would resign another told me, “If we could get rid of Goni we can get rid of Manfred.”

A few minutes later I went looking for one of the main leaders of the anti-Manfred protests, Omar Fernandez, leader of the irrigators association (one of the more powerful rural unions) and a MAS Senator from Cochabamba. I asked him how the standoff would end. “Manfred just has to go,” he told me.

I then asked him the question I asked of almost everyone I spoke to who is part of the demand for Manfred’s resignation, “What do you say to those who say that it is anti-democratic to oust someone democratically elected?” He replied, “An elected official can lose legitimacy,” and pointing to the huge crowd demanding resignation he added, “Manfred has lost legitimacy. He violated the will of the people [Cochabamba’s strong vote in July against regional autonomy].

The Explosion

It was while I was speaking with Fernandez in one corner of the main plaza that frenzied reports began circulating through the crowd that the cocaleros by the bridge were being attacked. “They are kicking the shit out of them!” yelled one young man who ran up to Fernandez. “You have to mobilize the people in the plaza!” It was clear that protest leaders didn’t expect such an attack today and were unprepared for how to respond.

Boris Rios, who has contributed several articles to this Blog the past year, was in the crowd of cocaleros when the attack by Manfred backers began. This is how he described it to me afterwards. At about 4:15 pm a group of what he said was between 1,000 to 2,000 Manfred supporters, wielding sticks (some with knives fastened to the end like bayonettes) and at least one firearm, broke past the small police lines and launched an attack. In those same moments the overrun police launched tear gas, creating what Boris described as “utter confusion.”

All day it was clear that Cochabamba’s Center was a tank of gasoline and the question was which side would actually toss in a match. The fact that the first confrontation took place on the downtown side of the bridge is clear evidence that it was the Manfred supporters who ignited the fatal melee that followed. Racial epithets (“Stupid fucking Indian!”) were thrown along with the beatings that sent the outnumbered cocaleros running toward the city’s main plaza. This was the attack that people were first hearing about when I was there.

Within minutes, the men in the main plaza began filling the streets that lead back to the Prado and the attack. For an hour the street where we have our offices was a back and forth surge of two screaming groups of stick and rock wielding young men. Once the violence began each side took turns taking vengeance on the other. And, according to Bolivian news reports, each side now has a martyr. The cocaleros prepare to bury one of their own, 42-year-old Nicómedes Gutiérrez, reportedly killed by a bullet that pierced his heart. Manfred supporters will bury a 20-year-old youth, Cristian Urrestia, who was reportedly attacked with a machete and strangled.

What Next?

Reportedly miners from the highlands are en route to the city by truck to join the coca growers and others demanding Manfred’s resignation. There are similar reports of people arriving from Santa Cruz. Cochabamba could be hit by violence on Friday even more widespread than today, as each side in the conflict takes its anger over the killings back into the streets. A force of 1,500 military sent in by the national government, may not be able to prevent more battles like today’s.

Reyes Villa, speaking to reporters from La Paz, proclaimed that he was defending democracy and would not resign. Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, also speaking from La Paz, blamed Reyes-Villa for the crisis, charging that he had chosen the patch of conflict over the autonomy issue instead of negotiation.

The violence here in Cochabamba is really two stories. One is about events on the street, which after today may take on a life if their own independent of any wishes by those supposedly leading each side. The other is about a dangerous game of political chess being played out by the two men that have come in the last few weeks to represent the two sides of Bolivia’s political debate – Cochabamba Governor Manfred Reyes Villa and President Evo Morales.

Did Reyes-Villa deliberately provoke this crisis to establish himself, as he now clearly has, as the leading opposition voice to Morales? Or did he set Cochabamba down a path toward political chaos by miscalculation? Did Morales send the core of his political base – the cocaleros – into Manfred’s political backyard to pressure his rival to back off, also setting the violence in motion? Or, did the cocaleros act independently, or even against Morales’ wishes? I have strong sources claiming it both ways.

There is enough blame to go around for everyone and tonight there are at least two people dead as a result. Cochabamba, and Bolivia, needs one of its leaders to rise above the divide and demonstrate some kind of path toward unity. So far, none has.

Bolivia Rising said...

January 12
Tear gas now wafts its way through the windows of my office. Twenty-four hours after central Cochabamba erupted in violence that claimed two lives and wounded well more than a hundred, the numbers of people in the streets only grows.

I just returned a while ago from the Central Plaza, where a crowd of about 5,000 people demanding Manfred's resignation gathered to hear speeches from the balcony of the central labor union. I was one of only a few gringo heads that stuck up from the Bolivian crowd. Sticking up higher still were thousands of rough wooden sticks held upright in people's hands. It's safe to say that my mother would not have approved of how I spent my lunch break.

Cocaleros and others from the countryside region of Cochabamba are coming in by truckloads. Omar Fernandez, the Irrigators Union leader and MAS Senator who is a leader in the protest, asked those blockading the roads in and out of the city to let the newcomers in. Opponents of Reyes Villa are increasing their numbers and they are coming here to stay.

I don't know, at this writing, exactly what is happening with concentrations of Manfred supporters, but there are reports that two separate groups, possibly armed with guns, are marching toward the Central Plaza to take control of it. Rumors are many in these situations and hard facts tougher to come by, but we'll keep you posted. Clearly, new outbreaks of violent conflict are possible.

Speaking from the balcony, a visibly exhausted Fernandez made it clear that the leadership of the protests want further violence to be avoided. He cast yesterday's events as a deliberate provocation by Manfred supporters and urged those in the plaza not to allow their adversaries to drag them into violence once again.

The Morales government has made several statements in the last 24 hours. Evo Morales, en route home from the presidential inaugural in Nicaragua, called for peace and dialogue. Last night, Vice President Garcia Linera blamed Manfred for provoking the violence and also called for peace. More interesting was a long declaration on the radio this morning by the Vice Minister of Government who said the solution to the crisis needed to be a compromise that "respected democracy." That compromise, he said, meant that the cocaleros and others in the plaza needed to respect the democratic legitimacy of Reyes-Villa as governor and Reyes-Villa needed to respect, in turn, the democratic will of the people of Cochabamba who voted strongly against the regional autonomy Reyes-Villa is now backing. The prospects of either side backing down seem pretty slim at this point.

What does all this mean? Here are three things that I think have to be noted about the current situation:

1. The violence yesterday was clearly started by Manfred's backers.

The facts seem indisputable. At 4:15 the cocaleros, about 600 of them, were dispersed on the lawns at the end of the Prado on the southern side of the bridge. Some 1,000 stick-wielding Manfred backers deliberately crossed to that side of the bridge and began beating people. TV film footage, including scenes of young male Manfred supporters beating indigenous women, not only corroborate this version of events, but also sent a racially charged image across Bolivia that will not soon be forgotten. Yes, the cocaleros helped provoke the current crisis, but Manfred's backers win sole credit for turning that tension into the violent melee that took place here Thursday.

2. The Battle of Cochabamba is a stand-in for something much larger.

Each side has sought to wrap itself in the mantle of "democracy", and each side has some legitimacy in doing so. Manfred and his backers say he was elected by the people and that no crowd in the Plaza has the right to reverse an election. Those calling for his resignation say he is violating democracy by directly going against a popular vote against autonomy. But really, the stakes are bigger here. Cochabamba has become the meeting ground of two broad forces trying to steer the nation in their preferred historic direction. "Autonomy" is not about what language children will speak in school; it is about oil revenue and who controls it. The highlands and the marginalized of Cochabamba want that resource to belong to all of Bolivia. The eastern provinces, where the luck of geology placed that oil and gas, want to maximize their share. Unwrap all the proclamations about democracy (though clearly sincere by many) and it is about oil and gas, political control of the nation's future, and what Manfred opponents call, "the process of change."

3. We are in uncharted waters here.

This is not the water war. Then you had a unified Cochabamba – urban and rural together – joined in a social movement with clear leadership, facing a government. Even in the most conflictive moments there was a logic to how the various actors made their choices and there was always dialogue between the two, along with skilled mediation. This is about a Cochabamba deeply divided. Some of the same neighborhood people blockading streets in the more affluent northern parts of town yesterday, in support of Manfred, were blockading with the Coordinadora seven years ago. There is no dialogue taking place and no viable mediation. There is also much less control from above about what happens on the street. The end game in the water revolt was clear toward the end – eventually Bechtel would leave. How this crisis ends is completely unclear, and uncertainty combined with angry crowds in the streets is a dangerous chemistry.

Bolivia Rising said...

And Now, an Exit Strategy
Yesterday I wrote that events in Cochabamba had placed Bolivia in uncharted waters in terms of how these kinds of political crises get resolved. Today we are back in charted waters of partial retreats, negotiation, mediation, and compromise, as the outlines of an exit strategy begin to emerge from various sides.

Manfred: “Well, if a new referendum is unconstitutional…”

Yesterday Manfred Reyes Villa and the other governors supporting him took their road show from La Paz to Santa Cruz where the Cochabamba governor made his first significant public comments since the explosion of violence here Thursday. He blamed events on Morales and the cocaleros and said it was the President’s responsibility, not his, to restore order. But then he also announced that he was retreating on his call for a new regional vote on the autonomy question, saying that if it wasn’t constitutional to convene a re-vote he certainly didn’t want to violate the constitution.

Evo: Scrambling to look like a President

For his part, Evo was back from Nicaragua Friday and scrambling to look presidential. A government vice-minister had already proclaimed earlier in the day that the “democratic” solution to the Cochabamba crisis was for protesters to respect the legitimacy of Manfred’s election as governor and for Manfred to respect the anti-autonomy position of the people expressed at the polls last July. In a televised address Evo called for calm on all sides and put his weight behind a constitutional amendment he will send to the Congress allowing for voter recall of all major public officials. "Be it a mayor, be it a governor, be it the president of the republic, if he violates human rights or is corrupt or he does not honor campaign promises ... it should be possible to revoke any authority's mandate by a referendum."

The Church: Back in the game as mediator.

I have been telling reporters all week, “Keep your eye on the church.” When the conflict hits the fan in Bolivia, at the end of the day, the only institution that can get everyone to the table – from left to right – is the Catholic Church. At the news conference of the governors yesterday Manfred announced that Bolivian Cardinal Julio Terrazas has agreed to mediate a dialogue between the governors and Morales (or whomever he sends).

The Anti-Manfred Protesters: The roads are open

Yesterday afternoon the anti-Manfred forces that continue to have control of the city’s main plaza announced the end of their blockade of roads leading in and out of Cochabamba, which has left thousands of travelers stranded for days. One of the leaders of the protest said on television that it was never their intent to cause harm to businesses and citizens, just to apply pressure on Manfred. I doubt that makes much real difference to the businesses and citizens who have been so drastically affected. I have it on a good source that the sudden move to drop the blockades resulted from a not especially happy phone call to protest leaders from Morales on his return. They have not withdrawn their demand that Manfred resign.

Manfredistas with sticks and pistols: No where to be seen

There were a few stick-wielding Manfred supporters on the streets yesterday, but very few. The army of Manfred backers, which set upon the cocaleros Thursday with suspiciously military precision, was nowhere to be seen.

Tuto Quiroga: It is Manfred’s fault…

Former President and PODEMOS opposition leader, Tuto Quiroga, was on television yesterday blaming Manfred for the Thursday violence, saying that the Cochabamba governor should have been at home managing the crisis instead of roaming about the rest of the country in political meetings. Quiroga has found himself utterly replaced, in just a matter of a month, as the lead opponent to Morales. Welcome to the new reality of Bolivian politics: the opposition that counts from now on is not in the Congress but among the now-elected governors.

Enough Blame for Everyone to Get a Share

So, Cochabamba returns to relative calm and normalcy for the weekend, with some hope that an end is in sight to the crisis that has struck the city for a week, but knowing that nothing is certain. Two men are now dead, one from each side of the battle, and hundreds are injured. Thousands have lost a precious week’s wages and a cloud of Cochabambino vs. Cochabambino mistrust hangs in the air. Who is to blame?

Manfred deserves a lot of credit. It was, in the beginning, he who started it with his demand that the election he lost on autonomy in July be rerun to see if he could get a result more to his liking. Manfred is many things but he is not stupid. He had to know that his demand would provoke a crisis and there is ample reason to believe that he did it purposefully to position himself (as he has) as the new leading opponent to Morales, knowing as well the potential for violent repercussions. Manfred’s call for a re-vote on autonomy is the Cochabamba equivalent of President Bush responding to the anti-Iraq War vote in November by sending in 20,000 more troops. If these had been US protests we might have seen a banner reading, “Hey Manfred, What part of 63% NO don’t you understand?”

Evo is not much cleaner. All week I have tried to get an honest answer from people in a position to know: Did Evo engineer or authorize the MAS/cocalero-led protests as a way to pressure Manfred in his own backyard. There is no straight answer, which leads me to believe that Evo did not engineer this but also did not prevent it from happening when he could have. I believe that Morales will pay a huge political cost for all this. He began 2006 with a vast reservoir of political capital and a strong base of middle class support to add to his natural base among the poor and rural. After this week, in Cochabamba at least, what was left of that middle class base is gone and it isn’t coming back.

The Anti-Manfred Protesters miscalculated. Yes, it is true that there is nothing else they could have done to stop Manfred and his re-vote other than civil disobedience. There is nothing short of that he would listen to. But the protesters underestimate the animosity they create among city residents when life is disrupted and property is destroyed. Yesterday in the Plaza Principal, Omar Fernandez, the MAS Senator and irrigators' union leader, spoke from the same balcony where he spoke so many times during the water revolt seven years ago. And Fernandez tried to invoke this week’s protest as the extension of that water revolt victory. In fact, sadly, it is the reverse. The water revolt historically unified Cochabamba’s urban and rural communities. This week left those communities bitterly divided.

The Pro-Manfred Thugs: There is a groups of people out there who are not the college students and business women I met and talked to in the streets and who pledged that the sticks in their hands were for self-defense. They are others who flew in as a swarm Thursday afternoon to take first aim at women in wide pollera skirts, letting their racism fully loose as they swung their bats. What role did Captain Manfred Reyes Villa (the title he has conspicuously resurrected for himself as late) have in their arrival on the scene?

Last night I was walking home late from the city center, on streets that were eerily quiet and dark. I ran into two very small boys, Henry and Carlos, who had sticks in their hands. They were smiling and we spoke:

“So why do you have those sticks?” I asked them.

“There are some boys down the street who bother us sometimes.”

“And now you are fully armed?”

“Yes, now we are fully armed.”

“Did you get the idea for the sticks from what happened yesterday?”

They both nodded back to me.

When political conflict dissolves into brother upon brother, sister upon sister, violence we never know how that changes things. Everyone who had a hand in the events this week needs to ask some deep questions about what they could have done different.

Bolivia Rising said...

January 15 blog from Jim Schultz

Cochabamba: Somewhat Back to Normal but Waiting
Monday, midday

Cochabamba is relatively back to normal today, with the obvious exception of the Central Plaza which is still occupied by groups demanding that Manfred Reyes Villa resign. How long this version of “normal” will last is anybody’s guess. What will happen next will be determined by a whole set of behind-closed-doors conversations happening in Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and La Paz.

Here in Cochabamba there are even more people coming to the city from rural areas of the department (it is important to keep in mind that the area Manfred serves includes all of the rural areas far beyond the city as well), preparing to put large numbers in the Plaza for a rally and show of force Tuesday.

Over the weekend Evo Morales came to Cochabamba and met with leaders of the protest, calling their demand for resignation “legitimate” and he did not call on them to end the protests. Instead he pushed for his proposed law allowing the recall of officials, encouraged Reyes Villa to return from Santa Cruz, and offered to help mediate between the protesters and the embattled governor. Reyes Villa, for his part, had pledged to stay in Santa Cruz, not for his personal safety, he says, but to prevent additional confrontations aimed at forcing his resignation.

How can one read all this?

As for Evo, he has clearly either chosen not to use his influence to call off the protests or his base in Cochabamba is now acting with such a level of independence that he can’t. He has essentially taken the position: Hey Manfred, this is your problem, not mine and good luck fixing it. I doubt that is a position that will sit very well with the majority of Cochabambinos, who aren’t especially loyal to either side of the “Manfred should resign” debate and just want their city back to normal. I think they want their President to do all he can to find a peaceful resolution.

As for Manfred, he probably could have picked a better symbolic place for his short-term exile than Santa Cruz. He risks looking more like a Camba wannabe each day, but I can understand why he wouldn’t especially want to just fly back to Cochabamba. If I had six thousand people really, really pissed off at me I’d be cautious as well.

I had a thought Sunday, an image than won’t come true. Looking at the sad coverage of two families burying their loved ones over the weekend I wondered if the Catholic Bishop here, Tito Solari, couldn’t pay each of them a visit and say, “Only your two families, together, have the moral weight that might make all sides commit themselves to a peaceful solution. Will you join me in a news conference together?”

I realize the stakes in this conflict are high and the issues are important, for everyone involved. But leaders on both sides can and ought to commit themselves (and mean it) to no additional violence.