Jim Schultz reports direct from
Reposted From Democracy Centre blog
This afternoon in
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
Last week thousands rallied peacefully in
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.
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
It was certainly the largest massing of people in
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
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
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
As I write this the