Bolivia: Talks Hold Out Hope in Polarized Country

Franz Chávez, Thursday, 10 January 2008

(IPS) Bringing Bolivia’s four youngest and strongest sons back into the fold will not be an easy task for leftist President Evo Morales, who is attempting to keep a heavily polarised country together.

The president met with the governors of the eastern lowlands provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, which account for nearly two-thirds of Bolivia’s gross domestic product (GDP) and have been pressing for autonomy and greater control over the revenues from the natural gas reserves found in that part of the country.

Their calls for autonomy have clashed with the demands of Morales’ supporters, who are mainly the indigenous majority living in the country’s impoverished western highlands region, and who are seeking greater participation in decision-making and defending rights that have been trampled for centuries.

Monday’s meeting, which stretched into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, was preceded by violent incidents, heated rhetoric, mutual aggression, and refusals by the governors in question to recognise Morales’ authority as president.

However, the meeting ended on a promising note.

South America’s poorest country, which is made up of nine provinces, appeared to be on the verge of an irreconcilable break-up after the constituent assembly approved a draft constitution with only the votes of the members of the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS), who hold a majority of seats in the assembly.

The constituent assembly met in early December despite a boycott by the rightwing opposition, triggering sometimes violent protests by anti-government demonstrators in the eastern provinces, which in response adopted "autonomy statutes" that pointed in the direction of outright separatism.

The president was praised for bringing together the country’s nine provincial governors in Monday’s meeting, which was broadcast on TV. They plan to continue the dialogue, aimed at working out their differences, next week.

After the meeting, Bolivians expressed their approval of the courteous and diplomatic tone taken by the president and the governor of Santa Cruz, Rubén Costas, who has been one of Morales’ most scathing critics.

Morales, Bolivia’s first-ever indigenous president, opened the meeting with a report on his first two years in office, presenting results that would have been the envy of his predecessors.

He pointed out that despite the social unrest and political polarisation of 2007, GDP grew 4.2 percent, to 11 billion dollars -- around 1,100 dollars per capita -- while a trade surplus was achieved, as well as a budget surplus equivalent to 2.2 percent of GDP.

He also promised that public investment, which totalled 500 million dollars in 2005, would increase to 1.3 billion dollars in 2008. Meanwhile, foreign reserves climbed from 1.7 to 5.3 billion dollars since Morales took office in January 2006.

He finished his presentation by saying that the results indicated that Bolivia is a viable country, with a future.

Costas, however, asked the president not to fall into "sensationalism," because poverty rates remain high, despite the strong economic indicators. According to the National Statistics Institute, 67 percent of Bolivia’s 9.6 million people live in poverty, and 37 percent in extreme poverty.

To support the poorest families, the government created a universal monthly pension of 26 dollars for the elderly, financed by a tax on natural gas revenues, which were to go to the provincial governments.

The decision sparked further protests by the opposition governors and their followers, who put the issue at the top of the list of concerns they want to discuss in the talks, along with the new draft constitution.

The so-called "dignity pension" will benefit 676,000 people over the age of 60 and is to begin to be paid at the end of January. The new pension will cost the government 205 million dollars a year.

Prior to the creation of the universal pension, only 114,193 elderly people received a monthly pension for having worked in the public or private sector, while 561,816 senior citizens had no social security coverage at all.

The governors of all of the provinces except Alberto Aguilar in Oruro and Mario Virreira in Potosí, who belong to the MAS, are demanding that the revenues retained to pay the new universal pension be returned to them, arguing that the cut in revenues is hurting their investment in roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

The impact of the reduction in revenues is especially heavy in the province of Beni, said Governor Ernesto Suárez, who argued that his province is only home to 26,000 people over 60, and that the taxes retained surpass the total amount that will go to the elderly in Beni.

"Where will the rest of the money go?" Suárez asked Morales and his team of ministers.

The new pension, and the contributions made by the provincial governments, are now being studied by a team of experts, and a report will be presented Monday Jan. 14 at the next meeting between the president and the governors.

Another political commission will bring together the government’s chief advisers and representatives of the provincial governments to examine the steps taken by the constituent assembly when it approved the draft constitution.

The government defends the way the constituent assembly proceeded. But according to Costas, the MAS delegates in the assembly forced the situation, holding the preliminary vote on the constitution -- which must now go to a referendum -- in a military installation in the city of Sucre, in the midst of clashes between opposition demonstrators and the police, and ended up approving the document without significant debate in the city of Oruro.

Although Costas set forth these complaints, he refused, by contrast, any review of the autonomy statute passed by his provincial government and the Santa Cruz Civic Committee.

With regard to the question of regional autonomy, the discrepancies emerge from the draft constitution, which recognises four kinds of decentralisation: provincial, municipal, regional and indigenous -- a view that is not shared by the opposition, which prefers only provincial and municipal autonomy, out of fears of a dispersal of political power and financial resources.

But Vice President Álvaro García said the government respected the indigenous communities’ demand for autonomy, and noted that the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous people, approved in September, recognises that right.

Under pressure from the public, which is calling for restored calm in the country, the commissions set up as part of the ongoing talks will focus on reaching agreements on issues like national unity, the cuts in the provincial governments’ budgets, the different kinds of autonomy, the defence of democracy, the state’s role in the economy, and the process of social change promoted by the government.

Republished from Upside Down World

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