BOLIVIA: ALBA Closes Ranks Around Evo Morales

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Apr 23 (IPS) - The danger of Bolivia "exploding" as a result of the "separatist plan behind the (May 4) autonomy referendum" in the eastern province of Santa Cruz was warned of Wednesday at a Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) summit.

Bolivian President Evo Morales received the backing of the alternative trade bloc in a statement signed in Caracas with his counterparts Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, as well as Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage.

The leaders of Dominica, the fifth ALBA partner, were unable to attend the emergency meeting convened by Chávez.

The statement expressed the presidents’ "staunch rejection of the destabilisation plans that seek to undermine peace and unity in Bolivia" and the "separatist attempt" based on "a referendum that clearly violates Bolivia’s constitution and laws."

Wealthier eastern provinces where Bolivia’s natural gas is concentrated are pressing for greater autonomy and local control over the administration of natural resources and the taxies levied on them.

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is basically divided between the western highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority, and the much better off eastern provinces, which account for most of the country's natural gas production, industry and gross domestic product (GDP). The population of eastern Bolivia tends to be of more European (Spanish) than indigenous descent.

The ALBA leaders said they would not recognise any attempt by provinces in Bolivia to break off from the federal state and hurt the country’s "territorial integrity." They also demanded that the political crisis in that country be resolved by its citizens, "without foreign meddling of any kind."

The statement was an allusion to alleged involvement in the situation by the U.S. government of George W. Bush.

ALBA called on "the international community and especially that of Latin America and the Caribbean to act in a timely and decisive manner in solidarity with Bolivia."

"They demanded greater attention to the matter by the United Nations, based on statements by the special rapporteur for indigenous peoples, Rodolfo Stavenhagen," María Teresa Romero, an international relations professor at Venezuela’s Central University, told IPS.

The possibility of appealing to the Organisation of American States (OAS) has been left aside because Cuba was expelled from that regional body in the early 1960s.

Stavenhagen said he was "concerned by the intention of the authorities of Santa Cruz to hold a unilateral referendum on regional autonomy, at the margin of" the Bolivian constitution.

The special rapporteur called on regional leaders in eastern Bolivia "not to allow the human rights of the indigenous people of the region of Santa Cruz to be infringed in the name of the legitimate aspiration to regional autonomy."

Santa Cruz and three other of the nine regions into which Bolivia is divided have adopted "autonomy statutes" in open defiance of the government of Morales, the country’s first-ever indigenous president.

In early December, the constituent assembly, which is rewriting the constitution with the aim of giving greater participation in decision-making to the country’s historically neglected indigenous people, met despite a boycott by the rightwing opposition, and the pro-government majority approved a draft constitution.

But the governments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija complain that they do not feel represented by the draft constitution.

Analysts have warned of the possibility of clashes between pro-autonomy sectors and the social organisations and trade unions that back Morales, as occurred in late November in the city of Sucre, when those opposed to the new constitution staged violent protests.

Romero praised the "prudent silence" kept by some of Bolivia’s neighbours, which she said has helped "prevent the aggravation of the crisis by meddling in such a polarised question as regional autonomy."

Morales said he appreciated the solidarity expressed in Caracas, and said that groups seeking regional autonomy "have always been enemies of us, the social movements," an attitude that he said is "sometimes more hot air and media coverage than anything else."

Chávez convened the emergency summit meeting after Cuba’s ailing former president Fidel Castro warned of the possibility of "another Latin American tragedy caused by the real threat of disintegration of Bolivia," which along with Venezuela and Cuba founded ALBA in 2004 as an alternative to the U.S.-sponsored proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), known by its acronym ALCA in Spanish.

"What can we do?" the Venezuelan leader asked on Tuesday night, before explaining that he had come up with the idea of "a special ALBA meeting to try to prevent, from the outside, what many people at this point see as inevitable: an ‘explosion’ in Bolivia."

On Wednesday, he said the destabilisation plan "is also against Brazil and is aimed at destabilising the entire Southern Cone, because if the empire (the United States) destabilises Bolivia, the most likely outcome would be that Bolivia’s natural gas exports to Brazil, Argentina and Chile would come to a halt."

"By targeting Bolivia, the geopolitical heart of South America, the empire and its allies are demonstrating that they don't want the integration of South America."

Chávez wondered if it was merely a coincidence that U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, served as a diplomat in Bosnia and Kosovo.

"What the empire wants is a Kosovo-isation of Bolivia," he said, referring to the Bush administration’s support for the former Serbian province’s autonomy moves followed by the declaration of independence, which has gained weak international recognition.

The ALBA leaders also signed a new agreement on cooperation in food security in which they complained about the high international food prices and the use of food crops to produce biofuels.
The agreement encourages the members of the alternative trade bloc to adopt measures like the improvement of irrigation systems to boost the production of food products like corn, rice, beans, beef and milk.

Chávez urged that priority be put on Bolivia in the design of new projects aimed at developing the member countries’ potential for food production.

Republished from IPS

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