Two letters from Bolivia

Letter from Trinidad

16 Sep 2008 –What follows is an account of life on the ground in recent times in the city of Trinidad, capital of the Beni. It shows how little real support there is for the posturings of the local prefect and the ‘civic committee’. For reasons of safety, we have agreed to respect the wishes of the author, a Bolivian, to remain anonymous. (Translated by the Bolivia Information Forum)

I have been here in Trinidad for the last week, unable to leave either by air or land. So it seemed to me helpful to use the opportunity to communicate what has actually been going on in this city.

Trinidad is a city that is far from the main urban axis in Bolivia [La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz]. For this reason, the information that reaches the outside world through the media (particularly television) is planned by the media itself to portray a situation that simply does not exist in practice.

Life here continues pretty much as normal; we seem to be removed from the conflicts [elsewhere]. The schools remain open, and normal festivities continue; for example a football match between Oriente from Santa Cruz and Real Mamore from the Beni. The airport is operational as and when the prefect and civic committee dispose that it should be. Like other passengers held up here in transit, we simply have to wait until the conflict is resolved. We do not enjoy the grace and favour of those who are the owners of Trinidad.

But to give the impression that Trinidad is in the grips of political convulsion, the media orchestrate coverage to that end. Let me give you an example. Last Sunday evening, while a group of Catholic devotees were praying in the gates of the Church for the pacification [of the country], cameramen and journalists working for channels controlled by local power groups instructed a few local lads on how they should act in front of the cameras so as to give the impression of mobilisation. These youngsters, with the latest models of motor bikes, roared their engines, sounded their horns and enunciated slogans against President Evo Morales, such as ‘Death to Morales, death to the dictator president, long live autonomy’. The cameramen grouped themselves on a corner and the same young people staged a street meeting in front of the cameras which lasted no longer than five minutes. Then they packed up and went home.

The seizure of institutions in this city are just figurative. To protect them, the offices were no longer operational, and there was hardly anything in them to rob or destroy. For this reason, members of the civic committee staged peaceful occupations in the presence of a public notary who said he would organise an inventory of what he found. So far this inventory has not been mentioned by a single media outlet. Indeed, the ‘cívicos’ who occupied these institutions complained that “there is nothing left in these offices; it’s as if they knew in advance that we were going to occupy them”. What a shame! The so-called ‘autonomistas’ found nothing to ransack in the way they did in Santa Cruz.

To my surprise, I observed how the same people – a group of no more than 20 persons – did the rounds to occupy various different institutions. Only in each institution a different person was put forward to talk to the media in order to magnify the ‘dramatic’ nature of the situation and to give a false impression for the media to broadcast. The ‘occupied’ public offices were not actually occupied at all, but simply closed and protected by a small police presence.

One of the leaders of the Central de Pueblos Indígenas del Beni said: “No, when there is conflict here, the residents of Trinidad shut themselves up in their houses and do not come out to avoid conflict between them”. This appears to be the case. There have been no demonstrations other than those orchestrated by the prefect’s office. In recent times, these have consisted of only small groups. It seems that the prefect has yet not decided whether to invest public money to finance demonstrations of support.

The take-over of the airport lasted only a couple of hours. Owners of taxi motor bikes were hired to occupy the airport, but they quickly withdrew. There were only about ten ‘unionistas’ [supporters of the local right-wing vigilante organisation] in the airport buildings. But to give the impression of social convulsion in Trinidad, the rector of the local state university forcibly rallied all the students to reinforce the occupation. But this did not last long either. At the moment, there is only a handful of ‘unionistas’ guarding the airport. What is really preventing the airport from working is the decision of the local Beni pilots’ association to support the ‘struggle for autonomy’. Naturally the prefect is keen to ensure that this occupation continues as it is the only place in which he can point to an otherwise non-existent mobilisation of support.

What is becoming serious in the Beni is the shortage of fuel. We have to remember that there is a large number of people here who are owners of motor bike taxis. These comrades work day-to-day to earn money to take home to their families. Many earn only small percentages, while others are in debt to pay for their bikes. They become increasingly desperate when they cannot acquire fuel for their bikes. The owners of taxi bikes are demanding that the prefect and the civic committee resolve this problem. There have even been threats of them occupying the offices of these two institutions. The leaders of the local union of taxi drivers have said that they will not take responsibility for the actions that their members may take. The prefect and leaders of the civic committee have immediately responded by challenging the taxi drivers to go and remove the blockade on the road between Santa Cruz and Trinidad mounted by the peasants of San Julián [in the north of Santa Cruz].

Now the road blocks are being condemned. For the president of the civic committee, the blockades by peasants are senseless. These people have no thought for the good of civil society, for the damage they are doing to the people of the Beni. But up until today, Tuesday September 16, road blocks were synonymous with the struggle for autonomy. They were a just response, spearheaded by valiant members of the community. The moment they decide to lift their road blocks, they turn round and condemn those who continue to man theirs in support of the process of change.

The prefect of the Beni does not tire in repeating the mantra that the ‘cívicos’ have lifted their roadblocks as a sign of good faith when, in reality, those road blocks never actually existed in the interior of the Beni, except a sporadic one on the road from Trinidad to Riberalta. Proof of this is that transport links between provinces were never interrupted.

Finally, as a sign of their racism, the authorities of the prefect and the leaders of the civic committee have now turned themselves into the main defenders of the human rights of Leopoldo Fernández [the prefect of Pando who is now under arrest] whereas previously they showed no signs of concern at the massacre of peasant leaders in Pando. Is it that human rights are just for members of the powerful elite in eastern Bolivia and not for peasants? Let’s hope that the Bolivian justice system knows how to judge both the intellectual and material authors of the Pando massacre. Let’s also hope that they include in this trial the civic and prefectural authorities of Santa Cruz, Beni and Tarija. We’ve had enough of the prefect of the Beni when he declares “we support all the actions of the struggle set in motion by the prefect of Pando, indeed we are with him in total solidarity”.

We need to be on our guard as to what could happen in Trinidad. The authorities of the prefecture and the civic committee want to extend the tide of violence to San Julián. To this end they are urging ‘valient people from the Beni’ to take note. According to them, the shortage of fuel “is the fault of the peasants of San Julián” and for that reason the drivers of motor bike taxis should go and confront them. On the one hand they are appealing to regionalist sentiment in the Beni, but on the other that are saying that the government is provoking violence with threats of occupying the offices of the prefect. It would seem that the argument is between those who can convince the taxi drivers to occupy the buildings of the prefecture and those who say they should go and forcibly remove the road block in San Julián. The latter option spells confrontation and violence.

We live in hope of possible dialogue. But it has to be a just dialogue, with the consent of all those who have fought for the process [of change] in Bolivia.


A Visit to a Roadblock

Steve Wagstaff (currently living in Cochabamba) 17 September 2008.

In my last report ("Bolivia, September 2008") I described the build-up of tensions in the country as the media luna prefects led their followers on a campaign of street violence, attempts to sabotage the oil and gas industries, and roadblocks to prevent exports and supplies to the rest of the country. The social movements responded with plans for a march on La Paz to demand the legislation needed in order to hold a referendum on the draft new constitution, and announced and encirclement of Santa Cruz with blockades of all highways. The encirclement was quickly implemented, forming 31 roadblocks in all.

While this was happening, terrible news arrived from Pando, the department in the far north of the country, and part of the media luna. Campesinos en route to a demonstration had been ambushed by armed men and it was initially reported that 8 had been killed. The next day, the government declared a state of emergency, in Pando only, sending troops and imposing a curfew between midnight and 6am. The death-toll figure became 16 the following day, and evidence emerged that the killers had been using official vehicles of the prefecture. Then film footage appeared showing the campesinos trying to escape from the ambush by swimming across a wide river, whilst being shot at with rifles and machine guns. The government estimates 30 killed including at least one child. But 109 people are said to have disappeared. The millionnaire prefect of Pando, Leopoldo Fernández, has been arrested, taken to La Paz and charged with homicide.

Unasur met in Chile, and, with Peru absent, unanimously issued strong support for the Bolivian government.

Demonstrations have been held outside the buildings of two privately-owned TV stations in La Paz, to complain about biased reporting. Residents of El Alto are organising solidarity shipments of food and other goods to Pando. The government is also sending food there.

On Wednesday 17 September, I visited the nearest of the social movements' roadblock. I travelled for 5 hours from Cochabamba, right across El Chapare, one of the two main coca-growing areas and a stronghold of the social movements. The journey was quick, owing to a dearth of traffic. Usually there are many large trucks grinding slowly up or down inclines, but the blockades put paid to all that. We passed through Bulo Bulo, the last pueblo before the border of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz departments, and soon came upon a long line of about 100 parked trucks. Finding a parking place fairly near the roadblock, we got out and walked.

The start of the blockade was marked by a symbolic single line of small boulders neatly arranged across the highway, guarded by half a dozen young men. The blockade is situated on a long bridge over a wide river, perhaps half a kilometer long. The entire length of the bridge is lined on each side by makeshift – but very effective – shelters made simply by leaning together three or four large tree branches each retaining its smaller branches and all of the foliage. A gap at the front provides a low entrance way. Inside each shelter, 6 or 8 campesinos and campesinas were sitting or lying on blankets and pillows, some preparing food. Many of the shelters had a makeshift sign above the doorway naming the branch or unit within the "Six Federations" of the cocaleros of El Chapare to which the shelter, and the people inside it, belonged.

Each shelter is more or less the same size and shape, and they are evenly-spaced and exactly lined up, giving a very neat appearance and an impression of orderliness and efficiency. The space between the two rows is about three meters wide and there was a constant coming and going as if in a bustling market, with people shifting food and gas canisters in wheelbarrows or on their backs. Looking out from the bridge, I saw about 50 people along the stony riverbank, bathing and washing clothes.

I received many curious stares from the bloqueadores. They have been on the receiving end of much racism over the years (centuries indeed), and are not used to receiving friendly visits in such circumstances from white people. I made some attempts to explain why I was there, but for many of them, Spanish is their second language (after Quechua), so I wasn't sure if I was well understood. I also told the people I spoke to about the picket of the US embassy in London which was happening that very day (organised by the Boliva Solidarity Campaign). The leader of the Six Federations, Julio Salazar, was there. I had met him about a month previously, in Cochabamba, so we had a friendly chat.

The bloqueadores were prepared to maintain the blockade as long as necessary. Each one spends two days and two nights at the blockade, and is then relieved by a different "shift". At any one time, there are perhaps three hundred people on or around the bridge. The atmosphere is completely calm. There are no police or soldiers present. The nearest police, apparently about half a dozen of them, are about two kilometers along the road at a permanent checkpoint of FELCN, a police department dedicated to combatting narco-trafficking.

The blockade is not actually 100% impermeable. People arriving on motorbikes are allowed through, and they thread themselves carefully along the "market street". Also, while I was there, long-distance coaches arrived (most would normally go all the way between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz – 10 hours). Passengers disembarked, picked up their luggage, and walked across the bridge – again, along the "market street" – and presumably caught a bus or hitched a lift from the other side.

Formal negotiations between the government and the media luna prefects started on 18 September, with government ministers, congress deputies and foreign observers present. Meetings lasted 12 hours on the first day and it was agreed to form three tables to discuss the IDH (taxation of oil and gas), the proposed new constitution and departmental autonomy, and the designation of authorities in the National Congress. The oppositionists have relinquished control of all of the government and state buildings which they had occupied, and the Santa Cruz headquarters of the state-owned TV channel 7 and of Entel, the recently-nationalized mobile phone company. Channel 7 is therefore back on the air in Santa Cruz, in spite of the wrecking of their office and the theft of computers. However, the oppositionists have remained in occupation of the offices of INRA (National Institute for Agrarian Reform), the government department charged with implementing modest reforms inland ownership. This points up that land reform is always a crunch issue within revolutionary processes in Latin America.

It was quickly agreed in the negotiations that Pando would not be discussed. The government is therefore maintaining the state of emergency in Pando, and the prefect of Pando is in prison awaiting due process. Apparently, the other prefects are willing to negotiate under these circumstances.

Thousands of campesinos and workers from the western side of the country are gathering in Cochabamba to demonstrate outside the buildings where the negotiations are taking place, and thousands more are arriving to join the blockades surrounding Santa Cruz.

Meanwhile, more corruption is being uncovered by the government-appointed interim prefect of the department of Cochabamba. On 18 september, he intervened the Rural Electrification Project, in order to hold an investigation. Phase 3 of this project started 3 years ago, and was supposed to last one year. Money was advanced to contractors, but many communities are still without electricity and some official documents appear to claim that the work has been completed.

Shortages of gas remain in Cochabamba, and queues at filling stations can still be seen.

Steve Wagstaff is a member of the Bolivia Solidarity Campaign - UK

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