Since our story last week the crisis in Bolivia continues to unfold but now there are new elements that involve Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Violence in the Andean nation has escalated to the point that many people have died and hundreds remain missing due to the ongoing conflict between the central government and four energy – rich provinces in the lowlands of Bolivia (Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija) whose residents and leaders want greater autonomy from the central government as well as more control over revenues from natural gas. They also oppose the President’s plan to change the constitution which, they say, would allow Morales to run for President indefinitely and impose a totalitarian model. (To learn more about the conflict see ‘The Americas Report,’ September 11, 2008 titled “Crisis in Morales’ Bolivia.”).
The situation was problematic, but this week there has been an escalation of violence and new elements have surfaced that can make this conflict reach greater proportions. The province of Pando has seen the worst violence. Witnesses claim that a group of peasants were marching to the provincial capital of Cobija and were intercepted and killed by a group of ‘paramilitaries’ with machine guns. According to reports, 30 people have died in this city and many others are unaccounted for.
What has increased the level of violence is that Morales ordered the arrest of the city’s opposition governor, Leopoldo Fernandez, accusing him of hiring hit men (Sicarios in Spanish) from Peru and Brazil to shoot farmers allied with the president. The government said that opposition groups carrying weapons “massacred” 30 innocent farmers and that the death toll could rise with dozens of people caught up in the violence and still missing. Fernandez denied the charges and said he was carrying out his normal duties adding: “We are going to stay right here to resist this state of siege.” He accused Morales of trying to impose Cuban-style communism in Bolivia, adding: “Mr. Morales is mounting a farce.” “I want to tell Morales to quit lying to the people. They should really investigate what happened and stop blaming us for a massacre.”
The opposition claims that, in fact, it is the Morales’ regime that is responsible for the killings as a means to discredit the pro autonomy movement. Many eye witnesses agree with this version claiming that they saw people dressed as farmers, carrying weapons and murdering people. “They’ve accused me of using hit men, when everyone knows those socialist peasants, those fake peasants, were armed.” Fernández said.
Making matters worse, in a public speech, Morales rallied supporters with a violent language and condemned the opposition governors saying: “they are conspiring against us with a fascist, racist coup,” adding that they were “the enemies of all Bolivians.” Morales said Bolivia’s “democratic revolution” had to be carried out: “We have always cried ‘fatherland or death.’ If we don’t emerge victorious, we have to die for the country and the Bolivian people.” Many analysts say that the tone and language used sounds just like Chavez.
In an effort to divert attention from the country’s problems, Morales blamed the United States as being the cause of the crisis, accusing Washington of instigating the protests. The Bolivian President even expelled the US ambassador Philip Goldberg from the country saying that he was “conspiring against democracy” and “fomenting the break-up of Bolivia.” Mr. Goldberg responded by saying that the expulsion was a “grave error,” adding that the accusations were “baseless.” The U.S. government declared that “In response to unwarranted actions and in accordance with the Vienna Convention (on diplomatic protocol), we have officially informed the government of Bolivia of our decision to declare Ambassador Gustavo Guzmán persona non grata,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Morales has lost control over most of eastern Bolivia, where protests have blocked highways, closed border crossings and pipeline sabotage has forced a cutoff of nearly half his nation’s natural gas exports to Brazil. Many of the blockades were dismantled as a goodwill gesture on Sunday as both sides sought to establish ground rules for negotiations, but political unrest continued Monday as more than a thousand Morales supporters marched on the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. Insiders argue that these “spontaneous” demonstrations were actually carefully organized by the government and financed by Caracas.
Hugo Chavez is openly intervening in the ongoing turmoil in Bolivia: both politically and militarily. Last week, he warned Bolivian opposition groups saying that he would support an armed resistance movement in Bolivia and would send troops if Mr. Morales was removed in a coup. The intromission was so blatant that Bolivian General Luis Trigo, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces (in this Andean nation it is not the President), declared on the following day: “To the President of Venezuela, Señor Hugo Chávez, and to the international community, we say that the Armed Forces (of Bolivia) emphatically reject external interference of any nature, from wherever it may come, and we will not permit any foreign military or army to enter the national territory.” But many locals say that members of the Venezuelan armed forces are already in the country and that they have infiltrated the protests to create chaos so they can blame the opposition. This will inevitably make the Morales’ regime appear as a victim of the “oligarchs” generating sympathy from regional leaders and international forums.
Since Chavez is concerned about the forth coming regional elections this November, and there is an embarrassing criminal trial going on in Miami which is revealing his hand in political meddling in Argentina, he has tried to garner support effort by expelling the U.S. Ambassador, Patrick Duddy from Caracas. At a recent political rally, Chavez used profane language and shouted insults saying: “The Yankee ambassador to Caracas has 72 hours to leave Venezuela, in solidarity with Bolivia, with the Bolivian people, and with the Bolivian government.” “Go to hell 100 times,” he said.
The expulsions of the U.S. ambassadors show that these two demagogues have run out of ideas and feel somewhat insecure about retaining their grip on power. Chavez and Morales are the kind of leaders who need instability to survive. They know that on their own, they can’t solve the real problems and they need to create divisiveness to attract attention and win votes. In Bolivia’s case, Morales is exploiting the “indigenous cause” tapping into people’s sensitivities while the real problem is the future of the country’s gas reserves which need investment to keep up with production. The provinces argue they want a greater share of the revenues to become more productive but the President wants to give away the money to fund his socialist project.
In an attempt to solve the situation, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called a meeting of the Unión de Naciones Sudamericanas aimed at preventing the collapse of Bolivia. Bolivia’s opposition was not present for the meeting, and it is not clear how rhetorical support for Morales in Santiago might help solve the crisis. As expected, the members of the UNASUR expressed their support for Bolivia’s Evo Morales and unanimously condemned the actions of the four provincial governors. Many of these nations are allies of Chavez since he has made it a policy to give away Venezuela’s petrodollars to buy allegiances and influence the foreign and domestic agendas of their leaders.
The ongoing events in the region should be taken seriously. Chavez and Morales are inventing political crises to advance their selfish political interests and expand their authority. They are intentionally acting in concert with U.S. adversaries in an effort to challenge American influence in the region. These two leaders are close allies with Iran, and with terror organizations such as the FARC, Hezbollah, Hamas and leaders of rogue nations. Morales visited Tehran earlier this month, and just this week two Russian long-range bombers arrived in Venezuela, precursors of a larger military contingent in November, when the country will host four Russian warships and 1,000 troops for joint military exercises. They thrive on conflict by convincing people that their sovereignty is at risk and that they have to “defend” their territories. The question is when will the United States government wake up to these new realities now unfolding in Latin America.
Nicole M. Ferrand is the editor of “The Americas Report” of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project. She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.
 Bolivia: who controls Pando? September 15, 2008. World War 4 Report.
 Bolivia rivals eye compromise after talks. September 13, 2008. International Herald Tribune.
 U.S., Bolivia, Venezuela Engaged in Diplomatic Row. September 11, 2008. ABC News.
 Bolivia’s president calls unrest an attempted coup. September 15, 2008. WTOP News.
 Alleging Coup Plot, Chávez Ousts U.S. Envoy. September 12, 2008. The New York Times.
THE AMERICAS REPORT
NANCY MENGES and
LUIS FLEISCHMAN, Editors
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. It features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press.
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