The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, October 18, 2003

Bolivia: new president, slightest glimmer of illumination for Yours truly

Carlos Mesa has taken over (Al Giordano has the play-by-play).

And I feel a vague sense that a modicum of comprehension may not be too far away.

At first glance, it's a cartoon with characters from Central Casting: a class/racial struggle between the white, upper-class, gringo-fied president and the charismatic Indian peasant leader; riots, tanks, blood - the whole nine yards. The Latin equivalent of Errol Flynn versus Basil Rathbone - and the result is similar, too.

Then gradually, the subtleties become more apparent, questions spring to mind. Let's take a few.

One question is whether Mesa intends to serve out the balance of Sánchez de Lozada's term, as provided by Article 93 of the Constitution. If Mesa resigns before the end of that term, there seems to be a constitutional anomaly: Art 93 provides for the succession to the Presidency - but not to the Vice-Presidency [1]. Does that mean that Mesa will have no Vice-President? (Next in line, according to Art 93, is the President of the Senate. Who might he be, I wonder?)

Mesa, I learn from La Tercera of Santiago (October 18), is not a politician at all, but a journalist - formerly editor of La Hora [2] and with his own TV show - and is not attached to any party, having run as Veep to Sánchez de Lozada as an independent, though the piece says that he has
mostrado cercanía con el MNR durante su vida.
The MNR is Sánchez de Lozada's party, and, if I understand it, the natural party of government - though in the 2002 elections, it won only 36 out of 130 seats in the lower house of Congress [3].

Apparently his falling out with the Prez started some time back:
La tensión creció en julio, luego de que Mesa declarara inconstitucional la decisión del ejecutivo de enviar a conscriptos a cultivar productos agrícolas.
I've heard of the Land Army, but this is surely ridiculous!

But is Mesa any less of a flake? The BBC reports (October 18) that he has said that
gobernará sin los partidos políticos y formará su equipo de colaboradores entre "los mejores ciudadanos"...
No one has a lower opinion of political parties in general than I do, but the idea of a government of goo-goos or technocrats seems to have failure written all over it.

On the other side, the opposition is rather more complicated than a Che T-shirt. There are two guys in charge, which must make tension inevitable. A piece in Clarín of Buenos Aires (October 18) says
Las diferencias son muchas, tantas como para que no puedan aliarse ni aún en momentos como éste, cuando la lucha los encuentra con los mismos enemigos en la vereda de enfrente.

Much like the British labour movement, there is a sort of bicephalic structure: the political side is represented by Evo Morales, who, the piece says,
utiliza los foros internacionales para divulgar la causa de los cocaleros. Es, si se quiere, más pródigo con los flashes del extranjero. La alternativa democrática lo encuentra en el Parlamento, como líder de su partido, el MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo)

Something of a Flash Harry, perhaps, wowing the gringo globalophobes, with a grievance directly related to the US war on drugs. And possessing a burning ambition to be president.

On the trade union side is Felipe Quispe, who leads the CSUTCB (Confederación Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos); he was apparently once a guerrilla (terrorist? freedom-fighter?):
su actividad guerrillera fue preso por 5 años en los que se dedicó a estudiar Historia.

As well as a potential conflict between Morales and Quispe, there is the question of what proposals they have to settle the dispute. For the moment, Morales is reported to be offering Mesa a breathing space, and support for his proposal for a binding referendum on the natural gas project.

But the gas issue was surely only ever a pretext: a La Tercera piece looks at the situation as a Wag the Dog variant: rather than addressing issues that would tend to divide a coalition broad enough to bring the opposition success, leaders have been banging the nationalist drum. (The Guerra del Pacífico which started in 1879 and resulted in Chile annexing Bolivia's Pacific coastline. Anti-Chilean feeling persistsThe fact that the Bolivian gas was to be piped through Chile was the cherry on the cake as far as those propagandising against the project were concerned.)

The protestors are not about to go home. Morales and Quispe can't declare victory: in order to preserve credibility - not to mention political momentum - they must pursue their demands, rachet them up, even.

And the armed forces? There seems to be a suggestion that some junior officers were prepared to mutiny had the violence continued [4]. But if the Mesa government is unable to get a grip, and the violence escalates, could senior officers stand by? And who would the likely candidates be for a military saviour?

And USG? Beyond the team sent to assess security at the US Embassy in La Paz (AP October 18), there must be preparations in train. Having previously supported Lozada (State October 13), we get boilerplate expressions of regret at his departure (State October 18). There is more going on, I'm sure.

All in all, I think there's enough potential to keep me interested a while longer!

  1. In which respect, it follows the US Constitution as it was before the 25th Amendment: for instance, Lyndon Johnson had no Vice-President for the balance of the term for which John Kennedy had been elected in 1960.

  2. Which I can't immediately trace online - defunct?

  3. The bare stats for the 2002 elections, with links to party sites.

  4. Was the violence all on the side of the forces of repression?


Al Giardino, I see, has a longish piece up on the evolution of the revolution on his Narco News site by Andrea Arenas Alípaz and Luis Gómez, journos on the spot. Distinctly engagé, rather breathless, in a style which, to this gringo, reads rather better in the original Spanish.

The pretext may be gas, but the piece seems rather more juiced by the effect (actual and hoped for) on the US War on Drugs, and its impact on the cocaleros who are Morales' core constituency.

For a flavour, take the last couple of grafs, first in English:
The people came, they spoke, and they decided. A new victory for Authentic Democracy has been constructed, but with deaths and with rage. And your correspondents, although tired, we are going to drink a toast to the health of Bolivia, which begins rebuilding from the streets. Eh, and another toast, because we may not see each other again, kind readers… To Dan, to Al, it has been a pleasure ending on this happy note… The War on Drugs, imposed by the gringos, has suffered a brutal defeat with what has happened here… There is no doubt… The maximum leader in El Alto commented to us tonight, with tears in his eyes, that the people "have delivered a huge punch to the United States."

Well, see you next time, with a bold smile, somewhere else "in a country called América." See you in the next battle. Cheers!

And now in Spanish:
El pueblo vino, habló y decidió. Una nueva victoria para la democracia auténtica se ha construido, con muertos y con rabia. Y estos corresponsales, cansados, nos vamos a tomar una copa a la salud de Bolivia, que comienza su refundación en las calles. Eh, y otra porque tal vez no nos veremos más queridos lectores... Dan, Al, ha sido un placer traer a la meta esta alegría... la guerra contra las drogas impuesta por los gringos ha sufrido un duro revés con todo esto, no lo duden... el máximo dirigente en El Alto nos comentaba entre lágrimas que han "dado un tremendo sopapo a los Estados Unidos"... bueno, nos vamos, con una sonrisa franca, a un otro "lugar de un país llamado América... nos vemos en el próximo combate... ¡Salud!

A couple of thoughts: authentic democracy sounds as if it comes straight out of a 70s Marxist tract. (In the same category of jargon as progressive used to refer to fellow-travelling organisations.) Is the United States one, for instance? How can you tell the authentic from the inauthentic varieties?

And one gets a sense of expectations ramped up beyond all reason - one wonders whether the average peasant, experienced in the cruel vagaries of nature, chewing on his coca leaves after a hard day in the fields, is equally sanguine? Or, perhaps, in an authentic democracy, the view of the average peasant is not of great importance...

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