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28 Aug 2008 – BIF News Briefing

1. Referendum gave Evo 67% backing
2. Political implications of the referendum
3. Disagreement over hydrocarbons tax
4. Politics and violence in Santa Cruz
5. Disabled people protest over benefits
6. Clashes with the COB
7. Developments in Bolivia-US relations
8. Presidents discuss Amazon infrastructure projects


1. Referendum gave Evo 67% backing

In spite of profuse media speculation that campaigning would spill over into violent confrontation, the recall referendum on August 10 took place without serious incident. Observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) were present in Bolivia from the middle of July and did not flag up any problems.  They have not yet published their full report, but their preliminary statements affirm that the referendum went smoothly.  There were over 4,000 observers in total, most of them domestic but several hundred sent from other countries and from several different impartial bodies. The National Electoral Court (CNE) also stated that there were no problems with voting, and that the day passed ‘calmly’ with only a handful of isolated disruptions. After the fact, the OAS said that the referendum had been 'a process with very elevated standards’.

In the referendum, voters were asked if they were in agreement with the process of change being undertaken by the current government, and were asked to ratify or revoke the president, the vice-president and the local governor (prefect). The results showed a massive wave of support for the government of Evo Morales. Morales and Garcia Linera were ratified with 67.41% of the vote, the highest percentage ever obtained in a democratic election in Bolivia and a 13% increase on their share of the vote in the 2005 election in which they came to power. Morales’ proportion of the vote was greater compared to the 2005 elections in every department except Chuquisaca, and even there, he won comfortably in the countryside.

This emphatic victory for Morales and García Linera nationwide, as well as overwhelming support for them in the western highlands, gave the lie to the image of an acrimoniously divided country. The government received considerable support in each of the ‘Media Luna’ departments, with opposition concentrated principally in the city of Santa Cruz. More than 75% of the total ‘No’ votes cast against Morales in the department of Santa Cruz were cast in the capital city. In Pando, hitherto thought of as an opposition stronghold, a majority voted for Morales, and in Tarija the ‘no’ vote won by only a tiny margin. This suggests that the ‘autonomy movement’ is less a widespread, genuinely threatening grassroots movement but rather the work of a vocal minority concentrated in one city.

Opposition prefects in the east were also shored up by the vote, with a significant proportion of voters restating their support for pro-autonomy prefects.  Many people split their votes in Santa Cruz, expressing confidence both in Evo and for the departmental prefect Rubén Costas.  As expected, Cochabamba’s opposition prefect Manfred Reyes Villa was ousted with a vote of no confidence. In La Paz, Jose Luis Paredes of the opposition Podemos party, was also recalled. In Oruro, MAS prefect Luis Alberto Aguilar hung on by the skin of his teeth by less than one percentage point. All of the other prefects increased their share of the vote.  The only prefect not subject to the recall referendum was Savina Cuellar in Chuquisaca, having only been elected the previous month.


2. Political implications of the referendum

The full implications of the referendum have yet to be completely played out, but the groundswell of support for the Morales government has led government supporters to argue for the speedy adoption of a further referendum on the new Constitution. Evo has made a new call for dialogue, but this has been rejected by Costas and other prefects.  Strikes were staged in the weeks following the referendum, and civic groups have threatened to take control of gas installations in Santa Cruz and Tarija.  Meanwhile the new prefect of Chuquisaca has been facing first opposition from campesinos, who brought transport to and from Sucre to a halt, demanding the election of sub-prefects.
 
The erosion of opposition support may mean the end of the road for Podemos, which since 2005 has acted as the main party of opposition.  It is now understood to be exhausted as a political force, and one of its allies, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) has announced that it will split from the party, taking with it a crucial vote in the Senate.  Podemos has also lost its right to use the coalition name in future elections.

The more extreme elements in the opposition appear to be in the ascendant, with many reports focusing on the activities of the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC) in perpetrating attacks on people and institutions in Santa Cruz that are critical of the posture of Rubén Costas, the prefect, and the un-elected civic committee, the Comité Pro-Santa Cruz. 


3. Disagreement over hydrocarbons tax

One of the main sources of confrontation between the government and the prefects has been the assignation of resources from the Direct Hydrocarbons Tax (IDH), and this issue has come to the fore once again in recent weeks. The government has allocated part of this revenue from gas sales to increase the universal old age pension to 200 bolivianos (about £15) a month. The prefects do not want to accept cuts in their share, in spite of the fact that their incomes have increased substantially.  Following a short-lived hunger strike by Costas and other civic leaders in the run up to the recall referendum, blockades and strikes were subsequently called to back up this demand.  The UJC has been actively involved, as have similar shock groups in other ‘media luna’ departmental capitals.


4. Politics and violence in Santa Cruz

The links between private commercial interests and unbridled political power in Santa Cruz have become ever more evident in recent weeks.  Three national human rights organisations, the Asamblea Permanente de Derechos Humanos, the Capítulo Boliviano de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo and the Coordinadora Interinstitucional de Defensa de Derechos Humanos, have accused the leader of the Comité Pro-Santa Cruz, Branko Marinkovich, and Prefect Ruben Costas, of openly fomenting and encouraging violence by their followers. The UJC has been accused of bombing the offices of an indigenous human rights organisation, attacking journalists, using intimidating tactics to thwart campaign activity by the MAS, using violence to force people to support strikes, and taking advantage of a protest by disabled people to provoke a pitched battle with police (see next item).


5. Disabled people protest over benefits

Disabled people have been increasing their protests in recent weeks, aided and abetted by the UJC in Santa Cruz.  There have been several attempts by the government to negotiate their demands for better state benefits.  A bill to raise living allowances for disabled people has been stalled in Congress, blocked by opposition parties, though the proposal to create a fund to attend to the needs of the disabled was finally approved.  Disabled people have engaged in several lengthy marches, vigils and blockades across the country. In La Paz, they occupied part of the Plaza San Francisco and attempted to occupy the congress building. Violent confrontations were staged with the police in Santa Cruz, where shamefully, disabled people were pushed to the front by opposition members, including Podemos MP’s.  The police made no attempt to respond in spite of provocation, and only did their best to defend themselves from the blows aimed at them.


6. Clashes with the COB

Conflict over proposals to modify the state pension law flared up in the week leading up to the referendum. Bolivia’s national trade union federation, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) demanded that the pension be extended to cover people from the age of 55 rather than 60, particularly for teachers.  The government refused the request on the grounds that the national budget would not be able to cover such an increase. Several sectors went on strike and organised protest marches in the week before the recall referendum.  Miners in Huanuni blockaded the highway between La Paz and Cochabamba and blew up a bridge. Two protestors were shot dead in confrontations with the police, and the incident has not been clarified yet. 


7. Developments in Bolivia-US relations

Thomas Shannon, the US under-secretary of state for Latin America, visited Bolivia in July.  The aim of the visit was to improve US-Bolivian relations following a stormy few months. In the days leading up to his visit, US ambassador Philip Goldberg expressed concern over the direction being taken by the Morales government, with Morales in turn accusing the US government of conspiring against him. Denying such accusations, Shannon said that he believed ‘a base of understanding and trust’ had been established, and that the only conspiracy now ‘was against poverty and exclusion’.  He also offered greater co-operation in the extradition of ex-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, wanted for trial in Bolivia over the deaths of 63 people killed by security forces in 2003. After a meeting with David Choquehuanca, the Bolivian foreign minister, he said that the visit was ‘an important moment’ and ‘a step forward in improving bilateral relations’.


8. Presidents discuss Amazon infrastructure projects

Venezuelan and Brazilian Presidents Hugo Chávez and Luiz Ignacio ‘Lula’ da Silva visited Bolivia for a trilateral meeting in which policies were outlined for infrastructure development in the Amazon. An accord was signed between the countries providing finance for the construction of a highway linking La Paz, Beni and Pando and also providing for a transport corridor between Brazil, Bolivia and Chile. Plans to look into hydro and other renewable energy projects were also outlined. In announcing these development plans, the Bolivian minister of the presidency emphasised the need to prioritise people over markets. Brazilian plans to build a mega-dam on the river separating the two countries, condemned by ecologists, have become a source of friction between La Paz and Brasilia.