Sunday, September 28, 2008

AP’s Report on the Violence in Pando

In 2008 Bolivia joined Chile in and the U.S. in having 9/11 etched into their national histories as dates associated with violence and bloodshed (in Chile, for those who don’t know, September 11, 1973 was the date of the bloody U.S.-backed coup of General Augusto Pinochet).

On September 11 of this year, as parts of Bolivia’s eastern departments were in open, violent rebellion against President Morales, that violence spread to Pando. A caravan of Morales supporters, 1,000 or more, was headed to the department’s capital city, Cobija. There intent has been described differently by different reporters, to meet and discuss strategy, or to retake the public buildings seized by Morales opponents.

Whatever their intent, some 30 kilometers out of the city they were met by a crowd of several hundred heavily armed backers of the region’s Governor, Leopoldo Fernandez (cuurently in jail in La Paz). Among other weapons, the mob from the city brought machine guns.

For weeks there have been differing accounts of what happened on that road on that bloody day. Yesterday the Associated Press, a news organization that produces solid reporting here, published the first thorough foreign press account based on travel to the site of the violence and extensive interviews with eyewitness.

Here is the link. I encourage you to read it.

AP Examines Deadly Clash on Bolivian Jungle Road

By PAOLA FLORES The Associated Press

PORVENIR, Bolivia (AP) — A deadly clash on a jungle highway has become the newest and bloodiest symbol of Bolivia's political crisis, pitting President Evo Morales against an autonomy movement in the eastern lowlands that is bitterly resisting his leftist reforms.

The shootout capped rioting across half of Bolivia, violence that Morales alleges was inspired by opposition governors and supported by the United States — a charge denied by U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg as he was expelled from the natural gas-rich country this month.

Morales, pushing for deep socialist reforms guided by traditional Bolivian indigenous values, says groups organized by his political opponents machine-gunned 16 of his poor Indian supporters in the Sept. 11 confrontation.

Lowland opposition leaders, guarding their region's frontier capitalism and more Euro-centric heritage, say they lost two of their own in a pitched battle to defend their provincial capital from marchers directed by Morales.

The Associated Press traveled to Bolivia's remote Amazonian province of Pando and interviewed police, witnesses, and participants on both sides. Their testimony and evidence from the scene suggests that the blockading of the marchers exploded into a shootout, and that the shootout quickly devolved into a one-sided rout.

Read the full account here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Nation in Crisis (Pick One)

It is a nation that seems perilously close to the abyss. Political leaders, the men and women that the nation depend on to resolve the crisis seem completely unable to reach agreement. A high-level summit meeting involving the President and key leaders of the opposition advances nowhere. There are reports of heated arguments between them as they meet behind closed doors. With no clear resolution in sight a new round of negotiations is set for the weekend. The eyes of the world media rest on the conflict.

The above statement is about:

a. Bolivia
b. the United States.
c. All of the above

For answer see below.

When one sees the word "crisis" in the morning headlines this week you have to take a minute to sort out which country we're talking about – Bolivia or the U.S. Pick your national meltdown.

In Bolivia the crisis involves a President with strong popular support facing an opposition that burned down public buildings and gunned down campesinos in the name of pressing its agenda.

In the U.S. the crisis involves a President whose support has now dropped below 25% and is abysmal even in his own party. He faces an opposition that controls a majority of Congress yet seems quite willing to go along with the basic agenda of the President, to saddle our children and grandchildren with a $700 billion debt to bail out very well-dressed loan sharks. Really, they are well dressed, no?

Bolivia, a poor nation with a President who didn't finish high school is sitting on $7 billion in cash reserves and not spending it.

The U.S., a wealthy nation with a President who holds an MBA from Harvard, is about to go further in debt, overnight, by $2,000 per man, woman, and child.

I am not making this up. Sorry.

In Bolivia foreign observers have flown into to see if they can nudge the process toward some kind of an agreement.

For the U.S. foreigners are observing from afar, watching the U.S. on the precipice of a self-inflicted economic 9/11.

For Bolivia, the U.S. government has issued a new travel warning encouraging U.S. citizens to travel there, and encouraging those who stay to call their relatives in the U.S. to stay in contact. American Airlines has suspended its flights. But most of the foreigners I know will be spending the weekend at the Tiquipya Flower Fair, a fearless bunch, no?

For the U.S. the Bolivian government might want to issue a warning to its citizens there to pull all their money out of U.S. banks and put it somewhere safer, like under a mattress in Tiquipya. There are also possibilities that even the cash in their pockets might disappear, as if beamed up to the Starship Enterprise. Aerosur might want to consider canceling its flights as well, given the risk that the entire country might gets its lights shut off for not paying the bill, stranding its aircraft and crews in Miami.

One of my super-smart young co-workers observed wisely that this is a Naomi Klein, "Shock Doctrine" moment in the U.S. In her brilliant book by that title, our Canadian friend sketches out a powerful analysis of how right-wing forces around the word have taken up the practice of either taking advantage of, or outright manufacturing, crises in order to scare us into accepting big changes to their liking that we would never swallow otherwise.

September 11 and its aftermath was not only a national tragedy, but for the likes of George Bush and Dick Cheney and opportunity to win huge backwards steps in civil liberties that U.S. citizens would never have swallowed otherwise.

Hurricane Katrina was taken by similar political forces as an opportunity to sweep privatizations through the New Orleans public school system.

So, what does it take to cow a nation into handing over $700 billion with 48 hours of reflection?

My fellow Americans. In the name of trying to make ever increasing pots of money off of housing here in our country, big banks and financial institutions – led by people paying themselves more money in a year than you would make if you lived for a thousand years – messed up and got their companies into deep debt. Here in the federal government we weren't really watching to close. Sorry, but we had that whole Iraq thing to worry about and we trust the CEOs. They're the ones who put is here. And in graduate school they told me the market worked better without the government involved.

Anyway, if we don't each cough up $2,000 by Friday to bail them out all your pension funds might disappear. Now we know you are already close to losing your own house, but to be honest, if you lose your house the rest of us can deal. But those big banks…. You get it.

But hey, look on the bright side my fellow Americans. I am gone from this Oval Office in less than four months and our country has nowhere to go but up.

And this just in – citing its concerns that the Bolivian government is not advancing adequately in the U.S. War on Drugs (no, this has nothing whatsoever to do with Bolivia sending back the U.S. Ambassador) the Bush Administration would like to end the U.S. trade benefits for Bolivian-made textiles and other products. Yes, it's those weavers up in El Alto who are the problem. Let's get them. Brilliant.

Who is it in Washington exactly that still thinks the U.S. is in a position to be giving other nations advice on how to run their countries?

Answer to Quiz: C

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Chavez Deports Representatives of Human Rights Watch from Venezuela

Late Thursday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez sent armed men to detain two researchers from Human Rights Watch and deport then from the country, following release of a 230-page report critical of the government’s human rights record.

“About 20 men, some of them in military uniform, intercepted us when we arrived at our hotel after returning from dinner Thursday night,” José Miguel Vivanco, HRW’s Americas director told the New York Times. Vivanco and Daniel Wilkinson, HRW’s deputy director for the Americas, were forced onto an overnight flight to Brazil.

The Report from Human Rights Watch, “A Decade Under Chávez,” was released Thursday in Caracas. It charges: “In its efforts to counter political opposition and consolidate power, the government of President Hugo Chávez has weakened democratic institutions and human rights guarantees in Venezuela.” In particular the report criticizes the Venezuelan government for its infringement of the autonomy of the judiciary and its persecution of dissent.

Those readers who feel an affinity to Chávez historic revolution to redistribute Venezuelan wealth towards the nation’s impoverished should not too quickly dismiss either Human Rights Watch, it report, or the significance of Chávez’s ousting of the two researchers.

First, Human Rights Watch is not a right-wing organization with an agenda. Readers might recall that during the most repressive days of the War on Drugs here in Bolivia, HRW was one of the few foreign organizations, alongside WOLA, that was doing investigations and putting the public spotlight on that repression. My impression of them then is the same as it is now – a group dedicated to rigorous research that lets the cards fall where they may in terms of who’s political ox gets gored.

Second, regardless of what we like or don’t like in a government’s policies, free dissent is essential. My commitment to that is evidenced here on the Blog where, for many years, our comments section has remained an uncensored space, one far more critical of what I write than supportive. I value being challenged, and so should governments of any political stripe. Stifling dissent is not a progressive value, not in Bolivia or the U.S. either.

I hope that readers who have more knowledge of Venezuela than I will offer their comments and critique of the HRW report in this space. If there are inaccuracies in it, let’s hear them. In my view, documenting those inaccuracies would have also been a better road for the Venezuelan government to take than sending armed men to deport two researchers.

A Request on Comments

Because of some complaints and problems of late, I am adding this request as a template for a while to all posts. The comment space on this Blog, always lively, is also unmoderated and uncensored. First, we welcome all points of view and second, I have no time or interest in reading and reviewing every comment posted. So to keep the comments section a place of open debate, here are some requests:

1. Please keep comments focused on the issues rather than personal insults. Anonymity should not be used as an excuse for attacking one another.

2. Please avoid pasting huge documents in the comments section. These only make the section harder to read. If you think an article is of interest to others, post an introduction and a link to the full version and let readers decide for themselves.

3. The one hard rule for comments is that we do not allow the space to be used as a forum for personal threats, against me or anyone else. On the occasions where this has happened we have shut down the comments section altogether and will not hesitate to do so again. This would be a loss to those who want to use it as a forum for genuine debate.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Brief Update

Here's where things stand on Friday evening. We'll try to be back with more during the weekend.

The Dialog Continues

The national government and the governors of the so-called Media Luna departments (minus the one in jail, see below) continue their discussions here in Cochabamba (Tiquipaya actually) aimed at seeking some sort of an agreement on three main topics: the division of gas and oil revenues between the national government and the departments; the proposed Constitution and regional autonomy statutes; and judicial appointments. President Morales stepped out of the country overnight to fly to Panama to receive an award from a University there. No news yet of how the talks are going, but at least they are going.

Blockades and an OAS Request

The main roads in and out of the city of Santa Cruz are blocked by rural supporters of Morales numbering in the thousands. Those blockading the roads are demanding that departmental government return to national government the various public buildings and offices seized and vandalized last week. The blockaders stopped well short of the city, heading off earlier worries of a confrontation there. The roads blocks also come just as the city is set to open its biggest event of the year, Epocruz, a prized-commercial exhibition that normally attracts close to half a million visitors.

Meanwhile, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, arriving in La Paz to join other foreign observers of the talks, has called on supporters of the President to end their blockades and other actions aimed at influencing the talks. They declined the request.

Peace Corps and Mormons are Out

Earlier this week the Peace Corps pulled its 113 volunteers out of Bolivia, for what we reported would be a temporary departure until the situation on the ground in Bolivia satisfied the organization's security needs. We were wrong. The volunteers pulled out of Bolivia aren’t coming back. Some will be reassigned in other countries and some will simply end their two years of service early. Here's the Peace Corps announcement. These young people do super work here, so it is a real shame for them and for Bolivia.

Also gone from Bolivia for security reasons are the many Mormon Church missionaries living here in the country. Bolivia is a major center for the church and Cochabamba is home to a huge Mormon temple, among the very largest on the continent. We don't know if and when the Mormons are returning and under what circumstances.

We invite members of both groups to use the comments section below, anonymously if they wish, to add more explanation.

Dynamite is Loud

As we began our staff meeting here at The Democracy Center this morning some 2,000 miners marched by the office, here by bus from Oruro, Potosi, and La Paz. Setting off dynamite explosives as they walked, downtown windows seemed close to shattering and those nearby were treated to an orchestra of antagonized car alarms. The miners are here to "monitor" the dialog between the governors and Morales, with a special demand that a vote move forward on the proposed new Constitution backed by MAS. In a rally held in the city's main plaza, miner leaders said that if the results of the meeting do not go as they want, they will travel onward to Santa Cruz, where it seems unlikely they will visit Epocruz.

Pando Governor in Jail

Pando Governor Leopold Fernandez (pictured above) is in jail tonight at the San Pedro prison in La Paz, charged with being the power behind the massacre of at least 30 campesinos last week outside of Cobija. Meanwhile, human rights groups including Human Rights Watch in the U.S. have called for a thorough and impartial investigation into the killings.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Updates in the Bolivian Political Crisis

Here's a quick review of the events over the past couple of days surrounding Bolivia's political crisis. For readers wanting moire background we refer you to our special report posted Monday.

Morales and Two Key Governors Sign Agreements on Talks

In La Paz today, President Morales and two key state governors, Rubén Costas of Santa Cruz and Mario Cossío of Tarija, signed an agreement to begin a new round of talks aimed at resolving the country's deep political crisis. The agreement will launch talks starting on Thursday in Cochabamba, and will focus on four main issues of contention: the division of gas and oil revenue (IDH); the proposed new Constitution; regional autonomy; and pending appointments to the nation's judicial bodies. The agreement was also signed by Bolivia's Catholic Cardinal, Julio Terrazas.

Nothing in the agreement changes the difficulties that Morales and the Governors have had up to now in finding agreement on these issues, but the fact that talks will happen at all indicates that, as in Cochabamba in January 2007, the country's fall into deep violence has created pressure to back up and try another way, for now. Not participating in the talks will be Pando Governor Leopoldo Fernandez, arrested Tuesday and transported to La Paz where he will be charged with murder in connection with last weeks massacre of campesino supporters of Morales. Here's Erbol's report on the accord.

South American Presidents Meet in Chile

The leaders of nine South American nations held an emergency summit in Chile yesterday to address the Bolivian crisis. The Presidents declared their strong support for Morales, denounced the Pando massacre and violent attacks against government facilities, called for dialog to resolve the crisis and established a committee to assist in that dialog. The Presidents rejected an effort by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to denounce the U.S. role in Bolivian events, leaving the U.S. out of the discussions entirely. The Bush Administration has yet to issue any denouncement of the Pando massacre, one of the few moves it could make right now that would be both a positive development for Bolivia and useful to the U.S. as well. I think it is also worth noting that it was the two women Presidents, of Argentina and Chile, that initiated the high level peace effort.

Testimonies from the Pando Massacre

Bolivian news outlets have begun to publish the wrenching testimonies of survivors and witnesses from the campesino massacres in Pando last week. The on-line publication Ukhampacha Bolivia has translated a number of these as reported by Radio Erbol. Here is one excerpt:

Vanesa Yubacero, a campesino, recounts the ambush she fell victim to, her voice at times broken by tears: “I was coming from the Nuevo Triunfo community, we arrived within five meters of the Puente Pozo bridge, and we were there when dawn came, and they told us that we should go back and they followed us… We continued moving forward and the police detained us, we waited but no one gave us water, they surrounded us without giving us any time, and they shot the children, they died just like that, with bullets in their hearts, how those children cried, facing those machine guns."

U.S. Orders Peace Corps Out of Bolivia, Evacuates Families

On Monday the U.S. government announced that it had temporarily suspended the Peace Corps program in Bolivia and evacuated all Peace Corps volunteers out of the country, to Lima, Peru. In the same communication the U.S. Embassy announced that it is offering the families of Embassy staff and all "non-emergency personnel" passage out of the country. It has also announced that it is offering some flights out of Bolivia to other U.S. citizens who wish to leave (they still don’t let you take your dogs) and have encouraged those who can to leave and those planning to come to stay home.

The question we are frequently asked when the U.S. issues such communications is, "What do they know?" While no one can state for sure what might happen here in the next few weeks, my sense is that the Embassy's caution is more about the past than the future. In October 2003 during the crisis leading to President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's resignation, the Embassy did not evacuate and found its staff stranded in La Paz after the airport there was closed and the main roads in and out of the city blockaded. Since then the Embassy has erred on the side of caution, including its evacuation of DEA families and others in 2005 following the resignation of President Carlos Mesa, when the country had already returned to calm. I am not criticizing the Embassy, it is doing its job. This is just some additional analysis as people evaluate their choices.

Tens of Thousands March in Buenos Aires to Support Morales

As the continent's Presidents met in Chile and with more reports surfacing of massacres against Morales backers, the streets of downtown Buenos Aires filled with at least 20,000 people Monday afternoon, proclaiming their support for Bolivia's President (photo above by The Democracy Center's Melissa Draper). Many held aloft banners reading "30,000 Reasons Why," referring to the estimated number of disappeared and killed during this country's "Dirty War" era of repression in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The march was a reminder of how fresh those memories still remain in Argentina and the dangers that many people across Latin America see being repeated in the opposition violence in Bolivia the past week.

A Pair of Clarifications

We have had two readers write to us asking for clarifications from our special report and we are happy to post those here.

First, in our post I reported that U.S. House Member Eliot Engel, a Democrat, had joined Republican Dan Burton to call for an end to the APTDEA trade agreement between the U.S. and Bolivia. This was how the story was reported in the Bolivian media. Congressman Engel's office e-mailed me with this clarification:

Cong. Eliot Engel has called for reviewing American aid and trade programs with Bolivia. He did not withdraw his support for trade but said the actions of the Bolivian government have made it difficult to support the Andean trade agreement in Congress.

Second, regarding the scandal earlier this year over U.S. Embassy pressure on Fulbright Scholars and Peace Corps volunteers to provide it with intelligence on Cubans and Venezuelans in the country, I wrote, "Again [Ambassador] Goldberg tried to downplay the incident as an innocent error." A Peace Corps staff member wrote us, "This was indeed a mistake made by an embassy official about which the Ambassador was very angry."

The Ambassador may well have been extremely angry in public, and with good cause, but all the public statements were far more muted. As ABC News reported at the time:

"The U.S. Embassy in La Paz acknowledges the July incident, having received complaints from Peace Corps staff last year about the matter. But both the embassy and the State Department claim it was "an error," emphasizing that it should not have been interpreted as a request for U.S. citizens to spy."

We hope that clarifies both points.

And a last note, for those interested, I am scheduled to be interviewed Wednesday morning on Democracy Now, which you can watch or listen to here.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bolivia at the Abyss: A Special Report


Details are slowly trickling in about the inhumanities committed during the Massacre at Pando and its aftermath. Here is a collection of testimonies gathered by Radio Erbol.

Tonight the Democracy Center published a special issue of our newsletter, providing background on these events as well as an update. Tomorrow the Presidents of virtually every nation in South America will hold an emergency summit in Chile to offer their backing to President Morales. Argentine President has compared the threat in Bolivia to the bloody coup in Chile 35 years ago this week.

Our special report is below, embedded with links to other background materials published previously by The Democracy Center.

Jim Shultz


At least twenty-five people are dead as the result of political violence. It is unclear if the nation will be able to steer clear of open civil war. The Bolivian and U.S. governments have taken turns kicking one another's ambassadors out of the country. The Presidents of virtually every nation in South America are convening in an emergency summit in Chile on Monday morning, with one of them calling this moment the biggest threat to a democracy on the continent since the bloody coup that installed Augusto Pinochet in power there in 1973.

This is the state of things in Bolivia and in Latin America as I write.

The Road to Confrontation

Bolivia's steady path to bloody conflict did not begin this week. The nation in the heart of South America bears the distinctions of being both the continent's most impoverished, as well as the most indigenous country in all of the Americas. Going back to the Spanish conquest, Bolivia's indigenous majority has always been driven to the political and economic margins, ruled by a whiter and wealthier elite in a political culture not unlike South Africa during apartheid.

That political imbalance began to change dramatically in 2000 with the now-famous Cochabamba Water Revolt. The Revolt, in which citizens took to the streets to take back their public water system from the Bechtel Corporation, signaled a rising up of the nation's most impoverished against economic policies imposed on the country in the 1990s by an alliance of wealthy leaders and global institutions in Washington, including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In December 2005 the rise of Bolivia's impoverished and indigenous led to the landmark election of the country's first indigenous President, Evo Morales. And in turn Morales' arrival in power cemented and exploded the deep divisions between the country's wealthier eastern states and poorer western ones. Battles over a proposed new constitution, regional autonomy, land reform, and the division of new gas and oil revenue blew up into violent conflicts over and over again.

Last May, Morales, accepted a challenge from some of his opponents to put his political mandate, and theirs, to the test with an August 10th recall vote. Morales won that ballot with a huge 67% of the vote. That result and Morales' declaration that he would seek a national vote on his proposed constitution further radicalized his opposition in the eastern states.

On Tuesday, mobs of youths egged on by the region's political leaders ransacked and burned key offices of the national government in Santa Cruz, Bolivia's wealthiest department. On Wednesday the violence spread to the state of Tarija where mobs of Morales opponents invaded and destroyed the office of a local indigenous organization, leaving at least 80 people wounded.

Then on Thursday came the massacre in Pando, one of the country's smallest states but one controlled by the most violent opponents of the government. A group of indigenous campesinos, backers of Morales, headed to the local capital for a meeting, were ambushed by armed backers of the local Governor. The current body count from that attack is now 25 and climbing as more corpses are discovered in the surrounding fields. The Bolivian press has reported that machine guns were among the weapons used.

The Role of the U.S.

On Tuesday, following the violence in Santa Cruz, President Morales formally commanded the U.S. Ambassador, Phillip Goldberg, to leave the country. In retaliation the Bush Administration did the same, ordering the departure of Bolivia's ambassador to Washington. Morales cited Goldberg's suspicious meetings with two of the opposition governors on the eve of the attacks and declared, "We do not want people here who conspire against democracy."

Soon afterwards Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez jumped on the oust-the ambassador bandwagon, ordering that U.S. Ambassador out of the country as well. Then Washington ordered Venezuela's ambassador home. "The charges against our ambassadors are false and the Presidents of Bolivia and Venezuela know that," declared State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The U.S. has a long history of intervention in Latin America, and Bolivia has not been spared. For nearly two decades Bolivian governments been pressured by Washington to wage a "War on Drugs" in Bolivia, with serious collateral damage to human rights. Until Morales suspended the practice last year, the U.S. Embassy paid Bolivian anti-drug prosecutors a special salary bonus aimed at increasing the number of jailings each year. The bonus program produced impressive statistics for the Embassy to send to Washington, but at the cost of thousands of innocent people thrown in jail to boost the numbers.

Goldberg himself, who took over as Ambassador shortly after Morales' 2006 inauguration, has proved to be an inept diplomat over and over again. In June 2007 the military attaché at the Embassy in La Paz, a U.S. Army Colonel, decided to have a relative carry down 500 rounds of 45-caliber ammunition packed in her suitcase. The event spiked Bolivian fears of U.S. intervention and Goldberg made the public uproar even worse by going against the advice of senior aides, trying to downplay the incident as a minor mistake.

Last February, a young U.S. Fulbright Scholar revealed to ABC News that an Embassy official had asked him to gather intelligence on Cubans and Venezuelans in Bolivia. It also turned out that the Embassy was systematically asking U.S. Peace Corps volunteers to do the same – a direct violation of the laws governing both programs. Again Goldberg tried to downplay the incident as an innocent error. The Morales administration threatened to prosecute the official involved and he left the country.

I have seen Mr. Goldberg's diplomatic ineptness up close. Last year before an audience of 100 Americans in Cochabamba he made a joke about the lynching of a Bolivian woman, and dripped with condescension at the Bolivian government.

For its part, the Morales government has often used flimsy evidence to back its claims of a Goldberg conspiracy. This includes charges last year that the Ambassador carried out secret meetings with an alleged Colombian paramilitary operative, based on the two of them posing for a photo together at a crowded Santa Cruz fair. It seems unlikely that even an inept diplomat would hold a clandestine meeting amidst several thousand onlookers. Yet Morales waved the photo as evidence at a Latin American Presidents' summit.

Nevertheless, Goldberg was clearly back in the ineptness business a week ago when, in the face of new attacks on Morales by the rebel Governors, Goldberg decided to travel off and have cordial visits with two of them. Did the U.S. Ambassador pass along secret orders to launch last week's violence? No one but the participants knows what advice Washington's man offered behind closed doors, but I seriously doubt it was to unleash Bolivian Armageddon.

Morales' opponents, many driven by fierce racism, hardly needed a push from the U.S. Nor did a movement fueled by wealthy landowners need secret U.S. cash. Nevertheless, Goldberg's visits were one more demonstration of his chronic diplomatic tone deafness, this time setting off a major crisis in Washington's relations in Latin America.

The incident also cost both the U.S. and Bolivia one of the most competent Ambassadors either of them had, the Bolivian envoy to Washington, Gustavo Guzman. A respected former journalist, Guzman had established good ties with an administration in Washington that has very few of them to Latin America. Guzman noted, "We had achieved a channel of dialog [in Washington] that today, regrettably, has been lost."

What Next?

At this writing, the Morales government is in negotiations with one of the opposition governors, with each side looking for a peaceful way out of the crisis – maybe. There are forces competing between negotiations and battle on both sides. In response to Thursday's massacre Morales has also sent troops into the embattled Pando region and declared a State of Emergency there, which includes a curfew and a ban on political meetings. Road blockades have left parts of the country without fuel and with potential food shortages.

Politicians in the U.S., stuck in dueling tough-guy mode, have ignored the racist attacks and focused on the sideshow of Goldberg's ousting. GOP Presidential nominee John McCain warned, "…Bolivia's expulsion of the American ambassador there, reminds us anew of the dangerous trends in our own hemisphere." Democratic nominee Barak Obama issued a similar declaration through a campaign spokeswoman. "Obama is encouraging President Morales to reconsider his current path for the good of Bolivia, its people, and its future relationship with the United States." Two key members of Congress have called for an end to a Bolivian trade agreement over the Goldberg matter.

Latin American leaders, on the other hand, focused on the central issue at hand – the violence aimed at Morales supporters and the threat to Bolivian democracy. On Monday the Presidents of Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Venezuela (and likely Peru and Uruguay as well) will join Morales at an emergency summit in Chile to offer him their strong backing. Even staunch Bush ally, Colombian President Uribe, has rallied to Morales' side.

The meeting was called by Argentina's President, Cristina Fernandez. A Buenos Aires daily quoted her linking the attacks against Morales with one of the bloodiest memories in the region's recent history.

"If we don’t act now, in thirty years we may be watching documentaries [about Bolivia] like those we see today about Salvador Allende [the democratically-elected President of Chile ousted by Pinochet in 1973].


Friday, September 12, 2008

Where is Bolivia's Violence Headed?

Here's an updated look Sunday Morning at the crisis in Bolivia. We'll continue to update the Blog frequently.

The Massacre in Pando

The death toll from Thursday's massacre in Pando, outside the city of Cobija continues to climb. On Saturday the Minister of Government in Bolivia announced that another ten bodies had been founding in the fields surrounding the site of the violence, bringing the total to 30, according to a report from Radio Erbol. The deaths occurred when armed operatives of the local Governor set out to intercept a group of campesinos coming in from the countryside for a meeting. Their weapons included machine guns. The remote department of the country has been under a declared "state of emergency since Friday night, declared by President Morales. Shortly afterwards supporters of the Governor reportedly broke into a local gun store and left with a fresh supply of arms and ammunition.

For those wondering why the Morales Government decided to take the extraordinary action of sending in troops to Pando this weekend, taking control of its capital, the massacre of the campesinos is the answer.

Military Moves

In the face of a week of bloody conflict, the Morales government has taken the decision to dispatch the country's military force to the areas of conflict. The moves were first signaled by twin statements yesterday by Morales and the head of the nation's Armed Forces, General Luís Trigo, then followed by the declaration of a "state of emergency" in Pando and the taking of the airport there by force. Now Saturday morning there are solid press reports of the movement of tanks and troops towards the nation's eastern departments.

Friday in a speech in Quillacollo (near Cochabamba), Morales took responsibility for leaving soldiers and police defenseless against mobs in Santa Cruz and Tarija. “I want to say a truth, that perhaps I am guilty for telling the Armed Forces and the National Police not to use arms against the people and perhaps because of that some groups took advantage to offend and humiliate the Armed Forces and to the National Police,” said Morales.

Later, General Trigo announced Friday that, "We are not going to tolerate any more the actions of radical and violent groups that are only bringing confrontations between Bolivians, causing pain and suffering between brothers and threatening the nation's security." The General also sent a public message to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that the Armed Forces would also not allow any intervention by Venezuelan troops in the current crisis. Yesterday Chavez declared the he was prepared to send in troops to "defend' Bolivia if the Morales government is toppled by the violence in the country's east.

Then on Friday night Morales declared a formal "state of emergency" (estado de sitio) in the department of Pando, the site of yesterday's massacre of campesinos trying to reach the city of Cobija. The declaration invokes a wide variety of suspensions of rights, among them: a curfew between midnight and 6am for any group of more than three people; a prohibition on carrying arms and explosives at any time; prohibitions against political meetings and protests; and the required closure of all bars and restaurants by midnight. The decree is similar to one issued by then-President Hugo Banzer in April 2000 in Cochabamba during the Water Revolt, though that curfew began at 10pm.

This morning La Razon and other news outlets report a movement of tanks and troops from La Paz and Cochabamba in the dorection of Santa Cruz and the east. A military commander is quoted, declaring that any movement of troops is strictly to protect public safety and to uphold the constitution, an intended response to underlying fears that the military might have some intent more sinister in mind.

No Gas in Cochabamba

As a result of sabotage against gas pipelines in the nation's east, at least come gas stations in Cochabamba have posted signs that they no longer have gas for cars and don't known when they will. A very large portion of the region's vehicles run on gas, in particular public transit vehicles such as Taxi Trufis. While many will switch to gasoline for now, which apparently is still available, this will certainly make transit more difficult and will raise the fares to cover the higher price of fuel.

Brazil Readies an Evacuation Plan for its Citizens

A Brazilian newspaper, Correio Braziliense has published a report that that the Brazilian government is preparing an evacuation plan for its citizens in the embattled regions of Bolivia. "The government now has a plan to remove the Brazilians from the regions of Bolivia where the conflicts between the government and the opposition are taking place, principally Santa Cruz," an official is quoted. The Brazilian government has also called on its citizens visiting Bolivia as tourists to leave and for those planning to go to cancel their visits.

Two Congress Members Reverse Position on Bolivia Trade Pact

In the wake of the Morales government kicking U.S. Ambassador Phillip Goldberg out of the country, two members of the House, Republican Dan Burton and Democrat Eliot Engel, have announced their withdrawal of support for extension of an important trade agreement with Bolivia that is key to textile exports from the highlands that are a part of Morales' political base.

"In the past, I have been a firm defender of the long term extension of the package of commercial preferences for Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia," said Burton. I have indicated time and time again that the people we help with these preferences are creating profitable jobs as alternatives to the illegal activities. Nevertheless, today I must say that, due to the decision of Bolivian President Evo Morales to declare to the Ambassador of the United States in Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, 'persona non-grata' that I can no longer support the extension of commercial preferences for Bolivia."

Tarija's Governor Heads to La Paz for Negotiations with Morales

The one good piece of news today is that Tarija Governor Mario Cossío announced that he was headed to La Paz this afternoon to open a negotiation on the current crisis with the Morales government. Radio Erbol also reported that Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas has endorsed the negotiation effort. "I am completely convinced that this is the last opportunity to begin a process of reconciliation and leave behind the process of confrontation," Cossio told reporters.

What an End to the Conflict Would Look Like

There is no question that these conflicts this week have pushed Bolivia farther toward the abyss than at any time since the return of democracy a quarter century ago. And what makes it so is the absence of any obvious way for it to end. This isn't October 2003 and the crisis surrounding President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. His popularity was at rock-bottom lows and his departure was inevitable. Morales, freshly backed by 2/3 of voters, is not going anywhere (nor should he). On the other hand, the rebelling Governors also enjoy popular support in their regions and the mobs behind them aren't likely to back down.

So I look back to January 2007 in Cochabamba when I was at ground zero of the violence there that turned the city into a war zone for an afternoon and left three men dead. How did Cochabamba go from that violence to a fragile peace?

Most importantly, the leaders on both sides took the deaths as a wake-up call, a warning about how bad it could get. The backers of Morales took to the streets more peacefully. The stick wielding-youths of the city's middle class who backed the Governor stayed home. The angry cats of politics unarched their backs and stopped trying to scratch one another's eyes out.

The leaders in these conflicts, on both sides, have a huge moral obligation to call on their followers to abandon violence. In Santa Cruz those leaders only fanned it. But maybe blood will make even them wiser. We can hope. Then those leaders must use the fragile truce that comes to negotiate, for time to begin with, and then for some longer way forward with the time they buy.

The danger of course is that violence like that this week tends to only lock people into more opposing positions. Reconciliation with people you believe to be racists is not easy, nor is being on the minority end of the political stream roller that MAS has become.

The question in Bolivia tonight is whether those headed toward deeper conflict love their political positions better than they love their country. Let’s be clear. The issue is not gas and oil revenue, that's an easy fix. The issue isn’t even a new Constitution, a harder issue but also one where compromise could be found if both sides wanted it. The nuclear core of this meltdown is emotional and deeply rooted, wrapped in race, and history and privilege and fear.

But you can also bet on this. Those affluent owners of businesses in Santa Cruz – the cafes and the factories and the hotels – they aren't sitting around tonight happy as clams that their city has become globally synonymous with violent mobs. Their most prized week of the year, Epocruz, is less than two weeks away and there isn’t a hotel room to be had in the city for that week. If both sides are smart they'll use that as an opportunity to buy a week of peace and use that week to find a way forward that can hold. Or they can hold hands and jump over the cliff together, each side convinced in the rightness of their view.


Violence in Bolivia

This week violent confrontations in Bolivia have leapt from one eastern department to another, like sparks in a wild fire, or a demonic plan.

On Tuesday it was Santa Cruz, where the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista converted itself into a mob, buring and looting government offices and the offices of the phone company Entel. Wednesday the violence spread to Tarija, when a mob of so-called "civicos" invaded the Mercado Campesino to destroy the offices of a local indiginous organization (CIDOB), leaving at least 80 people wounded.

Today the sparks of Bolivan-on-Bolivian violence blew up into fire once more in the department of Pando. A concentration of campesinos were headed to the city of Cobija to debate how they should respond to violent events in the country's east. They were met about 20 miles out of town by functionaries of the Governor who used heavy equipment to dig a hole in the road and block their entry. Soon after the standoff turned into a flurry of bullets leaving 7 campesinos and one of the Governor's people dead.

Where all this is headed next is guesswork.

Booted Ambassadors

Following the violence in Santa Cruz Tuesday, President Morales put in a call to Bolivia's Foreign Minister who was in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Phillip Goldberg. He called, according to press reports, to pass along the message that Bolivia was invoking its right to send Goldberg back to the U.S., an announcement he made on televsion shortly afterwards. Morales blamed Goldberg and the U.S. for inciting the Santa Cruz violence, citing the Ambassador's recent visit to two of the opposition governors.

This afternoon the U.S. moved into "an eye for an eye" mode and dismissed Bolivia's U.S. Ambassador, Gustavo Guzman from Washington as well. "In response to the unwarranted action and in accordance with the Vienna Convention, we have officially informed the government of Bolivia of our decision to declare Ambassador Gustavo Guzman persona non grata,'' Bloomberg News quotes a State Department Spokeswoman.

Hours later Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez jumped into the send-the-diplomats- packing competition, calling on the U.S. Ambassador in Caracas to leave as well. "Go to hell, shit yankees, we are a dignified people, go to hell 100 times," Chavez shouted at a political rally, according to a Reuters report. He also invited the Bush Administration to do the same to Venezuela's ambassador in Washington.

So far that means four ambassadors packing suitcases tonight, a flurry of last minute tickets going north and south on American Airlines, and that much less diplomacy at a time when diplomacy would be a useful thing.

The Case for Foreign Diplomatic Intervention

Amidst all the trilateral ousting of diplomats, the more sobering question still remains: Who will mediate in a Bolivian conflict that is bad and getting worse?

There are some essential facts we can agree on, I think:

First, it is quite unclear how this new round of violence will come to a peaceful end. The mobs of the eastern provinces are escalating their handiwork in blood and fire, not curtailing it. Key leaders in the burning departments are inciting more of the same, not calling for cooler heads. President Morales is not backing down on his resistance to the eastern leaders' demands nor can he send in the army to force his adversaries to back down. Television images of one set of Bolivian youths (the "civico" mobs) beating the crap out of other Bolivian youths (the Army's young conscripts) is a pale preview if Evo militarizes. Absent some form of mediation between the warring factions, Bolivia is headed toward an abyss.

Second, there is no one, no one, in Bolivia who can mediate. The Catholic Church lost that broad trust long ago. The Defensor del Pueblo isn't viewed as neutral and doesn't have the weight. There is no actor in politics, academia, or any other sector in Bolivia who has the clout.

Mediation is critical right now and it can only come from outside the country. And as a practical matter that mediation needs to come in a diplomatic form and it needs to come from the two Bolivian neighbors most affected most directly affected by the crisis – Brazil and Argentina. Each depends heavily on Bolivian gas exports and it is how the revenue from those exports is shared that is the center (at the moment) of the violence.

The two governments ought to act now to do the following. First, they should jointly call on all sides in Bolivia to cease the violence and honor a month-long cooling off period. They should then anoint a creative bilateral team of people that can garner wide respect in Bolivia – from human rights leaders to business people – to come and consult with both sides and suggest potential compromises.

There are some who will call this proposal naïve, noting that Bolivia's conflicts are not so easily solved. There are others who won't be able to get past loyalties to one side or the other – "Evo and the people should not back down to racist pressures," or, "The people of the east are trying to block the advent of Evo-authoritarianism."

But if you are walking down the street and stumble upon two people fighting each other with knives, you can sit around and debate who started it, or put that debate off until after you have separated them and stopped them from killing each other.

With nearly a dozen people dead, socres wounded, and more violence on the way, the most important task at the moment is to break up the fight. And diplomatic intervention from Bolivia's calmer neighbors is just about the last shot Bolivia has.


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Face of Autonomy

Well, now we know what Santa Cruz leaders had in mind when they demanded to govern their region of Bolivia without national interference.

Today, as part of a regional temper tantrum over their demand for a bigger slice of the nation's gas and oil revenue, champions of Santa Cruz autonomy have:

Sacked and torched the local headquarters of Entel, the phone company. [The theft of all those Entel pre-pay phone cards was a particular contribution to democracy.]

Invaded and taken over the local offices of the national authorities dealing with taxes and land issues.

Engaged in a six-hour battle with soldiers.

Stole some guns.

This is just a part of today's fine handiwork by the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, which is looking more and more like the Civic Committee's Brown Shirts every day.

So much for the ever-shrinking opposition's argument that Morales' backers are the thugs and they are the honest law-abiding defenders of democracy. Lacking even a third of the national popular vote, Santa Cruz leaders have now apparently decided that it isn’t worth even pretending to have moral authority either.

Their goal, we can assume, is either free cell calls using the stolen Entel cards, or more likely, to goad Evo into declaring a "State of Siege" and a sending in of the troops.

We can hope that Evo and the people around him are not so foolish. Sending in troops to Santa Cruz won't quell violence; it will amplify it up to a level not seen since Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada played the send-in-troops card in October 2003. That planted more than sixty people in their graves and landed the President in suburban Maryland exile.

A better message might be:

"Well my fellow Bolivians in Santa Cruz, if you are dedicated to burning down your own city there isn't much I can do to stop you, but it is pretty lame thing to do."

And then I'd get on the phone to someone who can mediate – the Church, the OAS, Lula, anyone – and suggest that they suggest a compromise of giving back to the regions half the gas revenues Evo is using for his new pensions program for the elderly. Bolivia is banking hundreds of millions in reserves, so it won’t be hard. And then I'd magnanimously accept the deal and see if the Civic Committee, Mayor and Governor might like to stop destroying their city for a while.

But of course, I have a personal bias toward rational behavior to confess. I'd like the Santa Cruz airport to be open next week when I head home.

Updates on Wednesday Evening

Here's a few updates:

Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas justified Tuesday's violence as the legitimate reaction of a "a tired people" and blamed "government terrorism" as the root cause behind yesterday's events. Well, and sometimes when I was 12 I told the teacher that the dog ate my homework. He also called the actions of Santa Cruz's rioting youth, "heroic." What do they get if they burn down a hotel? Sainthood?

Santa Civic Commitee President Branco Marinkovic weighed in as well, declaring that the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista was merely attempting a "peaceful takeover" of the government installations yesterday. It was just those misguided police who got in the way of things that created the problem. The clubs and molotov cocktails and fires were apparently imaginary. After making his press statement Marinkovic put on wings and flew off to complete his rounds putting coins under the pillows of children who lost teeth around the world yesterday.

The Morales government meanwhile resisted efforts to goad it into sending in the military and declaring a "state of emergency" in Santa Cruz, declaring instead that it would use all powers "legal and constitutional" at its disposal to bring and end to the conflict. Yeah, that'll work. At the same time supporters of the government in rural arras in the embattled region announced that they would begin to blockade roads in and out of the city to bring pressure on anti-Morales forces to end their attacks on the government. So do keep an eye out for truckloads of "peace-seeking" Santa Cruz youth headed out to the blockades.

And now this...Evo has now publicly called for U.S. Ambassador Goldberg to leave Bolivia, charging the diplomat with having his hand in the uprisings in the cities in the east. "I ask the foreign minister to find the legal and diplomatic framework to return him urgently to his country. We do not want separatists, divisionists, people who conspire against the unity. We do not want people who work against democracy." On the one hand, Evo frequently overstates the role of the U.S. in Bolivia's political battles. Mr. Goldberg has always seemed more incompetent than conspiratorial. On the other hand, he has become like a party guest who is still looking for food to eat in the kitchen long after everyone normal has left and the hosts have announced they are going to bed. He should have left long ago.

Stay tuned.


Saturday, September 06, 2008

A December Vote on a New Constitution?


As promised, even though I am in Buenos Aires working this week, we continue with our coverage from Bolivia, courtesey of other members of the Democracy Center team. Here, from Lily Whitesell and others, is a report on the past week's political battles over President Morales' call for a December vote on MAS' proposed new constitution.

Jim Shultz

A December Vote on a New Constitution?

It's not often that the National Electoral Court makes headlines multiple times in one week. But the "CNE" has been taking care of business. It's fining television stations for having shown political ads in the 48 hours before the August 10 recall election. It has begun removing from the voter rolls those Bolivians who didn't vote. And most importantly, on Monday, it declared President Morales' decree - the one which called for a December 7th referendum on the new Constitution - null and void.

The Electoral Court's argument was that a referendum would need to be passed into law by Congress - not the president. (Morales' party MAS controls the House of Delegates, but the opposition controls the Senate by a slim majority.) The decision seemed to catch the Morales administration by surprise.

You can imagine how the week went. On Monday and Tuesday, spokespeople from the government lashed out at the Court and assured that the December 7th referendum would still be held. "We lament and condemn the conduct of the Electoral Court, which without legal nor legitimate arguments, through a letter, has decided to void the decree." No mincing words there. The opposition, on the other side, were thrilled about the decision, but quickly got back to their work of blockading highways and roads about the ongoing struggle about how the gas and oil revenues will be used and distributed.

By Thursday, the opposition was intensifying their blockades and threatening to go for the pipelines that pump gas and oil to Argentina and Brazil. The government, on the other hand, had toned down its rhetoric, with Vice President Lineras expressing the desire to work together and dialogue with the "democratic" part of the Bolivian right wing to get the law passed through Congress.

The Mandate

Last year, the Democracy Center wrote a briefing paper about the Constituent Assembly after a trip to Sucre. One of the main conclusions that we drew from that experience was that the conflict around the Constitution stems from one main issue, one point of disagreement between Evo Morales' supporters and opposers. That was: how much of a mandate does Morales have to shake things up in Bolivia?

Winning the election in 2005 by the highest percentage in Bolivian history - how much of a mandate did that give him? Enough of a mandate to "nationalize" gas (renegotiating contracts), it seems, has been pretty much agreed upon by all sides (they're all fighting over the money now, right?). But enough of a mandate to pass a Constitution that emerged as the second demand of the October 2003 protests? That question has been the source of much of the political back-and-forth of the last year or more.

And now, winning the recall referendum with 67% support, how much of a mandate does that give him? Has anything changed significantly in the political stalemate since where the country was on August 9th? There is still the government, there is still the opposition. Neither has the political will to budge from their current positions. In one sense, nothing has changed.

But in another sense, one key thing is different. If the government finds a way to dialogue with some of the more centrist members of the opposition, and to get the law for a December 7 referendum passed... Well, then maybe that recall election was a warm-up for the real vote. The 67% support for Morales could very easily translate into a 50 plus one percent victory for the Constitution next December.

La Yapa

As your casera can tell you, anything in Bolivia should have some yapa. In this case, we have three interviews from regular people about current events in Bolivia, with more coming next week. A number of them were done on referendum day, long before the Constitutional decree, but their basic messages still shed some light on the ups and downs of this week's events.

As a disclaimer, they are disproportionately from the city, and disproportionately middle class, but there are a variety of people (including one quite well-known Bolivian comedian - make sure to check the blog next week) and opinions among them, which I hope readers will find interesting, if not useful. You can see the videos in full on YouTube by following the links.

Grover Ledezma, a "common and ordinary citizen"

The DC: What do you think of the current political situation?

G: Well, to be honest it's a very complicated moment the one Bolivia is currently going through. It turns out that we currently have two Bolivias, an eastern Bolivia and a western Bolivia. Perhaps the ones that have more complications and to a certain extent have to “pay the broken dishes,” in this situation are the ones, like me, living in the valley. It's a situation where everyone picks sides, so Cochabamba currently finds itself divided by 2 different political views.

The DC: What message would you send to the government and also the opposition party?

G: Well, firstly to the government, for it to govern the whole of Bolivia not just the residents of the West, nor the residents of the tropics or the residents of the high lands of La Paz because we are all Bolivians. And for the opposition to act more cautiously before making its decisions. We just hope that we can all sit together to talk so [Bolivia can be] governable. I wish for a democratic government for all Bolivians and for people to respect a government chosen constitutionally, whether that is at a national level or at a departmental level but in reality we all need to be governed and we must comply with a government that has been constitutionally established.

The DC: Is there anything else you would like to add?

G: Well, surely, the eyes of other neighbor countries including the country of the North are upon Bolivia and I can only think to myself and at times think with other Bolivians on how can it be possible in a country with 8 million people and a country so rich for people not to be able to understand each other. As an intellectual of our country used to say, “the cause of our poverty is our wealth.” Well, we have to start by changing and proposing the construction of a strong democracy and a more socially, politically and economically stable country.

Don Waldo

Honestly, in Bolivia, we have had a split, a falling out between two groups, I would say, between the opposition and the current government, which actually acknowledges the needs of Bolivians, who are always the poorest out of all the countries. Since I am from the long-suffering class, [I support] Evo Morales. I know he knows what the needs of the Bolivian people are. It is really a shame in our country that the “rich” class, as they say, always wants to grab the baby bottle. They are the only ones that do well in life, they don’t let the long-suffering class rise.

Maria Julia

It's not that I disagree with Evo, because there are things that convince me about his work, but I think that there are also things that aren’t handled well. What really bothers me is this revenge logic, this logic of “now it’s our turn”. I think that a president has to shake himself out, I mean his personal identity, or his identity of origin, without forgetting it, but taking on the role of a conciliator, managing to unite all the differences. I don’t want us all to be the same, because we’re all different, but we have to learn to respect those differences. And that means from above, from all sides, from below, from each individual.

I think that before we think about whether we’re with MAS or with the opposition, or from here or from there, we’re all people, and people forget that. And furthermore, we’re all animals, right? But we think we’re the king of natural creation, or who knows what, owners of the land to exploit it and use the resources. To use everything and to use the people too. We forget about respect and being part of something, of a complete world, a balanced world. So I think we also have to make some adjustments in the government, because it’s not a matter of taking turns, it’s a matter of wanting to improve everyone’s lives.

Written by Lily Whitesell

Many thanks to our distance volunteers Ana Carolina Romero, Kristin Bard, and Maren Hill for their help with transcription and translation!


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

An Essay About 'Experience'

Experience: (ex-pe-ri-ence) noun, active participation in events or activities, leading to the accumulation of knowledge or skill.

If you strip away the months of campaigning, the millions spent, and the uncounted hours of news coverage, this year’s U.S. Presidential campaign really boils down to two words – 'change' and 'experience'.

Leaving 'change' aside for a minute, let’s chew a bit on that second word, "experience."

Everyone seems to be talking about it. For months Hilary Clinton said Barak Obama didn’t have enough of it, at least not enough to answer a phone intelligently at 3am. Now the Republicans have picked up the same refrain. Democrats, on the other hand now declare that John McCain’s Vice-Presidential pick, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, doesn’t have anywhere near enough of it to be a ‘heartbeat’ from the Presidency.

But for all this talk, talk, talk about ¨experience¨ no one ever seems to explain what they mean by it.

Above is what the American Heritage Dictionary on my shelf has to say (one definition among many). It implies that if a person has done a particular thing in the past that he or she will be wiser in doing the same thing in the future. Maybe.

Okay, let’s start with something easier than politics – driving. I got my drivers license a very long time ago and therefore qualify as an “experienced” driver. And it is true that after a few decades behind the wheel I am now unlikely to repeat the driving adventure I had at 19, when I backed my small Opel onto the hood of a freshly-painted yellow Corvette and drilled a hole through its hood with my exhaust pipe (its startled owner made a valiant effort to kill me afterwards). I am not, however an experienced Cochabamba driver (less than a year behind the wheel) which is one reason why I can never figure out where one is supposed to stop at poorly marked intersections. Along with other such foibles that have earned me the recent nickname “idiota.” So as far as driving goes, experience seems to be of use.

But how does the test of experience apply to political leadership?

Both McCain and Obama are running for President of the U.S. If direct experience alone was an indicator of wisdom for that particular job that we might conclude that George W. Bush would be, by far, the wisest person to hold it. He has been President for eight years and has had many Presidential experiences. But “wisdom” and “George W. Bush” are not terms one finds together in a Google search. And, as many have noted, few people brought as much experience to their jobs as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and their work didn’t turn out so well.

It turns out that experience only leads to wisdom if you learn from your mistakes instead of deny them.

So, given that none of the Democratic and Republican candidates have had actual experience being a President, what “experiences” have they had that simulate the job and what have they learned?

John McCain frequently cites the five years he spent as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. That tells us that he knows how to deal with pressure and that is a good experience for a President to have. Truly, we do not want someone in the oval office who will “freak out” in the midst of a global crisis. “Freaking out” and “nuclear weapons” are a pair of terms we hope to not find listed together in a Google search.

Barak Obama worked as a community organizer in Chicago. As someone who has also been a political organizer for a good portion of my life I think this is useful experience. It surely taught him about what motivates people politically and how to engage people in a meaningful way in public affairs. That seems at least on par with George W. Bush’s MBA from Harvard and his stint as owner of a professional baseball team. I’m just saying.

Sometimes if you don’t have a lot of personal experience you can borrow someone else’s. This is what then-candidate Bush did with Dick Cheney eight years ago and it is essentially what Barak Obama is doing with Joe Biden – borrowing decades of foreign policy experience to compensate for the lack of having it personally. But, as Dick Cheney demonstrated, how well that works depends on whose experience you are borrowing. Sometimes borrowing doesn’t work out so well.

John McCain has taken a novel twist, borrowing someone else’s “inexperience” to try to compensate for his own overabundance of it, after many decades in the Senate. Governor Palin has said in various interviews that she considers her complete lack of experience in national affairs to be a key asset, allowing her to be open to fresh approaches. Maybe, but the fact that I have never flown an airplane doesn’t necessarily speak well for the “fresh ways” in which I might control a Boeing 727. Obama can at least point to four years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Nevertheless, to avoid leaving his pick for V.P. dangling as someone utterly without experience in foreign affairs McCain points to the fact that she serves just across the Bearing Strait from a newly aggressive Russia. Maybe I am alone in this, but that seems like a stretch, unless there is some secret threat of a Russian invasion of Juneau that we don’t know about.

That is not to say that Governor Palin does not have other experiences that could bring other forms of wisdom to the White House. She is a chief executive, albeit briefly and of a small-population state. That’s useful. She’s a Mom, and given recent revelations it seems that she has had to deal up close with some of the harder challenges that families have. That’s useful as well, if it has actually opened her mind instead of making it more closed (the Governor is strictly against abortion rights).

There is a rough parallel here in Bolivia, with the case of our friend Casimira Rodriguez, who served as Minister of Justice in the first year of the Morales government. Much ado was made, in Bolivian and globally, of the fact that Casimira had once been a maid. Missing from that caricature was the fact for two decades afterwards Casimira had been leading powerful efforts regionally, nationally and internationally, to organize household workers in defense of their labor rights.

I used to sell vacuum cleaners at Gemco a long time ago (I was particularly good at throwing dirt down on a carpet at the feet of startled shoppers) but when I am quoted in the New York Times or Miami Herald my vacuum selling days are rarely mentioned.

As Casimira observed amidst criticism of her appointment and of her not being a lawyer (the position was not a legal one, as is the post of Attorney General), “I certainly have experienced injustice.”

So when it comes to “experience” it does not all need to be of the traditional variety. The issue is not length of years served, or the prestige of the job, but the amount of wisdom gained and how that wisdom applies to the task at hand.

So, is experience is your thing, as opposed to positions on issues like war and health care (I personally find such things important) then take your pick:

Prisoner of war turned politician
Community organizer turned politician
Hockey mom novice governor
Senator forever

It’s a pretty diverse menu.

But I wish just one had sold vacuums. You just can’t discount what that teaches you about defending against foreign aggression, and carpet dirt.

A note to readers: I am off Wednesday to Argentina for two weeks for a project we are doing there related to citizen vigilance over public budgets. But The Democracy Center team will be on hand in Cochabamba to keep you posted on events such as the Electoral Court’s slap down of Evo´s plans for a December 7 vote on the new constitution, and other changes in the Bolivian wind.