Cochabamba: dissidents push limits of free speech

As the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (CMPCC) convened for a second day April 20 at Tiquipaya, outside the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, Aymara indigenous leaders held their own dissident "Table 18" on social conflicts related to climate change. Barred by organizers from the official summit grounds on the campus of the University del Valle (Univalle), Aymara elders of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Cullasuyu (CONAMAQ) and their allies convened the dissident forum in a Brazilian restaurant just off the campus.

Cleared of tables to make room for rows of chairs, the premises filled with pungent smoke as incense and coca leaves were ritually burned for the opening ceremony. With many drawn by the controversy, the unofficial Table 18 was as well-attended as the many tables held at the official proceedings on the campus--despite a contingent of UTOP, the national police anti-riot force, stationed at the restaurant's door.

Officially dubbed the table on "Collective Rights and the Rights of Mother Earth," the panel credited the Bolivian government of Evo Morales with recognizing the collective rights of Bolivia's "original nations," as well as Afro-Bolivians and "inter-cultural communities" (mestizos). But panelist Pablo Regalsky of the Andean Center for Communication and Development (CENDA) stated: "Here in Bolivia, we are building a new model--in practice, not theory--so we have to disucss the problems that arise in the creation of this new model." And he warned that there are some in the Evo Morales government--especially the Finance Ministry--who seek a "forced march to industrialization."

Despite "the anti-capitalist discourse of Brother Evo," he charged that "foreign capital" still often plays a decisive role in Bolivia's development policies. He cited moves towards reviving plans for an inter-oceanic transport link through Bolivia, and mineral and gas exploitation on the Guarani indigenous lands of the country's remote east. Refuting government charges that Table 18 was only dealing with internal Bolivian issues, Regalsky said, "These questions also have implications for Paraguay, Brazil, Chile and Peru. And they have implications for the rights guaranteed by the Bolivian constitution."

Writer Naomi Klein, the only foreigner who was asked to address Table 18, wittily prefaced her remarks by stating, "Every government should know that when you ban something, it becomes more popular, and you can see that in this room." We shall see if she will follow up on these words by actually writing about Table 18.

Figures in the Bolivian government have attempted to discredit Table 18, with Chancellor David Choquehuanca unsubtly stating that any effort to divide the summit is the work of "opponents and capitalists." (Los Tiempos, Cochabamba, April 21) Yet, when Norma Pierola, a national legislator from Cochabamba with the right-opposition National Convergence party, attempted to enter the restaurant to address Table 18 (on environmental concerns, she said), her way was blocked by attendees who barred the entrance with their bodies, chanting "¡No pasará!" (she shall not pass).

When she finally gave up and turned away, Pierola spoke to a clatch of reporters outside the restaurant, railing against the supposed environmental impacts of coca-growing, and calling for a crackdown on the cocaleros.

Evo stonewalls on justice for "disappeared"?

The Evo Morales government has won plaudits from the human rights community for its efforts to find the remains of the "disappeared" from Bolivia's dirty war of the late '60s through the early '80s. But just within the Univalle campus grounds, before the security checkpoint leading to the conference site, was a small exhibition (one among many on the path to the checkpoint) with a banner reading: "EVO, ORDENA A LAS F.F.A.A. DECLASIFICACION Y DEVOLVER A LOS DESAPARECIDOS" (Evo, order the armed forces to declassify and return the disappeared).

The small group, dubbed Mujeres X Justicia (Women for Justice), was led by Olga Flores Bedregal, sister of Carlos Flores Bedregal, a leader of Bolivia's Socialist Party who was "disappeared" along with party founder Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz in the first days of the 1980 military coup d'etat.

"Evo Morales has a double discourse," Olga Flores charges. "One one side, his new constitution declares that Bolivia is a 'pacifist state.' But in six years there has been no advance for the truth about the disappeared. Forced disappearance is a continuing crime, because there is still no justice."

Despite recent headlines about the remains of disappeared dissidents being exhumed and an official government search for the remains of Quiroga Santa Cruz, she asserts that the military is continuing to hide files on the whereabouts of the desaparecidos. She has joined with other relatives of the disappeared in litigation to force the government to release these files. After numerous favorable lower-court rulings failed to elicit a response from the armed forces, they took the case to the Supreme Court of Justice in the city of Sucre. Bolivia's highest court again ruled earlier this month that the files must be released--and the armed forces have still not complied.

Flores and her fellow survivors have also held hunger strikes to demand action. In May 2009, she fasted for 30 days outside the headquarters of the High Command in La Paz. This February, she again fasted for four days in the offices of the Assembly for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization based in La Paz. Flores asserts that President Morales has throughout remained silent on the matter, even following the supreme court ruling.

Asked why the president, himself a declared socialist, would stonewall in this matter, Flores replies: "He wants good relations with the military. Despite declaring Bolivia a 'pacifist state,' he has doubled the national debt to buy arms from Russia and China."

As we were talking, a small group of national police approached, and one officer politely but firmly demanded that the exhibit be dismantled. When Flores protested and demanded to know why, he said that this was an environmental summit, and the exhibit was not appropriate to the theme. When Flores responded that the exhibit was actually outside the conference grounds, he ordered his underlings to begin tearing down the posters. They did, as Flores and her group continued to protest.

This exibit was clearly singled out, despite the officer's excuse. Directly across the path from the exhibit was another maintained by apocalyptic Christians, warning that the End Times are at hand in typically lurid terms. A few feet away, another demanded justice for the assassinated and disappeared in Honduras since last year's coup d'etat. They were ignored by the police.

On the conference grounds, the Bolivian armed forces and national police had big exhibitions touting their work in environmental enforcement and restoration.

Mujeres X Justicia later re-assembled the exhibit just outside the campus gates, and apparently met with no further molestation.

World War 4 Report on the scene in Cochabamba

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Naomi Klein sells out Table 18

Predictably. She was happy to accept the offer to speak before Table 18, but Klein made no mention of the dissident working group, or its criticisms, in the unabashedly glowing piece she wrote for The Nation, "A New Climate Movement in Bolivia."

So is this blog now a sectarian mouthpiece

So is this blog now a sectarian mouthpiece, aimed as furthering division as opposed to accurately depicting the contradictions and hard choices that poor countries have to face even as they try to promote a better future for themselves?

On the contrary

We are attempting to grapple with those hard choices, as opposed to dodging the question—which is what Klein did. And by lining up uncritically behind the Bolivian government, she is the one who is guilty of sectarianism. You appear to have things rather backwards.

Bolivian supreme court ruling on "disappeared"

The ruling of the Bolivian Supreme Court of Justice that armed forces commander Ramiro de la Fuente must declassify military archives from 1979 and 1980 has just won some media coverage within Bolivia, apparently due to an order by national prosecutor Eduardo Morales that the armed forces must comply with the ruling. The accounts (El Diario, La Paz, April 30; Erbol Comunicaciones, April 29) do not give the actual date of the ruling.