Wound up stranded in Santa Cruz. Attempting to get the fuck out of Santa Cruz made my way to the military airport, where I found out the army planed to lock up the capital tight starting that night. The armed forces looked set to support the transfer of power to Hormano Vaca Diez, a man roundly despised by the vast majority of the Bolivian population, a man from non other than Santa Cruz.
The shut down of airports and military machinations was enough for a story for the Globe, who under deputy foreign editor Guy Nicholson was taking a lively interest in South America. The deputy deputy Linda Hossie was also keen, well-informed and helpful. I'll post a link to that article as soon as I post it on my website.
In the meantime, events were happening elsewhere in Bolivia. I summarized those events in a newspaper article, one that was never published because a)it was a bit too much like a wire piece and b) I filed it late saturday; the Globe has no Sunday edition, and by MOnday it was stale-dated (The SF Chronicle, my other string said it was too wire-like. They're probably right)
Anyway, I've pasted it below because it explains what happened while I was forced to dawdle in Bolivia's hot Amazon lowlands.
Santa Cruz, Bolivia
The Andean mountain republic of Bolivia came to within hours of a civil war, before backing away late Thursday night. In the end, it was the death of a single protesting miner that made the difference.
The constitutional crisis in the Andean mountain nation began June 6 when President Carlos Mesa tendered his resignation, citing a lack of support in the Bolivian Congress and escalating street protests in the capital city La Paz as proof that he was no longer able to govern.
According to the Bolivian constitution, the man next the line of succession was the head of the Senate Hormando Vaca Diez. A rich landowner from the oil-rich region of Santa Cruz region, Vaca Diez could count on the support of Bolivia`s two rightist political parties and much of the country’s middle class, but he was despised by the country’s indigenous peoples and labour unions.
The president of Bolivia’s powerful coca growers union Evo Morales declared that he would not accept Vaca Diez as president under any circumstances.
Despite this, the Bolivian congress, meeting in the historic city of Sucre in order to avoid the protests in the capital, looked set to elect Mr. Vaca Diez president. Mr. Vaca Diez spent the afternoon in a celebratory lunch with his family and members of his own Santa Cruz parliamentary faction. Just before 3pm on June 9, Mr. Vaca Diez gave an interview to a local television station in Sucre in which he said that he already felt himself to be president.
In the capital, the chief of the armed forces, Admiral Luis Aranda Granados, appeared at a news conference to explain that security measures including troops on the streets and at the airport were being taken to ensure the stability and continuity of constitutional rule in Bolivia. The military, the Admiral stated, "will respect the will of Congress," in effect backing Mr. Vaca Diez’ bid for president.
"As long as there is no break with the constitution and no break with democracy, the
armed forces will remain the supervisors of this process, " the Admiral said.
In Mr. Vaca Diez oil-rich home province of Santa Cruz, alarmed citizens began preparing themselves for the worst. ¨We expect that the Indians will come down to invade us,¨ said resident Jairo Sanchez. ¨But have arms. We know how to welcome Indians.¨
At the Santa Cruz military airport, duty officer Ernar Cabrora said that the armed forces had received orders to remain on high alert, adding that the moment the Bolivian congress elected Hormano Vaca Diez president, the military planned to move in force into the streets of La Paz to put down protests and ¨support the constitutional order.¨
Then around 4pm groups of protesting miners attempted to break through a government roadblocks to get into the city of Sucre and block the Congress from meeting. Bands of angry miners, many of them armed with sticks of dynamite, had been protesting in La Paz for weeks
At an army blockade outside the city of Sucre, one mining leader was killed when soldiers opened fire on a bus that attempted to run the blockade. The death was the first in nearly four weeks of protests.
Some dozens of other miners managed to reach the center of Sucre and began protesting and launching dynamite sticks in the historic Plaza 25 de Mayo, outside the building where the congress planned to meet.
At that point, the Bolivian armed forces began to reconsider their support for the would-be president. Mr. Vaca Diez was taken to the Sucre army headquarters and remained there for nearly six hours of tense negotiations.
Finally, around 10pm, Mr. Vaca Diez re-appeared to announce that he intended to renounce his right to the presidency. The congress convened, and shortly before midnight, Mr. Vaca Diez and the second in line of succession, the equally controversial President of the Chamber of Deputies Mario Cossio, both formally renounced their rights to Bolivia’s highest office.
The head of the supreme court, Harvard-educated Justice Eduardo Rodriguez was then sworn in as president. Members of Congress including a very unhappy looking Mr. Vaca Diez then joined with the new president in singing Bolivia’s national anthem.
In Mr. Vaca Diez power base of Santa Cruz there was anger at his renunciation. “It was totally unconstitutional, a result of force and pressure and anti-democratic, ” said Lucio Gonzalez, a law professor in the city of Santa Cruz. “I think they didn’t want him because they will never accept a president who is cruzeño (from Santa Cruz).”
But for other Santa Cruz residents, Mr. Vaca Diez’ resignation came as a relief. “I seriously thought we were heading for a civil war,” said shop-owner Pablo Ortiz. “Now we have some time, we’ll have new elections, and we can begin a dialogue again with all parts of Bolivia.”
In the capital La Paz, reaction was less jubilant. Indian groups held a large rally in the Plaza San Salvador, a large square in the center of the city. Indigenous leaders at the rally vowed to continue with blockades and protests until the new government agrees to nationalize the country’s oil and gas industries. Leaders of the Bolivian Workers Federation of Miners, one of Bolivia’s two main miner’s unions, also vowed to continue the struggle until the government agrees to nationalization.
The other main miner’s union, the Cooperative of Bolivian Miners, held a march in honor of their fallen comrade, and then began departing the capital for their home base in the city of Oruro. Throughout La Paz, campesinos who had come to the city to protest could be seen departing, banners furled, clothes and other possessions carried in large nylon packs on their backs.
Despite the lessening of tensions, however, vast and dangerous political differences remain unresolved in this poor South American nation.
In the east of the country, the oil rich province of Santa Cruz is still demanding greater autonomy, the better to exploit its oil and gas wealth. Santa Cruz is lowland, Amazonian in climate, inhabited by people who have few ties to Indian culture, and take pride in their international outlook and their modern work ethic. ¨This is the other Bolivia, said Jairo Sanchez. ¨Eastern Bolivia. Here everything functions. Here people know how to work.¨
In contrast, the Western highlands or altiplano is home to a much larger population, the majority of indigenous descent, most of whom look at Santa Cruz oil and gas reserves as a precious national patrimony that should be used to reduce their abject poverty.
“What the oil oligarchs in Santa Cruz can’t see is that that oil wealth belongs to us, to the indigenous people of Bolivia. It must be used intelligently, to transform Bolivia into a modern industrial country, a country that is fair to its workers and indigenous people” said Hebert Choque Taeque, the general secretary of the Bolivian Workers Federation of Miners.
Just after his swearing in, Bolivia’s new president Eduardo Rodriguez stated that he has no mandate to make changes to Bolivia’s oil and gas sector. His only role is to ensure stability until new elections can be called. Questions about the nationalization of the country’s natural resources must be left to a new elected parliament.
The question is whether Bolivia’s restive indigenous people and powerful miners’ union will allow the new president the luxury of breathing space.