A Tale of Two Bolivian Mayors in Trouble with the Law

The following post was written on 3 August 2010 and distributed elsewhere. Since then, two of the three non-MAS governors have been suspended following indictment. At the municipal level, a complicated sequence of indictments, suspensions, public pressures, and (finally in December 2011) special elections have played out. I’m reposting this as background to the politics of recent months.

Under Bolivian law, public officials under indictment may be removed from office. This has created a cascade of controversial suspensions and resignations across the country. So far, the most dramatic cases have been the mayors of Sucre and Potosí, whose very different crimes illustrate the broad scope of the law, and the consequences (perhaps unexpected) of multiple laws that reduce public officials’ discretion.

On April 4, Sucre elected Jaime Barrón as its new mayor. Barrón, the rector of the country’s oldest university had headed the Inter-Institutional Committee, something like an expanded Chamber of Commerce. The Committee threw itself into the political arena in 2006, demanding that all governmental powers be restored to the small, colonial city, and allying itself with the right-wing political opposition in the east of the country. Protests in support of this demand escalated into attempts to shut down the Consituent Assembly, and physical attacks on MAS-affiliated members of the assembly, particularly female representatives who wore traditional indigenous dress.

In May 2008, the Inter-Institutional Committee mobilized again, this time to prevent President Morales from coming to Sucre to attend a ceremony distributing ambulances to rural mayors in Chuquisaca, the department of which Sucre is the capital. Clearly under orders to show maximum restraint, the national police withdrew from the stadium where they were confronted by angry crowd, consisting in large part of students from Barrón’s university. Evo Morales cancelled his visit, leaving the peasant leaders who came to Sucre to endure the crowd’s wrath. That wrath played out over the ensuing hours, during which many of the peasants were surrounded inside a house, threatened with death, and escorted downtown by the crowd. In the central square, on live television, they were publicly humiliated, stripped to their underwear, forced to kneel, to kiss the colonial Chuquisaca flag, and to chant anti-Evo and anti-MAS slogans, under pressure of kicks and blows. The day has become one of the most infamous examples of racist violence in recent Bolivian history.

Pro-MAS informants I interviewed a month later claimed that Barrón used the university to encourage and organize students into such militant street groups. César Brie’s documentary on the day’s events shows Barrón as part of an Inter-Institutional Committee delegation that arranged the police force’s departure. And an a parliamentary inquiry found that Barrón joined in May 20 planning meeting to prevent Morales arrival, supplied transport in official university vehicles and weapons to the clash groups, and observed without intervening the public humiliation.

As a result, prosecutors indicted Barrón for a number of crimes in late April. Barrón took office the following month, but quickly ran afoul of the Municipalities Law, whose Article 48 forbids formally indicted officials from remaining in office. The Municipal Council formally removed Barrón on June 23, and controversially voted to replace him with a member of the MAS party, Verónica Berríos. For one chaotic day, June 24, supporters of Barrón and his PAÍS party stormed into the CIty Hall and physically prevented Berríos from entering the Mayor’s Office. Berríos announced her willingness to govern the city from an office in an outlying district strongly aligned with her party. However, the following day, Barrón called on his forces to pull back and recognized his own suspension. Nearly a month later, he announced his final resignation from office, thereby requiring a new election to fill the office (Berríos is only the Interim Mayor). That, however, is five months away fifteen months away.

Orchestrating a public, physical attack on one’s political opponents is one extreme of the application of the “suspension of authorities” provision of Bolivian law. At the other extreme is the current situation of Potosí’s mayor, René Joaquino. Joaquino is the founder of the independent left party Social Alliance, and has served as the highland city’s mayor since 1996. He, too, is under indictment, but in his case the charge is the irregular purchase of used cars for the Municipality, in 2006. Joaquino does not deny the purchase, which he claims saves the municipal government money over the previous practice of renting vehicles. A demonstration in support of him in April included the public display of the municipal vehicles involved.

Last week, the issue reached the suspension stage in Potosí’s city council, in which supporters of Joaquino have a majority. However, they felt themselves constrained by a provision of law which allows public officials to be sued for “fulfillment of responsibilities” if they fail to carry out their legal mandates. In an attempt to prevent Joaquino’s suspension, scores of his supporters also massed into city hall, and conducted a sit-in to prevent the City Council from meeting. The following day, the Civic Committee of Potosí (Comcipo) began a department-wide strike and road blockade campaign over a series of unrelated regional demands. The national government, however, has accused Comcipo of conducting the strike in political support of Joaquino. Comcipo representatives completely discount this, saying if Joaquino is convicted, he must go to jail. The prosecutor, likewise, denies political motivations in making the used car purchasing charge.

Looming on the horizon are a series of potential prosecutions of primarily opposition lawmakers. The most directly political of these involve the 2008 referendums held in the media luna departments (Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija) to approve their controversial statutes of autonomy. At the time, the government and the indigenous/popular movement held that these votes were unconstitutional and boycotted the votes. Recently, the prospect of holding the departmental governments, and their highest officials, liable for misuse of public funds in holding these referendums has come ever closer to reality. This would involve putting sitting governors of three departments—which is every governor not belonging to the MAS—on trial.

Somewhere between the alleged crimes of Jaime Barrón and of René Joaquino lies the boundary of “high crimes.” However, in today’s Bolivia, indictment rather than impeachment is the mechanism for suspending officials from office, and a lower standard is in play. Political conflicts are increasingly being played out in the prosecutor’s office. And formal complaints are often threatened or filed in the midst of verbal disputes between politicians. (For instance, Ruben Costas, who also could be indicted for the Santa Cruz referendum, baselessly accused Vice President Álvaro García Linera of narcotrafficking, for which the Vice President has now presented a charge of defamation.) At the same time, both these cases illustrate that public protest, outside or inside City Hall, also determines the outcome of these political struggles.

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