In Bolivia’s highly mobilized and turbulent political climate, mayors have been pushed out not just by a formal indictment, but also by social pressure from their constituents. Such mobilizations led at least 9 mayors to step down themselves or be replaced by city councils as between April 2010 and December 2011. However, in two major cases, the national government has appealed to the courts to defend its own mayors from removal by their councils. The cities involved were Sucre, where interim mayor Veronica Berríos was pushed aside for peasant leader and councilman José Santos Romero in January 2011, and Yapacaní, Santa Cruz, where the council suspended David Carvajal for the second time in December 2011. Both of these cases involved local MAS councilmembers backing popular pressure for MAS mayors to resign. In effect, the national MAS is standing by its embattled mayors and against its own base. In terms of procedure, the national MAS is rejecting mass mobilization to topple leaders in favor of revocation referendums, which are only possible halfway through a five-year term.
In Sucre, the Guarantees Tribunal of Chuquisaca’s Superior Court of Justice restored Berríos to the post of Interim Mayor after just 17 days. However, local officials remained frustrated with the national party (as represented by Minister Wilfredo Chávez). Neither MAS nor Berríos was able to mount the kind of dramatically successful administration that could win over moderate voters for the MAS in time for December elections. When two parties in the city’s highly fractious right-wing formed an alliance last month, they won a solid plurality and ended the MAS’ hold on the Mayor’s chair.
Last week’s events in Yapacaní reprised this story, but with a tragic and fatal ending. National officials again stood by the controversial suspended mayor, David Carvajal. Again, their defense was successful in court, but resented at the grassroots level. In Yapacaní, there is no right-wing to speak of, and peasant movements predominate in the municipality. (Instead, a division between primarily rice-growing agrarian colonists and coca growers expanding from the neighboring Chapare region seem to have taken on a political dimension.)
The national government clearly expected resistance to returning David Carvajal to the Yapacaní city hall, and deployed at least 450 National Police to make that possible. The Inter-institutional Committee of Yapacaní, which had earlier organized road blockades demanding Carvajal’s resignation, organized to block his return. Clashes left three protesters dead, two from gunshot wounds: Abel Rocha (age 27) and Michael Sosa (23). Eliseo Rojas (22) was reportedly electrocuted during a crowd attack on the police barracks.
Important questions have been raised about the circumstances of these men’s deaths, including in this article by the Andean Information Network. As in at least two other incidents of protester deaths (a Movimiento Sin Techo land occupation in La Guardia, Santa Cruz in April 2010; and a regional blockade in Caranavi in May 2010), the national government claims to have prohibited the use of firearms by police, but commanders on the scene deployed them anyway. Police Commander Lily Cortez is alleged by eyewitnesses to have fired some of the fatal shots.
In another time or another country, the protesters’ aggressiveness might be enough reason for mainstream commentators to ignore such issues. But in the turbulent world of Bolivian protest, allowing things to turn deadly raises questions of good governance. The center-left Página Siete, for example, editorialized:
The terrible events of Yapacaní could have been avoided. Not in the final hours, but rather before. The City Council accepted the exit of Carvajal and nominated a replacement, also of the MAS. It was at that moment that the governing party could have acted, advising Carvajal to renounce his position definitively so that new elections could be called.
If the relevant minister, Wilfredo Chávez, was obliged to send at least 600 police troops, it was because he knew the gravity of the matter. It was logical that violence would be unleashed again, as had already occurred at the end of last year. Therefore, Minister Chávez was conscious of the explosiveness of the situation. If he himself gave the order to send no less than half-a-thousand police, it was because he feared a popular reaction against the departed mayor. Thus, he acted with the knowledge that the situation could get out of control. And today we must lament four more deaths from political repression in the history of our country.
Los terribles sucesos de Yapacaní podrían haberse evitado. No en las últimas horas, sino antes. … El Concejo Municipal aceptó la salida de Carvajal y nombró en su lugar a un reemplazante, también del MAS. En ese momento es que el oficialismo podría haber actuado en primera instancia, aconsejándole a Carvajal renunciar a su cargo definitivamente para llamar a nuevas elecciones.
Si el ministro del área, Wilfredo Chávez, estuvo obligado a enviar a por lo menos 600 efectivos policiales es porque sabía de la gravedad del asunto. Era lógico que la violencia se iba a desencadenar nuevamente, como ya ocurrió a fines del año pasado. Por lo tanto, el ministro Chávez tenía conocimiento sobre lo explosivo de la situación. Si él mismo dio la orden de enviar nada menos que medio millar de policías es porque temía una reacción popular contra el alcalde saliente. Por lo tanto, actuó a sabiendas de que la situación podría descontrolarse. Y hoy debemos lamentar otras cuatro muertes por represión política en la historia del país.
Similarly, Franklin Garvizu, who represents Yapacaní in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, voiced his frustration with the government for failing to deal with Carvajal’s corruption or to seek a negotiated solution. Garvizu visited three ministers—Carlos Romero (Presidency), Claudia Peña (Autonomies), and Wilfredo Chávez (Government/Interior)—seeking a delay to the return of the mayor. “It was requested that they generate a space for concord. There was a judicial resolution, certainly, but there had to be a moment to apply it, and that moment was not immediately through police [force].” (Audio recording by Los Tiempos) “They have not listened, they haven’t had the capacity to convene a meeting to seek an alternative solution. The attitude of the ministers is what makes it understood that they have not let the true facts of the matter reach President Evo Morales. No han escuchado, no han tenido la capacidad de convocar a una reunión, para buscar una solución alternativa. La actitud de los ministros es lo que hace entender que no han hecho conocer sobre los verdaderos hechos al presidente Evo Morales.” (El Día)
The night of the deadly clashes David Carvajal pledged to resign, and he has followed through with that pledge. Councilman and fellow MASista Zenobio Meneses has taken the mayor’s chair in Yapacaní. However, the national government’s handling of the situation illustrates the dangers of excessive partisanship and will surely call into question its commitment to a “zero corruption” standard for local officials.
Update: For more on the aftermath, you can read this article “Yapacaní, solo quedan cenizas [Yapacaní, only ashes remain].” By late February 2012, the investigation into the calshes at Yapacaní had stalled, largely because both local political factions are MAS affiliates with little interest in embarrassing the national government. Nonetheless, there was an early-March blockade demanding an investigation. Lily Cortez was promoted to the rank of general in the Bolivian police in 2013, and became its National Director of Planning in December 2013.