No, TIPNIS solidarity isn’t a “conveyor belt” for US-backed regime change

An article published Monday in CounterPunch has resurfaced a narrative that frames Bolivian indigenous and environmentalist movements (particularly the campaign in defense of TIPNIS) as a stalking horse for United States-backed efforts to remove and replace the Evo Morales government. The accusation is false, although like many conspiratorial narratives it weaves together facts, half-truths, inventions, and genuine moral feelings into a plausible narrative. Since the particular narrative involves a solidarity letter that I largely drafted, and it keeps cropping up even after six years, I will address it here.

The allegation that opposition to the Evo Morales government is coordinated by the United States (or the domestic right-wing opposition) is rooted in a real history. US government opposition is real and well-known. Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) and Morales’ Chapare cocalero base were principal targets of a US-backed drug war, which they resisted. When the MAS-IPSP emerged as a political force, the United States government acted to resist its rise, supported his opponent in the 2005 presidential election, and encouraged establishment political forces when they regrouped in a separatist movement governing between four and six of Bolivia’s nine departments. That campaign fell apart in the September 2008 political crisis. So, wariness of the US government as a nexus of opposition is understandable.

However, the Bolivian government has indiscriminately accused large mass mobilizations from below and from the left of being right-wing- or US-controlled fronts. In 2010 and 2011 alone, the government alleged that the CIDOB indigenous confederation, the Potosí regional strike (in a region that voted over 70% for the MAS-IPSP), and the general strike by the Bolivian Workers Central (the national trade union confederation) were all covert attempts at a coup and fronts for anti-Evo conspiracies. A Google search for “Evo Morales” “ve conspiración” derecha reveals more recent examples of allegedly conspiring groups: cooperative miners, Achacachi peasants, opponents of the election procedures for the judiciary, and former Human Rights Ombudsman Rolando Villena.

Given the president’s life story, I empathize with his tendency to see a conspiracy behind every opponent. But empathy is not validation.

Here’s why these charges are baseless in this case:

The lowland indigenous movement was not, and is not engaged in regime change, nor has it ever posed an existential threat to the Morales government. This should go without saying, but a movement whose force is primarily moral self-sacrifice, demonstrated through arduous cross-country marches, hunger strikes, and vigils is not going to expel Morales from power. The solidarity efforts that paralyzed several regions of the country with general strikes in late September and early October 2011 were aimed at winning a protection law for TIPNIS, legislation that required votes from MAS-IPSP representatives. There’s no regime change here at all.

The notion of outside control over a highly arduous form of protest like the CIDOB/CONAMAQ marches has always been absurd. The risks and effort involved cannot be bought, certainly not by the kind of organizational training initiatives that USAID provided to CIDOB well before the march. The decision to begin the march, and to continue with the march in the face of tear gas and mass arrest, was made by these movements themselves.

The United States government, alleged by this narrative to be coordinating opposition to the road, has never opposed the TIPNIS highway, nor has it coordinated any significant press push around the issue.

The international solidarity campaign for TIPNIS was built around movement-to-movement contacts between activists outside Bolivia and inside Bolivia, drawing on a long tradition of solidarity with both the anti-imperial vision of grassroots protest in Bolivia and global efforts for environmental sustainability and indigenous rights. The September 2011 letter spoke directly from that position:

As supporters of justice, indigenous rights, and environmental sustainability on a global scale, we have closely watched events in Bolivia since the turn of the century. We have observed and supported Bolivian social movements’ challenges to neoliberal economic policies and to the privatization of water and other natural resources. We value the proactive diplomacy of the Plurinational State of Bolivia in
supporting the rights of indigenous peoples, meaningful and effective responses to climate change, recognition of the right to water and sanitation, and formal acknowledgement by the State of the rights of ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole.
We have also watched with great interest and respect as Bolivians sought to incorporate these principles into their Constitution of 2009 and their national laws, including the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth. We are pleased that Bolivia has proactively asserted the place of international civil society in the global debate on climate change, particularly in Copenhagen and by hosting the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba in April 2010 and we look forward to participating in the 2nd Summit next spring. However, the country’s pioneering work on all these issues also comes with a great responsibility. Bolivia’s continued ability to press forward this vital agenda will
be affected by its consistency and moral credibility on matters of human rights and environmental protection.

Solidarity campaigns with TIPNIS have in all ways been much stronger and larger within Bolivia than outside of it. The letter’s 59 foreign signatories and two Bolivian signatories reflect nothing more than that it was an international solidarity letter. At the same time as we were finding signers for the letter, street protests occurred in eight of nine departmental capitals, a 24-hour general strike of the COB labor union confederation was held in solidarity, and department-wide strike was held in Beni. The Beni Civic Committee coordinated a general strike and coordinated road blockades in the capital Trinidad, Santa Rosa, San Borja, Riberalta, and Rurrenabaque. The Beni strike extended through a third day, with the participation of unions of teachers, bank workers, shopkeepers, and health workers. On that third day, September 28, the Bolivian Worker’s Central called for a general strike, which affected nearly all major cities and in the tradition of “mobilized strikes” generated large afternoon rallies. Attendance was estimated at over 10,000 in La Paz and in the town of Riberalta, Beni. In Cochabamba, teachers, university students, and municipal workers blockaded major avenues while the public transport system observed a general closure. When the march finally reached La Paz in mid-October, tens of thousands of Paceños lined the route or joined in, while the capital city’s Mayor gave the marchers a key to the city.

Stansfield Smith writes in Counterpunch that “all international issues can only be understood in the context of the role and the actions of the US Empire,” but what he effectively means is that all domestic issues in Bolivia are international issues. And, in his view, they can only be understood as struggles between an “anti-imperial” government and critics who are presumed to be tools of imperialism. We have seen that the government freely makes such accusations, often against former and future allies, without evidence. In the case of Bolivian lowland indigenous movement and critical domestic NGOs, accusations of conspiring with foreign powers have become a mechanism of control. Pretending that we are resisting imperialism by ignoring grassroots social movements does a disservice to the real work of solidarity.

Feature photo by @MiriamJemio

As he ordered attack on indigenous march, Bolivian Vice Minister saw raid as a fight to industrialize the country

Nearly six years ago, members of the Bolivian Army and National Police carried out a raid on some six hundred indigenous marchers at Chaparina. In a startlingly frank conversation addressing members of the National Police, Vice Minister of Police and the Interior Regime Marcos Farfán described the next day’s raid as a battle to preserve the government’s economic program and political future. (A video recording of his conversation was leaked to the press, and published this week by the Fundación Solón as part of an article by Pablo Solón). The Eighth National Indigenous March had as its first demand the defense of Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), and put forward a general right of indigenous communities to say no to destructive projects within their territories.

On September 25, police mounted an attack on the indigenous marchers, beating and teargassing them, seeking out and arresting prominent leaders, and leaving behind a chaotic scene of injury, flight, and fear. Marchers, including prominent leaders, were grabbed, tackled, and handcuffed in front of network television cameras. Between 70 and 280 were injured in the assault, including Celso Padilla (president of the Guaraní People’s Assembly), hospitalized with multiple hematomas. Hundreds of marchers were taken on buses overnight in a frustrated attempt to return them by land or airplane to the starting point of the march. The raid at Chaparina was the breaking point for the lowland Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia’s alliance with the government.

While the motives of the raid have long been evident, this forthright statement crystalizes the government’s motives in carrying it out. It will appear in any future historical account of when and how the Evo Morales government shifted from a rhetorical embrace of indigenous rights to a committed advocate of putting extractive industrial development first.

One must have a global, integrated vision of the matter, although it can be reduced to just the operation that we will carry forward tomorrow, it has to do with overall issues in terms of what our Constitution and program [of government] have proposed, which is rooted in industrializing, highways, hydroelectric dams, electricity, and energy.

But they [the indigenous marchers, presumably] are with their program attempting to avoid that going forward. They have their own political objectives behind it. The less able this government is to fulfill its programs, the fewer possibilities it will have in the future to gain votes.

Because if we don’t produce, if we don’t create industries, if we don’t build highways, if we don’t diversify our production, if we don’t transform our gas into other products, if we don’t generate added value from our raw materials, this government will fail. Everything will be ruined. This is the bottom-line objective that it [the march] has, to say that they were with Evo and his lovely proposals, but he didn’t carry them out. And he didn’t carry them out because of these kind of elements who put up hindrances and obstacles against carrying out that which is the job of nobody else in the country [but us]. A country in which we have been reduced to backwardness, to economic dependence, and to political dependence over years and years and years.

What we need to do is consolidate our sovereignty as a nation. To be sovereign, we must be productive, rich as a nation, and to be rich we need to produce and industrialize our country.

Thank you for listening to me. It doesn’t have much to do with the matter [at hand], but I believe it’s important to clarify those elements that have to do with all Bolivians, police officers or not, with the whole country. But it is within this framework that we, lamentably, are entering into carrying out this operation… Tomorrow, we will be working.

“Hay que tener una visión global, integral del tema, aunque se reduzca al operativo que vamos a llevar mañana adelante, pero tiene que ver con temas de fondo en relación a lo que establece nuestra Constitución Política y el programa por supuesto que se ha planteado, que radica en industrializar, carreteras, hidroeléctricas, electricidad, energía.

Pero están con este programa tratando de evitar que se lleve adelante. Tienen sus objetivos políticos ahí atrás. (Mientras) menos pueda dar cumplimiento a sus programas este gobierno, menos posibilidades va tener en el futuro de ganar más votos.

Porque si no producimos, no creamos industrias, no construimos carreteras, no diversificamos la producción, no transformamos nuestro gas en otro elemento, no generamos valor agregado a nuestro producto, este gobierno va a fracasar. Todo se viene al tacho. Este es el objetivo de fondo que se tiene, para decir estuvo el Evo con sus lindas propuestas pero no las cumplió. No las cumplió porque hay este tipo de elementos que ponen trabas y obstáculos para que se pueda dar cumplimiento a eso que no es en función de nadie mas que del país. Un país que hemos estado reducidos al atraso, a la dependencia económica, a la dependencia política durante años y años y años.

Lo que necesitamos es consolidar nuestra soberanía como nación. Para ser soberanos tenemos que ser productivos, ricos como nación, para ser ricos tenemos que producir e industrializar nuestro país.

Gracias por escucharme no tenía mucho que ver con el tema pero creo que es importante aclarar estos elementos que tienen que ver con todos los bolivianos, policías no policías, con todo el país. Pero en ese marco es que estamos, lamentablemente, entrando a realizar este operativo… Mañana vamos a estar trabajando”.

Within 48 hours, Marcos Farfán resigned his post as Vice Minister, reportedly to facilitate a public inquiry into the raid. A report leaked in 2013 revealed that prosecutors found that the raid was carried out in accordance with the chain of command. Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti, who was involved in the decision, was reappointed to serve as Bolivia’s Ambassador to the United Nations. In April 2015, prosecutors relieved Farfán, Llorenti, and other senior officials of criminal responsibility for Chaparina. Six officials then indicted have yet to face trial.

How Johnson, white Americans ignored the commission that investigated the riotous summer of 1967

Michigan (Public) Radio, currently remembering the Detroit riots of 1967 (Wikipedia), has produced a dramatic and fascinating account of the Kerner Commission’s findings on the causes and possible solutions to the summer of racial unrest in 1967, which came to be known as the Long, Hot Summer. And why and how they have been ignored for forty-nine years.

When the Kerner Commission spoke, proclaiming the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white –  separate and unequal,” a fearful Democratic Party shut its ears:

“The report put the responsibility for all of this stuff on white society and white institutions. That, I think, was a surprise to some white Americans and I think that was part of the reason he [President Lyndon Johnson] was very careful not to upset the large segment of white society. That was why I think it happened like that.” — Professor Joe T. Darden, Michigan State University

President Lyndon Johnson’s response was more personal. He was hurt that his Great Society programs weren’t praised by the Commission and had made the Vietnam War, not the so-called War on Poverty his budget priority.

“And Bobby [Kennedy] just gave me hell today for not carrying out the Kerner Commission study. Well, I didn’t realize when I appointed Kerner that this son-of-a-bitch from New York, [Mayor John] Lindsey, would take charge. He did take charge and he recommended I hire two-and-a-half million people on federal payroll. And I just, I’ve not wanted to reflect on Kerner and criticize the Commission. At the same time, I couldn’t embrace it because I’ve got a budget,” Johnson said in a secretly recorded phone conversation.

Yesterday’s radio report is also remarkable for its frank admission that economic inequality among races in the United States may be getting worse, not better. Have a listen.

Previous coverage on this blog of the Kerner Commission’s investigation of who rioters were, and what tactics they chose, is here: Kerner Commission report on 1967 riots seems eerily familiar.

Pablo Solón squares off with Bolivian government over El Chepete/El Bala megadam

Pablo Solón Romero was the most important face of the Plurinational State’s environmental and human rights diplomacy from 2006 to 2011. Last week, he became the latest critic of that same government to suddenly face criminal charges. On Friday, June 30, authorities delivered Solón a subpoena in a case against him and journalist Rafael Archondo. The pair had been designated Bolivia’s permanent and alternate representative to the United Nations. Now, they each face two charges of corruption for Archondo’s succession to the role after Solón resigned. The government alleges that Solón’s letter presenting Archondo to the United Nations constituted an unlawful usurpation of the President’s power to designate ambassadors.

For Solón, the investigation is an act of retribution.

In a statement released Monday, he declared:

The news wasn’t a surprise. Due to our critical analysis of the El Bala and El Chepete hydroelectric megadams, various friends had warned me that they would search underneath the stones to find something to accuse me of, to intimidate me, and to make me shut up. […]

I won’t refer at this time to the supposed crimes that we are accused of, since I will refute every one of them in a formal and public manner when I go to declare before the Prosecutor’s Office.

What I can say is that we will continue to think and we will continue to speak. Wherever we find ourselves, we will not renounce our ability to criticize and to state our opinion. It is most lamentable that rather than refute us with arguments, they seek to frighten us with this kind of accusations.

La noticia no fue una sorpresa. A raíz de nuestro análisis crítico de las mega hidroeléctricas de El Bala y el Chepete, varios amigos y amigas me habían advertido que buscarían debajo las piedras para acusarme de algo, intimidarme y hacerme callar.

En esta oportunidad no me referiré a los supuestos delitos de los cuáles se nos acusa ya que de manera formal y pública refutaré cada uno de ellos el día que vaya a declarar a la fiscalía.

Lo que si puedo decir es que seguiremos pensando y seguiremos hablando. Donde quiera que nos encontremos no renunciaremos a nuestra capacidad de criticar y decir lo que opinamos. Es muy lamentable que en vez de refutarnos con argumentos busquen amedrentarnos a través de este tipo de acusaciones. 

Pablo Solon
Pablo Solón speaking in March 2017

Pablo Solón, a Bolivian with a long history of radical and progressive activism, served first as its ambassador to UNASUR and later to the United Nations (Wikipedia biography|2010 Democracy Now interview). When the Bolivian government attacked the 2011 indigenous march in defense of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), Solón was one of several government officials to speak out, urging President Evo Morales to reconsider the proposed highway through the territory, a position he amplified once he stepped out of public service in 2012. After several years at the head of Focus on the Global South, Solón returned to working on Bolivian environmental issues at the La Paz-based Solón Foundation. Now, he has put his expertise to use challenging the government’s drive to build massive energy infrastructure projects in the Bolivian Amazon.

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Narrow Road to Prosecuting Police for Killings; A Wall Blocks Murder Convictions

With the November 16 indictment of Jeronimo Yanez for the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Height, Minnesota, there have now been twelve police officers criminally charged for shooting civilians on duty in 2016. Eighteen more were charged in 2015, reports Jennifer Bjorhus in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her reporting draws on the media monitoring and data collection of Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University. Stinson has been chronicling this data since 2005, using systematic Google News searches, one part of a wide-ranging inquiry into police misconduct that can be seen in his many publications. (A 538 interview describes his work.) The thirty indictments in the last 23 months have come at a much faster pace than the 48 indictments Stinson has counted in the previous ten years, 2005-14.

Data sources: Prior to the emergence of Black Lives Matter, there was little appetite in the news media or government agencies for this kind of data, but news organizations have stepped in to the vacuum: The Guardian produces “The Counted,” a tabulation of all police killings and the Washington Post maintains “Fatal Force” chronicling deadly police shootings. Shamed by the lack of official data, the US Department of Justice announced plans to begin keeping a database of deaths in police custody and deadly police violent force in 2016, although it would rely on voluntary self-reporting for the latter. It is unclear if a Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department would continue this initiative.

Murder convictions remain elusive: The 78 indictments since 2005 have yielded 27 convictions. However, just one of those produced a murder conviction: Police officer James Ashby was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Jack Jacquez in the back in 2014; the victim was unarmed and had fled into his mother’s house. As explained in the video below, the Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Connor (1989) provides any cop who believed there was a threat to himself or others with a defense against prosecution.

As previously noted on this blog, in 1969 the magazine Ramparts offered a challenge to secure a murder conviction of a cop killing a Black man. The Guardian has tabulated over 500 black deaths in just the past 23 months. According to Stinson’s data, no convictions matching that description have been made in over 12 years.

Bolivia’s new business model: Custom laws for foreign investors

At last November’s Investing in the New Bolivia event, the Evo Morales government rolled out the red carpet for foreign corporations, with a little help from the Financial Times. Standing before an audience of executives and investment managers (no officials below the Chief Officer level allowed) at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, President Morales made a personal plea for the need for foreign investment:

We are accelerating our investment—the big problem that we have is with [our] private companies … Bolivian private companies are very small, and not even the state has the companies to build [on the scale we need]. This is what obliges us to come here and propose to you to see how you can be of service, how you can be our partners.

Y estamos acelerando en tema de inversión—el gran problema que tenemos es con las empresas privadas,  … nuestros empresarios bolivianos son muy pequeños, ni el estado tiene empresas para construir. Este es lo que nos obliga venir acá plantearles a ver como pueden prestar servicio, pero pueden ser socios.

Development Minister Rene Orellana took it from there. In addition to a secure investment environment, secured by three new laws protecting investors, the Bolivian government offered direct support for investors. Orellana proposed that the government’s legislative and executive powers would be put at the disposal of foreign investors. Working together with investors, the state could “define or approve concrete norms, let me say laws or even Supreme Decrees, to support the initiatives to invest in Bolivia. So we are open to have a bilateral dialogue with those who are interested in investing in Bolivia” (originally in English).

At the center of this push is energy: generating electricity (mostly from large dams) and extracting fossil fuels. While exporting gas is the largest contributor to Bolivia’s trade surplus and the country has nearly doubled production since 2006, the sector has long struggled to find new gas resources and has been hard hit by falling prices. The state-owned gas producer YPFB has not found a major new field since the 1990s. For long- and short-term reasons, the Evo Morales government has declared attracting new investment in hydrocarbons a strategic priority.

In newly published interviews with Erbol, two experts on the oil and gas sector, Francesco Zaratti and Hugo del Granado argue that the Bolivian government is custom-tailoring laws to the needs of foreign corporations. In December 2015, Bolivia passed an Incentives Law (Law 767: Ley de Promoción de inversión en exploración y explotación hidrocarburifera, full text) that transfers 12% of hydrocarbon tax revenue to a special fund to reward companies that make large investments in the sector. State incentives total US$2.89 billion. Zaratti argues the law had one particular company in mind:

“Mi criterio particular es que estas dos leyes son trajes hechos a la medida de algunas empresas. Por ejemplo, la primera ley de incentivos de diciembre del año pasado parecería estar hecha a medida de Total, con el fin de que pueda desarrollar el campo Incahuasi y Aquío, reservas conocidas, pero que no se volvían comerciales porque había algo que impedía a Total hacer la inversión necesaria para adecuar al campo.”

“My personal view is that these two laws are suits made to the measure of certain companies. For example, the first Incentives Law of December of last year seems to be made to fit Total, with the goal of it developing the Incahuasi and Aquío Field, whose [gas] reserves are already known but which has not been commercialized because something prevented Total from making the necessary investment to prepare the field.”

In May 2016, the government proposed amending the Incentives Law to extend the  production contracts of oil and gas corporations willing to commit at least $350 million to exploratory drilling or at least $500 million to exploration and production. Potential beneficiaries of this amendment include Repsol, Total, Pluspetrol, Panamerican, Petrobras, YPFB Andina, and British Gas. The amendment passed last week.

By returning tax funds guaranteed to regional and local governments, universities, and the Indigenous Fund, the Incentives Law rolls back one of the major gains of Bolivia’s partial nationalization of gas, demanded by the 2003 protests and delivered in 2006. However, the Morales government insists any short term losses will be made up when new investment produces a larger pie of gas export revenues beginning in 2017.

For now, a precedent has been set: even plurinational Bolivia will modify its domestic laws to attract and subsidize foreign corporate investment. The slide from 21st-century socialism to 21st-century capitalism continues.