Orlando Gutiérrez, mining union leader and MAS-IPSP rising star, dies after fatal post-election injury

Orlando Gutiérrez Luna, executive secretary of Bolivia’s celebrated miners’ union, the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB) has died after suffering a severe assault on October 21, shortly after the electoral victory of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS-IPSP) party. A senior union leader, a potential MAS-IPSP senate candidate for La Paz (until his candidacy was refused) by electoral authorities, and reportedly the planned Minister of Mining under the incoming Arce government, Gutiérrez was the target of numerous death threats. During a time of protests against the MAS-IPSP election victory, Gutiérrez was badly beaten, though his family and comrades have not disclosed any major details of the attack.

The FSTMB responded to the attack with a statement saying:

“This grave attack, executed as a form of vengeance, perpetrated by the fascist right, by the so-called ‘pititas,’ [by] platforms, contracting ‘hired killers’ and ‘street thugs’ to assassinate the executive of the FSTMB for the mere act of speaking the truth; but, thanks to God, at this moment, despite this attempted homicide, he remains alive.” (FSTMB, 23 Oct 2020)

** The FSTMB leadership has distanced itself from this allegation; see update below **

Gutiérrez was treated at the Cemes clinic and visited by comrades. He reportedly suffered trauma to the parietal lobe of his brain.

His death was reported on October 28, but responsibility for it remains vague and unconfirmed. The Departmental Prosecutor of La Paz opened a homicide investigation later in the day. Reportedly, prior attempts to access him by investigators were rebuffed. The Defensoría del Pueblo has called for investigation and clarification of the circumstances of the attack on Gutiérrez.

Given the imminent transfer of power to a MAS-IPSP national government on November 8, the threats from political opponents against him, and the recent investigations of him for organizing pro-election blockades in July and August, it is perhaps not shocking that Gutiérrez’s comrades worked to delay an investigation. But the lack of any detailed narrative makes it impossible to verify their allegations of responsibility for his death.

Regardless of the circumstances of his death, the 36-year-old union leader is being remembered for his remarkable political leadership, his oratory on behalf of both the FSTMB union and the MAS-IPSP, and his calls for a time of peace following Bolivia’s traumatic last year.

Read More »

MAS-IPSP leaders, celebrating victory, pledge to turn the page from Evo Morales

Mr. Arce has positioned himself as a transition candidate, vowing to carry on Mr. Morales’s legacy, while training younger leaders from his party to take the reins.

“We are MAS 2.0,” he said in an interview shortly before the election.

He added that Mr. Morales would have no role in his government.

Turkewitz, Julie. “Evo Morales Is Out. His Socialist Project Lives On.” The New York Times, October 19, 2020, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/19/world/americas/morales-arce-bolivia-election.html.

At the end of a long Election Day evening, Luis Arce Catacora stepped forward to claim victory in Bolivia’s presidential elections. Two coinciding preliminary counts coincided in estimating he had a 20-point advantage in the contest, nearly double his best pre-election polls and the 10% margin he needed to avoid a runoff. In all likelihood, Arce and vice presidential candidate David Choquehuanca will garner an absolute majority of valid votes. Many are rightly viewing their victory as a vindication for Bolivia’s largest political party and a demonstration of the continued power of its grassroots base. The election campaign was conducted under the shadow of an anti-MAS-IPSP government and a punishing global pandemic, with many of the party’s leaders in jail or exiled, by far the most adverse circumstances the party had faced since at least 2002.

Arce and Choquehuanca appear to have gained rather than lost electoral ground since the October 2019 general election, and likely even more since the nationwide protest wave that followed. Voters and political organizations that abandoned the MAS-IPSP ticket in 2019 returned to it in significant numbers, largely in the highland departments of La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí, as well as central Chuquisaca. It should be clear to all that Arce/Choquehuanca led a more successful bid than did forcibly exiled president Evo Morales (nominally their “campaign chief” from Argentina). If you listen closely to their statements before and after the election, it becomes apparent that they won in substantial part by keeping the former president at a distance and promising a new era in socialist government, free of the mistakes of the past.

In a global environment in which many are eager to read the election as a referendum on Evo Morales, I am writing here to highlight just how hard the MAS-IPSP leadership of 2020 is working (and has worked) to separate itself from its former leader, and why that separation may have endeared it to a sometimes disenchanted electorate and grassroots base.

Read More »

Bolivian legislature investigation: All deaths in Sacaba and Senkata traceable to security forces’ weapons

A months-long investigation by the Bolivian legislature of killings during last year’s political crisis has found that the twenty gunshot victims in Sacaba (November 15) and Sacaba (November 19) were all killed by weapons used exclusively by Bolivia’s military or police forces. The commission, led by Deputy Víctor Borda, will make its formal report on Monday, October 26, but issued advance statements to the press today.

Before the dust had settled in either massacre, the interim government of Jeanine Áñez issued blanket denials of any responsibility for the shootings of scores of protesters before hundreds of witnesses including members of the press. Those denials were buttressed by claims that protesters shot one another, that bullet wounds were in the back (and therefore “must” have been from the protesters’ side), and that the weapons involve did not correspond to military weapons. Defense Minister Luis Fernando López claimed, “In November, in the worst epoch of our democracy, the Armed Forces did not fire a single cartridge; not one death is due to the Police or the Armed Forces.” The legislative commission now rejects all these points, which had always strained credibility.

Its report is based on visits to the massacre sides, reports from prosecutors and the forensic institute, and over 150 witness declarations. Among its conclusions disclosed today by Borda: “We have not received a single forensic medical certificate from any injured police officer or soldier.” Borda further identified three calibers of ammunition fired: 5.5mm used in light weapons given to officers, but not soldiers, of the Armed Forces, 7.62mm used in automatic weapons by the military, and 22 caliber used by the police.

Borda signalled that the report will also consider deaths in La Paz, Montero, and Betanzos during the 2019 crisis.

Photo above: Sacaba clashes as viewed from behind the military lines (AFP).

David Choquehuanca & plurinational Bolivia’s grassroots approach to diplomacy

With David Choquehuanca elected as Bolivia’s next vice president, I share here portions of an excised chapter from the manuscript of The Sovereign Street profiling Choquehuanca and the unique, bottom-up diplomacy he led as Foreign Minister from 2006 to 2017.

The New Face of Diplomacy

Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca was the first indigenous person to occupy his office, located on the corner of La Paz’s Plaza Murillo. The room was charged with an elite identity; by tradition the Foreign Minister’s chair had long been reserved for the country’s most illustrious individuals, invariably elite in their self-presentation. He spent two decades supporting grassroots indigenous movements—particularly the campesino confederation CSUTCB—before becoming a bedrock force within the Morales cabinet. His friendship with Morales stretches back to the 1980s; both men were early advocates for “the Political Instrument” that was to become the MAS–IPSP.[1] Only Choquehuanca, Finance Minister Luis Arce, and Vice President García Linera—an island of stability at the core of the cabinet—kept their offices for the first decade of Morales’ presidency.[2] Within the cabinet, Choquehuanca is the leading government voice of pachamamismo, a vision of spiritual transformation centered on the recovery of indigenous identity through a new ethical and ecological paradigm. His pachamamismo is carefully balanced by the industrializing developmentalism of Arce and García Linera, but has free rein within the Foreign Ministry.

Choquehuanca had served as national coordinator for Programa Nina (“fire” in Aymara), providing leadership trainings to the five organizations of the Pact of Unity, and his speeches incorporate a bit of the air of a teacher, regularly introducing words or phrases in Bolivia’s indigenous languages and providing a gloss that illustrates his points. When he was invited by Morales to join his cabinet just days before the inauguration, he had to give up his ticket to the World Social Forum in Caracas and make and shift to the other side of the line dividing movement and state. Fearing “I would be just one more piece of that system,” he pledged to himself to “be there without being there.”[3] Convinced he wouldn’t last in the job, he started off aloof: “The first year I had no desire to know anything,—‘For what?,’ I would say—I rebelled.” Then he threw himself into the work presiding over a very active period in Bolivia’s international diplomacy.[4] His ministry made Bolivia a well-known voice at the United Nations, sent him to present spiritual ideas of Vivir Bien (see box) and Mother Earth in international fora, and kept an open door to the grassroots left.

Choquehuanca describes himself as “in permanent meeting” with grassroots movements, reeling off district-level meetings he attended in a 2009 interview.[5] Esteban Ticona,[6] an anthropologist of Aymara background and radical public intellectual, took leadership in the Diplomatic Academy, offering master’s degrees in international relations to an unprecedentedly diverse corps of future diplomats.[7] Diplomacy, that most elite and creole-identified of Bolivian government professions, was being transformed. Just as in previous generation of revolutionary governments,[8] indigenous and grassroots movements have brought their own agendas into government offices. They coordinated with the Bolivian Foreign Ministry to place the Bolivian state at the forefront of long-running international campaigns on indigenous rights, climate, and water. The novel, but quite visible, role of social movements in Bolivian (and regional) diplomacy came to be known as “diplomacy of the peoples,” a phrase that suggests that people-to-people relations are as important as state-to-state ones, while quietly implying that multiple peoples live within one state.

Led by Choquehuanca, and with frequent prominent appearances by Evo Morales, Bolivian diplomacy backed a visionary agenda at the United Nations. It helped secure the 2007 passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which had languished in committee for twelve years. A series of initiatives introduced the Andean concept of Pachamama, the planet as a living being, into international diplomacy.[9] In so doing, Bolivia’s representatives broke a UN taboo on religious declarations, one deeply rooted in the United Nations’ secular modernizing origins. Bolivian Ambassador to the UN Pablo Solón shepherded UN recognition of the right to water and sanitation through the General Assembly, culminating in a 2010 resolution.[10]

Read More »

Two unofficial counts show MAS-IPSP winning dramatic first-round victory in Bolivian election

Shortly after Luis Arce Catacora confidently predicted his own victory, two major polling firms released their counts of today’s election, both of which projected a 20% margin of victory for the Movement Towards Socialism in an historic election. The current projected margin doubles the largest advantage (10%) estimated by any pre-election poll and is far more than needed for Arce to avoid a runoff. Indeed, they project Arce’s party winning a simple majority of all votes, something it has done in three prior national elections and which no other political party has done since the 1960s.

While data are preliminary, interim president Jeanine Áñez has congratulated her political opponents on their apparent victory:

Second-place finisher Carlos Mesa’s campaign retired from public appearances early in the night and he has not commented on the late-night vote estimates online. Technically the election is his to concede, and that might only come once the official results resemble the unofficial ones.

Read More »

Beyond the ballot: Where Bolivia’s main political forces stand after a turbulent year

Bolivians go to the polls on Sunday, October 18, in the long-awaiting re-run of the country’s disputed October 2019 general election. Three weeks of opposition protests, alleging that electoral fraud had provided incumbent president Evo Morales the 10% margin required to avoid a run-off, combined with a nationwide police mutiny to prompt his resignation and flight into exile. While unusually violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Morales led to five deaths prior to his overthrow, the next ten days were even bloodier: 33 people died, at least 25 of them at the hands of the police and military.

The displacement of Evo Morales, the longest-serving president in Bolivia’s history and the winner of three prior elections, from power was a dramatic shift. At the time I laid out the political panorama like this:

In this post, I check in on those four political forces with an emphasis on looking beyond their electoral chances. (For a detailed look at the political parties’ standing in the polls, see: Luis Arce (MAS) leads polls heading into Bolivia’s election… but may struggle to prevent a runoff.)

Read More »
Formally dressed Luis Arce with an open collar and a Che lapel button

Luis Arce (MAS) leads polls heading into Bolivia’s election… but may struggle to prevent a runoff

After a year of unprecedented turmoil—including reasonable doubts about whether a new election would be indefinitely postponed—Bolivia’s leading political parties are heading into the October 18, 2020, election in much the same configuration as they were one year earlier. Luis Arce Catacora, who served as Evo Morales’ finance minister for twelve of his fourteen years in office, leads the race as the candidate of the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP). He seems on track to win a plurality in the first round of voting, to surpass the 40% threshold of valid votes, but perhaps not to obtain the 10 percentage-point advantage over the second-place finisher necessary to obtain a runoff. And once again, former president Carlos Mesa, and his Citizen Community coalition, represents the only serious threat to the MAS-IPSP. Newcomer Luis Camacho, scion of Santa Cruz’s right-wing elite, seems poised to be the only other candidate to break the 3% minimum for parliamentary representation.

Three major polls by the Tu Voto Cuenta academic–NGO consortium, the Ipsos polling firm, and the Centro Estratégico Latinoamericano de Geopolítica (CELAG) show tightly converging results as can be seen here. (Added Oct 15: CiesMori/UTP and Mercados y Muestras/Página Siete.)

Arce
MAS
Mesa
CC
Camacho
Creemos
Projected
Margin
Tu Voto Cuenta
(15,537 adults, Oct 2–5)
33.6%
42.9% valid
26.8%
34.2%
13.9%
17.8%
7.7%
Ipsos
(2000 adults, Sep 21–Oct 4)
34.0%
42.2% valid
27.9%
34.6%
13.8%
17.1%
7.6%
CELAG
(1700 adults, Sep 21–29)
44.4% valid34.0%15.2%10.4%
CiesMori
(Sep 29–Oct 8)
32.4%
42.2% valid
24.5%
33.1%
10.7%
13.5%
9.1%
Mercados y Muestras
(3000 adults, Sep 20-Oct 8)
27.1%
37.2% valid
27.2%
37.4%
14%
19.2%
-0.2%

A 10% margin is still within reach for Arce and the MAS-IPSP, and any such count would not be subject to the same accusations of his party controlling the electoral apparatus. However, a close count could still arouse both skepticism and protest. Arce remains essentially at the same place in the polls as Evo Morales in October 2019. Then, as now, plenty of former MAS voters have not yet rejoined the party, something which Arce and VP candidate David Choquehuanca’s base-mobilizing strategy seems intent on reversing.

Read More »

The 1988 Villa Tunari massacre, a dossier

In June 1988, Bolivia’s then-nascent Chapare coca grower’s union movement suffered its greatest single-day loss of life, the Villa Tunari Massacre. The killings came amid their campaign to oppose the passage of Ley 1008, which would eventually criminalize all coca growing in the Cochabamba valley region. The day forged the union and later political career of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s future president, and set Chapare coca growers and the US-backed Bolivian government on a deadly collision course that would claim scores of lives over the twenty-seven years that followed.

Despite the event’s importance, there have been precious few accounts in English. Jo Ann Kawell’s 1989 article in NACLA Report on the Americas is by the far the most complete I’ve found.

Read More »
Mamani case plaintiffs and legal counsel

US Court revives case against Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, widens accountability for extrajudicial killings

The US Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit in Miami issued a major ruling that brings us closer to justice for the killings during in the 2003 “Gas War” protests. Bolivian President Gonzalo (“Goni”) Sánchez de Lozada and Defense Mininister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín both fled to exile in the United States after the deaths of over 70 protesters failed to quash widespread protests. For the last thirteen years, a legal team including Bolivian human rights lawers, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, and DC-based Akin Gump have pursued the two former officials for civil accountability in the United States.

The plaintiffs, surviving relatives of eight people killed during the 2003 protests, sued the two officials in US civil court under the Torture Victims Protection Act. In March 2018, the case, Mamani et. al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín became the first time that a former head of state was brought to trial for human rights violations in a United States court. A month later, a jury a United States jury found the defendants liable under the Torture Victims Protection Act and not liable under a wrongful death claim. They entered a judgment of $10 million for the eight deaths. But Judge James I. Cohn set aside the jury’s ruling in May 2018, finding that the jury could not have lawfully reached its conclusion. (Full chronologies from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Harvard Human Rights Program.)

Today, the 11th Circuit Appeals Court dramatically reversed that ruling and issued a dramatic endorsement of the plaintiffs’ long quest for justice. The ruling:

  1. Vacates the judge’s move to set aside the verdict, and imposes a new standard for judgement.
  2. Makes an explicit case that a reasonable jury could have found the defendants liable.
  3. Clarifies a broader standard for defining “extrajudicial killings” under the TVPA—based on the indiscriminate use of force—that can be used going forward.
  4. Opens the door for a new trial on the wrongful death claims by ruling that inadmissible hearsay (from US government cables) was provided to the jury improperly.

The plaintiffs clearly recognize Monday’s ruling as a victory. “This is such wonderful news,” said Sonia Espejo, whose husband Lucio was killed in the 2003 Massacre. “We have fought for so long. We will continue fighting, but for today, I feel happy. I feel calm,” according to their joint press release.

Beyond the renewed possibility that Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín will have to pay (in a material sense) for coordinating the deadliest crackdown on protesters in Bolivia’s democratic era, the ruling offers both a significant increment in the willingness of US courts to hold human rights abuses accountable and direct validation of the loss suffered and grief endured by the families that brought the case.

Read More »

Bolivia saw massive forest loss in 2019

Widespread fires in Bolivia, which ravaged over 6.4 million hectares—6% of the country’s surface area—as of November 2019, caused massive damage to primary forests according to multiple research teams that investigate and quantify deforestation. Global Forest Watch, which attempts to quantify primary forest loss—that is, the area of untouched forest destroyed—found that Bolivia lost 290,000 hectares in 2019, nearly doubling its 2018 loss of 154,000 hectares. This brought Bolivia to fourth place among tropical countries for deforestation in 2019. Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project found that deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon increased markedly from 58,000 hectares in 2018 to 135,400 hectares in 2019, though MAAP’s study area excludes Santa Cruz department, where the worst 2019 fires occurred.

These figures are, as expected, well below the overall total area burned by fires in Bolivia, as calculated by Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza–Bolivia, which closely monitors satellite fire data. FAN-Bolivia estimated that 2.0 million of the 6.4 million burned acres were forested. The bulk of this forest loss came in Santa Cruz, where 1.9 million of a record-setting 4.1 million burned acres were forested, by FAN-Bolivia’s calculations. Of course, not all fires destroy all forest cover, not all forests are primary, and not all losses represent the first loss to an area. Global Forest Watch’s estimate of 290,000 hectares only applies forest loss that meets all three criteria. GFW has a much higher estimate for Bolivia’s total forest loss in 2019: 852,000 hectares. Much previously damaged forest, or forest never regarded as primary, burned in 2019.

Read More »