Indigenous Bloc in Bolivian Parliament Now a Reality

Six indigenous deputies in Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly stepped forward today to form an Indigenous Bloc (bancada indígena) within the parliament. The bloc consists of Deputies Justino Leaños (Potosí, alternate), Blanca Cartagena (La Paz, alternate), Teresa Nominé (Santa Cruz, alternate), Pedro Nuni (Beni), Bienvenido Zacu (Guarayo people, Santa Cruz), and Cristina Valeroso (Guaraní people, Tarija, alternate). [Update, 19 Jan: La Razón reports that Julio Cortez (Pando) and Bertha Ramallo (Pando, alternate), special indigenous constituency deputies who had affiliated with the right-wing Progress for Bolivia Plan-National Convergence bloc have also affiliated. Initial reports have some discrepancies: La Razón does not include Leaños, while Los Tiempos omits Teresa Nomine. A final count may require a couple days. Página Siete adds Sonia Justiniano (Beni, alternate) and confirms all nine listed here: 3 voting members and six alternates.] The move, endorsed by the National Commission of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), followed a series of announcements since the late September raid on the national indigenous march in defense of TIPNIS.

All members in today’s announcement except Justino Leaños represent special indigenous constituencies and were chosen by community procedures rather than elected to represent the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party. Pedro Nuny, who will lead the bloc, emphasized this allegiance yesterday: “Nos debemos a la CIDOB, por ellos estamos en la Asamblea Plurinacional y si nos ordena votar en contra del gobierno, lo haremos, haremos todo lo que esté a nuestro alcance para proteger nuestros derechos, en especial el territorio indígena” “Our obligation is to CIDOB, it si on their behalf that we are in the Plurinational Assembly and if they order us to vote against the government, we will do that, we will do everything within in our reach to protect our rights, and especially indigenous territory.” (Opinión, 17 January)

Nonetheless, their separation from the MAS has been the most controversial aspect of the move. Indeed, at today’s press conference, the degree of separation to be expected depended on the leader speaking. The following are the disparate statements made:

Adolfo Chávez, President of CIDOB: “Tendrán una responsabilidad de asumir una bancada indígena al interior del seno del Movimiento al Socialismo que significa que no tienen la obligación de abandonar el curul tal como lo habían señalado muchos diputados del oficialismo, ya es una decisión que el diputado Pedro Nuni sea quien asuma la jefatura de bancada de los indígenas.” “They will have the responsibility of becoming an indigenous bloc inside the heart of the Movement towards Socialism, meaning that they are not obliged to abandon their seats as many governing party deputies have signalled. It has already been decided that Deputy Pedro Nuni will assume the leadership of the indigenous bloc.” (Los Tiempos)

“Nuestros hermanos diputados asumen esta gran responsabilidad para hacer cumplir los derechos que corresponden para los pueblos indígenas” “Our deputy brothers and sisters are taking on the great responsibility of ensuring that the rights which belong to indigenous peoples are fulfilled.” (El Día)

Deputy Pedro Nuni, President of the Indigenous Bloc: “Si nos reconoce o no la Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional es otra cosa, pero nosotros trabajaremos y no seremos parte de los 2/3 del oficialismo, porque muchas veces somos objetos de manipulación.” “Whether the Plurinational Legislative Assembly recognizes us or not is another matter, but we will do our work and we will not be part of the governing party’s two-thirds majority, beacuse many times we are objects of [their] manipulation.” (El Día)

The issue of a two-thirds majority has been a prominent issue for press discussions on the Indigenous Bloc. The MAS won 88 of 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies in December 2009, and has 26 of 36 Senators. However, four La Paz deputies belong to members of the Without Fear Movement (MSM) which ran in alliance with the MAS, but declared its independence in 2010. The Indigenous Bloc subtracts three more voting members from the MAS, leaving them with 82 deputies, or 63% of the lower house, and pushing them below two-thirds of the entire Assembly.

The two-thirds threshold was the subject of an extended controversy in the Constituent Assembly of 2006–2007, but it’s unclear how effective a one-third minority will be in stopping legislation. [Update, 19 Jan: La Razón reports that a 2/3 majority is required both for impeachment and for the approval or modification of laws.] However, indigeneity is a central value of the process of change in Bolivia, and this is one more step that questions whether the MAS is the true standard bearer of that process.

MAS campaign to reverse agreement, build highway through TIPNIS reaches legislature today

The campaign by Evo Morales’ Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party to resume construction of a controversial new highway (background: 1 2 3 wikipedia) through the protected Isiboro Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory enters a critical phase today. While a pro-highway march has just reached Caracollo (Oruro), a six-day march away from the capital, the Bolivian Plurinational Legislative Assembly will take up consideration of the march’s demands today. The march, officially led by CONISUR, an organization of indigenous people living in the southern, colonized zone of TIPNIS, has had open support of the MAS from the start. Its legitimacy has also been called into question by the national indigenous confederation CIDOB and a wide swath of Bolivian media from the right to the independent left, including the community radio network Erbol.

Erbol has an informative run-down today of the “five MAS strategies to achieve the construction of the TIPNIS highway” since it signed an agreement with the Subcentral TIPNIS, CIDOB, and CONAMAQ to shelve the project in October. These strategies are:

  • A December 9 rally in Cochabamba in support of construction, organized by the Governor’s office of Cochabamba. Work hours throughout the department were adjusted to assure attendance, and government officials spoke out about being obliged to attend.
  • The CONISUR march, begun December 19/20 at Isinuta, on the edge of TIPNIS.
  • The December 16 suspension of Beni governor Ernesto Suarez Sattori, indicted for governmental financial irregularities. Suarez had been the most prominent official in the region to criticize the project and showed a willingness to support alternate routes for the road. His successor, Haisen Ribera Leigue, is a right-wing legislator who has since been disavowed by his party for joining the MAS vote to suspend Suarez. Ribera has joined the call to annul the law protecting TIPNIS, and build the road.
  • The Plurinational Encounter to Deepen the Change, a three-part “consultation with civil society” on the part of the Bolivian executive branch, included the highway in its agenda for Cochabamba and Beni. The meeting was boycotted by the indigenous federations CIDOB and CONAMAQ as part of the fracturing of the Pact of Unity (wikipedia).
  • The effort to annul the law in the legislature, which will begin today. Eleven legislators who met with the CONISUR marchers will make their report today, after which relevant legislation will be gestated in committee. The MAS Cochabamba delegation has already pledged to support reversing the protection of TIPNIS. Senate President René Martínez claims to have a 2/3 majority in support of the iniciative, a claim that others contest in light of indigenous and Without Fear Movement legislators withdrawing from the MAS delegation.
  • Plus (not cited by Erbol): The government continues to stall on its agreement with the CIDOB and Subcentral TIPNIS to put forward official regulations for the law protecting the territory.

While no vote is expected today, the engagement of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly on the issue of reversing the protection of TIPNIS marks a culminating moment in the MAS strategy to go ahead with the road. The government continues to ignore alternate routes for connecting Cochabamba and Beni that fall outside of the indigenous territory and national park, and continues to make winning this fight a political priority. The time for environmental and indigenous rights supporters to turn their attention back to this issue is now.

Indigenous march for TIPNIS survives blockade and violent police raid

What just happened?
(a capsule summary)

The 500-km (300-mile) indigenous march to preserve Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) was held back for the week of September 20-25 by Bolivian police and a blockade set up by agrarian colonists loyal to the MAS government. Tensions rose as police turned back supplies for the march and indigenous women in the march compelled government negotiator David Choquehuanca to walk with the marchers through the police blockade on Saturday, September 24. Then, on Sunday, September 25, police launched a sudden and violent attack on the hundreds of marchers. The police use of tear gas, baton blows, zip ties and adhesive tape against an intergenerational cross-section of the indigenous movement, and direct targeting of its leadership sent shock waves through the political system. On Monday, three things were in rapid motion: the still-unconfirmed reports of deaths during the raid; some 300 marchers-turned-prisoners the government was attempting to fly out of the region; and a growing sense of outrage at the Evo Morales government for carrying out the attack. Rapidly organized protests by indigenous people and town-dwellers in Rurrenabaque compelled the police to release the arrested marchers before they could be flown out. Meanwhile, protests spread across the country and attracted support from all parts of the political spectrum, including the Defense Minister and figures who had been loyal allies of Morales.

Criticism of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, planned to run through the ecological heart of TIPNIS, was reinforced by major voices this week, even as an international petition by Avaaz sped towards a half-million signature goal. Solidarity protests with TIPNIS were held in nine cities of Bolivia and across the department of Beni, where the raid occurred. On Wednesday, the national labor confederation held a general strike in solidarity with TIPNIS, among numerous other moves in support of the indigenous march.

Most dramatically, the hundreds of marchers bused by the police to Rurrenabaque have reunited with those dispersed during the raid. Together, they re-started the march at 7:00am on Saturday, October 1, less than a week after the raid. Their destination continues to be La Paz.

However, despite President Evo Morales’ apology for the raid, his government continues to support the proposed road. Government announcements that road construction is suspended remain unconfirmed on the ground, while we learned this week that construction of the road inside TIPNIS is well underway. Morales’ pre-raid Sunday morning proposal to hold a referendum on the highway for all residents of Cochabamba and Beni departments is not even close to “indigenous consultation,” much less “free, prior, and informed consent” by the indigenous communities directly affected by the route. Despite the upheavals of past week, Evo Morales and the MAS party remain committed to defeating opposition to this road project, and to avoiding a precedent for a local veto over infrastructure projects. To buttress this position, they are continuing to rally loyal supporters (primarily colono federations, but also some peasant unions) to upcoming marches in Cochabamba and La Paz departments. The possibility of direct confrontation between supporters and opponents of the road (or equivalently, critics of, and loyalists to Evo Morales), or further violent police action “to avoid confrontations” continues to loom large.

Bolivia: A Year in Ten Protests

I returned this week from nearly a full year researching mass protest in Bolivia. As luck would have it, 2010 has seen protests in greater numbers (67 per month!) than any year since 1971 , when the Center for Studies of Economic and Social Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social) began keeping records on the subject. And based on both a comparative look at Bolivian history and pure population growth, it’s safe to extend that title to the most protests in a single year since the beginning of the 19th century, or even Bolivia’s history as an independent country.

Unlike 2003 and 2005, Bolivian protests did not mount into an overarching national wave capable of toppling a sitting government. However, many of the forces involved in those years are showing increasing independence from President Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. Morales was ratified by a 64% majority in the December 2009 presidential elections and his party won the mayor’s office in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 337 municipalities in the April 2010 elections. However, this year many of the voters who backed the MAS in national fights showed their willingness to take to the streets to denounce its policies. Meanwhile, the MAS itself mobilized its base in a spectacular welcome to a global summit of climate change activists and against a 2011 workers’ strike.

Here, then, are the one election and ten mass mobilizations that defined the past year.

Read More »