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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Bolivian government and opposition coalitions to march on referendum anniversary

A year has passed since Bolivian voters denied President Evo Morales a chance at re-election in the February 21, 2016, referendum. The vote marked the first national defeat for Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party in a decade (although local election results have been mixed before). Prior to that vote, critics of the government from the left (on indigenous rights, unkept development promises, corruption, or the centralization of power) had ultimately aligned against the conservative elite. But by holding a referendum that could curtail Morales’ power without replacing him entirely, the MAS generated a de facto alliance between its left and right opponents. (A similar phenomenon contributed to the unprecedented number of blank and spoiled ballots in the 2011 Judicial Elections.)

Despite the 51.3%–48.7% defeat, the MAS has plunged ahead with a national effort to re-elect Morales, offering four strategies to legalize him running for a fourth term:

  1. Convene a constitutional referendum by collecting signatures through citizen initiative.
  2. Re-convene a constitutional referendum through the Plurinational Legislative Assembly
  3. Seek a judgement from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal declaring that the president’s term limit is an unconstitutional violation of the public’s right to freely choose their leader.
  4. Have Morales resign six months before the 2019 election to make himself eligible to run again.

Unsurprisingly, these proposals have not gone over well with either left critics or right-wing opponents of the government. With the February 21 referendum as a rallying symbol, organizations in both milieux as well as voters on social media have organized mobilizations “in defense of the vote.” You can get a sense of the tenor of these calls here:

  • afiche_no
    Independent left ‘Bolivia Voted No’ image demands: Respect the citizens’ vote.

    A coalition of left grassroots signatories, including the movements behind the TIPNIS campaign, Potosí regional strikes, Guaraní protests at Takova Mora, and many other organizations put forward this document: Let’s remember why we voted no!

  • Pre-February 21 mobilizations have included this protest in La Paz on February 1.
  • On February 21, mass meetings called cabildos have been called for major plazas in departmental capitals across the country.

Conversely, the government and its close movement allies have been preparing their own counter-mobilizations to occur on the same day (or the previous night).

bolivia_21f_dia_de_la_mentira
Pro-MAS image asks “What happened on February 21? A series of media attacks against Evo Morales.”

These mobilizations will have the slogan, February 21: Day of the Lie. This lie is mainly the false claim by President Morales’ young ex-lover Gabriela Zapata that she and the president had a son together, and (after the referendum) her procuring of a five-year-old boy to claim he was the president’s daughter. The scandal combined sex, paternity, and the whiff of trafficking in government influence: Zapata became the legal representative of Chinese corporation CAMC in Bolivia despite her youth and lack of qualifications. Zapata has been imprisoned since early last year, held on a rotating set of charges including influence peddling, kidnapping (of the presumed child), and fraud. Since their unexpected defeat, the MAS has focused attention on the story, which broke in early February 2016, as the factor that swung voters against them. On Sunday night, February 19, 2017, in a broadcast interview from jail, Zapata put forward the improbable claim that MAS political operative Wálter Chávez and long-time center-right opponent Samuel Doría Medina had invented the story of the child in 2005 to be deployed against Morales at some future date. (Former MAS official Amanda Dávila, Wálter Chávez, and Doría Medina have denied the claim.)

Bolivian politics has been marked by competing mobilizations in favor of and opposed to the government since at least 2004. Demonstrating a capacity to mobilize in large numbers is regarded as a marker of political legitimacy.

Bolivia voters set a limit on President Evo Morales

As previewed on this blog, Bolivians went to the polls on February 21 to decide on whether the 2009 Constitution should be amended to allow Evo Morales to run for a fourth term in 2020. There was strong participation, with 84.45% of registered voters going to the polls (a stronger showing than the 2015 regional election, but below the turnout in the last national vote). The result was a narrow but convincing defeat for Morales and the MAS party: 51.30% of voters rejected the constitutional change. (Final results)

Here are five quick things to take away from this result.

  1. This vote on Evo Morales getting a fourth term wasn’t to some extent a referendum on Evo Morales, but it was not a referendum on leftism, indigeneity, or standing up to neoliberalism. Evo’s personal image took a major hit with the revelation of his affair with Gabriela Zapata, a young law student in 2006 and 2007 who later became a well-paid representative of CAMC, a major government contractor. This scandalous revelation brought a whiff of corruption to the president in the final week of campaigning. Meanwhile, a deadly arson apparently set by pro-government protesters in the El Alto city hall undermined the standing of the governing Movement Towards Socialism party.
  2. Despite these winds, public perception of Evo Morales remained fairly positive. Polls showed his approval at 58%, far ahead of the support level for term extension. So, a significant fraction of the public supports him in his third term, but refuses to grant him a fourth. A narrative, transplanted from Venezuela, of collapsing support for a leftist goverment simply does not apply to the Bolivian referendum.
  3. The NO campaign on the referendum united left and indigenous critics of the government, advocates of rotating leadership, and right-wing opposition. This kind of tacit alliance has never fully coalesced before, although it appeared to some extent in the successful, if ineffectual, calls for blank or null ballots in the 2012 judicial elections. It also is highly unlikely for these forces to come together again in national elections. Nonetheless, the referendum did prompt a number of left dissidents to step forward as possible participants in 2019 elections. It remains to be seen which of their political projects will endure, win ballot access, and compete in that contest.
  4. The MAS and the YES campaign have lost Potosí. While all four of the western capital cities—La Paz, Oruro, Cochabamba, and Potosí —voted agaist the referendum, the poor and left-identified city of Potosí did so overwhelmingly. Over 85% of Potosinos refused to back another term for Morales. The department was once a MAS stronghold and has no significant right-wing presence, but its capital has spearheaded major protest campaigns in 2010 and 2015 demanding greater investment and new jobs. Serious disenchantment with the national government has set in.
  5. The MAS has a major challenge in candidate selection for 2019. It simply hasn’t been cultivating middle-level leaders to become national figures. There are certainly high-level party loyalists, like Silvia Lazarte, and a few long-time cabinet members, including David Choquehuanca, but no obvious successor to Evo. Meanwhile, numerous prominent MAS members of the past have gone from rising stars, to despised free thinkers (libre pensantes), to ex-members of the party. Still, Bolivia’s presidential runoff system and demographic composition makes it very difficult for a right-wing or anti-indigenous candidate to win. The interesting question is whether a left outsider could make it into that second round.

Other commentary on the results:

Plurinational Bolivia cultivates new image as oil and gas state (in videos)

The Bolivian government of Evo Morales is enthusiastically celebrating two new finds of petroleum and gas this month, at the Boquerón-Norte well in the east and in the Lliquimuni block in the Bolivian Amazon. These findings come just as new presidential decrees have opened parks and environmentally protected areas to oil and gas drilling.  You can get a flavor of the government’s excitement by seeing some of its image production around these finds.

First is this wordless video produced by Petroandina (the Bolivian-Venezuelan consortium of state-run oil companies) celebrating the construction of the test well LQC-X1, which began operation last December. Preliminary results presented this week place this block as the place where large-scale oil drilling could come to the northern Bolivian Amazon. The soundtrack befits a cinematic drama, and the intent is clearly to make drilling for oil into a national heroic endeavor.Read More »

Evo Morales reopens proposal for highway through TIPNIS

Bolivian President Evo Morales has renewed his efforts to build a controversial highway through the heart of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), a forested park that is home to over 12,000 indigenous people. The central segment of the highway would bisect the territory and accelerate already high rates of deforestation. Protests spearheaded by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) in 2011 and 2012 postponed its construction, while funding by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) was withdrawn. The Bolivian government had previously said it would tackle extreme poverty in the territory before mounting any new effort to build the highway.

On June 4, however, President Morales told an audience in his home base of Villa Tunari, Cochabamba, that the project “will be realized.” His remarks followed on earlier statements leading up to the April regional elections and a May runoff that put the highway back on the official agenda. Now, with an overwhelming victory for Morales’ MAS party in Cochabamba and a very narrow win in the Beni runoff, the national government seems committed to restarting the project. In the president’s words,

On the subject of integration, good voices come from the new governors of Beni [Alex Ferrier] and Cochabamba [Iván Canelas]. The Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos, comrades, will be realized.Read More »

Open Letter to Evo Morales about nuclear energy

Re-posting from Breaking the Nuclear Chain (en) and Julio Lumbreras (es)…

Dear Evo Morales,

First of all we would like to emphasize that those who sign this letter consider themselves to be friends of the Bolivian people. We applaud what your government has done over the years for the welfare of the people of Bolivia, for the recovery of control over your natural resources as well as for social justice and the redistribution of wealth. We also support the strong stance you and your government have taken on the protection of the environment, with the institution of the Day of Mother Earth and the acts against the exploitation of food resources for purposes other than the nourishment of the people. Moreover, we have been fighting for years, in our countries and internationally, against military and civilian nuclear energy.

In this light, as friends, we have been surprised by the announcement of your government’s plans to start the process of building a nuclear plant in Bolivia.

We believe this to be a move in the wrong direction and we wish to explain why in the following few points. We also hope that this debate can be continued with the participation of the entire Bolivian society. We therefore welcome positions different from ours and are always available to participate in an open discussion with further contributions.

1) That for nuclear energy is a choice without return, and no visible end! No one knows precisely what it costs to dismantle a nuclear power plant, but it is likely to be comparable to the cost of constructing one; no durable solution for the disposal of radioactive wastes has yet been found. These wastes constitute a heavy legacy that is expensive to store and remains deadly for thousands of years.

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