La Paz, Bolivia: Death of a Protester

In the second week of February, the federation of street vendors (or Gremialistas, which literally means “guild members”) in Bolivia’s capital La Paz carried out a brief campaign against a street redesign project that would rework the busy intersection known as the Garita de Lima. In the course of this struggle, elderly vendor Teodora Velasco de Quispe died.

The Garita de Lima is a congested intersection in central La Paz (a photo search for the site yields an image titled “vehicular chaos”). It’s also a workplace: over 200 people sell food and goods from stalls on the sidewalks, streets, and central island, while the municipality counts 299 different transport routes, most of them served by vans or small buses, that pass through the intersection. Under two administrations led by a center-left political party, the La Paz municipality has combined  concrete, traffic engineers, architects, and savvy searching for funds to solve “problems” like the Garita de Lima. Their proposed redesign continues this strategy, remaking the current oval into a bridge between two plazas. The logic of the redesign is simple and clear: reduce travel delays and uncontrolled pedestrians crossing into the street while maximizing public space. To do this, they used the vertical dimension for crossovers while expanding open space horizontally.

Architectural rendering of renovated Garita de Lima, La Paz, Bolivia
Architectural rendering of renovated Garita de Lima, La Paz, Bolivia

The gremialistas are one of hundreds of sectoral organizations in La Paz. A trade unions for workers without an employer, they mobilize collectively in much the same way a union does, although they must use vigils, shop closures, blockades, and building takeovers where employees could use strikes and pickets. Solidarity and compulsory collective action are the backbone of their influence. The ghostly absence of their working-class presence—the tarps they string up, the blankets they sit on, their large pleated skirts, and gregariously space-taking bodies —from the architectural rendering shows the social distance that separates them from those who organized the project. Like many poor Bolivians, the gremialistas are accustomed to fighting for the marginal space on which they eke out their living. No wonder that they looked at this project with suspicion. As organizer Julia Manuela Hilarión said, “It is by fighitng that we have won our vending posts and now we are surprised that they are kicking us out of this place. [Luchando hemos conseguido nuestros puestos de venta y ahora nos dan esta sorpresa en la que nos están botando del lugar].”

On February 11, over a hundred vendors protested outside City Hall. They vowed, as per Bolivian tradition, to “go forward unto to the final consequences” in their protest, and put forward the maximum demands as their first bargaining position: no seller should be moved from her (or his) post. A conflict broke out with the local neighborhood association, who requested and backed the project; the local neighborhood association leader was injured. Vendors put up signs rejecting the project and sellers went on hunger strike at their posts. One of them was Teodora Velasco de Quispe. Early on the morning of February 13, she died of a heart attack.

Gremialistas carry a cardboard casket in memory of Teodora Velasco de Quispe. (Photo appeared in Cambio, February 14)
Gremialistas carry a cardboard casket in memory of Teodora Velasco de Quispe. (Photo appeared in Cambio, February 14)

Fourteen associations of gremialistas from across La Paz marched on City Hall, carrying forward the struggle and memorializing Teodora Velasco (video). Forty of them began a sit-in demanding negotations with the municipality. Some city officials were unable to leave and pledged they wouldn’t hold talks under such pressure. Nonetheless, four days later they met with Mayor Luis Revilla himself. He pledged none of them would lose the ability to sell in the zone, and the city’s markets coordinator offered to explain the logistics involved. They also agreed to a new process of public comment (or “socialization”) of the project before it was implemented.

This is not the first such project to occasion temporary displacement of vendors in La Paz, or to cause them to fear for their livelihoods. Two downtown markets (the Central and Camacho markets) were built in the last decade, both bringing about conflicts and city-funded temporary housing for shops during construction. These experiences do not seem to have made the city sufficiently proactive or the vendors more patient or less strident in their initial demands. Even now, their opposition to the new Garita de Lima has not been dropped, although history suggests they will get along with the planners and reopen for business during and after construction.

Was Teodora Velasco de Quispe’s death necessary? Almost certainly not. The question of who is responsible for this loss is more complex. Her passing in the middle of the night is one of a significant number of deaths that accompany Bolivian protest without being caused by violent or consciously lethal actions, but which are nonetheless an inseparable part of protesters’ experience. Others have started vigils and marches their bodies were not prepared to survive, or been trapped on the wrong side of a blockade from the medical assistance they needed, or died of cold, exposure, or disease while their community was mobilizing. Such losses of human life stand alongside deaths that provoke outrage and generate cries for official investigations. They do, however, galvanize the commitment of those who lived and struggled beside them. Almost like martyrs, but different, the burden of their deaths is carried by their comrades who struggle on.

Watching the Maidan protests in Ukraine

This post will differ from most on this blog in being more of a pure log of links than an a formulated story or opinion.

I’ve been loosely following the protests in Ukraine and its capital Kyiv since they began in November. No surprise there since my main research topic is how protest movements use urban spaces. The EuroMaidan movement is happening just a bit north to Turkey’s Gezi Park protests, but the ability of the rolling waves of antiglobalization, antiwar, Occupy, Arab Spring, take the square, anti-austerity movements to see it as an extension of or parallel to themselves is much more complicated. Like these protests, EuroMaidan raises questions about how politics is done in the street, the rights (or wrongs) of protesters occupying public buildings and interrupting public life, the ways that mass movements involve an interplay between mass calm gatherings and (smaller) mass confrontation, the tactical interplay between unarmed and armed forces, and the quickening and fracturing of political coalitions. These sorts of questions seem pretty similar across different nations, and there are lessons to be learned from each mass movement for all.

While tactical affinities are obvious, the evidence of the presence or absence of political affinities is contradictory. Is an encampment that began with a defense of a European Union agreement comprehensible to those occupying squares against EU austerity inside the Union itself? Is this a movement for democracy, and is democracy being rethought from the street, as Occupy-ers found? Or are politicians “engineering” the occupations and clashes for their own ends? Is the threat of foreign domination in this case represented by Russia and Putin or by NATO and John McCain? Is this a challenge to corruption and concentration of wealth, or the opportunism of a right-wing and its merely ecstatic allies?

I don’t feel close enough to the situation to sort out all the answers to these questions, but the protesters are not just occupying the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, they’re occupying my thoughts. Here are some sources of insight if they are of interest to you as well:

Bolivia’s Unexpected Blockade: Oruro on strike over “Evo Morales Airport”

Today is the third day of highway blockades in the Department of Oruro, the culmination of what is already 29 days of pressure backed the department’s Civic Committee and its labor federation (the Central Obrera Departamental of Oruro; COD). The form and schedule of the strike follows the standard Bolivian pattern: participants declared themselves on alert to press their demands, and have held 24-hour, 48-hour, and 72-hour general strikes before proceeding to an indefinite period of pressure, which began on Monday. Road blockades are common means of ramping up pressure in the country, and in fact Oruro’s blockades coincide with blockades by peasants in La Paz department, neighborhood organizations in El Alto, and a municipal organization pursuing a border dispute outside the city of Cochabamba.

However, the topic of Oruro’s mobilization is quite unusual. Over four weeks of protests have been waged on what is a symbolic issue: the naming of the newly expanded airport (the expansion and new routes require it to be redesignated as an international airport). The pre-established name, Juan Mendoza Airport honored an aviation pioneer from the department. But on February 7, the region’s parliament chose to honor a different native son, President Evo Morales Ayma, by re-naming the airport after him. Surprise and discontent about the sudden renaming accompanied the airport’s re-opening the next day. The first strikes on the issue took place on February 27 and 28, endorsed by both the COD and the Civic Committee. Unions of miners (notably from the famous mines in Huanuni) and the ever-strident teachers have been vocal participants.

The conflict is particularly surprising given the strong and consistent backing from the region for President Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS-IPSP) political party. The department gave 79.46% of its votes to the MAS-IPSP in the 2009 general elections, and all but one of its representatives in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly belong to the party. Evo Morales migrated with his family out of Oruro to the Chapare valley region in Cochabamba, but he is a highly respected native son. During the 2010 regional strike by Potosí, Oruro’s Civic Committee was one of the counterweights to a mobilization that was highly critical of the president.

Criticisms from the Civic Committee had already begun by last December, when the national government kicked off construction a museum of the “democratic and cultural revolution” in Morales’ hometown, the village of Orinoca, Oruro. Then, Civic Committee President Sonia Saavedra questioned the  priorities for investment from national government funds:

We need projects that are truly icons for tourist development. I don’t deny the value of the museum that will be built in Orinoca, but we also would like to see that the things that are really necessary to be built are built. What should be more at hand is to ensure that people of the country and from abroad come and see the richness of our department. “Necesitamos proyectos que realmente sean íconos de desarrollo turismo, no desvaloro el museo que se va construir en Orinoca, pero también quisiéramos que se construyan los que realmente van a ser necesarios y están más a la mano para que venga gente del interior y exterior del país para que vean la riqueza de nuestro departamento”

Saavedra urged funds for the Museum in Oruro commemorating the city’s world-famous festival, and suggested that water and irrigation were more important priorities for Orinoca than a stadium with 8,000 seats for a town of 2,000 people.

The past month’s discontent has been met by a series of accusations from the departmental government, who have variously accused “a press bought by the right,” conspiratorial actors intending to produce a coup, and other figures as standing “behind” the campaign. However, many mobilization are attempted in Bolivia, while only a few reach this scale. To gain this level of adherence requires a real willingness of people to stay away from work and join in mass efforts at pressure. However surprising, there is little doubt that this willingness is genuine. Moreover, the region’s political leanings are not in doubt. Rejecting the accusations of right-wing ties, Orureño journalists issued a statement declaring:

We journalists have never been from the right, to the contrary we have always been of the left, but from the humble left, wich fights for justice and equality among all, for seriousness and responsibility; on the other hand, the supposed leftists are taking on the poses of the right: self-important, irrational, and unwilling to dialogue. “Los periodistas nunca hemos sido de derecha, más por el contrario, siempre hemos sido de izquierda, pero de la izquierda humilde, que lucha por la justicia, la igualdad entre todos, la seriedad y la responsabilidad; en cambio, los supuestos izquierdistas están asumiendo poses de la derecha, soberbios, irracionales y faltos de diálogo”

More recently, Saavedra rejected the renaming in this way: “It’s a servile act by the [departmental] Assembly members who want to erase the history of Oruro. Juan Mendoza was the first Bolivian pilot born in this land.” “Es una actitud servil de los asambleístas que quieren borrar la historia de Oruro. Juan Mendoza fue el primer piloto boliviano nacido en esta tierra.”

So the current strike can best be understood as an act of resistance to the symbolic centralization of power, and the beginnings of a personality cult emerging around the president. That this resistance is coming from his own home region reflects the critical and diverse currents that make up Bolivian political culture.

The president himself has tried to remain aloof from the conflict, noting that he had never asked for any public works to bear his name and urging Orureños to work out the conflict among themselves. However, as the conflict enters a second month, national officials have begun to disqualify participants in the protest, repeating local accusations, and suggesting that the preference for Mendoza over Morales has an anti-indigenous, racial component. The Observatorio on Racism reacted skeptically on twitter.

Several proposals have been floated to resolve the conflict, including referring the matter to the Constitutional Tribunal (there are legal restrictions on naming works after living people), naming the airport Juan Mendoza and the terminal after Evo Morales, and simply calling the place Oruro International Airport. Today, however, the strike goes on.

Update: The strike was successful and the government agreed to repeal the re-naming law by March 22, 2013. The airport opened with neither Mendoza nor Morales’s name upon it in 2014, generating an angry reaction from Sonia Saavedra. As of March 2016, the legally approved name of Juan Mendoza still had not been placed on airport signage. The airport sees 32 flight per week. However, its future is clouded by on-the-ground problems: keeping birds and animals off the runways and the nearby presence of a municipal dump. Aviation officials have given the airport until the end of 2017 to resolve these issues or face cancellation of all flights.

Untangling Puno mining protest reports (or, why English-language wire reporters should read the local press)

The wave of anti-mining protests in the Puno Region of Peru reached day 50 today. Yesterday, June 24, was a particularly dramatic day, however: the Peruvian government announced that it will annul the mining concession for the proposed Santa Ana silver mine in Huacullani District, near the Bolivian border southeast of Puno; other protesters took over the Manco Capac airport in Juliaca, north of Puno, only to be shot with live ammunition by police. These were both very important events in the seven-week-long protests. But they were also the two kinds of events that the English-language press steps in to cover: economic loss to Western corporations and deadly violence. If it bleeds, it leads is a key phrase for journalism, but if it bites the bottom line, it makes the business pages is just as important.

Unfortunately, the coincidence of these two newsworthy events led a string of English-language outlets to treat one as causing the other. In fact, there is quite a bit of separation: the Santa Ana mine was the lead issue for the primarily Natural Resources Defense Front of the Southern Zone of Puno (Frente de Defensa de los Recursos Naturales de la Zona Sur de Puno), which joined forces with National Confederation of Peruvian Communities Affeted by Mining (Spanish: Confederación Nacional de Comunidades del Perú Afectadas por la Minería; Conami). The Defense Front, a predominantly Aymara organization, is based near the border and had organized an earlier regional general strike against the Santa Ana Mine in April. It joined forces with the largely Quechua Conami for a larger regional protest from May 7 to June 1. When protests resumed after the victory of Ollanta Humala, new forces got involved, many but not all also concerned with mining elsewhere in the Puno Region. These include protests in Carabaya province [the Puno region has 13 provinces, divided in 107 districts] against mining concessions and the Inambari hydroelectric power plant; protests in Melgar, Juli, and Sandia over local mines; and Azángaro (whose capital is Juliaca) demanding decontamination of the Ramis river from pollution caused by small-scale mining. Outside of the Defense Front, most peasants in these regions are Quechua-speakers, not Aymaras.

The story is the strike wave, which has rippled across the region. And the other surprising story is the willingness of the government to deal openly with the strikers: even in May, substantial concessions were granted to the protests (including a 12-month delay in the Santa Ana mine and a regional commission to study all mining in southern Puno Region). The possibilities of protest and the limits of resource extraction are being rewritten in Peru. However, it didn’t bleed, so it didn’t lead. Indeed, for English-reading outsiders, it didn’t even get covered. Blame this on editors and the priorities of understaffed media organizations.

However, when things got interesting for the newswires, they assigned the story, apparently to reporters far from the scene. And the results juxtaposed the shootings in Juliaca and the victory in Chuquito Province in ways that distort the truth:

  • Associated Press, “Peru cancels mine after 6 killed in clash” somehow fails to mention the demands of protesters in Juliaca, and gives the false impression that the clash led to the concession.
  • Agence France-Presse, “Peru halts Canada mining operations amid protests“: “Peru suspended a Canadian company’s mining project in the south of the country on Saturday following intense negotiations in the wake of deadly protests by mostly indigenous anti-mining activists, authorities said.” “In the wake of” is fuzzy talk for afterwards without committing to a connection. In fact, the negotiations preceded the deadly violence, with a commitment to annul the Santa Ana mine being made verbally to the Defense Front on Wednesday and Thursday, with confirmation on Saturday. As discussed above, anti-mining protesters in Juliaca have other demands. Later in the article, “Protests have since spread to the provinces of Azangaro, Melgar and now the city of Juliaca.” Juliaca is the capital of Azangaro, and protests occurred there in late May, as well as early June. Nonetheless, AFP did some homework; this is spot on: “They then expanded to include opposition to other area mines, and now include opposition to the Inambari project, an ambitious plan to damn several Andean rivers and build what would become one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in South America.”
  • Voice of America, “3 Killed in Peru Airport Clash“: Contributes one fact: the result of a hospital phone call to Juliaca (“A doctor said the three people killed died from gunshot wounds Friday at Manco Capac airport in the city of Juliaca in Puno state.”), but mis-identifies the protesters as Aymara Indians—0.28% of Azángaro Province is Aymara. The hospital workers, through no fault of their own, understated the death toll by half.

Reporting like this is far less effective than paying translators to read the local press (Los Andes in Puno has been among the most comprehensive; see their chronology) and fact-check one against the other. If you’re reporting on these issues, I’d really like to know your process and point you in the direction of reliable background information. Seriously, where are you and what do you read?

Credit where credit is due: Reuters got the story right, noting “On Friday, hours before the deadly clash at the airport, Garcia’s cabinet revoked the license of Canadian mining firm Bear Creek in a bid to persuade locals residents to end protests that have dragged on for more than a month.”

p.s. A look at the same problem in Bolivia ten months ago: Potosí isolated by 12-day regional strike.

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 »

Tactical Gems from the Egyptian Uprising

As we cheer on Egypt’s anti-regime uprising, we should also be learning as much as possible how it worked. Some things, of course, are only important in a society that has lived under decades of emergency rule. But most, I think,  apply just about everywhere. Since we’ve seen government spying and storm trooper-style riot cops deployed in just about every country, it’s great when we can learn things that stop them.

Here are some of my favorites so far.

Open source protesting: Making its round in Egypt during the last days of January was a brilliant little pamphlet called “How to Protest Intelligently.” This easily reproducible, forwardable, xeroxable pamphlet brought together an open-ended set of tactics and strategies and widely distributed them. San Francisco bikers will be familiar with the well-distributed xeroxes that circulate at Critical Mass (some mockingly call this form of leadership “xerocracy”), but its relatively rare that protesters aim for mass distribution of their plans to the rest of society. When enough people are fed up, but might remain inactive without a plan, this can be strikingly effective.

By the way, open source is a metaphor here, that has relatively little to do with actual computers. It seems that e-mail and pdfs did actually help in Egypt, but mimeographs, printing presses, fax machines, or copiers would have functioned just as well in another era. (Non-blog-oriented hat-tip to the European collectives circulating open source windmill designs to put renewable energy into grassroots hands.)

You can read nine pages of the pamphlet at Indybay (the San Francisco Bay Independent Media Center), one of my favorite open media institutions.

Advice on gathering and mobilizing from “How to Protest Intelligently”

Gather where you is, Converge on where you ain’t:* One piece of simple advice from the pamphlet is this universally applicable tactical plan. Apparently, it actually happened this way. Ahdaf Soueif, for example, reports:

This is the scene that took place in every district of every city in Egypt today. The one I saw: we started off as about 20 activists, after Friday prayers in a small mosque in the interior of the popular Cairo district of Imbaba. “The people – demand – the fall of this regime!” Again and again the call went out. We started to walk: “Your security. Your policekilled our brothers in Suez.”

The numbers grew. Every balcony was full of people: women smiling, waving, dangling babies to the tune of the chants: “Bread! Freedom! Social justice!” Old women called: “God give you victory.”

For more than an hour the protest wound through the narrow lanes. Kids ran alongside. A woman picking through garbage and loading scraps into plastic bags paused and raised her hand in a salute. By the time we wound on to a flyover to head for downtown we were easily 3,000 people. (“An eyewitness account of the Egypt protests,” Guardian, January 28)

* “If you can’t organize where you is, you can’t organize where you ain’t” — received Saul Alinsky-style wisdom

Missing step, How to Defend a Public Plaza from Cops and Mobs of Hired Thugs: Seriously, I’m curious. And a lot of experience has been generated.

How to make demands from a giant crowd: Now that Tahrir Square has proclaimed itself an “autonomous republic,” and demands are flying from every corner of Egyptian society, not to mention every foreign government, the crowds whose effort has made change possible are trying to articulate their demands. Here’s how:

In Tahrir, the square that has become the focal point for the nationwide struggle against Mubarak’s three-decade dictatorship, groups of protesters have been debating what their precise goals should be in the face of their president’s continuing refusal to stand down.

The Guardian has learned that delegates from these mini-gatherings then come together to discuss the prevailing mood, before potential demands are read out over the square’s makeshift speaker system. The adoption of each proposal is based on the proportion of cheers or boos it receives from the crowd at large.

Delegates have arrived in Tahrir from other parts of the country that have declared themselves liberated from Mubarak’s rule, including the major cities of Alexandria and Suez, and are also providing input into the decisions.

“When the government shut down the web, politics moved on to the street, and that’s where it has stayed,” said one youth involved in the process. “It’s impossible to construct a perfect decision-making mechanism in such a fast-moving environment, but this is as democratic as we can possibly be.” (“Cairo’s biggest protest yet demands Mubarak’s immediate departure,” Guardian, February 5)

From Bolivia to Egypt: Overcoming Death and Fear

As I alternate between interviewing Bolivians about the process of mass collective action that overthrew two neoliberal governments in 2003 and 2005, and watching the unfolding uprising in Egypt by the Internet, I’m doing my best to learn from both situations. For now, here’s one bit of writing describing Bolivia’s 2003 Gas War that seems especially relevant to events in Egypt in 2011:

Hay ocasiones en que la muerte y el miedo son los puntos infranqueables que detienen una insurgencia social frente a las murallas del gobierno. Por eso el Estado necesita monopolizar la coerción legítima pues ésta, que encarna el posible uso de la violencia y muerte en contra de la sociedad, es la garantía última y final de todo orden político constituido. Sin embargo, hay momentos en que la muerte cataliza el ímpetu de la sublevación, en que la muerte es la seña que permite unificar colectividades distanciadas dando pie a un tipo de hermandad extendida en el dolor y el luto. En ese momento la muerte es derrotada por la vitalidad de una sublevación de voluntades sociales llamada insurrección.

There are occasions when death and fear are the insuperable obstacles that stand in the way of a social insurgency outside the walls of government power. For this reason, the State needs to monopolize legitimate coercion, which embodies the possible use of violence and death against the society, since this is the last and final guarantee of every constituted political order.

Nevertheless, there are moments in which death [instead] catalyzes the impetus of the uprising, in which death is the sign under which formerly distant collectivities can unify, giving rise to a sort of extended bortherhood of pain and mourning. In that moment, death is defeated by the vitality of the uprising of social wills that is called insurrection.

—Álvaro García Linera, “La sublevación indígena popular en Bolivia
[The Indigenous Popular Uprising in Bolivia],” 2004

International Day of Action in Defense of Coca Chewing Underway

Massive coca leaf made out of coca leaves
On the plaza, a giant coca leaf made out of coca leaves

Coca growers from the Chapare (Cochabamba Department) and the Yungas (La Paz Department)—Bolivia’s two coca-growing regions—have travelled to Bolivia’s nine departmental capitals today to publicly chew the traditional leaf and to support the Bolivian government campaign to end the UN prohibition on coca chewing. Coca leaves are a traditional crop in the Andes and are both chewed in the mouth and boiled into a tea called mate de coca. Both forms are valued for their medicinal properties and cultural role in Andean culture, particularly the protection they offer against altitude sickness, fatigue, and upset stomachs. Bolivia’s demand that a 1961 UN drugs convention be amended has attracted broad support, including from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and Africa, and several countries that had expressed doubts about the move have been won over. However, the United States—a major cocaine-consuming country and the main international sponsor of Bolivia’s once-heavily-militarized war on drugs—and Sweden continue to block the move. The deadline for changing their position is January 31.

Events in Cochabamba are still underway, but here is an early preview of the gathering in the city’s main square, the Plaza 14 de Septiembre.

 

bagging and sorting coca leaves
Vendors from the May 27 Association bag coca leaves to give away
Marchers with coca plants
Two women from the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba march with young coca plants and bags of coca leaves
TV journalist interviews Leonilda Zurita, president of Coca Growers' Women's Federation

A more complete set of photos from today’s protest is online at flickr.

Bolivia’s anti-racism law at the center of face-off with corporate press

Since August, one issue has generated more headlines here in Bolivia than any other: The Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination, which was debated and passed by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly (aka, the parliament) in late September.

The remarkably short Law 045 is the Bolivian equivalent of more than a generation of civil rights law in the United States. It bans discrimination by public officials and private businessmen, criminalizes verbal and physical aggressions, charters educational efforts on discrimination, creates a national commission on issues of discrimination, and imposes sanctions on the media for circulating “racist ideas.” The scope of the law is broad, including discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language, age, sexual orientation, disability, and pregnancy, among other statuses. A such, it is parallel to American laws from the 1948 integration of the Armed Forces to the 1965 Civil Rights Act to the yet-to-be-passed Employment Non-Discrimination.

So, it would not be shocking if wide range of controversies had emerged over the manifold implications of the law. But this has not occurred. One single controversy, however, has risen to national prominence.

Two articles of the proposed legislation, Articles 16 and 23, have been roundly criticized by the mainstream, privately-owned press. Article 16 makes publications subject to economic fines and even closure for circulating racist ideas. And Article 23 removes any special immunity for members of the press from prosecution under the law. The mainstream press has characterized the articles as the rebirth of a 1980s proposal for prior press censorship, known as the Ley de Mordaza (the Jaws Law, for its ability to crush the press). They led marches across the country as the law was being considered, and coordinated a nationwide protest by in which newspaper covers all read only: “Without freedom of expression, there is no democracy.”

As an (US) American, of course, these provisions are shocking. Our Voltaire (“I detest what you have to say but will defend to the death your right to say it”)-to-American Civil Liberties Union tradition of free speech is, however, a globally extremely tolerant position. (I’ve written before about how our notion of the freedom of the press is, on the other hand, a highly restricted vision of public access to the media, essentially limited by press ownership.) Following the nightmares of World War II, the global human rights regime initiated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drew the line on free expression at racism and incitement to war, which it said should be prohibited. International conventions follow these lines by banning “racist incitement.” Germany bans Nazi parties, advocacy of and apology for genocide, and rallies by the racist right. Several other Latin American countries have restrictions on racist media which include prison terms, unlike the Bolivian law. Both the OAS president and the UN human rights representative who have visited in recent weeks have emphasized that the law is appropriate, although the line between racist incitement and free expression must be scrupulously drawn. They’ve also urged the private press to end their boycott of the rule-making process on the legislation.

Strangely, however, the American standard is irrelevant to the debate here. In three months, I have not heard or read a single defense of free *speech* as opposed to free *press* on these issues. No one is suggesting that criminalizing calling someone an “Indio de mierda” (“shitty Indian”) to their face is inappropriate. (Doing so in the United States would of course ignite a national firestorm over “thought police” and be overturned in short order by any competent Federal Court.) There has been a great deal of concern about whether the a TV station filming and disseminating that act would be liable to prosecution (the government regulations proposed on the issue now make it clear that such reporting of others’ speech will not be subject to sanction).

Aside from marches, the press and many media workers’ unions have used a one-day strike, hunger strikes in Santa Cruz, and an immense petition campaign to oppose the law, which sailed through the MAS-controlled parliament. On November 26, they submitted a sample selection of signatures to Vice President Álvaro García Linera. The press claims to have gathered one million signatures, although they are still being sent to a single place to be verified, and the eight books they handed over only come to some 32 thousand. Which brings us to the current impasse: while the new Constitution permits citizen initiatives as part Bolivian democracy, there is no enabling legislation yet to regulate the process. The press is depending on the moral weight of its gathered signatures (one million is a substantial portion of Bolivia’s 10.6 million inhabitants) to kickstart the initiative process. So far, the government seems resistant. And so, a policy controversy seems about to cross over to a crisis of democracy.

Meanwhile, the mainstream press is not the only voice on this issue. During the debate, a book was published on racism by the press over the last century in Bolivia. This racism runs up through the media’s overt collaboration with (really, rallying for) attacks on indigenous protesters in Cochabamba in January 2007 and Sucre in 2006, 2007, and 2008. The cocalero movement has declared itself on alert in defense of the law, and marched here in Cochabamba. And a stream of “alternative media” which includes indigenous radio producers, radical working-class publications, and (strangely given the name) workers in the government-owned media, has taken a distinct position calling for professional standards and arguing that racism and free expression are fundamentally different. They’ve also used the anti-racism law as an opportunity to argue for systematic coverage of indigenous issues and use of indigenous languages in the media.

For me, this storyline is a fascinating instance of public debate in the process of rights-making, an opportunity to see the shape of the Bolivian legislating process (very little of which takes place inside the walls of the Legislative Assembly), and another turn in the kaleidoscope of political alliances here in Bolivia. It’s also forcing me to reconsider (although not yet change) my ideas of what free expression is. I’ve conducted some interesting brief interviews with the alternative press on this, and hope to delve more as the story develops.

Potosí isolated by 12-day regional protest

[There is, as of today, rising hope for negotiations to begin between the Government and Potosinos (and for three-way dialogue with Oruro on the border issue to take place as well) soon. More on that soon. This post comes as written yesterday. Also, I added a little bit on Pablo Solón’s comments on Democracy Now at the end.]

A department-wide general strike in Potosí department, Bolivia’s traditional mining center, has entered its thirteenth day today, with no clear end in sight. The strike is now taking three major forms: a comprehensive blockade of transport in and out of the department, a general closure of businesses by both their workers and owners, and a growing hunger strike reported at more than 500 people on Sunday. The mobilization was backed by a remarkable show of unity on last Tuesday, August 3, when some 100,000 people marched in the city of Potosí in support of the effort. The number is phenomenal relative to the city’s population of 160,000, and even the department’s of some 700,000.

The systematic isolation of the department has made it impossible for me to visit the protests, once it became clear (with the march) just how significant this event is. Hundreds of trucks and buses are lined up at the various entrances to the department. As of Sunday, the Governor of Chuquisaca was mobilizing food and supplies to people stranded on the border.

Potosinos in protest are coordinated by the Civic Committee of Potosí, a coordinating committee of major institutions. Other key actors include the community of Coroma (part of which is in territory also claimed by a neighboring community in the department of Oruro), the Federation of Cooperative Miners, and since the massive march, major politicians including Governor Félix Gonzales (MAS). Gonzales and four Potosino members of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly (formerly, the National Congress) are at the head of the hunger strike.

Compared to the mobilization, the demands are quite modest:

  1. Delimitation of the inter-departmental border between Quillacas (Oruro) and Coromo (Potosí), which centers around control over limestone resources in the area
  2. Installation of a cement plant in the Coroma region, using those resources
  3. Reactivation of the metallurgy plant in Karachipampa, currently suspended due to a legal conflict among two companies
  4. Preservation of the Cerro Rico, the massive mining mountain just outside the city of Potosí, whose structural future is in jeopardy after five centuries of mining
  5. Construction of an international airport for Potosí as soon as possible
  6. Completion of delayed highway projects

The protests seemed to have expanded as rapidly as they did because in the first week the national government insisted, primarily through its Minister of Autonomy Carlos Romero, that they were a purely partisan effort in defense of Potosí Mayor René Joaquino (see ). This added to a sense of indignation at being ignored by a MAS government to which they have supplied an overwhelming vote for the past five years. Their sense of being slighted has rebounded into the chant (heard at a solidarity march of Potosinos here, as well) of “Potosí Federal,” a call for devolving power to the region. (This is clearly not a demand of the mobilization, however, and it’s unclear how such a demand would differ from the departmental autonomy approved by referendum in December, and soon to be delimited by a Statute of Autonomy.) Comcipo leader Celestino Condori emphasized a new sense of unity on the day of the march, “We’d like to demonstrate to the government that in Potosí, there is unity, among Moors and Christians; everyone is changing their polleras [traditional indigenous women’s dress] to put on the red and white which are the colors of the Potosino flag.” In action, this is taking the form of a wide variety of hunger strike pickets led by different organizations, and since the weekend, spreading to other cities in Bolivia.

Currently, the impasse blocking negotiations concerns where and how they might take place. As with movements across the continent (and using good strategic sense), the Potosí movement has demanded to negotiate at their place of strength, while the pressure of mobilization is on. On the other hand, the Morales government is insisting that discussion of border must occur in neutral territory and that no negotiations can take place without an intermediate truce that suspends mechanisms of pressure. On the question of territory, they are backed up by concerns that Oruro might mobilize as well if discussions began on non-neutral ground. Oruro’s civil society placed themselves in a “state of emergency,” preparing to mobilize last weekend.

In a broader sense, this mobilization is one of a growing number of signs that MAS allies (and members, such as the governor) are moving to pressure the national government over particular demands, making Evo Morales’ second administration a period of serious conflict, though of a very different kind than the years of confrontation with the right-wing of the media luna. It also is an early sign that the new autonomy in the western departments will come with genuine political independence on the part of regional leaders.

Incompetent English-language coverage: As a side note, this central political story in the last week here in Bolivia is being described to the English-speaking world by reporters who can only be described as myopically focused on the lives of wealthy foreign tourists and stunningly ignorant of local realities. Local realities such as the front page stories of every single national newspaper. Associated Press, I’m talking about you. Here, in its entirety is Saturday’s AP story on the Potosí situation:

Protest traps tourists in Bolivian highland city

(AP) – 1 day ago

LA PAZ, Bolivia — A protest by Bolivian miners has trapped more than 100 mostly European tourists in the southern Bolivia mining city of Potosi for more than a week.

The protesters piled rocks on the runway of the Potosi airport Friday to prevent a plane from landing to pick up some of the foreign tourists.

The miners have also blocked roads into the area for 10 days.

Also trapped are about 500 Bolivians, and local media say the blockade is beginning to cause food shortages in the city of 200,000 people.

The miners have a series of grievances with the government, including a demand to reactivate mines that officials ordered closed and to settle land disputes. (“Protest traps tourists in Bolivian highland city,” The Associated Press)

I’ve highlighted in red things that are basically wrong, or reflect the listening-to-other media’s-stories as reporting that seems to have gone into this story, filed from La Paz. As noted above, cooperative miners are one of many groups that have folded into the department-wide protest. There are substantial reports of Bolivians being stranded, but descriptions of around five hundred people refer to people on vehicles waiting to get in to the region. “The area” is actually the Department of Potosí, which has one “land dispute” on the table, its border with Oruro. The only mine under discussion in the demands is the Cerro Rico, whose structural instability could result in the closure of mining, under a review currently underway and encouraged by UNESCO, which maintains the mountain (as well as the city) on its World Heritage list. For details of the actual airport incident, which did involve miners, you can see this article in Spanish. For consolation on the ability of English reporters to competently discuss life in Bolivia, see this piece from Agence France Presse: Protesters seize Bolivia airfield, seal off Potosi.

Pablo Solón on Democracy Now: Potosí got a sliver of further US media coverage today with the mention of the protest made by Amy Goodman while interviewing Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations Pablo Solón. Amy’s question got to the heart of the protest: “The demonstrators are calling for more investment by the Bolivian government in the lithium-rich area.” And Solón basically dodged her question by talking about borders and not development commitment. It’s hard not to be sympathetic with him having to explain this issue alongside the other awesome work he’s doing, which the interview does a good job of describing.