by Bill Weinberg, AlterNet

With the crisis in Tibet, the left in the US finds itself once again at risk of losing precious moral credibility with the American people by apologizing for atrocities. If “Free Tibet” has become an unthinking bandwagon for many, so too has a kneejerk reaction from sectors of the radical left against the Tibetan struggle.

Over the past two months since the March 10 uprising, the Chinese security forces have carried out sweeps and “disappearances,” occupied monasteries and villages, and opened fire on unarmed protesters. When such actions are carried out by US allies such as Israel or Colombia—or in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan—we don’t have to ask ourselves whose side we are on. Like the Palestinians, the Tibetans have been pushed into exile, denied self-government in their homeland, and overwhelmed with settlers sent by the occupying power. We have a greater responsibility of solidarity to the Palestinians, because our government funds their oppression. But the fact that US imperialism is attempting to exploit their struggle does not mean we have no responsibilities to the Tibetans.

Tibet will especially need solidarity from anti-imperialists in the West if it is to avoid becoming a pawn in the Great Game for control of Asia. The US exploits the Tibetan movement for moral leverage against China (which has as its ultimate aims market penetration and military domestication, not Tibetan freedom), but is not going to risk a complete break with Beijing by supporting Tibet to the ultimate consequences. The CIA backed a small Tibetan insurgency in the ’50s—then did nothing as it was brutally crushed. The worst of the repression was in 1956—the same year the Hungarian workers learned a similarly bitter lesson. The Iraqi Kurds would also learn it in the aftermath of Desert Storm.

Today, the National Endowment for Democracy provides funds for Tibetan human-rights groups in exile, and the Dalai Lama has met with Bush and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. It pains us to see the Dalai Lama cozying up to Washington—just as it should pain us to see Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez cozying up to Beijing. However, there are reasons behind such alliances. Bolivia and Venezuela need a non-US market for their hydrocarbons if they are to break free of the US orbit. The Tibetans perceive that they need powerful allies if they are to recover their homeland and right of self-determination. Leftist betrayal of the Tibetan struggle will only entrench whatever illusions the Tibetan exile leadership harbor about US intentions.

The Dalai Lama is not demanding independence for Tibet. He wants autonomy for Tibet within a unified People’s Republic of China. His demand is essentially the same as that of the Zapatistas, who seek local Maya autonomy within Mexico. He calls for coexistence with Han Chinese. Hardliners in the exile community in India—especially in the Tibetan Youth Congress—are rapidly losing patience with such tolerant positions, as Beijing remains intransigent. Again, a betrayal of Tibetan solidarity by progressives in the West will only validate the hardline stance.

We must also realize that the US-China tensions are about imperial rivalry only (and especially the scramble for Africa’s oil)—not ideology. China is not communist in anything other than name. Some of the most savage capitalism on earth prevails in the so-called “People’s Republic.” The lands of peasants are expropriated in sleazy deals for industrial projects and the vulgar mansions of the nouveau riche—leading to a wave of harsh repression against peasant communities over the past few years. Especially in the industrial heartland around Fujian, peasants have taken up farm implements against police in militant protests over the enclosure and pollution of their village lands. The state has struck back with sweeps, “disappearances” and programs of forced sterilization—the same tactics US client states use in Latin America. In “illegal” factories—which do not exist on paper but are encouraged by corrupt authorities—workers don’t even have the minimum social security or wages, and labor in virtual servitude. Shantytowns have sprung up around the industrial cities of the northeast. The fruits of this hyper-exploitation are sold to US consumers at WalMart.

Despite the recent tensions, the Beijing bureaucracy has embraced the methods and ideology of the US “war on terror,” and joined Washington in demonizing the Uighur self-determination struggle in China’s far western Xinjiang province, known to the Muslim Uighurs as East Turkestan. The US added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement to the “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” list in a bid to win China’s connivance with military action against Iraq at the UN in 2002. In March of this year, with the world’s eyes on Tibet, China also put down a wave of Uighur protests in Xinjiang—while the US holds Uighur militants at Guantanamo.

Whatever we thought about Chinese communism, it is long gone. Mao is being de-emphasized in the school textbooks—and he is chiefly celebrated for giving China the nuclear bomb, not for leading a peasants’ revolution. The Beijing bureaucracy may rule in the name of a Chinese Communist Party, but it arguably has more in common with Pinochet’s model than Mao’s. If under Mao, Han chauvinism was linked to an ultra-left ideology, today it is linked to ultra-capitalism. Tibet is turned into a Disney-fied Tibetland for the international tourism trade—even as journalists are barred, and the inhabitants are relocated into government-controlled (and Orwellianly-named) “socialist villages.”

A March 18 AP shot by photographer Ng Han Guan said it all: Wen Jiabao’s giant face spews forth anti-Tibet invective from a screen overlooking a Beijing mall—directly above a McDonald’s golden-arches symbol.

Tibet could explode again during the Beijing Olympics, and progressives in the West will have to determine whose side they are on. It is important that we not be drawn into an ethnic divide-and-conquer strategy. One reason China’s rulers are so intransigent on Tibet could be the potential for an alliance between the Tibetans and Han Chinese workers and peasants against the Beijing bureaucracy.

Indigenous peoples around the world instinctively understand the Tibetan struggle. They see in Tibet their own struggles for recovery of land and autonomy. When Chilean president Michelle Bachelet opposed a measure by her congress in support of Tibet, a solidarity website for Chile’s Mapuche people commented: “The government of Bachelet…know that they have their own Mapcuhe Tibet.” First Nations leaders in Canada have threatened to launch a Tibet-style protest campaign around the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “We find the Tibetan situation compelling,” said Phil Fontaine, chief of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations.

If we are going to speak up on these and other such struggles in our own hemisphere, tactical considerations as well as moral imperatives demand that we not remain silent now about Tibet—or loan comfort to its oppressors and occupiers.


Bill Weinberg is editor of the online journal World War 4 Report and author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso 2000).

This article first appeared May 14 on AlterNet.


Dalai Lama statement on the current crisis, April 6, 2008

Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy

Tibetan Youth Congress

Uyghur Human Rights Project

AP photo on Wen’s McCommunism

From our daily report:

China arrests Tibetan nuns in Sichuan
WW4 Report, May 22, 2008

US defends detention of Uighurs at Gitmo; China defends detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang
WW4 Report, April 6, 2008

China: repression follows peasant protests over reproductive rights
WW4 Report, May 26, 2007


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, June 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution



by Thaddeus al Nakba, Upside Down World

Guatemala has received much attention over recent violence and the impunity enjoyed by its perpetrators. Some organizations state that almost 15 people are murdered daily in Guatemala, mostly in the capital. These numbers are often compared to the levels of violence during the 36-year civil war in Guatemala (1961–1996). However, what many analysts forget to mention is that during the nearly four decades of internal armed conflict, the vast majority of the violence occurred under the brutal dictatorships of Efraín Ríos Montt and Romeo Lucas Garcia (1980–1983). These four years saw a military campaign of genocide perpetrated against the indigenous Maya populations. To compare the present with this past is unfair to the victims and survivors of the genocide. Thus far, only one perpetrator has been successfully prosecuted. The current situation of impunity has roots in the violence of the past. Guatemala will never be able to solve problems of the present without first addressing the violence of the past.

Judge Opens Suspended Court Case for RĂ­o Negro Massacre

What crime did the women and children commit?
– Juan, 25 March 2008

On December 19, 2007, a landmark legal trial commenced in Salamá, Baja Verapaz, when a local judge announced the continuation of a case suspended since October of 2004, charging six former members of the Xococ Civil Defense Patrol (PAC) with murder for their roles in the March 13, 1982 massacre of 177 women and children from RĂ­o Negro. The six accused are being charged by the Guatemalan state-appointed public prosecutor (Ministerio Publico) and by a local war survivors’ organization, the Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of the Violence Maya AchĂ­ (ADIVIMA).

Previously, in the same court case, three leaders of the Xococ PAC were sentenced to death in October 1999, later commuted to 50 years imprisonment, for their roles in the massacre. It has marked the only time in which Guatemalan military or paramilitary men responsible for the violence during the scorched-earth campaigns under dictators Romeo Lucas Garcia and EfraĂ­n RĂ­os Montt have been convicted in a court of law. This despite the hundreds of massacres committed and tens of thousands of innocent indigenous people murdered during the regimes.

Since the reopening of the court case, the six accused have given their declarations and have been cross-examined by the prosecution and defense. According to ADIVIMA’s lawyer, Edgar PerĂ©z, the accused attempted to paint a picture of their subordination to the Army and Commander [JosĂ© Antonio] Solares. Essentially, they said in their declarations that they only followed orders. Some even claimed they never arrived in RĂ­o Negro, despite witness testimonies negating this claim.

RĂ­o Negro be Dammed
The majority of the witnesses in the RĂ­o Negro massacre currently call Pacux “home.” Pacux is a “model village” (also called “strategic hamlet” and “pole of development”) set up by the Guatemalan army and the National Institute of Electricity (INDE) for the residents transplanted by the large reservoir created by the mega-project known as the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam. The state never truly consulted the 23 affected communities throughout the planning and development stages, despite embarking on the project as early as 1975. It certainly never asked for their permission.

Through the influence of INDE, army incursions began almost immediately in communities to be affected by the mega-project. Supporters expected to profit immediately from the endeavor. The goal was simple: Get the people out as quickly as possible. The first massacre in RĂ­o Negro occurred as early as March 4, 1980, when a military policeman acting as a security guard for the dam opened fire on a crowd of campesinos protesting his presence in the region. Seven protestors were killed. The INDE security guard was lynched.

Army and state violence and terror only increased in the aftermath, especially against leaders of campesino organizations opposed to the project. The military often used the excuse of looking for the lynched soldier’s weapons when they raided houses and kidnapped outspoken residents, who were later found dead or remained missing. In fact, four months after the massacre, two leaders of the community, Evaristo Osorio and Valeriano Osorio Chen, went missing as they headed for a meeting in the capital with INDE officials. With them they carried their only copies of official documents of the promised compensation by INDE for the residents. They had previously handed over the property titles of the residents to INDE officials. Their bodies were found later with evidence of torture. The documents were stolen and INDE denied ever receiving the land titles.

The Guatemalan army and INDE labeled the rural Maya AchĂ­ people of RĂ­o Negro “subversives” and “guerillas” due to their refusal to be forcefully relocated for the dam. RĂ­o Negro residents quickly learned that not only would INDE and the Army not respect their civil rights; any democratic resistance to their displacement would only be met with terror and violence.

Most RĂ­o Negro residents attempted to avoid the increasing state terror by fleeing their ancestral homeland to other regions. This usually entailed resettlement to Pacux, with its cramped houses and poor, arid land provided by INDE in its “agreement” with the people. But when the residents saw the true conditions of life in Pacux, combined with INDE’s refusal to meet its part in the compensatory agreement with the affected residents, resistance only continued.

The state responded with four massacres in an eight-month period in 1982, which killed at least 440 RĂ­o Negro residents, the vast majority of the population (Historical Clarification Commission-CEH. Annex I: Book I. Illustrative Case No. 10: “Massacre and Elimination of the Community of RĂ­o Negro”).

When all residents were either dead, hiding in the mountains, or resettled in the military colony of Pacux, the construction of the hydroelectric dam began as planned, with the financial support and tacit approval of the “international community.” Throughout the violence directed at the Maya AchĂ­ population in RĂ­o Negro, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank continued financing the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam until as late as 1985.

Scorched Earth and Genocide
The state violence directed at the Maya AchĂ­ people of RĂ­o Negro, Rabinal, Baja Verapaz was not an isolated policy in the region. The Guatemalan Foundation of Forensic Anthropology (FAFG) estimated that between September of 1981 and August of 1983 there were 5,000 extra-judicial assassinations by the Guatemalan military and its death squads out of 22,753 registered people living in the Rabinal municipality. Of the over one-fifth of the population murdered in the 28 massacres in Rabinal, it is estimated by the UN-sponsored truth commission, la ComisiĂłn de Esclarecimiento HistĂłrico (CEH), that 99.8% were indigenous Maya AchĂ­.

On a national level, the State campaigns were also directed almost exclusively at the indigenous Maya populations of the Guatemalan highlands during the scorched-earth campaigns of the early 1980s under dictators Montt and Garcia. The CEH revealed that the majority of the 626 massacres committed in rural Mayan villages during the 36-year internal armed conflict were executed under these two brutal military regimes.

According to the CEH, some of the alarming results of the 36-year civil war included: 150,000 refugees in Mexico; 1.5 million internally displaced; 50,000 disappeared; and over 200,000 killed. Of the over 200,000 civilian murders, the CEH estimated that 132,000 were committed under the scorched-earth campaigns of Garcia and Montt. In their 1999 report, “Guatemalan Memory of Silence,” the CEH placed 93% of the blame in the hands of the Guatemalan army and its death squads and declared the state-sponsored violence against the indigenous Maya people to be “genocide.”

March 13, 1982: Desert March to Pacoxom
One of the most horrific consequences of the state violence against indigenous Mayan peoples occurred on March 13, 1982 in Río Negro. According to witnesses, at around 6 AM no less than 10 Guatemalan army soldiers, accompanied by 50 Xococ civil patrollers and military commissioners, invaded the small fishing and farming village of Río Negro. The battalion entered residents’ homes, carrying an array of weapons, including Israeli Galil assault rifles.

Once inside the homes, the armed militia demanded to know where the men were hiding and the guns stashed. There were no men in RĂ­o Negro that day. The patrollers tied up the women and beat them when they replied that the men had previously been killed in the February 13 massacre of 74 people attempting to collect their confiscated identification documents in Xococ. Some of the soldiers and patrollers raped the younger women inside their own homes while others dragged the residents out of their houses and led them to a local school, promising them a party.

Once the residents were forcefully gathered at the school, soldiers and patrollers led some of the women and children to nearby abandoned houses and gang-raped them. The patrollers and soldiers especially targeted young girls who had not yet given birth since they were considered “pure.” They also specifically targeted pregnant mothers and small children, especially if they complained of hunger, thirst, or exhaustion. The armed men had previously ransacked the houses and taken the residents’ food.

Many of the hostages and their captors waited at the school while the last of the residents were rounded up. When everyone was captured, the troops led them to a trail headed towards a mountaintop known by locals as Pacoxom. On the trail, some of the captives rested at a large nance tree, where one of the first recorded murders took place. Two Army soldiers brutally assaulted 94-year-old Andrés Iboy Uscap. They kicked him in the chest, wrapped him in a costal (coffee sack), and threw him into a deep ravine. According to witness testimonies, after the murder of Iboy, most captives understood their fate.

After their brief stay, the women and children continued walking along the path in a column heavily guarded in front and back by soldiers and patrollers. Most of the RĂ­o Negro residents were forced to walk to a large conacaste tree, about one mile from the school. While waiting at the tree for the arrival of the rest of the battalion, the armed squadron took out a stolen cassette player and played marimba music. According to one witness, the soldiers forced the women to dance, saying: “Now you are going to dance, like you have danced for the guerrillas.” The soldiers and patrollers next grabbed young girls out of the group and raped them.

Throughout the entire two-mile hike along the path to Pacoxom, under the sweltering sun with no shade, the hostages continually asked for water and food. The armed men responded by beating and whipping the women and children with sticks and ropes. Some of the hostages were tied up and mocked for their misery during the hike. Some of the raped girls were forced to walk naked. Witnesses spoke of both internal and external scars from the physical and emotional abuse directed at them by the patrollers, including the six men now accused of the crime. According to one testimony recorded by the CEH, “the majority of the women were naked, raped, and there were women who were only days away from giving birth, but these babies were born purely from blows.” (CEH, Book III, p. 31).

March 13, 1982: Massacre at Pacoxom
When the captives finally reached the mountaintop of Pacoxom in the scorching sun of the early afternoon, there was no food or water to be found—at least for the suffering Río Negro residents. Instead, soldiers dynamited and forced the women to dig into the rocky soil with pickaxes, creating a large hole centered in the small ravine. When the armed battalion was satisfied with its size, they turned their energy towards the defenseless civilians.

Army soldiers and Xococ patrollers separated the women into two groups. One group was organized into mothers and their young children; the other into older girls and young women not carrying babies. To ensure no one would escape, the perimeter was well guarded and many hostages tied up.

After insulting and torturing the civilians with clubs and whips made of tree branches and rope, the massacre began. All of the Río Negro residents were made to lie down on the ground, faced down, so that they could not witness the atrocities taking place around them. The men took women and girls out of the groups, usually four at a time, and brutally raped them, sometimes torturing and beating them unconscious if they weren’t deemed virgins. Afterwards they were slain.

The mass execution lasted hours. As it continued, the aggressors didn’t bother hiding the slaughter and permitted the children to watch their sisters and mothers raped and murdered. Throughout the massacre, the valley below echoed with the shouts, cries, and pleas of the women and children being insulted, tortured, raped, and murdered by their executioners. Witnesses hiding in the mountains verified this at the trial.

One witness, JesĂşs Tecu, described how one of the PAC leaders, the convicted Pedro Gonzalez GĂłmez, wanted to kill a young mother, Vicenta Iboy Chen, and became enraged when she tried to protect herself by throwing a rock in his direction. According to Tecu, Gonzalez took out his machete “and gave her two swings to her back” where she carried her baby. “Half fell to the ground, with the other half still wrapped around the back of its mother.” Vicenta fell to the ground where he “gave her two more machete blows to the neck.”

In February of 2008, Tecu also described the actions of another patroller, the accused Pablo Ruiz Alvarado:

He had one woman, Tomasa, faced down, with the rope fastened around her neck in the form of a tourniquet… but she didn’t die and her body quivered. So he killed her and continued beating her with a garrote, like she was a savage animal… Then he took her by the feet and dragged her to the ravine…

One of the other accused, the PAC leader Francisco Alvarado Lajuj, earned the nickname “don Quebrado” (the Severer) for his viciousness in killing innocent women and children in RĂ­o Negro. Their methods were so brutal that rumors circulated around the region that the Xococ patrollers licked the blood of their victims from their machetes.

Through witness testimonies and forensic evidence gathered at the Pacoxom exhumation, the variety of murder methods during the large-scale massacre has been well documented. Most of the young women and girls were killed by strangulation with rope and garrotes, by decapitation with machete blades, by blows to the head with sticks and clubs, or by bullets to the head with firearms. According to witnesses and forensic anthropologists at the trial, almost all of the young children were hung, beaten, bludgeoned by machete, shot, or had their feet tied together and were flung against jagged rocks and tree stumps.

After the executions, the bodies were thrown down a small ravine. According to some of the younger witnesses, a number of the victims were still alive, gargling blood and quivering when they landed on top of other bodies in the makeshift grave. The ravine was filled with bodies of the women and children by 5 pm. According to witnesses who arrived in the aftermath while hiding in the mountains, the dogs ate many of the remains before they could be covered with dirt.

At least three people escaped the butchery after their capture. Bruna left her 4-month-old baby, Jesusa, near her mother and successfully evaded her captors by running from the shots fired by the Army and the PAC. She hid for months in the forest. On March 5, 2008, she described her interaction with her mother and her thoughts of her fateful decision to flee:

[I said] “Mama. How it hurts, mama, what they are doing… Mama, I don’t want to die like this. I´m going to flee…” So I asked my mom to stay with my baby, but she didn’t want to receive her. I dropped her on the ground because she wouldn’t take her… And I fled… I still think of my girl, but I didn’t want to die…

Slavery in Xococ
After the mass execution, the Xococ patrollers carried 18 children as “virtual slaves” to their homes in Xococ. Some of the captives were as young as four years old. Many of the young children who were carried to Xococ survived because their mothers influenced their executioners to carry their sons and daughters away in order to raise them as their own. Most of the patrollers obliged, but only after executing the youngsters’ mothers in front of their eyes. One witness, JosĂ©, recalls one terrible incident during his March 6 testimony:

My mom was already dead. So I began walking towards RĂ­o Negro, but was intercepted by a patroller… There was still the screaming of women and children and gunshots of the patrollers and soldiers… At 5:00 everything went silent. Everyone [from the PAC] selected their kid to carry to their houses, but one child was not elected… JesĂşs tried to bring his little brother [Jaime] but a patroller [Pedro Gonzalez Gomez] grabbed him out of his arms and tied a rope around his neck and carried him like that. He then threw him in the ravine against the rocks.

Along the path to Xococ, the children heard PAC members openly bragging about how many women and children they had killed. Meanwhile, the young captives remembered how they were hungry, thirsty, and tired during their forced trek. The young hostages recalled in detail how they did not eat until they arrived early the next morning in Xococ. According to the witnesses there was a meal prepared for all of the combatants, including Commander Solares, at the Catholic Church in Xococ, site of the February 13 massacre.

Adjusting to life in Xococ was extremely difficult for the young children of RĂ­o Negro. The kidnapped children were dispersed throughout the village, often living with the murderers of their family members. The children were depressed and had difficulties eating and sleeping due to their trauma. The Xococ patrollers arbitrarily changed many of their names and often instructed them to call them “mom” and “dad.” They weren’t allowed to go to school, and even the youngest were forced to labor in the fields or the house like adults. The Xococ families treated the children cruelly, beating and torturing them at a moments notice. One witness even showed his scars to prove the torture he endured.

While living with their “new” families in Xococ, RĂ­o Negro witnesses recalled how the accused and other Xococ patrollers returned to RĂ­o Negro shortly after the massacre to carry off “war booty,” such as animals, personal possessions, and other things of value. The Xococ PAC members often sold the animals or clothing in nearby markets or gave some of the goods to the military leaders in the Rabinal military detachment. One witness told the court how she was beaten in her Xococ home when she started to cry after seeing her murdered family members’ clothing being carried off to nearby markets.

Younger witnesses remembered how the men often had their wives pack food for them in the early morning so that they could go on “trips.” Witnesses remembered the men leaving for such “trips” on the morning of May 14 and September 14, the days of the massacres in nearby Los Encuentros and Agua FrĂ­a, where many refugees from RĂ­o Negro had fled.

When the men returned from their “trips” they often held meetings in their homes where the RĂ­o Negro children lived. Witnesses remember the men congratulating one another on their missions and then communicating with the military commissioners and local army commanders. One witnesses recalled being saddened after one of the accused bragged about decimating the community of Agua FrĂ­a. The witness had family members who had taken refuge there. At least 92 civilians were burned in their houses or shot on September 14 in Agua FrĂ­a, while on the same day, in the community of Los Encuentros, 79 people were murdered with guns and grenades and dozens more carried away in an army helicopter never to be seen again. Most of the victims were RĂ­o Negro residents attempting to escape the violence.

Many witnesses choked down tears as they described their time in Xococ as an absolute nightmare. Many lived for up to four years as virtual slaves in Xococ before being rescued by real family members living in the military colony of Pacux.

In 1999, the UN-sponsored truth commission, la ComisiĂłn de Esclarecimiento HistĂłrico (CEH), declared that the five massacres of RĂ­o Negro residents and the extrajudicial and arbitrary assassinations of residents following the massacres demonstrated the cruel intention of the Guatemalan army to displace or obliterate the community of RĂ­o Negro. It further stated that the state’s intention to fully or partially destroy the residents and community of RĂ­o Negro was genocide, under Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CEH 1999: Conclusions, Chapter II: pp. 108-123).

The real architects of the repression, the assassinations, the violence, and the massacres of Río Negro and of other indigenous communities have not been charged with any crime. None of the military officials who planned, ordered, or participated in the massacres of Río Negro have had to face any court of law. Captain Solares and his commanders have not been arrested, despite a warrant issued in April of 2003. According to ADIVIMA, Solares continues to collect his pension check from the Guatemalan military at his house outside of Salamá, Baja Verapaz.

Neither Romeo Lucas Garcia nor EfraĂ­n Rios Montt, the architects of the scorched-earth campaigns during the early 1980s that resulted in hundreds of massacres of indigenous Maya communities similar to what took place in RĂ­o Negro, have had to give declarations in a court of law, despite two genocide cases against their high commands.

The Guatemalan state has thus far ignored its own culpability and responsibility in the massacres of RĂ­o Negro. The state-owned energy company, INDE, responsible for implementing the resettlement of affected residents and of other compensatory agreements, never fulfilled its promises after the written contract and land titles were conveniently stolen from the community during the violence. INDE, since privatized, has essentially ignored its commitment to the people.

Neither the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, nor the dozens of international governments on the boards that approved financing the mega-project, have had to pay any compensation or face any charges for their complicity in the massacre of innocents.

That’s not to say no justice has been served. Eight indigenous Maya AchĂ­ men (the convicted Carlos Chen LĂłpez died of diabetes), perpetrators of one of the worst massacres during the scorched-earth campaigns of dictators Montt and Garcia, live in their Guatemalan prison cells.

However, the real leaders of the massacre and other massacres throughout the country enjoy the comfort of Guatemalan impunity. Many of the RĂ­o Negro victims believe this is because they aren’t indigenous Maya. JesĂşs Tecu declared in his closing statement on February 19 in the current legal trial: “There is only justice carried out against the indigenous people accused… [F]or those who are the material authors of these crimes, there’s nothing.”

Some of the names of the witnesses were changed due to reasons of security. The testimonies were translated and transcribed to the best of the author’s abilities.


Thaddeus al Nakba is an international human rights accompanier for the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA).This article is dedicated to the RĂ­o Negro victims and their families, including little Jesusa.

This story first appeared May 7 on Upside Down World.

From our daily report:

Guatemala: convictions in RĂ­o Negro massacre
WW4 Report, June 1, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, June 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution



Struggle for a “Social-Public” Sector

by Susan Spronk, Upside Down World

In the month of February, an unusual plight fell upon the city of La Paz. Torrential rains that hit the region ruptured the water main that services the wealthiest zone of the city, leaving the residents of the Zona Sur without water for several days. While it is common for residents in poor barrios not to have access to piped water, upper and middle class residents are accustomed to hearing the gush of clean, running water every time they open the tap. Seeking someone to blame, gold-ringed fingers pointed immediately to the “incompetent” management of the public water company, resurrecting debates about privatization put temporarily to rest by the “Water Wars” of 2000 and 2005.

Bolivia has played a starring role in the history of neoliberal water privatization. Images from the Cochabamba Water War—the popular insurrection against the multinational water company run by American construction giant Bechtel in April 2000—have been beamed into screens and television sets across the planet. The defeat of Bechtel is widely credited as the first great victory against corporate globalization in Latin America. The demand for public water that emerged in the Cochabamba Valley eventually diffused to El Alto, the poor city neighboring La Paz, where a three-day civil strike organized by local neighborhood organizations in January 2005 forced then-President Carlos Mesa to cancel the contract with French multinational, Suez. Because of these struggles, the world has also looked to Bolivia for alternatives to privatization.

Eight years after Bolivia’s first Water War, however, the unsatisfactory performance of the two water companies that were returned to public control raises questions about the viability of the public-state alternative in “weak” states of the global South.

Moving beyond the Privatization Debate
In the 1990s, two opposing positions on the question of private sector participation emerged within the literature on the water sector: those who embraced private sector participation and those who defended state forms of ownership and control. The trouble with this debate is that it presents “public” (read: state) and “private” forms of provision as polar opposites. In Bolivia, water justice activists have articulated a third position which suggests that the “public”/”private” debate misses the point. According to this view, the barriers that impede access of the poor to water services—poverty and political powerlessness—are likely to persist whether the water company is publicly or privately owned. It is therefore not enough to simply return water to public hands.

Given the poor performance of many public water companies, water justice activists in Bolivia stress the importance of collective ownership and popular democracy as the means by which to improve utilities. As Oscar Olivera, one of the spokespersons from the Bolivian water justice movement argues, “the true opposite of privatization is the social re-appropriation of wealth by working-class society itself—self-organized in communal structures of management, in neighborhood associations, in unions, and in the rank and file.”

As of yet, however, the water justice movement in Bolivia has come short of achieving its goals of democratizing the water companies based upon this notion of communal ownership and control. Indeed, the struggle for “social control” within the renationalized water utilities in La Paz-El Alto and Cochabamba have provoked the negative reactions of key power holders in the local political economy, including international financial institutions, and the municipal and central governments that have impeded progress.

The New Water Company in La Paz-El Alto

While the government promised to cancel the privatization contract in the neighboring cities of La Paz and El Alto in January 2005, it took over two years for the government to follow through. The key stumbling block was the government’s fear that Suez, the French multinational that controlled the private consortia, would retaliate with a multi-million dollar lawsuit in an international investment court, similar to the one launched by Bechtel in 2002. After two years of closed-door negotiations, the government gave Suez a golden handshake and formed a temporary water company, called “EPSAS”, to take its place.

In the sweetheart deal signed in January 2007, the Bolivian state paid Suez and other shareholders US$5.5 million to compensate them for their lost investments. The government also assumed at least US$9.5 million of company debts owed to agencies such as the International Financial Corporation (the private sector lending arm of the World Bank), the Inter-American Development Bank and the Andean Development Corporation. Half of the company’s income now goes to paying debt, which has seriously impeded the cash flow.

Hence, the company had difficulty coming up with the money to make emergency reparations to solve the water problems of the Zona Sur in February. In short, having already sucked the company dry, Suez has no need to go to launch a lawsuit in international court: It has already been compensated for financial “damages” despite the fact that it made at least US$1.5 million per year during the course of the contract, plus being paid another $1 million “management fee” by the local consortium.

The EPSAS is intended to be a transitory company, but the deadline by which time it was to be replaced passed some months ago. The government struck an inter-institutional commission, which includes participation by FEJUVEs (Federation of Neighborhood Councils) in La Paz and El Alto, the two mayors, and representatives from the Water Ministry, to evaluate proposals for a new water company. As time has passed, the FEJUVE-El Alto, which was once the most militant member of the commission, has lost much of its steam.

Shortly after the water war, the FEJUVE-El Alto proposed a model for a “public-social company” with a very high level of popular participation, including a popular assembly with elected delegates from all regions of the city which would formulate the policy of the water company. Facing pressure from the mayors of La Paz and El Alto and international donor agencies—all of whom favor the formation of a public-private partnership—the proposal has slowly transformed into a “light” version with a minimal level of public participation. According to Felipe Quispe (no relation to the Aymara leader, “el Mallku”), the representative of the FEJUVE-El Alto on the commission, the FEJUVE-El Alto now has a rather minimal demand: that one representative from each neighborhood organization is included on the board of directors of the new water company.

While political pressure from politicians and donor agencies is partly to blame for the FEJUVE’s decision to water down the proposal, it is also the result of internal strife that has considerably weakened the organization’s capacity for collective action since the election of the left-of-center Movement toward Socialism (the MAS) in December 2005. As a long-time observer of Bolivia social movements, Raquel GutiĂ©rrez observed in a recent interview that social movements in Latin American countries in which left governments like the MAS have been elected are “in a bit of a gray moment.” She provides two reasons for the uncertainty which prevails amongst community leaders: “One, the governments in power and the policies that they are implementing are perceived by practically everyone as insufficient. Two, the movement’s struggles, and the emergence of what seemed like a new form of politics, of direct participation, of assembly, of a horizontal process of gaining consensus via extensive, multi-level deliberation, of virtually holding our own destiny in our hands, hit a wall.”

The politics of cooptation related to hierarchical political structures have also affected the FEJUVE-El Alto. The MAS appointed Abel Mamani as the head of the newly created Water Ministry in January 2006. Upon his appointment, Manami was immediately criticized for using the organization as a launch pad for his own political ambitions and turning his back on the social movements responsible for his fame. Carlos Rojas, who served on the same FEJUVE executive as Abel Mamani (2004-2006), comments that the legal status of the new “public” company is ambiguous: “Aguas del Illimani [the private consortia controlled by Suez] never really left. The new water company has the same administrative structure as the private company: It employs the same people; it is registered under the same number; it has the same bank account as the old company.”

Indeed, the EPSAS is a sociedad anĂłnima (equivalent to a “limited” company in English). As such, it is not wholly “public”: EPSAS has two private shareholders and it is regulated by commercial instead of public law. Disconcertingly, the cost of a potable water connection has gone up from $155 to $175 under the new administration.

When I asked why the FEJUVE-El Alto has not kicked up much fuss about the fee hike, Rojas explained that the government has effectively neutralized the new leadership by buying them off with promises of political appointments and economic resources. For example, the FEJUVE is rumored to have purchased a new vehicle with money received from the government that is used by the executive.

Over his two year term, Mamani’s performance as Water Minister has been the subject of much controversy. In November 2007, a number of scandals implicating Mamani hit the press. He was promptly dismissed under a cloud of suspicion. The leaders of FEJUVE-El Alto immediately demanded that Mamani be replaced by another leader from El Alto. Instead, the government chose Walter Valda as interim minister, whose experience in the water sector is with campesinos in Chuquisaca. The inter-institutional commission has not met since the change of leadership in November. The question as to how or whether the EPSAS will be replaced hangs in the air.

Cochabamba Water War: “We Won the Struggle but not the War”
After Cochabamba’s Water War, “social control” was supposed to resolve the problems with corruption that have historically plagued public utilities. While the city water company’s former board of directors was staffed exclusively by professionals and politicians, since April 2002 three members elected from the macro-district sit on the board. However, the many problems that have historically plagued public utilities have remained unresolved with a minimal degree of “social control.”

Over the past eight years, the public water company in Cochabamba, SEMAPA, has gone from one crisis to the next. Since the company was returned to public hands after the Water War of 2000, two general managers have been dismissed for acts of corruption. The most recent general manager, Eduardo Rojas (2006-2007), was even worse than Gonzalo Ugalde (2002-2005). While both used the company as a botĂ­n politico (political booty), filling the company with their family members and friends, Rojas tended to hire white-collar workers (consultants and secretaries) who work at high salaries but do not provide a public service, while the latter mostly hired blue-collar workers to repair and expand the infrastructure. Due to these and other problems, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) cancelled the payments of an $18 million loan, the first part of which was to be dedicated to the “modernization” of the company. The utility is once again scrambling for finances in order to maintain and expand the city’s water and sanitation system.

On a more positive note, there are two important signs of that things might improve. First, there are signs of renewal in the water workers’ union. For over twenty years, the SEMAPA union was controlled by a “union mafia.” Union leaders were suspected of running a system of clandestine connections that was estimated to cost the utility almost $100,000 a month in lost revenue. A small group of employees have been working to democratize the union. Largely thanks to their efforts, the head of the union was fired in October 2005 for organizing an illegal strike that aimed to protest the dismissal of the corrupt general manager. For the first time in over twenty-five years, the elections that were held to replace him were conducted using secret ballot. Members also had a choice between two platforms of candidates. Nine out of ten members turned out to vote; over 70% of the members voted for the new leadership who expressed their commitment to union democracy.

Second, the association of community water systems of the poor, southern zone of the city (ASICA-Sur) has made a lot of progress in the past few years. ASICA-Sur has temporarily withdrawn from the struggle to reform SEMAPA, instead dedicating itself to the task of building water systems in poor areas that lack networked water services. Recently, ASICA-Sur has secured financing from the European Union to build secondary water networks in Districts 7 and 14. According to Abraham Grendydier, these systems will be administered by independent user groups, which will buy water in bulk from the public water company. In the short term, the initiatives of ASICA-Sur risk furthering fractioning the system, which is more accurately described as an “archipelago” than a network. In light of the numerous problems with SEMAPA, however, ASICA-Sur has made tactical decisions that will eventually help achieve the goal of “water for all.”

Given the problems confronted by SEMAPA in the past years, the local perception is that if SEMAPA serves as a model for anything it is for what can go wrong in a public water company. As Norma Barrera, one of the employees who have been working to reform the utility, put it, “The whole structure of the company needs to be changed from top to bottom. Putting a few good people at the top is not going to change anything when the structure is rotten to the core.” Amongst activists, opinion is divided regarding the main culprit. For some, it is the fact that the mayor controls the budget. For others, it is the problem of corruption and the lack of capacity of the citizen directors. Efforts to outline alternatives and debate the future of the public water company continue.

While the local results of the Cochabamba Water War may have been disappointing, its impact on the private sector rippled across the globe. Beginning in 2002, large multinational water companies announced that they were retreating from the poor countries of the global South, preferring instead to focus their investments in more lucrative markets. Indeed, the majority of privatization loans approved by the World Bank in 2006 for the water and sanitation sector were located in China. In the face of this global market shift, water justice activists in Latin America, widely considered to be both a birthplace of neoliberalism and its alternatives, can afford to be less defensive and critically scrutinize the failings of both private and public water companies.

It is undeniable that reform of the local state and public utilities are required in order to extend universal services. Examples of public water utilities suggest that there are several factors that help to determine success which have thus far been lacking in Bolivia. Public companies are more likely to perform well when they are subject to pressure from well-organized user groups, but as the Cochabamba example demonstrates, this is not enough. The presence of democratic trade unions with a “public service ethos” is also important, since it is ultimately the workers who execute the decisions. Perhaps most importantly, however, quality water services require large amounts of public investment. The progressive municipal government of Paco Moncayo in Quito, Ecuador, for example, expanded potable water services from 65% to almost 98% within only seven years thanks to a cash injection from the government and international sources. The water company, EMAAP-Q, is publicly owned and operated and considered one of the five best public water companies in Latin America.

Since most social movement efforts have necessarily focused on the problems with privatization, the factors that determine quality public management are poorly understood. Now that the multinationals are in retreat, however, there is more political space to discuss real alternatives.


Susan Spronk is currently conducting research on the role of trade unions in water companies in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

This story first appeared April 29, with footnotes, on Upside Down World.

See related story, this issue:

Santa Cruz Votes for Autonomy
by Ben Dangl, Upside Down World

See also:

from Weekly News Update on the Americas
World War 4 Report, January-February, 2005

From our daily report:

Bolivia: Bechtel surrenders
WW4 Report, Jan. 24, 2006

Bolivia: Evo appoints rads to cabinet
WW4 Report, Jan. 24, 2006


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, June 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution



Slavery and Saneamiento in Bolivia

by Alexander van Schaick, Upside Down World

In recent weeks, cattle ranchers and landowners in Bolivia’s Cordillera province, located in the south of the department of Santa Cruz, resorted to blockades and violence in order to halt the work of Bolivia’s National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INRA). As a referendum on departmental autonomy for Santa Cruz draws near, the conflict calls into question the central government‚s ability to enforce the law in the Bolivian lowlands.

The dispute centers on the region of Alto ParapetĂ­, south of the provincial capital of Camiri, where INRA is currently trying to carry out land reform and create an indigenous territory for the GuaranĂ­ indigenous people. Additionally, it claims various communities of GuaranĂ­ live and work on white or mestizo-owned ranches in conditions of semi-slavery.

For nine days landowners and their supporters blockaded major highways and virtually sealed off Alto ParapetĂ­. The blockades continued until Bolivia’s vice minister of land, Alejandro Almaráz, left the region on April 18. At the end of February, Ronald Larsen, a major landowner in Santa Cruz, and other ranchers took Almaráz hostage at gunpoint for
several hours when he and other government officials tried to enter the region.

An Incomplete Land Reform

In the 1990s and up to the present, the GuaranĂ­ Nation and Bolivia’s other lowland indigenous peoples mobilized to force the national government to recognize their right to their ancestral territories. In 1996, the first administration of Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada passed a land reform law that gave Bolivia’s indigenous people the opportunity to claim their “communal territory of origin” (TCO).

The 1996 law—Ley No. 1715—reorganized the country’s land law and agrarian reform institutions. It also established INRA to resolve land conflicts and issue titles through a process called saneamiento. In this process, INRA would establish property limits, to look into whether property owners had obtained land legally and to investigate whether they were putting their land to socially or economically productive use. (Latifundios, or huge tracks of idle land used to speculate on rising land prices or as liens to obtain loans, are banned by the Bolivian constitution.) Finally, INRA would resolve land conflicts through mediation and legal processes, title TCOs for indigenous people, and establish parcels of state-owned land for distribution. In the end, landowners would own land with clear title. INRA was to carry out saneamiento throughout all of Bolivia between 1996 and 2006.

But after ten years, INRA had only completely finished the saneamiento process for 10% of its goal. Over half of the land INRA sought to have titled had not even begun the process. According to critiques from indigenous and campesino (peasant farmer) organizations, saneamiento was characterized by corruption, a lack of transparency and participation, and a bias in favor of large landholders.

In 2006, the administration of president Evo Morales pushed through several laws (particularly No. 3501 and No. 3545) in order to improve the saneamiento process for the benefit of peasants and indigenous people. Among other changes, the new laws attempted to improve the control indigenous and peasant organizations can exercise over the process, tightened restrictions on what constitutes the productive use of land, and gave INRA the authority to nullify property rights of landowners found to use workers in a system of servitude, captivity, forced labor, or debt peonage. INRA and the Vice-ministry of Land have also been much more active under Morales: in the first two years of his administration, INRA has finished the saneamiento process for 10.2 million hectares, as opposed to 9.2 million completed by the previous five presidents in the nine years since INRA’s founding.

One of the groups that has benefited the least from the saneamiento process has been the GuaranĂ­ people, Bolivia’s third largest indigenous group. GuaranĂ­ communities populate Bolivia’s Chaco, an arid region that spans parts of the Departments of Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca, and Tarija. Only between 5 and 10 percent of the land demanded for TCOs by GuaranĂ­ communities has been granted, whereas other lowland indigenous groups have received much higher percentages of their demands for communal land.

The Asamblea del Pueblo GuaranĂ­ (APG) has made claims to INRA territory in Alto ParapetĂ­ since 1996. Only in February of this year did INRA start the process for the titling of a TCO “Alto ParapetĂ­,” totaling 157,000 hectares of land. Through the saneamiento process, INRA will catalogue what of this 157,000 hectares is available for future GuaranĂ­ use and what land is being used in a legal fashion by existing property owners.

INRA also will investigate which landowners have workers in conditions of servitude. According Law 3545 and its governing rules, the state does not recognize the legal property rights of a landowners’ estate if he or she is found to have one or more persons working under conditions of modern-day slavery or servitude. If this is the case, the estate becomes state land that the government, in the case of Alto ParapetĂ­, will include in the formation of a TCO. (Article 4e of Law 3545 requires that the state guarantee that people formerly subjected to a labor regime of peonage, captivity, forced labor, or servitude have access to land.) At the end of the saneamiento, INRA will give land titles to the GuaranĂ­ community and all existing, law-abiding landholders.

The APG, the national organization of the GuaranĂ­ nation, backed Evo Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party during the elections of 2005. It hoped that a MAS government would respond to its demands for the territorial reconstitution of GuaranĂ­ ancestral lands. The results have been mixed: while GuaranĂ­ communities have received far more land than under previous administrations, the APG feels like the current government can do better. One of the key conditions for the GuaranĂ­ Nation’s continuing support of the Morales administration may be the successful titling of the TCO “Alto ParapetĂ­” and the liberation of GuaranĂ­ “captive” communities in the region.

“Now Blood Will Run”
Conflicts in Alto ParapetĂ­ between INRA and large landowners began in February of this year. On February 12, INRA issued a decree committing to title a TCO “Alto ParapetĂ­” for the APG. Beyond the recuperation of territory for the APG, the creation of a TCO would provide the base for the liberation of GuaranĂ­ families living in servitude on large landowners’ estates in the area. According to a report released by the Swiss Red Cross and the Bolivian Ministry of Justice in 2006, there are ten “captive” GuaranĂ­ communities in Alto ParapetĂ­ that live under a system of semi-slavery: Yaiti, Yapui, Yapumbia, Recreo, ItacuatĂ­a, Huaraka, Bajo Carapari, Alto Carapari, La Colorada y Tartagalito.

INRA initiated the process of saneamiento by another decree on February 26. Vice-minister of Land Alejandro Almaráz and the national director of INRA, Juan Carlos Rojas, came to Camiri to personally supervise the launch of saneamiento with the participation of the Guaraní community.

The reaction to the start of saneamiento from the landowning and cattle ranching sector was swift and severe. On February 28, a group of 50 to 100 landowners and their supporters forced INRA officials out of their office, which they preceded to sack. They demanded that the land titling process in Alto ParapetĂ­ be halted. After the incident, the Mburuvicha Guasu (Grand Captain) of the GuaranĂ­ community in Alto ParapetĂ­, FĂ©lix Bayanda, condemned the ranchers for trying to stop the saneamiento process:

“This is [an] abuse from the cattle ranchers, who don’t want to recognize the existence of enslaved communities and who misinform the people,” he said. “The GuaranĂ­ people are prepared to defend our communities‚ demand to end once and for all the servitude and enslavement of our people. The Assembly of the GuaranĂ­ People will fight for their demands and we will initiate mobilizations in Santa Cruz, Chiquisaca and Tarija.”

In spite of the threats, INRA also reiterated its commitment to carrying out the saneamiento, as required by the law. Following the incident, on the evening of February 29, Vice-minister of Land Almaráz, INRA director Rojas, APG president Wilson Changaraya, and other INRA officials entered Alto ParapetĂ­. Their goal was to notify property owners that the saneamiento process was commencing. According to an interview with Almaráz and accounts published in the press, as the INRA vehicle drove by the property “Caraparicito,” a large cattle ranch owned by an American, Ronald Larsen, they came across a tractor blocking the road.

A group of landowners surrounded their vehicle, led by Larsen, who was armed with a revolver and a rifle. Larsen proceeded to shoot out the tires of the INRA vehicle to prevent the escape of the land reform officials. He reportedly yelled, “Now we are going to carry out community justice on you.” He ordered the INRA vehicle to be dragged onto his property with the tractor. Later, he bragged to Almaráz that he had shot and killed three robbers that had come on to his property and no authority had ever found out. Another local landowner, Lino Medrano, allegedly threatened “No one is going to leave here alive, now blood will run.” Two members of the INRA team escaped to Camiri, where they obtained reinforcements who returned and freed the remaining INRA officials after their eight-hour ordeal.

Interestingly, no immediate action was taken against Larsen. According to Almaráz, witnesses are giving testimony before the public prosecutor of Camiri in order to bring a case against Ronald and Duston Larsen for sedition, criminal association, impeding and extorting official government activity, attempted murder, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping.

Conflicts Escalate
After being released, Almaráz and Rojas called for dialogue in an attempt to reengage the small producers of the region. INRA issued public statements explaining that the saneamiento would not negatively affect any property owners with under 500 hectares of land. They convened an INRA meeting on March 10 in order to engage all the actors affected by the saneamiento process. Most large landowners, however, boycotted that meeting, and are still refusing to participate in any INRA-sponsored dialogue.

On March 11, the President of the UniĂłn de Productores Agropecuarios del Sur (the local cattle rancher and farmers association), Juan Carlos Santistevan, issued a press statement saying that the cattle ranchers of the Cordillera would give their lives to protect their land and to oppose the creation of a GuaranĂ­ TCO in Alto ParapetĂ­. According to statistics published by the Vice-ministry of Land, Santistevan owns 1,885 hectares in the area.

Tensions boiled over again on April 4, when Almaraz, Rojas, representatives of the APG, and several dozen national police once again tried to enter Alto Parapetí through the municipality of Lagunillas. According to statements and testimonies from INRA, Guaraníes, and Almaráz, the group was on the way to participate in a meeting convened by the APG in the Guaraní community of Itacuatía. The week prior, over 450 Guaraní traveled to Itacuatía for the meeting before landowners essentially sealed off the area. Once again, the convoy was halted as they tried to pass by the property of Caraparicito. Duston Larsen, son of Ronald Larsen, and a group of people armed with sticks, rocks, and guns violently prevented them from passing. Police officers dispersed the crowd; however the convoy still could not pass.

On April 5, various sectors in Alto ParapetĂ­ allied with the landowners issued a declaration, “Cordillera de Pie,” which accused the government and INRA of attempting to violently enter Alto ParapetĂ­ the previous day. The document also demanded:

“That the vice-minister of land, national director of INRA, technical personnel and police contingents halt the abuses and illegalities that they come to commit against our people and that in the term of 24 hours they definitively abandon the province of Cordillera in order to avoid other consequences which, if they do occur, will be the unique and exclusive responsibility of the government.”

Almaráz, however, reiterated that government officials and the INRA team would remain in Camiri until the saneamiento process had been completed.

On April 9, landowners and their supporters blocked major interdepartmental highways between the city of Santa Cruz and Camiri, between Camiri and the southern departments of Chuquisaqa and Tarija, as well as all entrances into Alto Parapetí. Although the landowners originally declared the blockades would be lifted after 24 hours, they continued until April 18 when Almaráz finally left the region.

Both sides on the conflict mobilized their supporters. The APG issued a statement declaring a state of emergency for the GuaranĂ­ Nation and convoking representatives from all 26 GuaranĂ­ CapitanĂ­as (districts):

“The GuaranĂ­ Nation will not renounce its social, political, economic and cultural rights to the recuperation and consolidation of its territory, natural resources and Indigenous Autonomy; thus, it declares a state of emergency and calls the 26 Captains and the social organizations allied with the GuaranĂ­ Nation and other sectors, to join the fight to defend the GuaranĂ­ Nation‚s historic demand of Territorial Reconstitution and liberation of enslaved families.”

On the other hand, the government has reported that at least several hundred members of the proto-fascist UniĂłn Juvenil Crucenista traveled to Camiri to support the blockades.). The Union Juvenil Crucenista is a “youth” organization widely considered to be the violent arm of the ComitĂ© CĂ­vico Pro-Santa Cruz, a powerful association of the elites in Santa Cruz.

A little over a week after their first attempt, they tried to enter Alto Parapetí again. At 4:45 PM on Sunday, April 13, Almaráz, Rojas, Changaray, INRA officials, and several dozen Guaraní, without police escort, tried to pass a blockade in the town of Cuevo again trying to reach the community of Itacuatía. According to Almaráz, in Cuevo, a crowd of several hundred landowners, townspeople and members of the Unión Juvenil Crucenista threw a hail of rocks at the convoy to repulse them. As the convoy tried to return to Camiri, landowners and their supporters ambushed them, partially blocking the road and firing guns. They prevented several trucks from passing. Those people unfortunate enough to be left behind were forced out of their trucks, threatened, and beaten with sticks and rocks.

According to the mayor of Cuevo, Sonia GuthriĂ©, a supporter of the landowners’ blockade, the group of INRA vehicles “entered firing their guns in the air. Later, with violence and slingshots, they managed to get beyond the first blockade. But, then we organized ourselves and in the Matadero zone we were able to stop them. They ran off towards the woods.” She displayed two rifles and six other guns taken from a vehicle carrying GuaranĂ­es as proof of the group’s hostile intent. Members of her retinue have made press statements claiming that Vice-minister Almaráz is trying to form armed guerilla groups in the Chaco in order to “train a FARC in the Cordillera.”

Almaráz rebuked this claim saying, “nobody from the Vice-ministry or INRA had guns. I don’t know what the GuaranĂ­ had, but I didn’t see any of them with guns.” In response to the version of events given by Mayor GuthriĂ©, Almaráz pointed out that the vast majority of people injured in the incident were GuaranĂ­ or government employees. The Bolivian state information agency, ABI, published a list of 46 people injured in the incident by hospital in which they received treatment; 11 suffered “grave” injuries and 35 “light” injuries. Juan Carlos Rojas, national director of INRA, was listed as gravely injured.

The government also published a list of five people who have “disappeared.” Several people, including the APG’s lawyer, testified to having been captured, taken back to Cuevo, and tortured, at least one of whom was whipped and beaten in the town’s plaza. The crowd also looted and destroyed several government vehicles. According to the landowners, five of their supporters in Cuevo were lightly wounded.

The government temporarily has suspended saneamiento activities and recalled Almaráz to La Paz. By doing so, it hopes to diffuse tensions and allow an inter-institutional commission of human rights organizations, the press, and the religious community to enter the region in order to investigate rights abuses and open dialogue. Nevertheless, a negotiated, peaceful resolution to the conflict will be difficult to achieve.

Freeing Slaves or Grabbing Resources?

Both sides in the dispute over the saneamiento of Alto ParapetĂ­ have very different views of why the conflict is happening. The government claims that the saneamiento process and the creation of a TCO represents the way in which various GuaranĂ­ communities living in a system of semi-slavery can be freed and assured a sustainable rural livelihood. The landowners and their supporters maintain that the issue of slavery is a red herring invented by the MAS government and that the saneamiento is part of larger processes by which the government hopes in the future to gain control over local hydrocarbon resources and dissolve the municipalities in the region.

Numerous Bolivian and international human rights organizations have published reports on the existence of systems of semi-slavery on estates in the Chaco. Estimates vary, but at least 600 GuaranĂ­ families live in such conditions in the departments of Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca and Tarija. These families have no land of their own and live in communities located on the estates of their masters. In the documentary “Quiero ser libre, sin dueño” (“I want to be free, without a master”), produced by the Bolivian Ombudsman’s office and the Ministry of Justice, dozens of GuaranĂ­es give dramatic testimony to conditions on estates in Chuquisaca. Although treatment varies, interviewees testify to working for their masters over 12 hours a day for between ten cents to two dollars a day (far below what they legally should receive); sometimes workers receive no pay at all, only second-hand clothes and food. Debt slavery is common, where debts supposedly incurred by the GuaranĂ­ to their masters (sometimes passed down from their parents) effectively negate their pay. Child labor and corporal punishment are widespread.

Local GuaranĂ­ leaders express their frustration that they have nowhere to turn. Local authorities are either landowners or under the landowners’ influence, and previous governments turned a deaf ear to their plight. According to the Fidel Cejas, captain of Alto ParapetĂ­, “In all of the district of Alto ParapetĂ­ nobody treats our brothers well and it’s sad to think about the abuse: psychological, physical, even the rape of the daughters of our brothers, and assassinations as well. Complaints have been made, but the authorities don’t carry out justice when such complaints are made.”

For many GuaranĂ­ interviewed in the documentary, a community’s access to its own land to cultivate represents the path to freedom, dignity, and the recuperation of culture and language. In the past, the Centro de InvestigaciĂłn y PromociĂłn de Campesinado (Center for the Research and Promotion of Peasants, or CIPCA) and Catholic organizations have liberated several GuaranĂ­ communities in servitude by given them land purchased from landowners. Government and NGOs hope saneamiento will solve the problem.

The most vocal support for the landowners in Alto ParapetĂ­ has come from agricultural and cattle producers’ associations and local Cordillera politicians. They have also received full support from prominent figures in Santa Cruz. Given the sensitivity of the semi-slavery issue, these powerful politicians’ willingness to back the landowners indicates the extent to which the Cruceña landed elite occupies or influences the institutional spaces of power in Santa Cruz.

The ComitĂ© CĂ­vico Pro-Santa Cruz, the strongest non-governmental political organization in Santa Cruz, has come out strongly behind the landowners in Alto ParapetĂ­. Branko Marinkovic, president of the ComitĂ©, stated in reference to the events of April 13, “In no way do we accept this kind of violence, we ask the president to call back his functionaries because they will not conduct saneamiento with violence and the organization of paramilitary groups to make Bolivians fight each other.” Although different groups have played the deciding role in the ComitĂ© at different times, Gisela LopĂ©z, a journalist and former editor who covered land issues at El Deber, Santa Cruz’ paper of record, explains that:

“The ComitĂ© CĂ­vico Pro-Santa Cruz has a long history of real civil struggles of the region and for the region, but in the last 20 years, it has been ‘taken over’ by the cruceño power elites, groups that have controlled the principle institutions in Santa Cruz (telephone, electricity, and water cooperatives, among others). And, now, the ComitĂ© Pro-Santa Cruz is lead by a huge landowner (Marinkovic) who utilizes the ComitĂ© for the defense of his particular interests and has been chosen to defend the landed elite from the current government of Evo Morales.”

Marinkovic is not only a major landowner in Santa Cruz, he also owns one of Bolivia’s biggest cooking oil companies.

Rubén Costas, the prefect (or governor) of Santa Cruz, also has supported the struggle of landowners in Alto Parapetí. Costas is one of the leading opponents of the Morales government and previously served as president of the Comité Civico. He counts on the political support of landowners and is considered to be close to Marcelino Apurani, the far-right sub-prefect of Cordillera province. According to reports by Bolpress, Apurani played a divisive role in a February meeting between INRA and landowners, where he attempted to sabotage dialogue and push landowners in a radical direction against saneamiento.

The landowners and their allies have presented their resistance to saneamiento as a fight to defend their land and to maintain Departmental control over hydrocarbon resources. They have seemingly successfully portrayed the conflict in the media as another struggle of the people of Santa Cruz against the impositions of the Morales government. They claim that if INRA creates a TCO for the GuaranĂ­ in Alto ParapetĂ­, it will set the conditions for the GuaranĂ­ to later create an autonomous indigenous territory if the new Bolivian constitution passes its referendum vote. If these things come to pass, they argue that the Department or the municipality “lose control” over the oil and gas resources in the TCO and that the municipalities in Alto ParapetĂ­ would dissolve. These concerns are most succinctly put in the document “Cordillera de Pie”:

“WE WILL NOT ALLOW, under any circumstances, actions or activities of agrarian reversion, expropriation, reorganization or the creation of new community lands of origin supported in the illegal law 3545 and its regulations, that attempt to take control of the petroleum, aquifers and gas reserves of our department, cut and destroy municipal jurisdictions and confiscate individual and collective productive private properties.”

Government officials have responded that the creation of a TCO would have no effect on the amount of money the municipalities would receive from hydrocarbons. Subsoil resources pertain to the State, so the taxes on oil and gas exploitation that are redistributed to municipalities (such tax money also goes to universities, departments, and the national social security system) would not be changed.

Regarding the issue of servitude, the landowners and many of their allies claim there are no captive communities in Alto ParapetĂ­ and that such claims are merely stories invented by the MAS government to legitimize their hidden agendas.

Another landowner demand is that the saneamiento be halted until after May 4, the day of the vote on the controversial Santa Cruz “Autonomy Statutes.” Although in a July 2, 2005 referendum a majority of Santa Cruz’s residents voted in favor of regional autonomy, no legal framework exists for establishing what regional autonomy means or how it should be established. Nevertheless, a set of “Autonomy Statutes” were written up by a group of “legislators” appointed by the Departmental Prefect with the strong backing of the ComitĂ© Civico and agro-business associations. The Departmental Electoral Court in Santa Cruz set May 4 as the date when the statutes will go to referendum. The National Electoral Court, Bolivia’s highest decision-making body on such matters, ruled the referendum outside the law and ordered the departmental court to cease and desist its actions. The Departmental Electoral Court, however, has refused to comply.

Article 102, one of the articles relating to land policy in the Autonomy Statutes, states that:

“Property rights over land, the regulation of rights, the distribution, redistribution and administration of lands in the province of Santa Cruz are the responsibility of the Provincial Government and will be regulated through a Provincial Law by the Provincial Legislative Assembly.”

The authority to carry out saneamiento would thus be transferred from the central government to the departmental government and, by extension, into the hands of the landed elite. While it is doubtful that the government of Evo Morales will recognize the Autonomy Statutes’ legality, it is easy to understand why the large landowners of Alto ParapetĂ­ would seek to postpone saneamiento until after May 4. Effectively, the landowners may have won on this front. As this article goes to press, one week remains before the referendum and it appears unlikely that the government will restart saneamiento beforehand.

Ronald Larsen: Gringo Instigator of the Landowners‚ Uprising?

One of the more bizarre aspects of the conflict is the controversy surrounding Ronald Larsen, the landowner of US citizenship who reportedly sequestered Almaráz and others at gunpoint on February 29. According to documents released by government sources, Larsen’s story goes back to 1968, when, after fighting in the Vietnam War, he came to Bolivia where he has lived since without residency on a tourist visa. His son, Duston Larsen, who was captured on Bolivian TV leading the group that violently prevented INRA from passing Lagunillas on April 4, was chosen to be “Mister Bolivia” in 2004. Duston also appeared as himself in the popular Bolivian comedy “QuiĂ©n MatĂł a la Llamita Blanca.”

The Larsens have been among the leaders of the resistance to saneamiento in Alto ParapetĂ­. During the Banzer dictatorship of the 1970s, Ronald Larsen began consolidating properties in Santa Cruz, eventually becoming one of Santa Cruz’s biggest landholders. He and his family hold at least 57,145 hectares of land in Santa Cruz although discrepancies between records held by INRA and the Agrarian Superintendent may mean he own an additional 10,000 hectares. In Alto ParapetĂ­ the Larsen family holds at least 15,777 hectares of land in five different properties. According to Bolpress, Larsen also has strong links to the right wing in Santa Cruz, having wined-and-dined with RubĂ©n Costas and Branko Marinkovic among others on his estate in the Cordillera.

Minister of Rural Development Susana Rivero claimed on Bolivian state TV that in preliminary interviews with INRA Larsen admitted that a GuaranĂ­ community lives on his property and performs services for him, apparently not knowing that such a labor relation means that this community is in “captivity” according to Bolivian law.

More Conflict on the Horizon
Larsen aside, the conflictive situation in Alto ParapetĂ­ has highlighted a disturbing trend that is becoming increasingly common in Santa Cruz: the willingness of the landed elite to use violence to halt land reform, and the central government’s inability to protect their supporters in the indigenous community as well as their own employees from such violence.

Thus far, the saneamiento has gone nowhere. Given the state’s weakness in Santa Cruz and the level of resistance put up by landowners over the past months, the Morales government will face an uphill battle if it again tries to carry out its land reform agenda in Alto ParapetĂ­. Making matters worse, the May 4 referendum on the “Autonomy Statutes” will likely pass (although with high abstention rates; its opponents are boycotting the vote). This will give landowners additional rhetorical ammunition, even though the central government will not recognize its legality.

The government may be banking on the Inter-institutional Commission and a different Parliamentary commission to release reports verifying systems of servitude in Alto Parapetí. A clear, unequivocal statement from the commissions confirming the existence of captive communities might give the government the legitimacy to use force to carry out the saneamiento. Given the large landowners‚ trenchant resistance to losing their way of life and privilege, it seems unlikely that any accord that does justice to the Guaraní community will be reached through dialogue. More violent conflict may be on the horizon.


Alexander van Schaick is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Bolivia. Until recently he also was an organizer for the IWW in New York City.

This story first appeared April 28, with footnotes, on Upside Down World.

See related story, this issue:

Santa Cruz Votes for Autonomy
by Ben Dangl, Upside Down World

From our daily report:

Bolivia polarized on eve of autonomy vote
WW4 Report, May 4, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, June 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution



Santa Cruz Votes for Autonomy

by Ben Dangl, Upside Down World

A vote for autonomy in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was passed by approximately 82% of voters on Sunday, May 4. The vote endorses a move by Santa Cruz to, among other things, gain more control of gas reserves in the area and resist the central government’s break-up of large land holdings. Clashes during the vote in Santa Cruz left 35 injured. One man died from asphyxiation due to tear gas fired by police forces. The vote and conflict marks a new phase in the polarization of Bolivia, and a new challenge for the region.

However, various aspects of the autonomy vote weaken its legitimacy. The Bolivian Electoral Court, the Organization of American States, the European Union, Bolivian President Evo Morales and other South American leaders have stated that the vote is illegal. The national average for voter abstention in Bolivian elections is 20-22%. In the Santa Cruz referendum on May 4, the rate of abstention was 39%. This abstention percentage added to the number of “No” votes means that at least 50% of Santa Cruz voters did not support the autonomy statute, according to Bolpress. The organizers of the vote in Santa Cruz hired a private firm to count and collect the votes, and voters reported widespread fraud and intimidation across the department. In some cases, ballot boxes arrived in neighborhoods with the “Yes” ballot already marked.

The Santa Cruz autonomy movement’s architects and leaders are right-wing politicians, wealthy business owners and large landholders. The autonomy statute voted on calls for increased departmental control of land, water and gas. This would potentially block Morales’ plans to break up large land holdings and redistribute that land to small farmers. The application of the autonomy statute would also mean a redirection of gas wealth from the central government to the Santa Cruz government. Such a move would run counter to the new draft of the constitution passed in December of 2007, which states that the Bolivian people are the owners of the nation’s natural resources, and that those resources should be managed under largely state control. This draft constitution is set to be voted on in a referendum sometime this year.

Morales announced a partial nationalization of gas reserves in Bolivia on May 1 of 2006. The subsequent renegotiated contracts have led to $2 billion a year in government revenues, an increase from $180 million in 2005, according to IPS journalist and political analyst Franz Chávez. This revenue for the Morales administration could be put at risk, particularly if autonomy referendums in the departments of Beni, Pando and Tarija pass in the coming weeks. Tarija is a department producing approximately 80% of Bolivian gas. Autonomy for these four departments is to include the ability to sign new gas exportation contracts with foreign entities. However, Brazil and Argentina, two of the biggest importers of Bolivian gas, continue to support the Morales government and do not officially recognize the autonomy referendums. This would likely cut off pro-autonomy departments from negotiating new gas exportation deals.

In addition to economic powerhouses such as Argentina and Brazil, the leaders of Venezuela and Ecuador have also come out against the autonomy vote in Santa Cruz. Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, commented on the autonomy movement in his weekly radio program: “This is not just Bolivia’s problem, and we aren’t going to allow it. Nobody is going to recognize this illegal referendum. It’s a strategy to destabilize progressive governments in the region.”

The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a coalition of progressive governments in Latin America, made a declaration stating that the countries in ALBA “reject the destabilization plans that aim to attack the peace and unity of Bolivia.” It stated that ALBA nations would not recognize “any juridical figure that aims to break away from the Bolivian national state and violates the territorial integrity of Bolivia.” This support is important for Morales, as it shows he is not alone in the region and has backing from major nations in negotiating with the Santa Cruz autonomy movement.

In the current draft of the Bolivian constitution, passed in the constituent assembly in December 2007, stipulations do exist for various forms of autonomy and decentralization to develop for departments as well as indigenous groups. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said, “We’re not against autonomies, but rather support constitutional, legal autonomies that strengthen the country’s unity. In Bolivia there’s an attempt to use a legitimate and democratic instrument as voting for an anti-democratic, anti-constitutional objective.”

President Morales and other leaders and analysts in the region have denounced US interference in Bolivian affairs, stating that Washington is supporting the autonomy movement in Santa Cruz through USAID funding and the National Endowment for Democracy. Thomas Shannon, the US State Department’s top Latin American diplomat said in an interview with the Madrid newspaper El PaĂ­s: “We are committed to the territorial unity of all the countries of the region… At the same time we are in favor of the expression in a democratic manner of the interests of the different groups and sectors.”

Meanwhile, the Morales government is moving ahead with planned changes. On May 1 of this year the government took over the Italian-owned Entel company, the largest telephone company in Bolivia. The government had accused the company of failing to expand their phone network sufficiently. At the same time, Morales announced a $6.3 million deal with Repsol, a Spanish oil company. During a May 1 speech, Morales said “we are consolidating the energy nationalization. The Bolivian state has 50% plus one share of the capitalist, or so-called capitalist, companies.”

In spite of the opposition in Santa Cruz, Morales’ support throughout the country remains strong. A poll conducted in Bolivia on May 5 by Ipsos Apoyo, OpiniĂłn y Mercado indicated that Morales has a 54% approval rating, down just 2% from March.

Though the goals of the autonomy movement may not be realized for some time, the May 4 vote increases tensions in an already polarized nation. Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera suggests this conflict is a part of the historic changes that Bolivia has been going through since the election of Morales.

“What’s interesting is how important the struggle for identity has become—the importance of asking ‘Who are we?’ to place ourselves in the world,” Linera explained to the Associated Press. “The crisis unites us,” he said. “Today the elite have to think, ‘What do I have in common with my maid?'”


Benjamin Dangl is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia,” (AK Press). He is an editor at, a website on activism and politics in Latin America.

This story first appeared May 8 on Upside Down World.


Bolivia: Santa Cruz Autonomy Statute Violates Constitution
by Franz Chávez, InterPress Service, May 2, 2008

Undermining Bolivia
by Benjamin Dangl, The Progressive, February 2008

See also:

Report from the Streets on Referendum Day in Bolivia
by Alexander van Schaick and David Bluestone
Upside Down World, May 8, 2008

by Ben Dangl, Upside Down World
World War 4 Report, January 2008

From our daily report:

Bolivia: right-wing mob humiliates indigenous leaders in Sucre
WW4 Report, June 1, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, June 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution