Bolivian Defense Minister Cecilia Chacón resigned in protest Sept. 26, the day after National Police used tear gas and mass arrests to halt a cross-country march by indigenous protesters in the Amazonian department of Beni. In an open letter to President Evo Morales, Chacón gave notice of her “irrevocable” resignation, stating: “I do not agree with the decision to intervene in the march and I cannot defend or justify the measure when other alternatives existed.” The police charge on the protesters’ encampment outside the village of Yucomo came hours after Morales proposed a regional referendum on the issue that sparked the protest—his proposed new road cutting through the rainforest to Brazil.
Some 300 arrested protesters were put on buses to be driven away—but local residents erected barricades on the roads and the airstrip at municipal seat Rurrenabanque. “Residents blocked the airport and prevented the detainees from being transferred,” mayor of Rurrenabaque, Yerko Nuñez, told Panamerican Radio. He said that the detainees were freed after the police fled angry residents. Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti told a press conference in La Paz: “Given the attack by hundreds of people, the police pulled back to avoid confrontations.”
National Police said they intended to return the protesters to their homes in the east of Beni department, from where they had been marching over the past month. But the detainees fled into the bush, and have been regrouping since then, to decide their next move.
Nelly Romero, vice president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), which organized the march, had harsh words for Morales, telling Radio Erbol: “We are defending our rights as indigenous peoples. Our president has humiliated us. We have suffered the same repression in the past and now we suffer it again. The indigenous peoples of the lowlands will not renounce our rights.”
Bolivias’ Defender of the People (human rights ombudsman) Rolando Villena also criticized the police action: “Injured children, disappeared mothers who didn’t want to separate from their children—this does not speak well about our democracy. This is not democracy.” Trade unions, indigenous associations and opposition parties also condemned the repression. (BBC News, AFP, AP,* Indian Country Today, Página Siete, La Paz, Andean Information Network, Cochabamba, Sept. 26)
Rafael Quispe, leader of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), an Aymara indigenous alliance from the altiplano which organized a solidarity delegation to join the CIDOB march, said the dispersed protesters retreated back to San Borja, the next village to the east. (See map.) “Here we are regrouping,” he said. “Some of our brothers have escaped, some remain missing, and other are still in the forest.” But he assured: “The march will continue, come what may. The struggle is going to continue after this tremendous police intervention.”
Morales’ former vice-minister for land reform, Alejandro Almaraz, is also with the protesters in San Borja. He likewise said: “We have a firm decision to continue the…great indigenous march across the countryside.” (Página Siete, Sept. 26)
Hundreds of supporters of the marchers gathered the evening of Sept. 25 in San Francisco Plaza, the central square in La Paz. Solidarity marches were also held in the cities of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. (Opinión, Cochabamba, Sept. 26)
CIDOB representative Lázaro Tacoo rejected Morales’ proposal for a national debate over construction of the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos Highway, which would cut through the middle of the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS). “The constitution is clear that consultation must take place previous to the start of a project,” he said. “Therefore, if it will affect indigenous territory, the first thing is not to debate but to have an informed consultation to achieve consent.”
He likewise rejected Morales’ call for a referendum on the highway project to be held in the departments of Beni and Cochabamba. (Erbol, Sept. 26)
Felipe Quispe, an Aymara leader who heads the Unitary Sindical Confederation of Campesinos of Bolivia (CSUTCB), expressing support for the CIDOB march, noted sadly that the conflict has pitted indigenous against indigenous—with the police ostensibly intervening to prevent the marchers from clashing with peasant colonists from the altiplano who had pledged to block their advance. “It makes me want to cry,” he said. “The worst enemy of the Indian has also been Indian.” He urged Morales: “The president should return to the bases to find a solution; this is political suicide on a national and international level… Many people thought there would be change, but this process has turned out worse than with the neoliberals. It is demoralizing for us, the indigenous. We are not going to be able to govern after this.” (Opinión, Sept. 26)
* The AP account incorrectly renders the interior minister’s name as “Sat Loretta.”
See our last post on the struggle in Bolivia.