Bolivia: Pando governor arrested; US turns up the heat

Bolivian soldiers arrested the opposition prefect of Pando department, Leopoldo Fernández, on Sept. 16. He was flown to La Paz to face genocide charges in connection with last week’s massacre of at least 16 peasant supporters of President Evo Morales. In response to Bolivia’s political crisis, the US evacuated its 2,500 Peace Corps volunteers from the country. (AP, Sept. 17)

The arrest of Fernández could be a setback for the internationally brokered dialogue which convened in Santiago, Chile, one day earlier and had just shown signs of progress. Morales and the leaders of the five rebel departments signed a document Sept. 16 agreeing to discuss autonomy demands and the controversial distribution of revenues from natural gas and petroleum. Five provinces aligned against President Evo Morales are calling for a greater share of the energy funds.

“Dialogue is the only path for the nation,” said Ruben Costas, governor Santa Cruz department. “We have decided to sign this document to bring back peace.” Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera called the signing of the document “a true sign of the commitment toward peace and tranquility.” (LAT, Sept. 17)

But Carlos Dabdoub, a civic leader of Santa Cruz, said the arrest of Fernández amounted to a “unilateral breaking-off” of dialogue by the government, and that the move “saddened and disappointed” the rebel governors.

However, the eastern governors are internationally isolated. South American leaders offered Morales their backing at the summit’s opening Sept. 15. In the statement the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela expressed their “full and firm support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales, whose mandate was ratified by a big majority.” (AlJazeera, Sept. 17)

As South American leaders met in Chile, a White House report charged Bolivia, Venezuela and Burma have failed to live up to international obligations to combat the illegal narcotics trade. But Afghanistan, the world’s largest grower of opium, was credited with making some progress on the issue.

The annual White House report lists the same 20 countries as last year, mainly in Latin America, as major drug producers or transit centers. But the two countries cited in 2007 for failed anti-drug efforts, Burma and Venezuela—censured for a fourth straight year—were joined this year by Bolivia.

At a news conference, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement David Johnson said President Morales’ support for some legal coca production for traditional uses has contributed to the problem:

“President Morales continues to support the expansion of licit coca leaf production, despite the fact that current legal cultivation far exceeds the demand for legal, traditional consumption, and exceeds the area permitted under Bolivian law,” said David Johnson. “Much of the surplus coca leaf production is traded in unregulated, so-called legal markets and is diverted to cocaine production.” (VOA, Sept. 16)

See our last post on Bolivia.