Bolivia: who controls Pando?

As South America’s presidents converged on Chile Sept. 15 for an emergency summit on the crisis in Bolivia, President Evo Morales accused his political foes in the eastern lowlands of mounting a “civic coup,” and inciting “crimes against humanity by groups massacring the poorest of my country.” Military troops are attempting to enforce martial law in Pando department, but prefect Leopoldo Fernández says he remains at his post—despite an order for his arrest.

Speaking to Reuters by phone, Fernández denied any responsibility for the Sept. 11 slaying of several peasant supporters of Morales, calling it an armed clash between rival groups and accusing the president of “mounting a farce.”

Morales has dispatched a special commission to Pando to investigate the Sept. 11 violence. The team is searching the canyons and rivers around the villages of Porvenir and Filadelfia for more bodies after accounts from local peasants have raised the presumed death toll in the incident from 16 to 28.

The army says it has arrested 10 suspects in the attack—with residents of Cobija, the departmental capital, accusing troops of heavy-handed tactics. Soldiers reportedly used dynamite to break down the door to the home of opposition activist Ana Melena. Her neighbors said they ransacked the house and confiscated a computer.

Despite the army presence, scattered gunfire is still being reported in the city; schools, businesses and government offices remain closed, and the public transport system is paralyzed.

Fernández, of the right-wing opposition party Podemos, told Reuters he is carrying out his normal duties. “We’re going to stay right here to resist this state of siege,” he said. “I want to tell Morales to quit lying to the people. They should really investigate what happened and stop blaming us for a massacre.”

Arriving in Chile, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez said “a conspiracy directed by the US empire” is at work in Bolivia.

Bolivia’s US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, expelled by Morales on charges of enflaming the protests, called the allegation “false and unfounded.” Goldberg denied that his meetings with opposition prefects and Washington’s distribution of aid to their departments amounted to an attempt to undermine Morales. “I would like to say that all the accusations made against me, against the Embassy and against my nation are completely false and unjustified,” he told reporters in La Paz.

But pro-Morales activist Edgar Patana told reporters at a La Paz protest where an American flag and effigies of opposition prefects were torched: “If he hadn’t expelled him we would be tearing down the US Embassy today.” (AFP, IHT, AP, Sept. 15)

See our last post on Bolivia.