Bolivian government under pressure cooker?

Bolivian President Evo Morales is facing converging crises on multiple fronts—from South American neighbors, from the Colossus of the North, and from internal opposition. Peru is seeking the extradition of Walter Chavez, a top adviser to Morales’ successful 2005 campaign, on terrorism charges related to accusations that he extorted businessmen on behalf of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Chavez, a Peruvian former journalist, has lived in Bolivia since 1992 and was granted political asylum there in 1998. (Reuters, Oct. 26)

The Bolivian government has accepted apologies from US ambassador Philip Goldberg for recent condescending remarks on Morales. After members of his delegation had problems entering the United States, Morales told the UN General Assembly last month that the UN headquarters should be moved elsewhere. Goldberg responded that he would not be surprised “if Bolivia would also want to change Disney(land’s) headquarters too,” triggering a diplomatic spat between the two countries. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca described Goldberg’s remarks as “racist” and said he would not be a “valid interlocutor” for his government until he apologized. Goldberg later sent apologies to the Bolivian government through diplomatic channels. “The government accepts the ambassador’s apologies. We will continue working in the two countries’ relations,” Choquehuanca said. (Xinhua, Oct. 26)

Last week, thousands of local residents occupied Bolivia’s busiest airport in the restive eastern department of Santa Cruz, after army troops sent in by President Morales withdrew. Morales sent in troops after charging that local officials were illegally demanding landing fee payments. Responding to a call from Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas, some 7,000 protesters armed with clubs and waving flags rallied at Viru Viru airport Oct. 19. After tear gas failed to disperse the protesters, the 220 troops pulled back to avoid clashes. “This has been a victory for the people of this town, and it has been a defeat for the wicked,” said Costas, a fierce opponent of President Morales. The soldiers left “with their tails between their legs,” Costas gloated.

The crisis began when airport workers held up an American Airlines plane bound for Miami Oct. 16, demanding that landing fees be paid on the spot to local rather than national authorities. The local airport authority used to appoint its own directors, but three months ago the central government installed their own official to lead the agency. (BBC, Oct. 19)

In the background is a struggle over control of Bolivia’s natural gas resources, which lie mostly in the lowland east and south of the country. Despite Morales’ supposed nationalization of Bolivia’s hydrocarbons, foreign firms still seek interests in the gas sector. The local press reports that the Spanish oil company Repsol YPF plans to announce in the next month the results of exploration work at what could be a major gas field in the south of the country. Since February 2006, Repsol has been exploring for hydrocarbons in Chuquisaca department, not far from the gas-rich Tarija region.

“In about a month we’ll be able to confirm whether this is a massive [natural gas] field,” the president of Repsol’s Bolivian subsidiary, Luis Garcia, said. “We’re all anxious, and we’d like to say today that this is a big field.” After meeting with Repsol officials Oct. 24, Chuquisaca Gov. David Sanchez told reporters he had “great expectations” that drilling could lead eventually to the development of a field “bigger than Margarita.” The Margarita field, also run by Repsol YPF, is one of Bolivia’s largest, with nearly 11 trillion cubic feet of proven and probable reserves. Government officials recently announced that Repsol YPF has agreed to invest some $900 million in Bolivia by 2010. (Reuters, Oct. 25)

See our last post on Bolivia.

  1. Right-wing terror in Bolivia?
    From VenezuelAnalysis via Upside Down World, Oct. 25:

    The Venezuelan Consulate and the residency of a Cuban doctor were attacked with explosives in the opposition controlled state of Santa Cruz, in Bolivia, in the early hours of Monday October 22.

    At approximately 3 a.m. explosives thrown at the residency of the Venezuelan consulate, blew a hole in the roof of a room where children were sleeping, then at around 4 a.m. dynamite was thrown from a moving car at the house of a Cuban doctor also in Santa Cruz, causing minor damage. Alex Contreras, a spokesperson for the Bolivian Government said no one was injured and that there would be a thorough investigation into the incident.

    The Cuban Ambassador to Bolivia, Rafael Dausa, told local radio that this was the second attack, “A month and a half ago there was a similar attack with a tear gas grenade thrown against another house where Cuban doctors live.”

    Bolivia’s Interior Minister, Alfredo Rada said the attacks were incited by the racist discourse of Governor of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, against the Bolivian government and its allies Cuba and Venezuela last Thursday during which Costas criticized Venezuelan aid programs to Bolivia, referred to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a “monkey,” and declared him “persona non grata” in Santa Cruz.

    “There are people that find in these words the incentive to carry out criminal and violent attacks, transferring the verbal violence into physical violence,” Rada added.

    Speaking on Venezuelan state TV yesterday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Nicolas Maduro accused the “racist Bolivian oligarchy” of being responsible for the explosions. “We have seen in the last 48 hours the moral decomposition of this oligarchy, how they have unleashed fury and hate,” he said.

    Maduro explained that the Bolivian oligarchy has been the instrument of imperialism, “of the monopolies that have dominated the natural resources of Bolivia over decades and exploited the Bolivian people.”

    “They are trying to sabotage the peaceful and democratic changes carried out by president Morales,” Maduro continued.

    Recalling Chavez’s recent comments that “Venezuela will not remain with our arms crossed” in the face of any opposition attempts to overthrow or assassinate Bolivian President Evo Morales, Maduro affirmed that Venezuela would increase “the moral, political and material support that we are giving to the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales and the people of that country.”

    “They can count on the support of the Bolivarian Government, of the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez Frias and all the Venezuelan people,” he added.