Following Bolivian politics engenders something of a thick skin when it comes to political ridiculousness, but the Vice-Presidential candidacy of the former governor of Pando is still good for a walloping great WTF!?! I mean, the voting public has gone for some unlikely people over the years, but I’ve yet to hear of a successful electoral campaign that was run from jail.
Cast your minds back to this time last year. The winter months – that is, April to September – had been long and troubled. First there was ugly racist violence in Sucre in May, for which a number of people are now facing charges. Then the opposition prefects refused to come to the dialogue table to work out a practical and mutually agreeable solution regarding autonomies until the recall referendum had happened in August. Meanwhile, the new constitution was still languishing on the back burner. In the recall referendum, the departments of Cochabamba and La Paz voted to kick out their unpopular governors Manfred Reyes Villa and Jose Luis Paredes, respectively. Evo was backed by a stonking 67% of the electorate and was able to negotiate from a position of strength with the opposition ‘media luna’ governors, which is precisely when the more extremist pro-autonomy, anti-Evo forces in Santa Cruz changed tactics. September saw a period of heightened violence in Santa Cruz, where gangs of thugs heavily linked to the leadership of the Comite Civico business organisation and the governor’s office, took over the streets and carried out violent attacks against the houses of indigenous leaders, MAS politicians, social movement co-ordinators and indigenous-looking people on the street. They also attacked media installations and the police and escalated protests by disabled people, hijacking the marches and making them more confrontational. The US ambassador was photographed once too often having clandestine 3am meetings with the Cruceño leadership, and was expelled from the country. So far, so bad.
This might have gone on a lot longer had it not been for the single darkest day, the 11th of September in El Porvenir, Pando. A group of indigenous peasant colonisers, who were allied to the MAS government, were on their way to a meeting in a neighbouring town. On the road, they were met by pickup trucks and armed men, some of whom were from the governor’s office (prefectura). There was a bloody confrontation which left 20 peasants dead and several unaccounted for. Investigations by the ombudsman’s office and a commission from UNASUR would later refer to it as a ‘massacre’ in this report (.pdf), and directly implicate Leopoldo Fernández , the governor of Pando, as being at least partially responsible given that many of those arrested answered to him. Fernández was swiftly arrested and jailed, and has been incarcerated for the last 10 months. The horror of El Porvenir brought swift condemnation, internationally, and a rude awakening for domestic politicians who saw that armed confrontation wouldn’t get anyone anywhere and came to the dialogue table, sharpish. Fernández’s incarceration has continued, somewhat controversially – as far as I know he has yet to be officially charged, and his lengthy jail time has made him something of a poster-boy for the opposition. But let’s not get away from it – he’s on remand in jail because of alleged direct involvement in a massacre. The lack of formal charges and a prompt trial also means that he’s legally entitled to run for office because he has not been convicted of anything.
But it looks like he’s planning to get out of jail soon! How else can you explain his nomination as Manfred Reyes Villa’s vice-president of choice? Yes, that’s right – Manfred, kicked out by the voters of Cochabamba, has thrown his big white kochalo hat into the ring again and is running for President in December, one of a large number of cats-in-a-sack divided opposition leaders who think they’ve got a chance. And he’s chosen Leopoldo Fernández, currently awaiting trial for his role in a confrontation which led to the murder of 20 peasants, as his running mate. According to this story in Opinion, they’re expected to announce their candidacy under the banner of Jose Luis Paredes’ political group. Manfred, in a way that would be endearingly optimistic if he weren’t a stone-hearted power-hungry neoliberal bastard, has described the fragmented opposition as ‘not a united front, but a broad one’. Bless.
The conflict between the former media luna governors and the MAS administration has passed from drama to tragedy to farce. What on earth is next? A doomed love story?