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Archive for the ‘oriente’ Category

First of all, you should know that those mercenary guys probably were working for the opposition leaders in Santa Cruz. We know this now because a huge interview just appeared with a man who was in their sordid wee gang and has just turned grass. Otto at Inca Kola News has turfed up the story for the anglofono world and translated enough into English that you can get an idea, and if you read Spanish the rest is online too. One quibble: it’s appearing in the state-run newspaper Cambio, which was launched earlier this year as a deliberate offset to the anti-government tenor of most of the Bolivian press.

I don’t know what you think of state-owned media. Myself, I spend way more time reading the Bolivian newspapers than anyone should, and there’s a perceptible right-wing (or at least anti-left-wing) bias which isn’t helped by the government’s hostile relationship with the papers. There’s no doubt that some sectors of the press are nothing but bought-and-sold anti-MAS mouthpieces, but a lot of them aren’t, and they’re not all to blame for how much Evo seems to dislike them. The MAS’s attitude to media management seems to amount to: since it’s not possible to shut them down, shout them down. This fortnight’s news contains plenty of examples: journalists condemn lack of press freedom, the government talks about research (carried out by third parties) which shows that people trust the press less than they did five years ago and there are ongoing rumbles about the government’s court case against La Prensa. According to this report, Evo hasn’t met with the domestic press since January and only does press conferences with foreign journalists. How is that patriotic? This is the same leader who said in his inauguration in Tihuanaco, ‘I will commit errors, I ask you to correct me if I make mistakes’. He was specifically addressing fellow indigenous leaders, but it would have been more heartening to believe that he was addressing civil society as a whole. Which begs the question, is Evo still as radically accountable to civil society as he once claimed to be? And if he is, then why aren’t the press accepted as the legitimate nosy parkers of civil society, controlling by reporting critically and informing the public? Something’s broken here and I don’t know if it’s the government – which has been criticised by former allies recently for drifting from its platform of accountability and direct democracy – or the bad behaviour of the press.

And let’s face it, the press have hardly been upright keepers of the moral tone all this time. Reporting of the Pando massacre was particularly patchy back when it took place, because of links between those accused of carrying it out and newspaper owners. Even Reporters Sans Frontieres have criticised elements in the Bolivian media for inciting hatred, urging responsibility and restraint as well as reminding us that several attacks on media installations (TV channels, newspaper offices) were carried out by right-wing thugs in Santa Cruz. The newspapers tend to reflect the interests of their owners, like anywhere in the world, and since they are comparatively expensive to buy, it’s my experience that they’re not widely read among working class and rural people, so there’s no sense of writing for that audience or indeed reporting on rural life except in colourful culture and tourism supplements. There are major swathes of the population who are not considered newsworthy, and endless glossy magazines reproducing stock images and stories from the foreign press, featuring people who look nothing like most Bolivians.

Anyway this is all a roundabout way of saying that, when possible, I don’t get news from state sources like Abi, Radio Erbol and now Cambio. It’s not that I think they’re Pravda and Evo’s a big nasty censor, but neither do I think Evo has been particularly mature in his attitude towards freedom of the press. Like a lot of things in Bolivia, it’s difficult to stake out a position between ‘The MAS are authoritarian, press-smothering dictatorial Stalinists!!1’ and ‘The press is so far in thrall to the right wing that it’s not even bothering with’. When I tell people that I filter and compile stories from the Bolivian media, they often react with skepticism if they know the country well. A certain well-known filmmaker’s reaction was swift and brutal, ‘No hay periodismo verdadero en Bolivia’. I disagree with him, but I can see how he got that opinion: what with nasty incitement-to-racial-hatred stories and clear facts about newspaper ownership among opposition politicians, it’s easy to conclude that the papers have all got it in for the government. But then every government assumes that the press are gunning for them, unless carefully controlled, and my own government has been a black example to the whole world in how to prioritise the management of messages, rather than formulating policies of substance. At least their cynical management of the press suggests a bitter respect for it, though. In Bolivia, respect for journalists and journalism seems thin on the ground, and that’s a sad thing given how important the smooth functioning of a free press is to any healthy democracy and the professionalism and vocational zeal of many Bolivian journalists. But it’s also up to the press to earn that respect: perhaps they could start doing so by giving equal column space to attacks on indigenous people by right-wing youths as well as brutal examples of justicia comunitaria, or not reposting, verbatim, press releases by nakedly poltical lobbying groups like the Human Rights Foundation, now discredited like whoah. I don’t know. But the constant government-press feuding makes my life more vexing, because sometimes the only good material is on official sites, and like a proper hack (and activist), I never quite trust the official version of events (“Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” etc) like the above. Please do discuss in comments, I’ve got no solutions, just a vague and scratchy sense of discontent.

ETA: more on this from la Razón.

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Let’s start with the bad stuff first, shall we?

A video report telling us that large landholders don’t like the new agrarian reform much. You know what? British MPs don’t like the new focus on their expenses much, either, because it shows some of them to be grasping, out-of-touch toerags who think they’re above the reach of the law. Much the same thing’s happening here. Just let me say it again: Bolivia’s latest land reform is moderate and reasonable. It doesn’t confiscate land from anyone who can prove that they acquired it legitimately, and who isn’t committing human rights abuses on it or using it only for property speculation. It limits new land purchases to 5,000 Ha, which if you think about it, is an enormous stretch of land, and it’s not retroactive.

The misrepresentation of the land reform isn’t really what annoys me about this, though. What gets me is the airtime and attention paid to the viewpoints of people who are already amply represented in the foreign media. Ron Larsen is an appealing character to feature, because he’s a hero to those who see the Morales government as barbaric, xenophobic expropriators of foreign investment, and a ideal bad-guy figure to the Bolivian press (and whisper it, government) who seize on his (no doubt carefully cultivated) cartoonish cowboy persona – north American, wealthy, cheerfully racist and closely linked to the autonomista leadership in Santa Cruz. He’s probably being interviewed because his estate was most prominently highlighted as the place where many Guaraní people were living in conditions ‘analogous to slavery’. So why not interview some of the people who were analogous to slaves, eh? One of the many human rights abuses shown to have been committed in Alto Parapeti was that the serfs living there weren’t allowed to speak with journalists or human rights organisations, but that particular right doesn’t matter so much if the press don’t take an interest in talking to them anyway. By giving interview time (and a sympathetic airing) to Larsen and to a representative from the government, but not interviewing any of the serfs of the estate, it denies them a voice, leave them as background and end up perpetuating the silent Indian stereotype which is so infuriating.

Andres Schipani, on the other hand, has provided us with a story which does call on indigenous voices, and makes the Guaraní people of Alto Parapeti more than mere scenery. In this piece for the BBC, he actually goes and talks to some of the people kept in conditions of servitude on Larsen’s ranch. Their stories are distressing, but inspiring, and the statements from Victoria Tauli Corpuz, representative from the Un Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues are worth your consideration. She has this to say:

We find this situation of domination and violent rule of the landlords over the indigenous people unacceptable … we think this is a gross violation of the basic political, social, economic and cultural rights

She’s also on record as saying that the Cruceño Autonomy Statutes of last year ‘promote, conceal, strengthen and reproduce the practice of servitude’.

Fellow travelers of the autonomy movement in Santa Cruz should be well aware that their political aims are determined by business interests, not popular ones, and that these are the autonomy statutes which were ‘approved’ in bogus, non-recognised, privately-funded ‘referenda’, so no-one should really be taking them seriously anyway. Even so, there are still those who are inclined to be sympathetic to any region trying to break away from the OMG!eebilmarxistdictatorship of Evo Morales, and hopefully this announcement, as well as April’s assassination plot, will make them wake up to a fairly basic truth: it’s not a good idea to give massive feudalist* landlords control over their own pet autonomous Ministry for Agriculture, let alone their own organisations for the defence of human rights. Do you think someone could send a memo to the folks at WorldFocus.org?

*Alright, Jarrett, you win that one.

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I haven’t posted about the whole Santa Cruz hotel room/dodgy international mercenary gang/police shootout debacle until now, but I’m pleased to see that the big boy bloggers have been taking on the essential job of disseminating information about the attackers and the circumstances. More of that in a minute. Today, my boss Alex at the Bolivia Information Forum has put together a cut-out-and-keep, bullshit-proof summary of what went down, available here. You will probably be familiar by now with the gory details – a shoot-out on April 15th in which a gang of international thugs who were (almost certainly) plotting to assassinate the President were cornered in a hotel room by police, with three of them being killed in the ensuing gun battle, and several arrests following. You might also know that there have been links drawn between this band of roving guns-for-hire and the opposition leaders of Santa Cruz, in the form of transfers of lawyers guns and money via the Bolivian co-ordinator of the thoroughly dodgy right-wing lobbying NGO Human Rights Foundation. The BIF report gives a brief bio of each of the dead terrorists and summarises the aftermath of the case, but it’s probably the last two paragraphs which are most worth reading and taking note of:

Regardless of who exactly were the sponsors of the group, its existence is indicative of anti-democratic elements operating in the media luna region. In the face of continued defeats in national electoral contests (such as the constitutional referendum in January), and the likelihood of another victory for Morales in the December presidential elections, extreme tactics are now being employed to defend elite interests in Santa Cruz and elsewhere. There have been some 30 attacks in Santa Cruz on houses and offices of people linked to the government (including members of congress, ministers, and social movement leaders) as well as some members of the opposition and attacks on the offices and personnel of human rights organisations. These actions reached their zenith in the wave of violence last September in Santa Cruz and the main towns of the media luna which ended in a massacre of indigenous peasants by an armed group in the department of Pando.

A United Nations report into the Pando massacre, released in March, attributed the killings to members of the local prefecture and civic committee in Pando. Published at the same time was the UN OHCHR annual human rights report which pointed to the activities of the Union Juvenil Cruceñista and groups like them that operate with the support of the civic committees in the media luna. Even if the allegations of involvement of the prefect and business leaders in Santa Cruz prove inconclusive, these actions are an indication that a campaign to promote terror was on the cards. Rather than condemning the presence the armed group in their midst, the incident has served as a rallying point for the cruceño opposition. ”

The would-be assassins in the hotel room may or may not be linked to the ‘democratic ‘ opposition in Santa Cruz – it’ll be a knotty problem for investigators to work out, and then a knottier one for observers to work out whether they trust the investigators, which is why it’s a Good Thing that the government has allowed an international investigation, for greater impartiality. But even if Marinkovich and his baseball-bat wielding pals turn out to be entirely unconnected with this, what does it say to you that instead of repudiating the plotters and condemning any suggestion of attempts on the life of the President, they are closing ranks and raising their voices in defense of those arrested for complicity in the plot? Not reassuring, is it?

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Remember how last year, the Minister for Agrarian Reform, his employees and a load of Guarani people were kidnapped, beaten up and threatened by cartoon-baddy estate owner Ronald Larsen as they went about trying to establish legal titling for indigenous lands in the East? No?

Larsen’s the rancher from Montana who moved to Bolivia in the late 60s and, along with his family, bought up land three times the size of the city of Santa Cruz. Luckily for him, like many estates in the area, his ranch came with a captive labour force of indigenous Guarani people, who have been working there in conditions of servitude ever since.

Last year, a fact-finding mission from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organisation of American States and the Bolivian government investigated forced labour and servitude on various large estates in Santa Cruz and other departments, and found that hundreds of Guarani families were living in conditions ‘analogous to slavery’, where landowners had supplanted the State and were operating with impunity, obliging people to work for laughably low pay or none at all, preventing them from getting an education or living in humane conditions, limiting their movements and violently repressing attempts to organise, create or join a trade union or speak to human rights organisations.

Even after being held at gunpoint by Larsen’s thugs for a couple of days and then kicked out of the area, the personnell from the Ministry of Agrarian Reform returned later on last year to carry on with the investigations and legal processes to find out if the land on this estate and others was held legally, and if people were being forced to live in conditions of servitude, in violation of various international laws (and, you know, basic human decency). They found a whole shitload of weapons, to start with, and they must have found evidence of substantial human rights violations, because guess what? The Larsens and several other arseholes with feudal pretensions large landholders are having their estates confiscated. I know, I know, but it’s so hard to get the help these days! I mean, have you ever tried running a 15,262 hectare estate without a captive workforce who’ll carry out forced labour under physical threat? It’s a nightmare, Matilda. One’s heart simply bleeds for those poor wee oligarchs kicked off their humble thirty-thousand-acre fincas.

Or, in the words of one of my poetic compatriots:

funny pictures
Photo: BBC. Used without permission, but with love.

Here’s the full story at Bolpress. (Incidentally, can someone have a word with the webmasters at Los Tiempos and La Prensa, PLEASE? I had links to the stories they ran about these events archived, and it looks like they’ve just not bothered storing online editions for 2007 and 2008, leaving me with a load of useless dead links. WTF arg etc – I don’t like only using Bolpress as the source, but they’re the only ones who take the trouble to make sure their old links work!)

My translation into English under the cut:

(more…)

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