Thursday, August 21, 2008

Evo and Alan

Um, what do you call that dance, Alan?
Whenever I think that Africa is the forgotten continent, a news story pops up with Venezuela or Brazil in the headline and I remember about South America. Not only is it not considered its own continent over here in Europe (in North American schools there are 7, whereas from what I've seen there's only 5 here, don't ask what happened to Antarctica), but with the lack of news, you'd think it was another planet. Well to rectify that to some extent, let's look at a couple countries on distinctly different, yet converging paths, Peru and Bolivia.

It was Bolivia that caught my eye today as president Evo Morales is battling anti-government forces in a general strike that has paralyzed much of the country. Governor's in 5 of the 9 provinces called for the one day strike Monday in a call for a greater share of energy revenues and increased regional autonomy. This came on the heels of a referendum on a presidential recall 10 days ago in which Morales won the support of 67% of the the voters. Meanwhile in Peru, President Alan Garcia has declared a 30 day state of emergency in three Amazonian provinces in an ongoing confrontation between environmental groups and the government over land auctions to oil and gas companies.

Bolivia is the classic example of the conservative elitists trying to deny the will of the people. Not only did Morales carry 67% of the total vote, he won in 6 of the 9 provinces, including Chuquisaca, home of Sucre, where the opposition has been playing up to the press, creating the illusion that he can't even enter the city. In the days leading up to the vote, protesters blockaded airport runways and prevented Morales from traveling to several regional capitals. Most analysts were shocked by the scale of his victory. It was expected he would lose in places like resource rich Santa Cruz, but even there he receive just under 40% support. Four provinces have voted for autonomy in the past few months. The main bone of contention is sharing oil revenues more evenly, particularly to the nation's seniors.

Meanwhile in Peru, the land grab is on. The amount of Peruvian Amazon territory now open to oil exploration has risen from 13 to 70% in two years. The state of emergency was declared following violent clashes between police and indigenous groups that left eight police officers and one protester injured on Sunday. The decree effects regions in Amazonas, Loreto and Cuzco prohibiting public gatherings and free transit within the regions. The protest comes three months after the promulgation, without congressional approval, of Legislative Decree N°1015 which simplified the process for private investors to obtain permission from indigenous communities to set up business to bring Peruvian law into compliance with a new free-trade deal with the United States. Now, instead of requiring a vote representing 66 percent of the entire community, investors need only to persuade a simple majority of those in attendance at a community assembly. Basically Garcia created a loophole for mining development and oil exploration in the high Andes and Amazon region. To put the decree into context, it ignores the UN Convention N°169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, to which Peru is a signatory, which states that governments must “consult the peoples concerned, through appropriate procedures and in particular through their representative institutions, whenever consideration is being given to legislative or administrative measures which may affect them directly". It also follows another state of emergency declared in July following an ore mine rupture that threatened to contaminate the drinking water of the capital, Lima.

What we are seeing are the results of the battle between the "free market" and the rights of the indigenous people to control their land. Unfortunately South America has become something of a battle ground of ideologies as the right accuses the left of "Chavism" and the left ignores the market concepts of private land ownership. In Bolivia, while Evo does have the support of the majority of the people, the power of the rich, land-owning class will do everything in their power to maintain control over the land, a confrontation that may lead to provinces like Santa Cruz declaring independence. The degree to which the two sides disagree was exemplified last December in the process of drafting a new constitution. The right-wing faction, Podemos, boycotted the plenary of the constituent assembly, enabling the ruling Moviemiento al Socialismo (MAS) to achieve passage of its draft text unopposed. Santa Cruz, the main bastion of the opposition, thus decided to take matters into its own hands, in rejecting the constitution and proposing to go its own way. They held autonomy referendums which easily passed in four provinces but were declared illegal by La Paz. Basically it is a battle over money.

La Paz is awash in new money from the "nationalization" of the hydrocarbons industry in 2006, the Peruvian economy is humming, growing at 9% per year, yet they both are on confrontational paths that may lead to further bloodshed. In Bolivia, Morales will continue his drive to indigenous empowerment following the referendum, which also gave him the power to name two new governors who were recalled in the vote. Meanwhile, the right will continue to try to build a wall, facilitated by geography as the states where they hold power are contiguous in the east of the country forming a half-moon shape, thus their nickname of "media luna". In Peru, while the economy grows, so does the disparity between rich and poor. No attention is being paid to basic infrastructure reforms, exemplified by the governments inability, more than a year on, to provide relief to the area effected by the largest earthquake to hit in 35 years. Che Guevara was killed in the jungles of Bolivia trying to bring his revolution of equity and justice, today more than 40 years on, the struggle continues and sees no signs of letting up.