Friday, September 12, 2008

Bolivia's Situation Deteriorating, Threatening to Affect South America from the Caribbean to Tierra del Fuego

Events in Bolivia this week have gotten virtually no attention in the U.S. (due in no small part because people don't care, as well as the fact that the media has had the presidential campaigns, the non-Chilean 9/11 anniversary, and now Hurricane Ike to discuss). However, in the last few days, things have escalated to a point that Bolivia's internal crisis between Morales and the highlands vs. the four lowlands regions are threatening to blow up into a transnational diplomatic crisis.

In summary, despite Morales winning the referendum on his administration in early August, the situation has only worsened between his administration and the four eastern lowlands regions that have wanted virtual economic and political secession. As Erik accurately surmised, the situation has come to a standstill, with neither side gaining the upper hand as violence only escalates. Confrontations between rural workers (often of indigenous backgrounds) and the opposition (often of "whiter" and wealthier backgrounds) have escalated, with 8 deaths (seven of them campesinos who were surrounded and attacked) and 34 injuries yesterday alone. Morales also expelled the U.S. ambassador from Bolivia on Wednesday, claiming that the ambassador is supporting the four regions in an effort to undermine Morales's leadership. While the U.S. State Department called such claims "baseless," there is absolutely no more reason to trust the U.S. than there is Morales, particularly given our history of having the highest levels of the executive branch undermining leaders we didn't like in the past (Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973 [hat-tip to Randy], Argentina in 1976, Nicaragua in the 1980s, or Venezuela in 2002).

However, unlike previous times of conflict in Bolivia, this time, the threat of hemispheric involvement is greater. Already, as a sign of "solidarity," Hugo Chavez has expelled the U.S. ambassador from Venezuela. While this is the story that's getting the most press in the U.S., though, in many ways it's the least important for the rest of the South American continent. In addition to the violence, opponents of Morales blew up one of the major pipelines between Bolivia and Brazil. The attack on the pipeline had an immediate effect on Brazil, as Brazil gets 25% of its daily fuel from Bolivia through this pipeline.

Although the service was restored relatively quickly, Brazil and Bolivia's other neighbors are finding it more difficult not to get involved. Marco Aurelio Garcia, Brazil's special assessor for International Affairs for the President, said yesterday that Brazil "will not tolerate any rupture of institutional order in Bolivia," saying that Morales's overthrow would cause enormous problems for the entire continent. And Lula spoke with Argentine president Kristina Fernandez Kirchner, Chile's Michele Bachelet, Morales, and Chavez yesterday, in an effort to (as the article puts it) "mobilize the countries of the region - especially the Group of Friends of Bolivia, formed by Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina - so that they can serve as an intermediary channel between the government and the opposition in Bolivia."

These actions and statements are far from empty international bluster (even Chavez is probably not making empty threats when he promised to aide an armed resistance movement if the democratically-elected Morales were to be overthrown) that will not be backed up by action. It has been a very long time since the governments of so many South American countries were in such quick contact to try to aide another country (and the last time they were in contact, it was to root out and kill subversives in Operation Condor). The fact that Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela are all clearly concerned and not afraid to enter into the equation to make sure Bolivia's institutions remain in tact reveals just how severe the situation has gotten. Certainly, I hope things will get better, but like Erik back in August, I just don't see how they can right now, given how much of a stalemate it's become between Bolivia and the lowlands regions.