Tuesday, March 07, 2006
BOLIVIA: THE MILITARY PLANS AND WAITS
By accident, I ran across the article below from Le Monde Diplomatique. It looked interesting so I am posting it here.
Bolivia: the military plan and wait
Evo Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism still have plenty of opponents in and out of Bolivia: the separatist white elite in the rich oil and gas regions, army factions, multinationals, and the government of the United States.
By Maurice Lemoine
ADMIRAL Marco Antonio Justiniano, the commander-in-chief of the Bolivian armed forces insisted last August that “as a citizen, Evo Morales has the right and the freedom to talk to anyone he likes” (1). He was responding to calls for an investigation into links between Morales, the leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), and the governments of Venezuela and Cuba. With Morales expected to win the presidential election in December, the conservatives were extremely active.
Justiniano, questioned about the potential dangers of populism, suggested they depended upon the definition of the term. “If you mean a mass movement seeking to secure better living conditions then there is nothing to fear. But if you mean a movement driven by caprices, it is a danger to the stability of the state.” What he understood by populism remained unclear.
There is a well-established tradition of military interference in politics in Bolivia, which has experienced about 180 coups since it became independent in 1825. Two recent examples leap to mind. In 1964 General Rene Barrientos ended the reformist experiment conducted by the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement. In 1971 General Hugo Banzer seized power with the support of the United States, and of the dictatorships in Argentina and Brazil, inaugurating a long series of authoritarian, repressive regimes that only ended with the fall of the narco-general Luis García Meza in 1981 and the restoration of civilian rule in 1982. A sort of democracy ensued, during which the proponents of neoliberalism plundered the country. For 20 years the poor and underprivileged - the indigenous majority - paid the price.
After decades of support for military involvement, the US began to promote peace and democracy as indispensable to the development of the market. Although it preferred to control the country through political parties rather than through the army, the US made an exception of the fight against narco-trafficking and the eradication of coca cultivation, supervised on the ground by US soldiers. Bolivia’s generals found themselves deprived of influence or room to manoeuvre, but they continued to exploit privileged relationships with the parties in power and some presidents used special funds to buy their loyalty.
In October 2003 the people rose against the policies of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Protesters built barricades of rubble and burning tyres to seal off the vast working-class township of El Alto, overlooking La Paz. Nestor Guillén, leader of the Federation of Neighbourhood Committees, described what happened when a squad of soldiers managed to enter Villa El Ingenio: “The troops opened fire. There were bullets flying everywhere. Seventeen people were killed - innocent bystanders who were just looking on.”
But despite 67 deaths and 400 people wounded, the crackdown failed. With the “business” to which he had devoted years of care and effort in ruins, Sánchez de Lozada fled to the US. His successor, his vice-president, Carlos Mesa, did no better. He resigned in June 2005, after three weeks of social unrest when 80,000 people took to the streets (2).
Backing into the spotlight
These events dragged the army back into the centre of the debate, although it seemed reluctant at first. Mesa, anxious to avoid bloodshed, had forbidden the suppression of the demonstrations. At the height of the crisis the only call for a military patriot had come from the Bolivian Federation of Labour (COB) and shades of opinion well to the left of Evo Morales. “We need a Colonel Chávez,” asserted Jaime Solares, the COB leader.
In May two obscure lieutenant-colonels, Julio Herrera and Julio César Galindo, had issued a personal statement calling for the resignation of Mesa and putting themselves forward as leaders of a new government. On 3 June several dozen COB representatives made a renewed appeal for military intervention.
The high command deny that that they were contemplating a coup at this stage. But one of Morales’s close associates insists that such a plan existed: “They didn’t approach the right; instead they sought Evo’s blessing. They wanted to stage a coup, but with the support of the social movement.” There would have been a military-civilian pact involving nationalisation of hydrocarbons, calling a constituent assembly, and measures to answer the demands of ordinary Bolivians. Despite their links with the COB, the officers involved were clearly aware that this support was not enough (even Solares did not enjoy the support of the grassroots of his organisation) and that they would have to bring in groups like the MAS with real power to mobilise support. The associate added: “The proposal was rejected. Whatever doubts there may be about the democratic process, the people have paid for it with blood, death and exile. There is no question of halting it. And anyway the military would just have been a brake.”
Mesa’s resignation left Congress with a choice between the president of the Senate, Hormando Vaca Diez, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Mario Cossío. But there was fierce opposition to these former allies of Sánchez de Lozada. It has been reliably reported that a group of generals met to decide which to support, and that during their deliberations a colonel entered the room, clicked his heels and announced: “I think you should know that many officers regard the MAS as the only fit representative of our nation’s dignity.”
On 9 June Admiral Luis Aranda, then the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, said: “Congress must give the clearest possible expression of the will of the people.” This was enough to secure the appointment of the head of the Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodríguez. But the new president and the heads of the two chambers immediately joined forces to dismiss Aranda, whom they regarded as too sympathetic to popular feeling. This led to the official emergence of Democratic and Patriotic Transparency (Tradepa), a “citizens’ group” founded in Cochabamba a month before by former members of the military and intended to be the political wing of the armed forces, which are forbidden under article 121 of the legal framework governing their operation from engaging in such activities.
A ‘citizens’ group’
Although the initiative came from retired members of the military, the serving top brass - including the commander of land forces at the time, General Marcelo Antezana - were involved in the creation of Tradepa. On 25 August its leaders admitted that several serving officers had been among the 120,000 signatories of documents submitted to the national electoral court in order to obtain legal status. Meanwhile some officers complained of having been pressurised into signing and claimed that the barracks of the second division, at Oruro, were being used as Tradepa’s regional offices.
To counter the corruption of Bolivia’s political parties Tradepa proposes “a revolutionary, independent and humanist nationalism” and “the participation of the armed forces in national development”. There is nothing new about this. The governments of Colonel David Toro (1936-37) and that of his successor, General Germán Busch (1937-39), used a programme of military socialism to introduce, with varying success, a series of social reforms (3). And in 1970, when a far-right junta seized power, leftwing elements in the army under General Juan José Torres established a nationalist and revolutionary government, with a popular assembly designed to radicalise the regime, before being overthrown by General Banzer.
But Tradepa is also reminiscent of the notorious Mariscal de Zepita group, mainly composed of retired soldiers who supported Banzer’s Nationalist Democratic Action during the elections of 1997 and who retained their links with the armed forces when they subsequently occupied important positions in the public services. The presence within Tradepa of such people as Colonel Faustino Roco Toro is alarming. He led the intelligence services under the dictator Garciá Meza and was suspected of involvement in the assassination of the socialist leader Marcelo Quiroga in Santa Cruz in 1980.
On 16 August the deputy defence minister, Victor Manual Gemio, was sacked because of his links with Tradepa. Justiniano, the new commander-in-chief, caused alarm by backing him and announcing that the military would support Tradepa in the constituent assembly.
As part of the judgment against Sánchez de Lozada, the Supreme Court decided to lift official secrecy so that senior and middle-ranking officers involved in the fatal crackdown of October 2003 could be made answerable to the regular courts. The armed forces went on a state of alert; on 19 August General Antezana (one of those who, at the height of the crisis, had conspired against President Mesa) made a statement justifying the formation of Tradepa and attacking the Supreme Court’s decision as an encroachment upon military jurisdiction. Next, the former general Luis Gemio (brother of the sacked deputy defence minister and leader of the Mariscal de Zepita group from 1997 to 2002) made a public threat to use other methods if the military was not allowed to have its own political wing.
As suspicions about Tradepa grew, Morales commented: “It is an alarming development. Tradepa has nothing to do with Chávez. It is a fascist movement involving a section of the high command who are in favour of a coup d’état against the social movement in general and the MAS in particular.”
On 18 December Morales was elected president in the first round, with 54% of the vote. He is in a difficult situation. The upper classes, determined to hang on to all the privileges they derive from the current system, will give him no respite. Neither will the US, the multinationals or the autonomist, indeed separatist, white elite in the rich oil and gas regions of Santa Cruz and Tarija. If there is a showdown, what will the army do?
There are three factions. One, of which Tradepa is a part, is reactionary and capable of attempting a coup. It supports the repression of the social movement.
The second would like to have it both ways, reconciling government and opposition. As the journalist Walter Chávez points out: “There was a time when nobody really minded if you massacred 300 peasants. Now, just 30 deaths are enough to cause worldwide condemnation. That’s one of the effects of globalisation.” The military are weighing up their options. Any open confrontation with the social movement would result in hundreds of deaths. With no guarantee of immunity, who would carry the can? Even General Pinochet has had to answer for his actions.
Finally, there is a progressive faction within the armed forces. The permanent secretariat of the Supreme National Defence Council has said it would be viable to nationalise and industrialise the hydrocarbons sector. As Alvaro García Lopez, now Morales’s vice-president, pointed out: “The right has gone too far. There are many middle-ranking officers who, although conservative by instinct and tradition, are very suspicious of what they regard as the separatist tendencies of Santa Cruz and Tarija. That gives them a degree of sympathy with the social movement.” They must also have been influenced by the former lieutenant colonel Hugo Chávez, who led a Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, and his campaign for social integration across Latin America.
It is difficult to assess the relative strength of these opposing factions, but the US is taking no chances. In October a Bolivian anti-terrorist commando group, Chacha Puma, on instructions from the US embassy and accompanied by US officers, removed 29 Chinese-manufactured HN-5A surface-to-air missiles from the barracks where they were stored. At first Antezana claimed they had been removed because they had reached the end of their operational life. Actually, they had completed only nine years of a 20-year service life. He subsequently provoked a storm by revealing that the US had ordered them to be destroyed “in anticipation of Morales’s imminent victory”. On 18 January this admission cost him his job and forced the resignation of the defence minister, Gonzalo Méndez.
Last July 500 members of the US Special Forces arrived in the neighbouring state of Paraguay to train the army “in the struggle against terrorism and drug-trafficking”. Since August, as well as supervising military manoeuvres, the US army has rehabilitated the Mariscal Estigarribia airport in the Gran Chaco region, just 250km from the border with Bolivia. The 3,800m runway is long enough to take heavy transport aircraft, such as the B-52, the C-130 Hercules and the C-5 Galaxy. It is ideally situated as a base for intervention in Bolivia, if the separatist movement in Santa Cruz should decide that the country had become ungovernable.