A Matter of Morals, Not Morales: Respect Bolivia's Democracy!
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
As an American and an expert on US-Venezuela relations, the events unfolding in Bolivia are simply too familiar to escape my notice. The tactics used by opponents of President Chavez during Venezuela's short-lived coup in 2002 are currently being replicated in a "civic coup" in neighboring Bolivia that is designed to undermine the democratic government of Evo Morales. That nation, though different from Venezuela in so many ways, seems to be travelling down a strikingly similar road, not least in terms of the role of the media in encouraging right-wing, anti-democratic opposition groups and the active support of that process by US officials.
Just over a month ago, on August 10th, Morales won a recall referendum with over 67% of the popular vote. This successful electoral process served as a check on his mandate, and was a powerful reaffirmation of the legitimacy of his democratic administration. Bolivians turned out at the polls in even higher numbers for that referendum than during the last presidential race in 2005, when Morales won 53% of votes.
Nine days after the peaceful referendum, opposition governors in the eastern states of Tarija, Bani, Pando, and Santa Cruz mobilized protests around their secessionist agenda and desire to exert total control over local natural gas reserves. With those disturbances barely in the past, a new bout of violence is again threatening national unity. Two days of mayhem and violence have wracked the city of Santa Cruz, spurred on by calls broadcast over the national media to join in "civil disobedience" against the government. Journalists considered sympathetic to the government were also harassed and injured.
OAS Secretary General JosÃ© Miguel Insulza quickly called for the violent actions of opposition groups to end. Calls to dialogue with the government were issued and the destruction and illegal seizures of government buildings, a human rights NGO, and a gas pipeline were condemned. The violence was not merely symbolic, but also carried with it economic consequences; damage to the pipeline slowed exports to Brazil, and repairs to the pipeline could cost an estimated $100 million.
The US Ambassador to Bolivia, Phillip Goldberg, remained astonishingly silent in the lead-up to the unfolding coup. He did, however, attend a meeting with opposition leaders a week earlier, causing great concern to many, including the Bolivian government who declared him persona non grata .
Goldberg is known by Bolivians and many in the policy world as "the Ambassador of Ethnic Cleansing" for his previous role as Special Assistant to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, one of the architects of the breakup of Yugoslavia. He also promoted the separation of Serbia and Montenegro, and helped foment conflict between Serbian and Albanian forces in Kosovo. It would seem that Goldberg has a particular knack for promoting racial and ethnic divisions, and that doing so has been central to his political career. Among Goldberg's closest friends are Croatian businessmen in Santa Cruz, who happen to be leaders of the opposition's "NaciÃ³n Camba" movement and the local "Civic Committee," one of the main proponents of destabilization in Bolivia.
In response to the turmoil, President Evo Morales has called for non-violence and ordered the police and military not to use force against the opposition. Instead, the government hopes to uphold the rule of law and wait for opposition actors to abide by calls from the international community to put down their weapons and talk with the government.
So far, this has not happened. On September 10th, after most of the destructive acts had already been carried out, Santa Cruz opposition senator Ã“scar Ortiz threatened more violence if President Morales continued with a new constitution. Despite the fact that he represents the majority of Bolivians, refusals to recognize President Morales and his legitimate policy initiatives since he was first elected in 2005 have been a growing problem, and one that reflects racism. In Bolivia, the Indigenous majority has often been targeted by violent mobs and paramilitary activity.
Of interest here are many lessons from Venezuela, where opposition elites have been known to mock President Chavez's mulatto features by calling him a "monkey." The dangers of an unbridled anti-government media were on display during the 2002 coup, which was advertised by television stations that committed the serious crime of inciting political violence. After advocating the overthrow of the president, these channels conducted news blackouts as the pro-Chavez rallies grew and demanded the return of the democratic order. Also, as in Bolivia, US officials from the Bush administration were quick to lend their support to the opposition.
Let us hope that things do not go this far -- or further -- in Bolivia. For all of us Americans who espouse democratic ideals here at home, it is important to demand the same standards for Bolivia. Support for democracy cannot be selective. We must respect the right of Bolivians to live in a country that remains peaceful and united, not ransacked and bitterly divided.
Olivia Burlingame Goumbri is Executive Director of the Venezuela Information Office.