Bolivia Information Forum news letter

Posted on | maart 14, 2012 | 1 Comment

1. TIPNIS developments and consultation
2. First meeting of US-Bolivian Joint Commission shows progress
3. Legislation for disabled people sanctioned despite protests
4. Health workers protest over increase to working day
5. Two El Alto journalists murdered as country debates citizen security
6. Government condemns critical Narcotics Control Board report
7. Dispute between Tarija and Chuquisaca over control of the Margarita gas field

1. TIPNIS developments and consultation
The MAS government has passed legislation to guarantee a consultation on proposals for the construction of a road through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). The new law is an attempt to make amends for a previous lack of consultation with indigenous communities over the project, but stands at odds with recent legislation which cancelled the construction of the road (the ley corta) and declared the area ‘intangible’. The new consultation law marks the latest development in a conflict that has seen different social movements make competing demands on the government.

The consultation, which must be completed within 120 days, will cover three main themes: whether the TIPNIS should remain ‘untouchable’; whether the proposed road through the area should be constructed; and what measures should be taken to prevent illegal settlements in the TIPNIS. Senate President Gabriela Montaño has said that the consultation is the only democratic way to make progress in the dispute. However, major issues remain over the law, including the crucial question of who will be consulted. The CONISUR group representing settlers and indigenous people from the south of the park, who are in favour of the road and worked with the government on the drafting of the law, may not have the right to take part in the consultation, as they are not part of the collective land title. Indigenous groups have also said that the law violates the constitution because the law is not ‘prior’.

In response to the legislation, indigenous leaders of the Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas del Oriente Boliviano (CIDOB) have said they will march in defence of the TIPNIS and physically prevent the consultation taking place. Together with the TIPNIS indigenous organisation, the CIDOB headed last year’s march that led to the passage of the ley corta. It argues that 32 out of 35 communities in TIPNIS are opposed to the construction of the road, which would link Villa Tunari and San Ignacio de Moxos. Despite this apparent support for CIDOB’s position, there is concern amongst the TIPNIS leaders about the ability of the government to carry out a consultation without bias. Moreover, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has said it currently lacks the funds to undertake and monitor the consultation.

In further recent developments, Bolivia’s trade union confederation, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), has pledged to support any mobilisation by CIDOB, which will meet in mid-March to discuss when the new march towards La Paz should take place.

2. First meeting of US-Bolivian Joint Commission shows progress
Relations between Bolivia and the United States have continued to improve following the recent visit to La Paz by Kevin Whitaker, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Following the signing of the Framework Agreement between the US and Bolivia in November 2011 (that laid the basis for new bilateral relations), officials from both countries met in February as part of a Joint Commission to undertake substantive dialogue on a range of issues. The Bolivian delegation was led by the Minister for Development Planning, Viviana Caro.

Limited progress was made over Bolivia’s request for the extradition of former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who – along with some of his ministers – is wanted for his role in the deaths of civilians during protests in October 2003. Both governments said they would increase cooperation and exchange judicial information concerning requests for extradition, although there was no clear outcome of the sort demanded by Rogelio Mayta, the lawyer representing the families of victims killed.

In terms of aid, the US government pledged $22 million over six years to contribute to Bolivia’s efforts in tackling social exclusion in the area of healthcare, particularly in rural areas. Of these funds, the Bolivian Health Ministry will directly administer $9 million. Commercial agreements between the two countries, which remain stalled since Bolivia was excluded from the Andean Trade Promotion and Drugs Eradication Act, were also discussed, though no concrete proposals on the matter emerged from the meeting.

The United States also commended the efforts of the MAS government to tackle the drugs trade, particularly in light of two recent agreements signed by Bolivia with Brazil and the USA to cooperate on a new pilot project to reduce surplus coca production. The first meeting of the Joint Commission offers further evidence of improving US-Bolivian relations since their nadir in September 2008, when President Morales expelled Ambassador Philip Goldberg. Both countries are continuing to work towards restoring their ambassadors in the future, though the US authorities have indicated that this is not immediately in prospect.

Separately, the head of US Southern Command, General Douglas Fraser, has drawn attention to “potential geopolitical turbulence” in Bolivia, pointing to wage protests, electricity shortages and protests over food prices. Bolivian officials have responded that such claims are ‘misplaced’ (despistados).

3. Legislation for disabled people sanctioned despite protests
The Plurinational Legislative Assembly has passed new legislation that aims to improve the lives of disabled people in Bolivia. Despite the normative advances made in terms of equality for the disabled in Bolivia, the passage of the Law of Preferential Treatment was marked by violent clashes in central La Paz between police and disabled protesters demanding an increase to their incapacity benefit over and above what had previously been agreed.

The new law takes steps to ensure preferential treatment for disabled people in areas of health and education, and for access to microcredit for self-employed disabled Bolivians. A benefit of 1,000 Bolivianos per year ($140) will be paid out to around 13,000 seriously and very seriously disabled people.

Large sections of the disabled lobby remain unsatisfied with the new legislation, which had been a key demand of the ‘Caravan of Integration’ that had left Trinidad, Beni department, on November 14 2011. The marchers called for the annual benefit to be increased to 3,000 Bolivianos (around $430). On reaching La Paz, protesters were prevented from entering Plaza Murillo by a police cordon, causing ugly scenes and accusations of brutality by the security forces. The Ombudsman’s Office stated that the rights of the protesters had been violated, but official sources suggested that the clashes were provoked by opposition groups, seeking to take advantage of the protests to discredit the MAS government.

4. Health workers protest over increase to working day
Doctors and other public health workers held a 24-hour strike across Bolivia in protest at an increase in the working day from six to eight hours without additional pay. The increase in hours was announced in January by government decree, and will take effect before the end of March. The strike took place in all departments except Santa Cruz, due a serious outbreak of dengue fever. Emergency services were maintained during the period of strike action.

Health Minister Juan Carlos Calvimontes warned that action would be taken against those who went on strike, but medical workers in Cochabamba claimed the governmental decree was unconstitutional. In advance of the strike, the government and the National Confederation of Neighbourhood Councils (CONALJUVE) signed an agreement which would see 5,000 Cuban-trained health workers replace those who took action against the decree.

Alfonso Barrios, president of the National Medical College, said he was not against a return to increased hours in principle, but said that an analysis of working conditions was required before the new decree is imposed. Vice-President García Linera reminded doctors that ministers worked 14-hour days as a minimum, and called for dialogue rather than strike action to reach agreement over the new regulations.

5. Two El Alto journalists murdered as country debates citizen security
The on-going debate over citizen security in Bolivia has been given fresh impetus following the high-profile murder of two journalists in El Alto. Verónica Peñasco Layme, communications director for Radio San Gabriel, and brother Victor Hugo Layme, a journalist with Radio Pachamama, were both found strangled near their home in the city. They are thought to be victims of ‘cogoteros’ – criminals who pose as minibus and taxi drivers, before asphyxiating and robbing their passengers. Marchers from El Alto and from Ingavi province (where the two victims originally came from) have demanded instatement of the death penalty as a result.

According to Communications Minister Amanda Dávila, President Morales has ordered a thorough investigation into the killings, and while it appears unlikely that the siblings were murdered on account of their profession, assurances were made by the government that it will work to provide a safer working environment for journalists. As an initial step, a government decree has been passed which requires press owners to provide door-to-door transport for journalists between 10pm and 7am. The press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders praised the two Aymara journalists for their work in promoting indigenous culture in Bolivian broadcasting.

The murders took place little more than a week after the Second National Summit on Citizen Security, held in Tarija. The summit, which was attended by representatives from national and municipal government, police, armed forces, and civil society groups, discussed various proposals for improving safety in Bolivia, including a draft law on citizen security. The legislation, which is soon to be debated in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, seeks to improve coordination between different levels of government to address concerns over public safety in Bolivia. Additional measures aim to tackle gangs, to limit the consumption of alcohol on the street, and to prevent the sale of stolen car parts. Agreements were also reached on how to fund these schemes. Departmental governments pledged to contribute 10% of their funds received from the Direct Hydrocarbon Tax towards citizen security programmes.

6. Government condemns critical Narcotics Control Board report
The Bolivian government has firmly rejected the 2011 report of the International Narcotics Control Board, in which the organisation expressed concern about Bolivia’s defence of the cultural practice of chewing coca leaves (acullico). Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca dismissed the INCB’s suggestion that Bolivia’s recent actions concerning membership of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs put at risk the whole UN system of drugs control. In July 2011, Bolivia denounced the convention, before formally asking in December to re-accede with a reservation on the legality of traditional uses of the leaf.

In a strongly worded letter to the INCB, Choquehuanca expressed his ‘deep regret’ about the judgements made in the report, and reminded the organisation that Article 384 of the Bolivian Constitution protects the coca leaf in its natural state as part of the nation’s cultural heritage. He also reiterated Bolivia’s commitment to tackling the narcotics trade, and on the efforts it had made to control surplus production of coca.

Vice-Minister for Social Defence, Felipe Cáceres, said that ‘once again, the INCB has made a serious mistake by confusing the coca leaf with drugs or cocaine’.

To draw attention to the cultural importance of coca in Bolivia, the Council of Rural Workers’ Federations in the Yungas, COFECAY, is organising a national day of chewing the coca leaf (un acullico nacional) for 11 March, the day before the UN Drugs Commission meets in Vienna. President Morales is planning to be present at the Vienna meeting to put Bolivia’s case.

7. Dispute between Tarija and Chuquisaca over control of the Margarita gas field
In an effort to reach agreement between Tarija and Chuquisaca departments over the disputed Margarita gas field, the Bolivian state oil and gas company YPFB has contracted a US firm to assess how royalties could be divided between the two departments.

A geological report published by Repsol YPF in 2010 indicated that the gas fields of Margarita (Tarija) and Huacaya (Chuquisaca) are connected by a shared reservoir, and that revenues arising from the sale of hydrocarbons should be divided accordingly between the two departments. The new technical study to assess the connectivity between the fields is being carried out by Gaffney, Cline and Associates, who will release their findings on April 19.

Earlier in the year, strikes and blockades took place over several days in Tarija, as the departmental government claimed exclusive rights over the Margarita field. After difficult negotiations between the two departments, mediated by the national government, it was agreed that Tarija would monitor any study carried out concerning the gas field. It has yet to do so.

AUTHOR: Bolivia Information Forum
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One Response to “Bolivia Information Forum news letter”

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