Saturday, December 16, 2006

1 million people say yes

Eight hundred thousand people gathered in the square a couple blocks from me Dec. 15 for a cabildo, a town meeting. They were demanding that the government respect autonomy for this part of the country and respect a law that says each item of the new constitution requires two-thirds approval by the constitutional assembly. The top photo is from El Deber, the bottom from El Nuevo Dia. (My apartment is just outside of the upper right of the top picture.) El Deber did a detailed map with estimates of crowd density at various points to come up with the figure of 800,000. Cabildos in other regions brought the total to more than a million. People started gathering in force around 3:30, the music got going around 4:30, the speeches started around 5:30 and the big moment came at 7:30.

The prefect for the department of Santa Cruz asked the crowd for their approval on two questions, to which they replied yes to each, and the meeting was over. Except for the music and dancing.
The headline in El Nuevo Dia pronounced the event a ¡Cabildazo! You add “azo“ to anything to mean that it´s a big honkin' thing. A great goal in soccer is not just a gol but a golazo.
There were three other cabildos in departments that also want autonomy and respect for the two-thirds vote. These four departments represent about half the country and are referred to as the half-moon because that's what they look like on the map.

The violence

There have been peaceful hunger strikes throughout the eastern half-moon of the country for a couple of weeks to protest the government´s policies. Here are some in the main square of Santa Cruz Dec. 9.

It's kind of the reverse of what we're used to. The hunger strikers are generally white or mestizo and prosperous. They tend to be business people protesting actions taken by the indigenous majority, which is controlling the governnment for the first time in Bolivia´s history. The president made some veiled threats earlier in the week, calling on the army to be prepared to defend the unity of the country against secessionist groups trying to divide Bolivia (code for the half-moon region).

As it happened, the army didn´t try to stop the demonstrations (cabildos), but members of the president´s political party did. They set up roadblocks on a main highway to prevent people from outlying areas from reaching the cabildo in Santa Cruz.
(The photo of the blockade of burning tires is from El Deber. The photo of the injured journalist is from El Nuevo Dia.) They stoned buses carrying people headed for the cabildo and sent five journalists to the hospital with severe head injuries. The trouble started when one of the buses broke through the first line of the blockade, and the blockaders started pelting it with rocks. After three hours of rock throwing, 90 people on both sides were injured. One man lost an eye. One of the buses was burned. Several press vehicles were destroyed. Eventually the buses went through. They were parked in my neighborhood this morning, with most of their windows knocked out. (Photos of the buses are mine.)

(The photo of the rock-throwers is from El Nuevo Dia)
Unfortunately, those who back the cabildos and autonomy went on their own rampage in several towns and burned the headquarters of the ruling party, the president's party, whom they deemed responsible for the violence in San Julian.
Last week a pro-government crowd in La Paz, which is the heart of the president's power base, set upon some anti-government hunger strikers who were in a church.
The mob wanted to kill one of the hunger strikers, a prominent novelist. They tossed a stick of dynamite into the room where the hunger strikers were located. Fortunately, someone was able to yank the fuse before it exploded. The hunger strikers barely escaped and went into hiding. (In retaliation for the rock attacks, supporters of autonomy burned MAS headquarters in San Ramon, photo from El Deber)
The night of the cabildos, I saw the president on TV, and he was very conciliatory toward the demonstrators, which seemed a statesmanlike thing to do. He was not talking about sending in the army or confrontation. He used the word dialogue a couple of times. Maybe this difficult period in Bolivia's history will be worked out without much violence.

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