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2005-06-10

New Bolivian President Sworn in After Weeks of Mass Rebellion

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The head of Bolivia’s Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodriguez, was sworn in as president after a day marked by massive protest and widespread fears of a bloodbath or a civil war. The situation in the country remains tense but many believe that the worst-case scenario has been avoided. Earlier this week, President Carlos Mesa resigned amid massive protest against his government, giving the right-wing head of the Bolivian Senate, Hormando Vaca Diez an opportunity to take power as his constitutional successor. But Vaca Diez declined the post after protesters blockaded parliament to prevent his appointment. We go to Cochabamba to speak with Bolivia analyst, Jim Shultz and we speak with Bolivian researcher and activist, Marcela Olivera as well as Tom Hayden. [includes rush transcript]

The indigenous-led rebellion in Latin America’s poorest country, Bolivia, has taken yet another dramatic turn. After a tense day and rumors of coup plots and possible civil war, the country has a new president. The Bolivian Congress named Supreme Court chief Eduardo Rodriguez to replace Carlos Mesa, who resigned earlier this week amid massive protests. Rodriguez is president of the Supreme Court with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University. After being sworn in, he called for general elections. While he did not set a date for the polls, the constitution stipulates that new elections must be held within six months. Congress endorsed Rodriguez after accepting the resignation of Carlos Mesa. Hours earlier, the President of the Bolivian Senate–Hormando Vaca Diez–announced that he would not seek to assume the Presidency.

Hormando Vaca Diez:
"For the unity of our country, so the clashes end, so that Bolivia can recover its normality and so that the experience we’ve lived through in our country may never be repeated, I resign the succession as mandated by Article 93 of the State Political Constitution."

Vaca Diez made the announcement after protesters blockaded parliament to prevent his appointment. Rodriguez assumed the presidency after the head of the lower house of Congress also declined the post. The country’s airports were also shut down after air traffic controllers started a strike to oppose Vaca Diez.

Congress met in Sucre, instead of its headquarters in La Paz, to try to avoid massive indigenous-led protests but the demonstrators followed them. Security forces had tried to seal off Sucre from demonstrators but they got through and battled police in the downtown area.

Protesters took over three oil fields belonging to British Petroleum and four belonging to Spain’s Repsol. They have also taken over a pipeline station on the border with Chile. At the request of the government, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan dispatched a senior official to the country to act as an observer.

The mainly peaceful protests turned violent when Coro Mayta, a miner union leader, was shot dead by a soldier near Sucre. This is opposition leader Evo Morales

Evo Morales:
"What’s happened in Bolivia is unfortunate. Because of Hormando Vaca Diez, President of Congress, we’ve lost the life of a comrade like Carlos Coro. It’s unfortunate because, despite everything, the attitude of Mister Hormando Vaca Diez doesn’t change."

Immediately after Rodriguez assumed power, Morales urged him to promise to nationalize the oil and gas industry and to convene a constitutional assembly.

  • Marcela Olivera, Bolivian researcher and activist who works at the Democracy Center in Cochabamba. She was a member of the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life that organized a popular uprising against the privatization of the Cochabamba water system by Bechtel and the World Bank. Last year she worked with Public Citizen in Washington to develop an Interamerican water activist network.
  • Jim Shultz, Executive Director of the Democracy Center in Cochabama, Bolivia. He writes a blog on the situation in Bolivia that can be found at DemocracyCtr.org.
  • Tom Hayden, former California State Senator. He traveled to Bolivia last year, interviewed Evo Morales and wrote an article for the Nation magazine titled Bolivia’s Indian Revolt.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Hours earlier, the President of the Bolivian Senate, Hormando Vaca Diez, announced he would not seek to assume the presidency.

HORMANDO VACA DIEZ: For the unity of our country, so that the clashes end, so that Bolivia can recover its normality and so that the experience we have lived through in our country may never be repeated, I resign the succession as mandated by Article 93 of the State Political Constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: Vaca Diez made the announcement after protesters blockaded parliament to prevent his appointment. Rodriguez assumed the presidency after the head of the Lower House of Congress also declined the post. The country’s airports were shut down after air traffic controllers started a strike to oppose Vaca Diez. Congress met in Sucre, instead of its headquarters in La Paz, to try to avoid massive indigenous-led protest, but the demonstrators followed them. Security forces had tried to seal off Sucre from demonstrators, but they got through and battled police in the downtown area. Protesters took over three oilfields belonging to British Petroleum and four belonging to Spain’s Repsol. They have also taken over a pipeline station on the border with Chile. At the request of the government U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan dispatched a senior official to Bolivia to act as an observer. The mainly peaceful protest turned violent when Coro Mayta, a miner union leader, was shot dead by a soldier near Sucre. This is opposition leader, Evo Morales.

EVO MORALES: What’s happened in Bolivia is unfortunate. Because of Hormando Vaca Diez, President of Congress, we have lost the life of a comrade, like Carlos Coro. It’s unfortunate, because despite everything, the attitude of Mr. Hormando Vaca Diez doesn’t change.

AMY GOODMAN: Immediately after Rodriguez assumed power, Morales urged him to promise to nationalize the oil and gas industry and to convene a constitutional assembly. At the request of the government, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan dispatched a senior official to Bolivia. We are joined now in our studio in Phoenix by Marcela Olivera. She is a Bolivian researcher and activist who works at the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, a member of the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life that organized a popular uprising against the privatization of the Cochabamba water system by Bechtel and the World Bank. Last year, she worked with Public Citizen in Washington to develop an inter-American water activist network. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Marcela.

MARCELA OLIVERA: Thank you very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Can you talk about the latest developments of the last 24 hours?

MARCELA OLIVERA: Well, as you mentioned before, there is a new president right now in Bolivia, and — but the main problems there are not solved. The demands of the people since the beginning were the nationalization of the gas, the natural resources, and a new kind of government that could allow the people participate. And we are thinking that we could do this through an assembly constituent — constituent assembly. And those are the main demands of the people. Until those two things could be possible, I don’t think it’s going to be a solution for the problems that we have right now there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, can you talk about this succession from Mesa, to the head of the Bolivian Senate, who looked like he was going to take power, Vaca Diez, and then ultimately did not, and then ultimately, who this head of the Bolivian Supreme Court is?

MARCELA OLIVERA: Well, Hormando Vaca Diez — the constitution says that the next person to be a president should be Hormando Vaca Diez, that is, the head of the Senate, and that if he will resign, the next person will be the head of the deputies. Both person resigned, because both are linked to this old oligarchy of politicians that are still in power, and those guys that cause all of the problems that we have right now in Bolivia, those traditional political parties, who Bolivian people don’t believe them anymore, you know, who cause all of the disasters that we are living right now. So, that’s why people demanded the resignation of these two guys, and a guy who apparently is not linked to any political party could assume the presidency and could lead to a solution in our country. Hormando Vaca Diez is also a guy who comes from the richest part of our country, that is Santa Cruz, and which the last months are been asking for an autonomous government that could allow them to be exploiting more our natural resources in favor of the transnationals. That’s why people mainly said we don’t want these guys. Because they belong to these political parties that sold our country to the transnationals, but at the same time I don’t think once more I have to say this, that those were not the main demands of the people.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined on the line from Cochabamba, Bolivia, by Jim Shultz, Executive Director of the Democracy Center, who writes a blog on Bolivia that can be found at DemocracyCtr.org. Jim Shultz, you were out in the streets yesterday in Cochabamba. Can you talk about what was happening there?

JIM SHULTZ: First, Amy, let me just thank you for having Marcela and I on and to say that we have dealt with journalists all over the world the last few weeks, and Democracy Now! has analyzed the story better and more consistently than anybody. I just want to say that. And thank you.

Yesterday was an unbelievably tense day in the country and Cochabamba, as well. I mean, last night, people were preparing for where they were going to sleep away from their homes in fear of a coup. Vaca Diez had directly threatened, in comments to the BBC and elsewhere, military action as soon as he took office. So, we had no idea what was going to happen yesterday. And the people were amazing. There were 3,000 to 4,000 people in the plaza here in Cochabamba yesterday in a giant march and rally to demand that Vaca Diez not assume the presidency, to demand the nationalization of the country’s gas and oil, and to demand this constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. The police tear-gassed all of us who were in that plaza. And there’s also a group here, including the mayor and others who have gone on a hunger strike to press those same demands.

This was a very tense day in Cochabamba and around the country. I mean, imagine the spectacle of the Congress having to move to another city because the capital was shut down, only to find miners coming in. And at one point, the Congress decided not to meet and tried to leave, and the miners shut down the airport in Sucre. The people here are speaking in an extraordinarily loud voice in the streets.

And as Marcela pointed out, this is not over because the demands that sent people into the streets beginning three weeks ago was never just "We want a new president." The demand has consistently been "We want the country to (b) nationalize the gas and oil, and we want this constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution." And so, while the country, I think, is less tense this morning because we have been relieved of the possibility of this potential dictator, essentially, coming in and taking over, these two demands are still the demands from the street, and I don’t think you are going to see a let up in the pressure until we see some sort of commitment by the government, some sort of an agreement that those two issues are going to be resolved in one way or another.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jim Shultz in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where there was also mass protests yesterday. Marcela Olivera joins us in a studio in Phoenix. She lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia. We’re going to break, and when we come back, in addition to our two guests in Arizona and Bolivia, we’ll be joined by former California State Senator, Tom Hayden, who has spent a good deal amount of time in Bolivia and has looked at the team from the U.S. of, well, you might say Clinton campaign meisters who went down to Bolivia a while ago, that saw the beginning of this succession of Bolivian presidents.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We continue with our discussion, the latest dramatic developments in Bolivia, the head of the Supreme Court has now just been sworn in as President, with indigenous protesters and mass rebellion around the country, protesting the man who would have constitutionally succeeded President Mesa, and he was the head of the Senate, Vaca Diez. And we are talking about how this has happened and where the struggle goes from here. Our guests, Marcela Olivera, in a studio in Phoenix with the Democracy Center in Cochabamba. In Cochabamba, Jim Shultz is with us with that Center, and in our studio in New York, we are joined by Tom Hayden, former California State Senator, traveled to Bolivia last year, interviewed Evo Morales who was the head of the Coca Growers, now a socialist congress member, wrote an article for The Nation magazine entitled "Bolivia’s Indian Revolt". We welcome you, as well, Tom Hayden. I think some people might be surprised that we’re having you in to talk about Bolivia, but why do you think Bolivia is so important right now?

TOM HAYDEN: Well, I think progressives really need to pay attention to Bolivia. It’s kind of an epicenter of several struggles. One, it’s the only place in Latin America or the world where the left is led by Indian leadership, people like Evo Morales and others. Two, it was the poster child for the Clinton project, so-called neoliberalism, stripping the social benefits out of the economy to make it a place for investment, particularly British Petroleum, Sempra, Enron was in there, and it’s a disaster area. It’s now 70% poverty, as Jim Shultz and the other good people there can tell you, and Evo Morales, in the spectrum of Bolivian politics, is described by many of the experts I have talked to as a moderate pragmatist. He is not just a leader in the streets. He actually favors a kind of new deal nationalization of the oil industry, the kind of thing that happened to Mexico in the 1930s. There are other far more radical people who want to go from a country that has an Indian majority to a country that is reconfigured as an Indian republic. There are people on the other side who want a coup. It may be that none of these happens, no coup, no radical reform, no Indian republic, and it just is patched together, in which case it would be really tragic. You have a weakened state with the Santa Cruz people, as your friend from Phoenix indicated, being kind of a white, rich, oil-producing sector seeking autonomy, secession, and the Indian majority, thwarted by the rules of the game in terms of coming to power electorally — although, we’ll see, it’s possible — and this constant turmoil in the streets that threatens the state but never quite transforms it. This oil and gas issue may bring it all together and may create a revolutionary situation, but it may just continue as it has for several years to be constant siege by the Indians against the state with no fundamental change.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read to you a press release from GQR, Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research, Inc. It says, "GQR, with James Carville, Shrum-Devine-Donilon and GCS-UK helps elect Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada." It says, "The former Bolivian president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, pulled off a remarkable electoral comeback by finishing first in Bolivia’s presidential elections on June 30." Of course, this was a few years ago.

TOM HAYDEN: ’96.

AMY GOODMAN: "Sanchez de Lozada, who served as president from 1993 to 1997, trailed by more than ten points in the eleven candidate field with less than one month to go in the campaign, according to public opinion polls. Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research served as Sanchez de Lozada’s consultant on polling and strategy, helped develop Sanchez de Lozada’s winning campaign message, which stressed solving Bolivia’s economic crisis by creating public works and jobs." And then it goes to talk about the victory. It says, "GQR worked for Sanchez de Lozada, or 'Goni' as he is called, as part of the GCS consortium of campaign consultants. GCS includes political strategist James Carville from the media firm Shrum-Devine-Donilon," and it goes on from there. Can you talk about — I mean, we are talking about the Clinton campaign team. What were they doing in Bolivia?

TOM HAYDEN: Well, you explained it precisely. The Clinton campaign team branched out, so to speak. They were with the more corporate candidates in Argentina, in Mexico, as well, but in Bolivia, they took particular credit for the election of this fellow, who is known infamously as "Goni," who was part of that white elite, and he was run out of the country in 2003, after his forces had killed at least 100 people in the streets. I heard about it. I was sitting at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, and his friends called up from Miami, and asked if he could, you know, get an appointment there, and somebody did a quick check and said, "Well, he just killed 100 people this month. Let’s put that off." And I don’t know what happened with it, but the story is true that the Clinton group not only represented Goni and were proud of it — I talked to Stan Greenberg last year, and he said he still has a lot of respect for him — but also that same campaign firm represents British Petroleum.

AMY GOODMAN: Hmm.

TOM HAYDEN: They say only on environmental issues, but I mean —

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Shultz in Cochabamba, Goni, as he is called, the former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada supported Vaca Diez taking over. So he’s very relevant to today’s politics, very much a part of that oligarchy. Can you talk about the significance of this, Jim Shultz?

JIM SHULTZ: Let me comment briefly, and I’d like to have Marcela actually comment on that to give it a real Bolivian perspective. But Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was the architect of all of these privatizations in partnership with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He was sort of their local instrument, and now that those policies are in such disrepute and are really very much the center of the uprisings here, I think that his name is poison. You know, when people think of Goni these days, they think of how they are going to put this guy on trial for all the people who died under his presidency, but beyond that, I think it would be good to have Marcela’s perspective.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcela, if you could comment on that, I also wanted to go back in time and have you describe what actually happened in Cochabamba, a few years ago when you took on Bechtel. But start off with the support of a sort of democratic core, democratic elite in this country, supporting the election of a man who was not popular at the time, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, although he won and remains a key figure in Bolivian politics.

MARCELA OLIVERA: Well, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada is a very symbolic person for us, because he represents all the policies that were coming to my country from the World Bank and the IMF. You know, he’s the guy who sold for us all our companies, all of the state companies, who sold the natural resources, who killed people in the streets without any feeling about that. So, this guy represents for us the model that has been imposed in Bolivia and other Latin American countries. I think when people kicked him out from our country, we were feeling that we were kicking out all of these policies, too. But at the same time, you know, even thinking that this guy is a symbolic guy for us, I don’t think that the angriness of the people are focused on just one person. I think it’s all of the political parties in our country that were doing — it doesn’t matter who is in power, you know, who political power is running the country, you know. The policies that come from them are exactly the same. The names change, but the policies are exactly the same. So, it’s all of these political parties that belong to this old oligarchy in Bolivia. It’s all of the angriness of the people are against them. It’s not just one person or one political party in singular. It’s all of them, and I think that was perfectly reflected on the streets these weeks in Bolivia.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcela, you and your brother, Oscar Olivera, are both very well known for your activism against privatization of the Cochabamba water supply by the San Francisco based company Bechtel and the World Bank. Can you talk about that struggle as a seminal moment and what happened, the number of people who died, how you took on the major financial institutions and corporations?

MARCELA OLIVERA: Well, Amy, what happened there, it was — you know, the medias of here in the United States but also in Bolivia tend to create those leaders, you know, those who like Evo Morales or Oscar at some point — and they think that people just follow these guys. I don’t think it’s like that. You know, I think it’s — we saw a little bit in April 2000 in Bolivia when people went to the streets, it was a self call. It was a self organization, it wasn’t one leader calling to the people to join. It was just people organizing themselves. And that’s something that I think that we can not understand if we are not in the middle of the struggle. So, what happened in Bolivia in April 2000 was that. It was just the people getting angry and some spokespersons talking for the people. And what’s going on these days, you know, after April 2000, it’s — in all of these years, you know, it happened the same the past year, and it’s going on right now. It’s the same, exactly the same. It’s not Evo Morales that is organizing this thing. It’s not Oscar Olivera in April 2000. It’s just people that can’t live anymore with the same policies and are going to the streets because they didn’t have anything else to lose.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2000 —

MARCELA OLIVERA: So it is very, very important to understand this point.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2000, the Bolivian police, military, opened fire, right? How many people did they kill, as you fought against privatization?

MARCELA OLIVERA: It was just — it was a young kid, a 17-year-old kid called Victor Hugo Daza, who died in Cochabamba, but there were at least four people more that died in other parts of the country. But related to the water issue in that time, it was this kid in Cochabamba.

AMY GOODMAN: And now, this Harvard-trained Supreme Court Justice who is President, you have got this number of issues. One is privatization or nationalization of oil and gas; the other, the issue of indigenous rights. But they are together, but also separate. Why?

MARCELA OLIVERA: I don’t think what we were watching all of these years, you know, and that’s again, goes to April 2000 with the water issues, that we realize that we can’t give a solution to the problems. That those problems that we have, you know, like the water problem, we couldn’t give a complete solution to that problem in Bolivia. And then it was the coca issue and then it was the health and education privatization, and now it’s the gas issue again. What we see is that we cannot put, like, sticks on that, you know. We have to resolve this big problem here. It’s not giving small solutions to the water, to gas. It’s not like that, like we are going to resolve the problem. It’s in the structural solution that we have to find. And I think what people are focusing right now is in these constituent assembly. I think it’s that where we are going to find a solution for all of the issues that right now are calling our attention, you know, like the water, like gas, like natural resources. I think it’s in this rewriting a new constitution and building a new kind of a country where we are going to find solutions to our these problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Shultz in Cochabamba, my colleague, Mario Murillo of Pacifica station WBAI this morning was quoting the Amnesty International report that talked about the war on terror, now the Amnesty report talking about it as a source of human rights abuses, used as a way to justify human rights abuses and the idea that it is spreading to Latin America and will be used to criminalize indigenous movements, as they challenge the status quo to equate "indigenous" with "terrorist." Are you seeing that happening?

JIM SHULTZ: Well, you know, the United States and its allies here have a long track record of trying to figure out some way to label what happens here as anything other than what it is. I remember in 2000 during the water war, we had the President’s spokesperson saying to the foreign press and everybody buying it, 'obviously this was being led by narco traffickers.' So that was supposedly really a terrorist uprising, as opposed to people just being ticked off that Bechtel raised their water rates.

This week, the chief American diplomat, or U.S. diplomat, for Latin America, Roger Noriega, tried to say that what was going on in Bolivia was really just infiltration by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. You know, the United States, in particular, is obviously not really very happy about the fact that the Bolivian people are uprising and challenging the policies that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have imposed on this country. And they’re going to try to paint this as anything other than what it is. And when listeners and others start hearing that somehow this is terrorist activity, it’s just baloney. It’s just baloney.

Now, if the United States wants to force Bolivia to a point where people start blowing up oil refineries and pipelines, because they have gotten to that point of desperation, the United States certainly has the capability of doing that. I think the United States’ military option in Bolivia, which means Hormando Vaca Diez, and it failed last night because the people basically shut down the Congress because that was being attempted. So, this is absolutely a risk. The United States is trying to paint the progressive movement in Bolivia as a terrorist movement, as a narco traffic movement. It wasn’t true in 2000. It’s not true now, but it is absolutely something that people need to be watchful about.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Hayden, last word.

TOM HAYDEN: The head of the U.S. Southern Command testified before Congress along those very lines that Jim has indicated that it could become a narco state. So, they are trying to paint it. Everything is on the line here. You have an Indian-led revolutionary movement that is unprecedented. You have Evo Morales, the head of the Coca Growers’ Union. The United States has eradicated, I think, 40,000 hectares of cocoa, down to about 5,000 acres now. There’s no program to really support all of those indigenous people. You have the collapse of the negotiations over gas and oil. You have these big multinational corporations on the run. You have the failure, the naked failure of what were originally the Clinton policies — originally the Bush policies, then the Clinton policies, then the Bush policies which are still going on. The Congress is still debating whether these policies should be applied to Central America. The CAFTA vote is still coming up. You have the F.T.A.A., the expansion to all of Latin America at stake here. So much is at stake in Bolivia. It could be just a caretaker government, a band-aid temporarily. This new guy is thought of as another Mesa, kind of a moderate compared to the Vaca Diez, that could have been a coup last night. But where is the leadership on these issues? Where’s the leadership from the Democratic and Republican Parties? We got them into this mess with our fine abstractions about free trade, and before that, 600 years of suppressing Indians. So, when are we going to start making things right?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, and having raised the issue of CAFTA, we’re going to turn now to a debate on the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Tom Hayden, I want to thank you for being with us. Jim Shultz in Cochabamba and, as well, Marcela Olivera, speaking to us from Phoenix, based though in Cochabamba, Bolivia. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a debate on CAFTA.

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