Thursday, January 10, 2008

The beauty of dialogue

As you'll remember from our entries when we were down in Bolivia, Political tensions were often a major factor in our daily lives. Whether it was project delays because people had decided to blockade the roads, not being able to buy food or supplies due to a region-wide strike, or needing to hide out in our house because angry mobs were attacking political opponents in the streets of our little Ascension, there were several instances where were made very aware of the political and social tensions that can sometimes dominate life in Bolivia. Since we left, things seem to have only gotten worse. It all came to a head in late November when MAS (the party that currently has control of the federal government) and their allies retreated to an army barracks to avoid protesters that were blocking access to the normal site of the constitutional assembly and drafted the long-awaited new political constitution in the absence of the main oposition parties. In response to this move, protests in the streets of Sucre (where the constitutional assembly had been based) exploded into full-out riots, leaving 3 dead and hundreds injured from clashes with security forces in what has become known as 'La batalla de Sucre' - the battle of Sucre. Shortly thereafter, President Evo Morales' party, and their allies finalized the constitution in Oruro (having been driven from Sucre), once again, without the main oposition party. The leaders of the four departments in the Autonomist east (where our project is based) denounced the constitution as illegal and illegitimate and drafted their own rival constitutions. This provocative move drew swift condemnation from the central government, who plans to use the East's petroleum and agricultural wealth (which is currently concentrated in the hands of relatively few people) to help alleviate poverty throughout the country. With Evo threatening to use the army to defend national unity, and the opposition east, purported by some to have a well-armed militant wing, refusing to back down, civil war was not seeming too far-fetched in December. Janaki and I were left feeling extremely worried for the safety our co-workers in Ascension, our friends throughout the country, and the future of the country that we've come to consider our home away from home.

Things have, however, begun changing for the better. Evo Morales called a meeting with the leaders of the East earlier this week and they have actually managed to reach a couple of compromises. There is still a long way to go since their respective constitutions are almost mutually exclusive, but at least they are all sitting down at a table and discussing the issues in a civilized manner, rather than hurling insults and threats across the country and inciting riots. Our colleauges in Ascension are breathing a sigh of relief, and so is much of the country. We can only hope that this new, positive, direction sets the tone for Bolivian politics in 2008.
Photo: Evo and government Officials meeting with governors of the 9 regions of Bolivia (including 6 outspoken political rivals) source:¬iciaid=17106