Bolivia Bulletin February 2013 (BIF)
1. Gubernatorial elections in the Beni
On Sunday 20 January elections were held for Governor of the Beni, one of the largest departments in size, yet one of the smallest in population (425,780 according to last November’s census). Carmelo Lens, for a right-wing coalition called Primero el Beni, won 52.27% of the vote, with Jessica Jordan of the MAS coming second with 44.35%. The election was held to find a replacement for Ernesto Suárez, who was obliged to resign last year because of accusations of misuse of public funds, particularly for holding an (unauthorized) departmental pro-autonomy referendum in 2008.
The Beni is part immense wet plains, which pre-Columbian peoples used to connect and farm using huge artificial embankments, and part Amazonian jungle, areas where originally rubber and later Brazil nuts have been harvested, with production and trade controlled by a small number of wealthy families.
2. Census: first results
According to the results of the November 2012 census, announced in mid-January, there are 10,389,913 Bolivians. This is a 26% increase on the numbers registered in the previous census in 2001. Some had believed that the population increase would have been more than this, since projections from the last census (with figures up to 2010) pointed in this direction. However, it is reasonable to think that with rapid urbanisation, the rate of demographic growth in Bolivia is slowing.
The census shows that Santa Cruz has taken over from La Paz, albeit narrowly, as the most populous department in the country. The population of Santa Cruz department is 2,776,244 compared with 2,741,554 in La Paz. The rates of change since the 2001 census are suggestive of continued patterns of internal migration, particularly towards the lowland departments of the east.
3. Coca chewing now made legal
It seemed a no-brainer, and indeed that was the international verdict. Despite opposition from the United States and a handful of other G-8 countries (including the UK), Bolivia managed to get an exemption from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics with respect to acullico, the age-old practice of coca chewing. Now Bolivians can do it legally – just as they have done it for countless centuries.
On January 11, following a year or so of international lobbying, the Bolivian government achieved its exemption. It had officially withdrawn from the Single Convention at the beginning of 2011 in protest at the criminalisation of coca chewing, known as acullico in Bolivia. Shortly afterwards Evo Morales wrote to the UN Secretary General expressing Bolivia’s desire to re-join the Convention, but with a reservation so as to legalise the practice of acullico in Bolivia.
4. Strong economy
Preliminary figures released in January suggest that the Bolivian economy grew by as much as 5.2% in 2012. This compares with 5.1% in 2011 and 4.1% in 2010. The main motor of growth appears to be increased domestic demand rather than an increase in demand for Bolivia’s exports. In his speech to the Legislative Assembly on January 22, Evo Morales, mentioned how this further year’s growth had impacted on GDP per capita (a measure of increased individual wealth) in the various different departments in the seven years in which he has been president.
5. Salida al mar: muddying the waters
Chilean President Sebastián Piñera’s offer to Bolivia of a strip of land along Chile’s northern frontier with Peru appears calculated to further estrange the two countries and to further muddy the waters by linking the issue to the outcome of Peru’s case in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Chile over the two countries’ maritime border.
Bolivia has consistently sought to regain its access to the Pacific, lost as a consequence of the War of the Pacific in the late 19th century.