Protests across Bolivia and President Morales apologises
28 September 2011
Dario Kenner, La Paz
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Today there was a protest of around 10,000 people through the middle of La Paz rejecting the repression committed by the Bolivian police on Sunday 25 September against the march of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples who do not want a road to go through their autonomous territory and national park called TIPNIS (in-depth background). Those who participated included indigenous movements CONAMAQ and CIDOB, miners, teachers, health workers, women’s and environmental groups. There were also protests in Cochabamba, Oruro, Sucre, Tarija, Trinidad, and Potosi.
I heard tonight from contacts that the indigenous peoples will begin their march again early tomorrow morning. It shows their strong determination that they will start marching again so soon after the Bolivian police used forced to try and make the march fail. Earlier today I spoke to Cecilia Moyoviri on the protest in La Paz. She is an indigenous leader from the TIPNIS national park who was on the march that began on 15 August in the Amazonian town of Trinidad headed to the capital La Paz. The first thing she says to me is “we have been repressed but not defeated”. Luckily for her she was not present during the police repression but said “the police did not respect the children”. She is adamant the march will continue and will get to La Paz. She says its aim is to stop any road going through TIPNIS. “TIPNIS cannot be touched, it is the lungs of the earth. If Evo Morales will not go to speak to the march (a demand of the indigenous march that has fallen on deaf ears for over 40 days) then the march has to get to La Paz”.
In his third press conference in three days (a signal of how serious the situation is) President Morales showed humility this evening by apologising to the Bolivian people for the police action and asking for forgiveness from the victims. He said that today´s protests mean the government has to correct its mistakes. He repeated several times “there was not an order from the President” for the police violence. He also stated again that the media (mainly controlled by groups opposed to the government) were hyping up the situation and wildly speculating about deaths. Morales challenged the indigenous marchers and human rights organisations to prove there have been deaths.
The humbleness shown by Evo Morales tonight is a positive sign at a time of fierce debate in Bolivia on the incident on 25 September and the future direction of government policy. By directly responding to the protests today Morales is acknowledging his government have made mistakes and trying to reconnect with grassroots feeling. But this humility was needed a long time ago before this conflict got out of hand and engulfed Bolivia in a profound political crisis. It remains to be seen if it is too little too late because there are still some big questions that are not being answered. If President Morales did not give the order then who did? Why is it taking so long to get an answer on this? The longer this drags on the more it undermines the government.
Morales is correct to question the media for speculating about deaths because there needs to be proof. This situation needs to be resolved as soon as possible. Tensions are running very high amid confusion over whether indigenous marchers died during the police violence. So far the situation is not clear. It is taking time to find out what actually happened because many indigenous peoples escaped the repression and hid in the jungle. Today a committee coordinating the march said there are still three marchers who are missing. The Ombudsman has said he is not able to confirm what has happened yet and it is dangerous to jump to conclusions. The uncertainty explains why marchers in cities like La Paz today shouted shouted “murders” and “we want justice” even if facts are still not clear. Today many children were reunited with their parents in Rurrenabaque. But people are asking why they were they separated in the first place? Many children got lost when they fled into the jungle but I have also heard unconfirmed reports from leaders present at the scene that the police separated men, women and children before forcing them onto buses where they were held for around twelve hours.
The President also called on the indigenous peoples who are going to begin their march again tomorrow to dialogue. From the position of the indigenous marchers why would they dialogue with a government that has just sent in the police against them? The government can say it is open to dialogue but you would have to have a very short memory to really see this as a realistic possibility in the short-term. As Cecilia Moyoviri told me today “we don’t trust Evo anymore”. Despite this mistrust Morales claimed the government will begin a dialogue with the Guarani Peoples Assembly (APG – part of CIDOB) on Monday and hoped this would be the start of dialogue with other lowland indigenous groups. The last time the government said there would be dialogue with the APG in early September it never happened. The claims this time would appear to be strange given that the President of the Guaranis Celso Padilla was one of those detained on Sunday. We will have to wait and see if there is a dialogue on Monday and what the results are.
President Morales went on to repeat the themes of his other two press conferences about the importance of building the road to link up the regions of Cochabamba and Beni and that there are indigenous communities inside the TIPNIS national park that want the road to improve their living standards. Morales said the road through TIPNIS is totally paralysed and vaguely referred to holding a dialogue or debate so a decision can be made on the road. He said the government would respect if all the departments said no to the road. Cecilia Moyoviri told me in the afternoon, “it is worse for an indigenous President to violate indigenous people’s rights and his own Constitution.” Moyoviri strongly rejected any type of consultation or referendum proposed by the government saying the machines of Brazilian company OAS needed to go immediately. The indigenous march rejects a referendum because it would mean people outside the TIPNIS autonomous indigenous would be asked if they wanted a road to go through the national park. The analogy I here often here is that it would be like asking people who are not the owners of a house about making changes.
Here are some of the most common chants today to give you a flavour:
“Sasha Chonchorro” – demanding former Interior Minister go to the prison in La Paz.
“If this is change, then change is shit”
“Careful Evo, the people are angry”
“Evo is shaking, his October is coming” – In reference to mobilizations in October 2003 that brought down President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada who massacred over 60 people.
“They must resign, damn it”
The protest in La Paz congregated in San Francisco square. The speeches by indigenous and trade union leaders called for justice, the resignation of more government ministers and to permanently suspend the section of the planned road through the TIPNIS national park. The march today follows a protest on Monday and on Friday. Each time they get bigger. The indigenous peoples are starting their march to La Paz again tomorrow morning. Based on the fact they had already been marching for over 40 days and still had half the journey to complete it will take them a few weeks to get to La Paz. In that time it is likely there will be more protests in Bolivia´s major cities as a new movement grows around the issues of defending the environment and indigenous peoples rights. But with a diverse array of actors it will not be easy to agree on joint demands – apart from the obvious ones such as rejecting police repression and the right of indigenous peoples to prior consultation.