Bolivia news bulletin (BIF)

Bolivia Information ForumLink to June 2013 new bulletin

1. Strikes and blockades organised by trade unions in pension protest

Bolivia Information Forum

Bolivia Information Forum

After several days of strikes, protests and negotiations, President Evo Morales has withstood heavy pressure from Bolivia’s union confederation, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), to raise pensions for miners and other sectors.   The COB demanded an increase to 8,000 bolivianos (£743) annually for miners, and 5,000 bolivianos (£464) for other sectors.  The government offered 4,000 and 3,200 bolivianos respectively (£372/£297), saying that any more would risk the financial sustainability of its pension scheme.

The conflict saw miners, teachers and health workers take to the streets of La Paz, while roadblocks and strikes took place across the country.  The government strongly condemned the COB-led national strike, with Minister for the Presidency Juan Ramón Quintana accusing some union leaders of using “the language of a coup d’etat.”  In response to the pension increase demands, President Morales said that while ‘we all want to earn more, we have to be realists’.  Police were deployed to break up blockades in Cochabamba and La Paz, leading to several arrests and injuries, while workers at the state-run Huanani mine joined the La Paz protests, paralysing tin production and costing several million dollars.

Other social sectors in Bolivia organised counter-marches in favour of the government.  Representatives of the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB), and the Confederación de Mujeres Campesinas y Originarias Bartolina Sisa marched in La Paz to reject the blockades and mobilisations organised by the COB, while coca workers also protested in favour of the government in Cochabamba.  At a rally in La Paz, Morales strongly criticised the COB leaders, accusing them of being at the service of imperialism, capitalism and neoliberalism.

After 16 days of protest, COB leaders agreed to lift the strike for 30 days to allow time to analyse a government offer to reform the current pensions system. Union leaders negotiated for several days in La Paz with officials from the labour and finance ministries, during which the union lowered its demand on pensions to 4,900 bolivianos for miners and 3,700 bolivianos  (£455 and £344 respectively) for other sectors.  It remains to be seen whether permanent settlement can be reached.

2. Bolivia’s maritime demand formally presented to the International Court of Justice

The Bolivian government has started formal proceedings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague in its long-standing argument with Chile over access to the Pacific.  In the claim presented to the ICJ, Bolivia has requested that the Court oblige Chile “to negotiate in good faith and effectively with Bolivia in order to reach an agreement granting Bolivia a fully sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean”.   The Court has agreed to assess the claim, and has called on representatives of both countries to meet in mid-June to agree the next steps of the process, including deadlines for the presentation of documents and evidence.

The dispute between the two countries has its roots in the 1879-83 War of the Pacific, which resulted in the loss by Bolivia of its 400km coastline and over 120,000km2 in territory (previous BIF bulletin).  Chile claims that Bolivia’s demand to the ICJ has no legal basis, since both countries signed the 1904 Treaty of Peace and Friendship that fixed national boundaries.  However, President Morales has questioned the terms under which the treaty was signed, and recently argued that ‘war does not award rights’.  In Chile, Foreign Minister Alfred Moreno said that his country was under no obligation to negotiate, a position reiterated by President Sebastian Piñera. Candidates in Chile’s November presidential elections have also criticised Bolivia’s decision to take the case to The Hague.

In an official statement, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca insisted that the decision to take the case to the ICJ should not be considered an unfriendly act, and had only been taken due to the lack of willingness on Chile’s part to negotiate over access.    Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, the judge and former president who is heading Bolivia’s legal team in The Hague, has estimated that the ICJ will take around three to four years to reach a final decision.  Chile has appointed its own representative to the ICJ, Felipe Bulnes, the country’s current ambassador to the USA. Chile is currently waiting to hear the decision of the ICJ in the case brought in 2008 by Peru over its maritime boundary, a dispute also stemming from the War of the Pacific.

3. Third presidential term for Morales declared admissible by constitutional court 

The Plurinational Constitutional Court (Tribunal Constitucional Plurinacional, TCP) has declared that President Morales is eligible to run for a third consecutive term.  Although current rules allow for only for two terms, the TCP argued that Morales’s first mandate should not be taken into account, as it took place before the adoption of the new constitution in 2009.

In its ruling, the TCP said that it was ‘absolutely reasonable’ to compute presidential terms from the time the new constitution came into affect, as this was the beginning of  ‘a new political-juridical era based on the re-founding of the State’. The decision disregards the transitional provision secured by the opposition during negotiations on the 2009 constitution, which sought to include Morales’s first period in office in any calculation of presidential terms. The ruling of the court paves the way for a presidential campaign by Evo Morales and current vice-president Álvaro García Linera, but has met with considerable criticism.

Samuel Doria Medina, leader of the Unidad Nacional party, condemned the TCP decision, and said that legally the president should have held a referendum on a constitutional amendment to enable his re-election, but that he ‘feared’ the people.  To the dismay of her own party, MAS deputy Rebeca Delgado also remarked that a referendum would have been a preferable option, but she did not reject the TCP’s ruling. Former president Carlos Mesa questioned the court’s description of 2009 as a ‘refounding’ of the nation, asking if this meant that current legislation sanctioned under the old constitution should still be considered valid.  According to other critics, Morales had himself ruled out a third term in 2008 in order to secure opposition support for a plebiscite to ratify the new constitution.

4. USAID expelled from Bolivia

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been ordered to leave Bolivia after President Morales accused the organisation of interfering in the domestic affairs in the country.  Morales announced the expulsion at a May Day rally, during which he claimed the agency’s projects were funded ‘with political, not social, aims’.  He also said the decision was a protest against US Secretary of State John Kerry’s description of Latin America as his country’s ‘backyard’.  Morales has pledged to provide state support for the continuation of USAID’s various development programmes in Bolivia.

Although no specific incident is thought to have triggered the expulsion, MAS officials have suggested that USAID sought to undermine social movements in at least eight different projects.  The agency, which had a budget of $26.7 million for projects in Bolivia in 2011, was also accused by the minister of the presidency, Juan Ramón Quintana, of lacking transparency in its operations.  Quintana stated that ‘rigorous investigations’ had shown that the agency was protecting strategic interests rather than working for poorest members of Bolivian society, and said USAID had subcontracted projects to former members of the CIA and Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA), which was itself expelled from the country in 2008. The US embassy in La Paz said it regretted the decision to expel USAID, arguing that the agency had fully coordinated its projects with the Bolivian government in line with the National Plan for Development.  USAID has rejected the ‘baseless allegations’ made about its conduct.

The expulsion of the development agency represents a setback for diplomatic relations between Bolivia and the USA, after gradual improvement in recent years. In 2011, the Bolivian Legislative Assembly ratified a Framework Agreement with the USA, which sought to foster cooperation in a number of areas, including commerce, investment and the fight against narcotics (see previous BIF briefing), and it remains uncertain this will be affected.   Meanwhile the US administration announced that the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) of the Embassy in La Paz would be closing; this is in line with the reduction of US funds given to drug eradication over recent years.

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