Bolivia: Three Dead in Capital Conflict

The chaotic conflict over the seat of the capital escalated over the past three days, leaving three people dead and 200 wounded.  The protests once again turned violent with the assembly’s subsequent approval of a draft of a new constitution with the presence of only MAS representatives inside a military installation. 

Source: Andean Information Network

The chaotic conflict over the seat of the capital escalated over the past three days, leaving three people dead and 200 wounded.  The constitutional assembly’s refusal to reopen discussion about the capital issue sparked the protests. The protests once again turned violent with the assembly’s subsequent approval of a draft of a new constitution with the presence of only MAS representatives inside a military installation.  Protests by civic groups spread from Sucre to Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Tarija but, following the established cycle of conflict, the violence in Sucre has at least temporarily subsided.  The issues raised by the clashes and the future of the new constitution will have a profound effect on future political developments, as opposing sectors have become even more firmly entrenched in their positions.

As in the January conflict in Cochabamba, the actions of the MAS government and those of Sucre leaders have exacerbated the situation.  Both groups blame their political opponents for the violence and deaths, while neither has backed down or apologized.  It is important to note, though, that the Bolivian military did not participate in efforts to control the protests, which could have led to a higher death toll.  The police force has formally withdrawn from Sucre to Potosi after pro-Sucre protestors destroyed police vehicles and sacked police installations. 

It is difficult to establish with precision the details of the conflict as the mainstream press has shown a bias in favor of pro-Sucre protestors and journalists have denounced physical abuse from police and threats from unidentified sources.

Suspended assembly reconvenes at military base

During the past three and a half months, attempts to reconvene the Constitutional Assembly in Sucre have been repeatedly thwarted by pro-Sucre protestors demanding the shift of the nation’s capital from La Paz to their city.1  Lowland departmental governments and other opposition groups support Sucre’s demand, apparently in an attempt to weaken the MAS power base.  Beyond the political issues, moving the capital to the small, colonial city would be impractical and costly.  The Sucre Civic Committee and a Pro-Sucre umbrella organization have repeatedly called for protests to put the capital issue on the assembly’s agenda and to prevent the assembly from meeting until it does so.  The sometimes violent protests, which included beatings of some MAS assembly members, have made it impossible for the sessions to take place.  The continual delays have increased pressure on MAS to comply with their campaign promise of a new constitution, as the December 14 deadline to finish proceedings quickly approaches.

Although the assembly planned to convene on November 9, pro-Sucre protestors burned tires and the door of the assembly headquarters the night before the scheduled meeting.  The protestors also surrounded the building and detonated dynamite and firecrackers. The assembly leadership called off the meeting citing safety concerns.2   In response, pro-MAS social movements vowed to go to Sucre to defend the assembly and the new constitution.  On November 14 protests prevented another attempt to reinstate assembly proceedings.

On Friday, November 23, MAS Assembly leadership transferred the proceedings to a military installation on the outskirts of Sucre from the centrally located theater the assembly has met in for the past fifteen months.  The government declared the transfer legal and justified the move due to the lack of a guarantee of safety for assembly members.  However, the change of location infuriated protestors and opposition groups and the conflict escalated.  

MAS aggravates conflict by approving a preliminary constitution

While protests raged just outside the base and throughout the city of Sucre, 136 MAS and allied party assembly members present at the military base voted to approve a draft of the constitution.  At the Saturday, November 24 meeting just 139 of the 255 assembly members attended the meeting representing ten of the sixteen assembly political parties. Opposition members refused to attend the assembly session.

The approved text incorporates articles previously consented to by committees as well as MAS (majority) versions of articles on contentious issues.  Preliminary reports suggest that topics in the draft include:  the four levels of autonomy proposed by MAS (departmental, indigenous, municipal, and regional), state ownership of natural resources, a unicameral legislature, basic services, such as water, as human rights to be administered by public entities, a multiethnic plurinational state, free healthcare and education, the right to private property, the condemnation of large landholdings, the possibility of consecutive reelection of the president and vice president, the creation of referendums to revoke the mandates of elected leaders, referendums to approve international accords, and the intensification of the decentralization process.

MAS political opponents and opposition civic groups immediately announced that they will not accept the new constitutional draft.  The protests that began on Friday intensified and continued through Sunday night.

During the clashes four people died as a result of the protests.  Although the National Police commander stated that no police officers used lethal weapons, news footage showed what appeared to be both plainclothes police officers and civilians with firearms.  

  • Gonzalo Durán Carazani, a 29 year old lawyer and Sucre resident died of a bullet wound in the chest near dawn on Saturday, November 24.  According to Minister of the Presidency, Juan Ramon Quintana, claims that the bullet that killed Duran was from a small caliber weapon, such as a .22, and was not fired by the security forces.  Official autopsy reports have not been released.
  • Juan Carlos Serrudo, a 25 year old carpenter and Sucre resident died from the impact of a tear gas canister in his chest as protestors attempted to enter Traffic Police headquarters on Sunday, November 25.
  • José Luis Cardozo, a 19 year old university student received a bullet wound to the head on Saturday and died the morning of Monday, November 26.
  • Media reports vary on the number of wounded though it appears to be between 100 and 200 and Sucre hospitals are at capacity.
  • Police had announced that protestors lynched Officer Jimmy Quispe Colque on Saturday, November 24 and threw his body into a ravine. On November 27, Officer Quispe was found alive and had been in hiding in Potosi.

Pro-Sucre protestors attack police installations

Protestors attacked the governor’s office, police installations, and the prison.  At the jail, protestors burned police vehicles and freed over 100 prisoners, although alternate accounts suggest that the police liberated them, fearing that protestors would set fire to the building.3   As the attacks against the police worsened, National Police Commander Miguel Vasquez lamented that Sucre civic leaders did nothing to impede or dissuade their followers from attacks on police property.  He further stated that the police had no political position and that since their safety could not be guaranteed, the police forces present would leave Sucre and remain in Potosi until further notice.

Journalists denounced that police insulted and hit them, complaining that they were not reporting the dead and wounded in the police force.

After the police withdrawal, the Sucre Civic Committee called for people to calmly return to their homes.  Due to the lack of police presence and unstable peace in the city, protests may begin again and rapid investigations appear improbable.  

Placing the blame

Both MAS supporters and the opposition continue to deny any responsibility for the conflict, and continue to rely on inflamed rhetoric to blame their opponents instead of proposing compromises or solutions. MAS representatives blamed “fascists” from the opposition for instigating the protests.  In a speech on Sunday, November 25, President Morales requested a full investigation of the protests and lamented that the citizens of Sucre “have been totally manipulated by groups that do not want the profound changes the new constitution will bring.”  He stated that the opposition had raised a series of issues in an attempt to close the assembly, including the 2/3 voting regulations, private property and the location of the capital. “But the capital issue is the worst, without a doubt, it’s a [legitimate] demand of two departments, and we respect that, but now they’ve turned it into purely political issue.”4  

Government Minister Alfredo Rada blamed Sucre civic leaders, Jhon Cava and Jaime Barron for the deaths.  Cava and Barron in turn demanded a trial of responsibilities for Rada, who they claimed was unwilling to negotiate and came to command the repression of the protestors.

In a statement to the press, opposition leader Jorge Quiroga dramatically asked that President Morales not follow the “bad example” of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.  He went on to reject the MAS-approved draft of the constitution stating that it “is worth as much as used toilet paper…A constitution approved in a barracks by MAS members…stained with the blood of the people has no value, it is worth as much as the decrees that (dictator) García Meza and Arce Gomez sent from the barracks.”5  Quiroga did not make reference to the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer, for whom he later served as Vice President.

The governmental and business leaders of six of Bolivia’s nine departments have called a work stoppage for Wednesday, November 28 to protest the constitution approved by MAS and blaming President Morales for the violence in Sucre.  Santa Cruz business leader Branco Marinkovic stated, “We have nothing to do with the violence, the only one responsible is president Morales who sent the armed forces and police to repress his own people.  He gave the order to kill and now wants to wash his hands like Pontius Pilot.”6

Mediating the conflict?

It is unclear what the role of national human rights monitors has been in documenting the violence.  The Human Rights Ombudsman, who is attending a conference in South Africa, offered to mediate in the conflict.  A request for dialogue and investigations from the ombudsman will most likely be rejected by pro-Sucre groups, who perceive him to be too closely allied with the national government.

The Catholic Bishops conference has also emitted a statement offering to mediate, stating, “We ask that the political, social and civic leaders provide guidance to their rank and file by overcoming their biases to work for the pacification and well-being of the nation.”7  Opposition leader Jorge Quiroga’s request for Church mediation will likely lead MAS supporters to reject their offer.

As in previous conflicts, anti-MAS forces have called for intervention from international organizations, hoping that they would chastise the Morales administration.  Santa Cruz Prefect Ruben Costas called for United Nations or Organization of American States- led investigations and intervention in the conflict.  According to the Bolivian Government Information Agency, a spokesperson for the UN confirmed that the organization would intervene only in response to a specific request from the Bolivian government. A UN press release requested that all sides abstain from violence and seek consensus.8  The Minister of the Presidency discounted OAS intervention as unnecessary.  In short, there appears to be no organization or entity that all sides in the conflict trust sufficiently to mediate in the increasingly polarized conflict.

Protests delay assembly further

After the Saturday vote, the assembly president Silvia Lazarte said that the assembly would be on hold indefinitely until a special commission produces a proposal about contentious issues.9   According to assembly procedures, the next step is an article by article vote by the entire plenary. Then a revised draft must be approved by a 2/3 majority of the entire assembly.  In a popular referendum, Bolivian citizens will vote between the majority and minority article proposals for any article that does not achieve a 2/3 approval.  A second referendum will occur to approve the entire constitution.  It’s unclear whether or not the assembly will stick to these procedures and its approved timeline is unclear.  Referring to the approval process, Lazarte stated that, “all of this will be defined once I call a meeting of the assembly leadership.”10

What will happen in the coming weeks remains unclear. The steps taken by MAS to move the process forward and to approve the preliminary text of the constitution in absence of opposition may create greater difficulties and frictions. With the December 14 deadline fast approaching, it remains to be seen whether the opposition will reenter the process. If the opposition continues to boycott the process, the assembly cannot approve anything by 2/3, and thus every one of the 408 articles would have to be sent to the Bolivian public for approval.  This would create almost insurmountable logistic difficulties in a referendum and could result in the further erosion of the legitimacy or the termination of the constitutional assembly.

The future of the constitutional process in Bolivia and a return to political stability in Bolivia depends on the ability of competing forces and interests groups to seek compromise.  There is an acute need to enter into a genuine dialogue about how to peacefully coexist, instead of merely retreating to await future opportunities for conflict.  Sadly, recent events suggest that this possibility is becoming increasingly distant.

1. For more on the ongoing conflict, please read:
AIN. "Bolivian Political Forces Negotiate Constitutional Deadlock."  October 17, 2007.  and
AIN. “Bolivian Conflict: September Stalemate in Sucre.” September 8, 2007.
2. Los Tiempos.  “Fracasó un nuevo intento de reanudar sesiones de la Constituyente.” November 9, 2007.
3. By Monday afternoon, seventy of the hundred escaped prisoners had returned voluntarily.
4. Evo Morales. Palabras del presidente de la República, Evo Morales Ayma, en su mensaje a la nación.”  La Paz. November 25, 2007.
5. La Razón. “La oposición y otros sectores denuncian avasallamiento del MAS” November 26, 2007.
6. Los Tiempos. “Opositores decretan paro cívico en rechazo a nueva constitución de Morales.” November 26, 2007.
7. ABI.  “Iglesia y Defensor ofrecen mediación para pacificar Sucre y piden dejar la violencia.” November 25, 2007.
8. . “UN Chief concerned about escalating violence in Bolivia.” November 27, 2007.
9. ABI. “Alarcón afirma que aprobación en grande de texto constitucional es legal.” November 25, 2007.
10. La Razon. “Evo Morales quiere refrendar la CPE del MAS en un referéndum.” November 26, 2007