Dispatches From The Edge
Feb. 2, 2007
Unrest in Bolivia’s eastern provinces is spreading, as local landlords and the European-origin wealthy elite who dominate the region dig in to resist President Evo Morales efforts to institute land reform and use the region’s natural gas reserves to raise national living standards.
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, with six in 10 people living under the poverty line, a figure that jumps to nine in 10 in rural areas.
Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) won last year’s election on a platform of reclaiming a controlling interest in gas and oil resources, raising fees on foreign mining companies, and turning idle land over to the landless. Gas and oil was successfully nationalized, and income from mining has increased six-fold. As a result, the economy is growing at a respectable 4 percent, and the government has built up a 6 percent budget surplus, which it is using to improve education and subsidize food for the poor.
But an effort to distribute 48 million acres of land has sparked demonstrations in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city and capital of Cochabamba province, where an anti-Morales governor, Manfredo Reyes, is pushing an autonomy referendum. The departments of Pando, Beni, Tarija and Santa Cruz all voted for autonomy in July 2006. Nationwide, however, the autonomy referendum was defeated.
While the Parliament approved the land distribution—10 percent of Bolivia’s families own 90 percent of the land— landlords, backed by powerful multinationals, like Cargill, Monsanto, and Brazilian soybean producers, have mobilized to resist the move.
The tension boiled over in Cochabamba Jan. 10, when local peasants and coca growers marched on the city demanding that Governor Reyes resign after he organized an autonomy referendum. The governor called out the police, who tear gassed demonstrators. A right-wing pro-autonomy group, Youth for Democracy, attacked the demonstrators touching off a riot that killed two and wounded more than 100.
The eastern provinces are the wealthiest part of Bolivia—Santa Cruz alone produces almost half the nation’s wealth—but there is widespread poverty as well, with working class slums sandwiched between malls and skyscrapers. While Indians make up a majority of Bolivia’s population, most of them live in the poorer highlands.
Morales supporters point out that when highland tin was the Bolivian economic engine, the eastern elites supported a centralized government. It was only after natural gas deposits were discovered in the east, and Bolivia elected its first Indian president—Morales is an Aymara—that the eastern departments suddenly decided they wanted autonomy.
An ugly strain of racism has crept into the current standoff. When Morales sacked army commander Marcelo Antezana for unilaterally allowing the U.S. to destroy Bolivia’s supply of Chinese shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, the general railed against Morales’ close ties with Cuba and Venezuela and “Caribbean mulattoes.” Signs dabbed on the walls in Santa Cruz read “Evo, chola de Chavez,” which translates, Evo [Morales] is [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez’s Indian woman.”
MAS is currently attempting to amend the constitution to end a two-thirds rule, which allows the elite minority to block political and judicial reforms. Even though Morales supporters have a majority in the Assembly—255 to 137—the elites have successfully paralyzed the process.
While a nationwide referendum on autonomy was defeated in the last election, the eastern provinces are forging ahead anyway. Some in the region suspect that secession is the real goal, quietly supported by landlords in neighboring Paraguay, as well as by the Bush Administration.
Any land distribution in Bolivia is likely to reverberate in Paraguay, which has the most unequal land ownership in the hemisphere: 1 percent of the population controls 77 percent of the land. Unequal access to land is already causing unrest in Paraguay.
And as for the Bush Administration, two years ago it began a campaign against Morales, accusing him of being a cat’s paw for Cuba and Venezuela. The administration has also increased the U.S. military presence in the triple border area of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, including deploying Special Forces in Paraguay.
If an east-west civil war breaks out, the Bush Administration is likely to be right in the middle of it.
(For further information on Bolivia and Latin America in general, go to upsidedownworld.org, the best source of information on the hemisphere)
Can things get worse in Iraq? Considerably, particularly in the north where Turkey appears to be massing troops on the border.
Behind the sudden surge of military activity is a classified report by Turkey’s National Intelligence Service entitled “Iraq, Terror, Kirkuk, and the PKK.”The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has waged a long political and military campaign against Turkey’s mistreatment of its Kurdish minority.
Ankara is currently upset because it accuses the Kurds of trying to absorb the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as part of a Kurdish autonomous zone by forcing Arabs and Turkic-speaking Turkmen out the city. According to the Intelligence Service, some 600,000 Kurds have moved into the city, and 200,000 Turkmen have been forced out.
Der Spiegel reports that “Ankara is thinking aloud about a possible military intervention in northern Iraq,” a conclusion echoed by leading Turkish figures.
On Jan. 9, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said, “There are efforts to alter the demographic structure of Kirkuk. We cannot remain a bystander to such developments. Turkey… will not remain indifferent to developments in Kirkuk.”
Even the Turkish opposition Republican People’s Party is on board. Party leader Deniz Baykal says, “We are ready to back the government [on intervention]. We’re planning to invite parliament to debate this.”
The possibility that a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would invade an American-occupied Iraq seems a stretch unless you take into account Turkey’s profound paranoia about its eastern borders, where Kurds constitute a major part of the population. There are approximately 25 million Kurds scattered between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, and Turkey fought a long and bloody war with the PKK in the mid-1980s that killed 30,000 people and razed 3.000 villages. On a number of occasions Turkish troops crossed the Iraqi border pursuing Kurdish guerillas.
But since the end of the 1992 Gulf War, Kurds in northern Iraq have established a well-organized autonomous region with some of the largest oil reserves in Iraq. If they can successfully win autonomy referenda in Mosul and Kirkuk, the Kurds will be awash in petrodollars and, Turkey fears, set an example to Kurds in neighboring countries to push for an independent nation.
Ankara is worried that the PKK will rev up another round of war in eastern Turkey, although the Turks spurned a ceasefire offer last year from the PKK. The Turks are angry that the U.S. is not going after the PKK, but since the U.S. and Israel are using the PKK to try to destabilize Kurdish parts of Iran, Washington is not about to abandon them.
It may be the Turks are just saber rattling to try to get the referendum called off (as the Iraq Study Group suggested), but they may also hope to prod the U.S. into taking more aggressive action against the PKK. Whatever Turkey has in mind, no one should be surprised if Ankara sends troops into Iraq to attack their long-time nemesis. Such an invasion will likely unite the Kurds, who have reason to fear and hate Turkey, and ignite a free-for-all in northern Iraq.
Oh, and according to the Inter Press Service, Shiia tribes in southern Iraq are joining the resistance against the British, the main reason why London is talking about “cutting and running” from Basra.
Can things get worse? Alas, yes.