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BOLIVIA
Protests over lawmaker’s ouster
José Antonio Aruquipa
2/11/2002
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Evo Morales’ removal from office could aggravate the “Chapare coca war.”

Recent rounds of street protests have shown that the thorn in the government’s side was not removed when lawmakers stripped Congressman Evo Morales Ayma, a leader of Bolivian coca growers, of his parliamentary immunity.

Early on Jan. 24, in a 10-hour marathon session, 109 of the 130 members of the lower house of Congress voted to oust Morales, a union leader of coca-growing campesinos in the Chapare region of the central department of Cochabamba, from the legislature.

Five of the seven members of the Ethics Commission ruled that Morales had committed "serious" ethical transgressions by making statements opposing the government’s anti-drug policy.

The prelude to Morales’ ouster took place hundreds of miles from Congress, in Sacaba, a town outside the city of Cochabamba, where soldiers closed down the main coca-leaf market on Jan. 14.

In October, President Jorge Quiroga announced that he would send more troops to the Chapare region, where most of the coca destined for the drug market is grown (LP, Nov. 19, 2001). On Dec. 27, he issued a decree outlawing the drying, transportation and sale of coca leaves in Chapare. The government also closed down about 15 markets where the leaves had been traded.

Confrontations between soldiers and coca growers trying to "retake" the Sacaba market left two campesinos and four soldiers dead and another soldier seriously injured after being beaten by a mob.

Two of the soldiers were allegedly killed by sharpshooters, while the others were abducted from an ambulance on Jan. 17. Two days later, newspapers reported that the kidnapped soldiers had been killed and showed photos of them lying stripped, face down, their bodies showing signs of physical violence.

After the reports were published, and despite calls from the Catholic Church to re-establish dialogue between the government and coca growers, officials tightened the political and military noose around Morales and his followers.

Quiroga said talks could only resume if the soldiers’ killers were turned over to authorities. "If the (coca growers’) leaders don’t do that, either they don’t have authority or they are accomplices," he said.

On Jan. 21, relatives of the murdered soldiers formally asked Rep. Luis Vásquez, president of the lower house of Congress, to have Morales dismissed for "serious ethical transgressions." Later that day, leaders of the political parties’ legislative delegations approved a resolution asking the Ethics Commission to rule on the request within 48 hours.

By law, a Congress member accused on ethical grounds has five days to present defense arguments and 10 days to produce witnesses.

On Jan. 23, Government Minister Leopoldo Fernández presented in Congress press clippings in which Morales was quoted as warning about "a war in Chapare" and "armed uprisings." Fernández also showed video footage of the dead soldiers and accused Morales of being the intellectual author of "these horrendous crimes."

The decision to oust Morales came shortly afterward. Lawmakers who opposed the move said his removal from office violated legislative procedure and lacked legal grounds, and accused the government of bowing to pressure from the United States.

"We are facing a serious dilemma, direct interference by the U.S. Embassy to impose sanctions on Congressman Morales," Rep. Eduardo Paz, of the opposition National Conscience (CONDEPA) movement, told his colleagues on the Ethics Commission.

Gonzalo Aguirre, of the opposition Free Bolivia Movement (MBL), complained that Bolivia "so far hasn’t been able to solve the Chapare problem in a sovereign manner, by consensus and without external pressures."

Since Morales was removed from office, Cochabamba has become the epicenter of protests of support for him. The lawmaker has asked the Constitutional Tribunal to declare his ouster illegal.

Morales, who has been on a hunger strike since leaving Congress, said that when he made the statements that sparked the criticism, he was protected by Article 51 of the constitution, which guarantees politicians immunity for their statements.

Most union and campesino organizations have rallied behind Morales, staging roadblocks and protests in various parts of the country.

Felipe Quispe, executive secretary of the United Union Confederation of Campesino Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB), called for an escalating national strike to begin Jan. 30. Quispe, who is known as "the Mallku," the Aymara word for condor, leads the Pachakuti Indigenous Movement (MIP), a political group that competes with Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) (LP, April 23, 2001).

In his last speech as a member of Congress, Morales warned that his ouster "could provoke a reaction from the people."

Fears of renewed violence were confirmed on Jan. 29, when Marcos Ortíz, a coca grower, died in Chapare after being shot in the back, allegedly by a soldier. Ortiz was participating in a peaceful protest against Morales’ ouster. Another campesino was killed and six were injured Feb. 6 in clashes with police in Chapallata, between Oruro and Potosí.

According to the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights of Bolivia (APDHB), the death brought to 31 the number of coca growers killed in the Chapare "coca war." Fourteen were killed during the four-year administration of former President Hugo Bánzer (1997-2001). Since Quiroga took office Aug. 7 (LP, July 30, 2001), 17 coca growers have been killed.

Sixteen police officers and soldiers have also died.

"The government has a worrisome tendency to use violence, and President Quiroga is responsible for that," Sacha Llorenti, the APDHB’s secretary of legal affairs, said.


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