On the Visa Issue

I am not a terrorist.” – sign on the National Mall, treatment April 2006

On that crisp April afternoon on the National Mall in Washington, DC, the multitude of Latinos and their families draped themselves in American flags, flags from their homeland and waved handwritten signs. Some of those placards pleaded for better treatment for undocumented immigrants, and some responding to the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, reiterated that the vast majority of documented and undocumented immigrants were here in this country to work, and not for some nefarious reason. They resented the fact that many equated them with those other foreign visitors that have entered the country with the sole intention of harming innocent people.

Earlier this week I logged onto my computer and caught a glimpse of a surprise headline in the digital version of Los Tiempos. The announcement that the Bolivian government would now require U.S. citizens to apply for a visa to visit the country instantly affected me. Limiting the rationale to reciprocity would have made it a little easier to swallow. Every country has a right to control their borders and know who is entering their country. Sure, it is a headache, but if you really want to visit, then it shouldn’t be too big of a deal. When I visited the Brazilian consulate in Cochabamba, the visa would cost nearly $100 and was in place because of said reciprocity logic. There was no complaint from me, but the official at the consulate made sure I knew why I was applying. “You (the U.S.) make us apply for visas, so that is why you have to,” said the visibly upset staff member. This unsolicited answer to a question I never asked really defeats the purpose.

However, reciprocity is only half of the answer. Other countries like Canada, Australia, and Bolivian ally, Venezuela all require citizens to apply for visas, but they are exempt from this new rule. When asked about this incongruency, especially of Venezuela, President Morales responded, “The Venezuelans don’t come to kill anyone here.”

The direct reference was to the unfortunate, yet obviously freak occurrence that took place earlier this year, when Tristen Jay Amero aka Claudius Lestat de Orleans detonated bombs in a La Paz hotel leaving two Bolivians dead. Soon after the news spread about this explosion, the official government response was one of suspicion. It had feared that it was an attack masterminded by the United States. As news leaked out about the tragic, strange and nonsensical past of the bomber, it became quite apparent that it was the work of a psychologically ill man. It is sad to think that it hasn’t been apparent enough to the government. Yes, in theory, the attack was by a U.S. citizen (even though he renounced his citizenship and was traveling with a World Service Authority passport), the percentage of the tens of thousands U.S. citizens that have committed murder in Bolivia is miniscule

Is that enough for a drastic change in policy or what is the real issue here?

I guess, at this point, I too resent the fact that I may be lumped into a category of people that are deemed to want to hurt Bolivia. I echo Miguel’s sentiments that this rule especially hurts Bolivian-Americans, a group of people that truly have stronger ties to the country than the regular U.S. citizen. Even though I was born in the United States to two Bolivian parents, I do consider Cochabamba to be my hometown. I have spent enough time there over the past six years to feel much more at home there, and it has always been my goal to return someday to work to make the country a better place. Fortunately, the Bolivian government now allows for dual citizenship. However, due to the new rule, many do not know how to obtain this special privilege. My next trip to Bolivia will be in February, and I am hoping that I will never have to apply for a visa to enter my own country.

Latest Bolivia News

Towering over La Paz Mayor Juan del Granado, Mexican President Vicente Fox (standing six-foot-five) was given the key to the city and the prestigious Condor of the Andes. However, his visit was not well received by all. Several MAS Congressmen showed their discontent with Fox’s visit. (Picture here)

En esa sesión, los diputados Iván Morales, Germán Yucra, Félix Santos, y el senador Bonifaz Bellido, todos del MAS, se pusieron pasamontañas, como las que usan los zapatistas de México. Luego explicaron que fue una señal de desaprobación a la gestión de Fox. Así recibieron a un invitado oficial del Estado boliviano, durante una sesión de honor.

Yet, Fox’s visit was deemed successful as an eye-opening trade deal to export 400,000 tons of soya was signed, which could also open the door to a possible sale of Bolivian gas to Mexico.

At the press conference held on Tuesday, Fox acknowledged Bolivia’s support for the Mexican candidate Ernesto Derbez to head up the Organization of American States. He also recognized Bolivia’s call for a return of access to the sea.

“Este mismo concepto, el concepto de la unidad, nos lleva precisamente a trabajar con vehemencia, con convicción y con pasión para apoyar esta demanda marítima, este diferendo que hay entre estos dos países”, afirmó sobre la demanda marítima boliviana.

All of this talk of trade between two Latin American countries comes at a time when Congress and the President have a tough decision on what to do with the gas reserves.

Under the current law, Bolivia has one of the lowest royalty rates in the world; the new legislation would bring it in line with other Latin American countries, which charge on average from 25 percent up to more than 50 percent in levies, said Victor Hugo Carazas, senior adviser to the Bolivian Congress on the gas issue.

See the Economist magazine’s graphic on the comparison across Latin America.

So far, the Senate passed a law that would require 18% royalties plus a 32% flat tax, which would obligate the companies to adhere to this new change. Now Mesa must decide whether to sign or veto.

If the Lower House approves the measure as expected, the president may make good on a threat to veto the bill, and brace for explosive street protests. If he signs what the oil sector denounces as a ”confiscatory law,” companies have threatened to take the country to international arbitration, where industry analysts say Bolivia will likely lose. And Mesa could face protests anyway from those who think the royalties are not high enough.

Some sectors are calling for a full-scale nationalization. Perhaps the law passed by the Senate is a compromise as they are banking on the fact that the companies may be bluffing. They argue that the reserves are far too large to ignore.

”A beggar sitting on a throne of gold” is how a former Bolivian secretary of energy describes his country’s frustrating predicament.

Now the question is how much of that gold will the beggar receive?

Genocide It Is

What do you think of when you hear the word – genocide? Auschwitz, Darfur, Rwanda? How about Goni and El Alto? The Attorney General’s office in Bolivia has six months to present the case of genocide against former President Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada.

The Bolivian Congress insisted he should be accused of genocide – a term usually reserved for the systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial or ethnic group.

Two of his ministers, Carlos Sanchez Berzain and Yerko Kukoc were also named in these charges. His entire cabinet has also been named as accomplices. The charges stem from the deaths of 60 in El Alto and approximately 200 injured during the unrest of October 2003. Goni and Sanchez Berzain currently reside in the United States and may face extradition

Top Ten Bolivia Stories of 2004

In the most unofficial of formats, here are ten stories that stood out in my memory in 2004.

Bolivia Gas Referendum

For the first time in over 70 years, Bolivia participated in a direct democratic exercise. Even though the vaguely-worded questions left the door open for broad interpretation, democracy in Bolivia shifted, if only for one day. The vast majority of Bolivians did not heed the call to boycott the vote or burn ballot boxes. No longer were Bolivians reliant on representatives that really didn’t represent them at all. The peaceful exercise of democracy dominated all 9 departments. Each of the five questions passed decisively. However, in the six months since the final vote was cast, Bolivia still does not have a new Hydrocarbons Law.

Most of Congress has intepreted the results as a mandate to nationalize all of the hydrocarbons, including obligating all multinational companies to change the existing contracts. President Mesa is looking to pass a more moderate Law. This will be the most pressing issue in the beginning of 2005.

New Actors in Municipal Elections

Incumbents reigned supreme on December 5th. In the cities of El Alto and La Paz, voters turned their backs on violent social movement leaders (de la Cruz) and embraced a (minor) political party (Movimiento Sin Miedo), respectively. In the other two major urban centers, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, it was business as usual. Alliances were formed in exchange for patronage rights. For the first time in Bolivian history, indigenous groups and citizen groups were given the right to participate in the elections without being part of a political party. Even though many of these citizen groups operated as political parties, with many ex-politicos, they were seen as an alternative. MAS was the political party that received the highest total of votes, yet fell short in winning one of the four major urban cities.

Goni on Trial

After a lengthy debate in Parliment, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to place Goni on trial. Mind you this vote took place in full campaign mode, where very decision, stance, and vote had the upcoming municipal elections in mind. Some politicians tried to capitalize on Goni’s basement favorable ratings. Many speculate that Goni cannot receive a fair trial in Bolivia, because he has already been found guilty in the court of public opinion. Just recently attorneys began interviewing key actors. Shouldn’t the investigation take place before placing someone on trial? Some speculate that Goni may be extradited, but threats on his life may provide him with asylum.

The Call For Autonomy

I’ll never get tired of repeating myself: Autonomy and decentralization is a great concept. Who else is better to understand and meet the needs of local people, than local governments? However, it has become evident that those individuals and groups (CAINCO and other elite businessmen) pushing for the autonomy solution, are only doing so because they want to form their own centralist power structures. Just take a look at the coalition that was formed in Santa Cruz. Both Ivo Kuljis and Oscar Vargas would benefit greatly from the consolidation of power.

Tens of thousands of Cruceños were duped in believing in that these leaders were pushing for autonomy out of no ulterior motive. However, these leades are very shrewd and know how to appeal using populism and at times, playing the race card. Bolivia is not ready for such a widespread decentralization. There are no mechanisms to ensure that such a top-down centralist type of government wouldn’t take place on local levels.

Bolivar Reaching International Final

As much as it pains me to include them, most of the country set aside allegiances to their own local club team to root for a Bolivian representative. Bolivar, the La Paz club, beat Aurora (BOL), Concepcion (CHI), Arsenal (ARG), and LDU (ECU) to face the most successful South American team, Boca Juniors. However, Bolivar did not take advantage of their home field. Only winning 1-0, Bolivar then headed to Buenos Aires where they lost 0-2.

Mesa Continues to Ask for Sea

We saw President Carlos Mesa everywhere, making the loss of access to the sea as a central issue. At every international gathering, Mesa asked that his Latin American friends join him in pushing Chile into returning the sea to Bolivia. Even President Hugo Chavez said that he hopes someday to be swimming on a Bolivian beach. Recently the Bolivian strategy has shifted from a multilateral approach to seeking dialogue bilaterally with Chile. No changes are imminent. But for now, Bolivians will have to resort to basking in the sun in Arica or Iquique (Chile).

Lynching in Ayo Ayo

The unspeakable took place just months after a similar even took place in Ilave, Peru. The late Bejamin Altimirano, mayor of Ayo Ayo, was kidnapped in La Paz and driven back to his hometown of Ayo Ayo. There, he was beaten, tortured and ultimately burned to death. Claims of communal justice tried to mask savagry. Many claim that Altimirano was a corrupt public official, but that never justifies the horrendous crime that painted Bolivians as heartless and lawless. Members of the Movimiento Sin Tierra are still behind bars for their role in the murder.

Evo and Mesa, an Unlikely Team

Some said that Evo was an unofficial part of the government from the way he was acting. Cries of “sell-out” appeared not to faze Evo, who knew that his more moderate position would work well in the upcoming elections. In comparison to radical leftists like Jaime Solares and Felipe Quispe, Evo really didn’t seem so bad. Evo came out in favor of the Referendum, maybe because he knew that the vague questions could help his cause. After the Referendum, Evo and MAS reverted back to their roles in the opposition. Mesa continues to govern without a political party and has alienated some in Congress. However, his relationship with Evo Morales and MAS has been one of the most important factors in Mesa lasting 2004.

Miss Bolivia’s Comments

What seemed to be comments lost in translation turned into an international incident. Miss Bolivia, Gabriela Oviedo, offended many Bolivians by generalizing both those from the Western side of the country, as well as those in the East. Clearly Bolivia enjoys a multi-ethnic and pluralist country, but her comments were very disparaging. However, some of the reactions passed along through forwarded emails or jokes making the rounds often played up on these generalizations. It really shouldn’t have made a big deal of, but one of the reasons it made this list was because of the reaction generated.

My Return to Bolivia

In October, I returned to Bolivia after a yearlong absence. I found a more optimistic Bolivia upon my return. Things were still tough for many people struggling with unemployment and underemployment. Still I felt that Bolivia was my home. Hopefully I will be heading back to Bolivia semi-permanently sometime in 2005. Plus, in 2004 Barrio Flores was born.

Andean Free Trade Agreement

Negotiations resumed yesterday in Tucson, sales Arizona for the Andean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) involving the Andean countries of Ecuador, tadalafil Colombia, clinic and Peru. Bolivia is participating as an observer. The trade in question not only includes goods and products crossing respective borders, but may also include measures to deregulate and privatize essential services such as water service, telecommunications, roads, and health care (in Latin America, obviously).
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No Ruling on Aguas del Tunari Case Yet

Speculation arose last month that the international tribunal, recipe (Icsid) from the World Bank was ready to hand down a ruling concerning Aguas del Tunari. Speculation also followed that the ruling wouldn’t be very favorable for Bolivia. As you may remember, the “Guerra del Agua” in Cochabamba forced the Banzer adminstration to scrap privatization plans for that city’s water system. In turn, the consortium, with Bechtel at the forefront, sued the Bolivian government, a move now legal because of a previously-signed agreement.

However, no ruling appears imminent. In addition, it appears as if Bechtel has reached an agreement with the Bolivian government, but the other member of the consortium is still looking for financial damages.

The deputy minister denied there was any substance in local press reports that the government was on the point of losing the case, meaning it would have to pay US$25mn in compensation.

“The tribunal has not yet decided whether it is competent to hear the case let alone decide its merit,” he said.

What made the murmurings even more a cause for concern was that in coincided with the debate about the Hydrocarbons Law. Some said the rumors of a huge cash reward to the consortium was a sign of things to come, if and when, the Congress forced the oil companies to adhere to the new law unwillingly.

Bolivia – Week in Review

A bomb rocks the Ministry of Defense in La Paz. Fortunately, the explosion took place at night and no one was injured. This was the latest explosion by dynamite in the last ten days. Other targets included a military installation and the television channel P.A.T., which current President Carlos Mesa was one of the founding members. These explosions, in which a former ministry official in the Banzer/Quiroga adminstration was arrested for his participation, coupled with rumors of another coup involving the U.S. Embassy have brought added tension to the political landscape.

Gas is discovered in the Department of Potosi, which is a blessing and curse at the same time. Whether or not this gas will be industralized or exported may be a moot point. Officials say that this gas is already owned by Zapata Corporation, which is a multinational corporation where former President George H.W. Bush owns a large holding. Ministry of Hydrocarbons officials say that the detail is untrue. This could make the issue even more polarizing.

Mexican President Vicente Fox will swing by after a trip to Peru. These bilateral and regional talks will mostly center on the hydrocarbon export issue.

A “Guerra del Agua” Part II may be brewing in El Alto. The privatized water service, Aguas del Illimani, has been the target of an association of Neighborhood groups (FEJUVE), which says that the company has not been completing its duties. The private company employs 400 Bolivians and has already invested $63 million dollars in the city. The Superintendent of Basic Sanitation says that Aguas del Illimani has met all of its measurable goals, but there will be an evaluation to review the Neighborhood Groups’ complaints. FEJUVE has announced a possible strike for this coming week.

On a brighter note, Bolivar took home an important point from Quito in la Ida(first leg) of the Copa Sudamericana semifinals. Down 0-1, Argentine forward Horacio Chiorazzo struck a perfect ball that beat the Liga Deportiva – Quito goalkeeper giving la Academia an excellent opportunity to win this Thursday night. The winner gets a chance to play the Boca Juniors (Arg) – Internacional (Bra) winner.

Resource Webpage

I ran across a great website: enlared.org, which provides great information regarding municipalities, legislation and other public information. Over the weekend, I am going to spend some time investigating. An example of some information I found:

Monthly (Official) Salaries for the Mayor (2003):

Santa Cruz: Bs. 20875 ($2,609 USD)
La Paz: Bs. 19500 ($2,437 USD)
Cochabamba: Bs. 16000 ($2,000 USD)
El Alto: Bs. 9600 ($ 1,200 USD)

Minimum National Wage: Bs. 440 ($55 USD)

Note: Miguel B. asked whether the numbers were correct. I had to double check that the amount given was a monthly wage and not an annual wage. This article in El Deber shows that the mayor’s salary is 47 times that of the minimum montly wage.

Bolivia Makes Millenium Challenge List

Bolivia is one of 16 countries that have qualified to receive aid from the Millenium Challenge Corporation for the coming year. Because of its place as one of the world’s poorest countries and because it shows sign of stability (in comparison with places in complete chaos), Bolivia can stand to receive grant money from the estimated $2.5 billion dollar pot.

Countries eligible must submit proposals outlining specific projects that the money will be used towards. However, the basis on which countries will be approved will be how sound their economic policies are (i.e. making sure the hydrocarbons law doesn’t radically change). From the MCC website:

Reward Good Policy: Using objective indicators, countries will be selected to receive assistance based on their performance in governing justly, investing their citizens, and encouraging economic freedom.

Privatization?

Nevertheless, this is a great opportunity to have a bit more leverage so that governments and politicians can improve efficiency and reduce corruption. But on the other hand, this is the type of coercion that the IMF and World Bank employ, essentially making decisions for the governments in exchange for aid.

Incidents of Violence in Santa Cruz

Even though, discount the strike in Santa Cruz was a relative success in the eyes of the regional “leaders”, ed as predicted there were strong-armed tactics and violence towards those that did not choose to join the strike.

En las ediciones meridianas, mind los medios televisivos cruceños mostraron imágenes de grupos de brigadistas que emplearon chicotes para obligar a los transportistas que no acataron el paro a detenerse, e incluso pincharon llantas para evitar que los motorizados se pongan en marcha. En otros puntos de bloqueo se vio a personas en estado de ebriedad que controlaban el cumplimiento de la medida de presión

These are the same tactics used in the Occident that many in Santa Cruz mock in disdain. They claim that this is what separates them from the rest of the country. But in the end, the tactics are the same.