Eight other presidents (from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela) attended the meeting convened by Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, the pro tempore president of UNASUR. In the absence of their presidents, Peru's delegation was led by its Foreign Minister and Guyana and Suriname were represented at ambassadorial level. Also invited to attend was the Secretary General of the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza, who departed after the meeting for La Paz, Bolivia, to urge dialogue between the government and opposition groups.
But UNASUR did NOT allow the participation of opposition governors of the eastern Bolivian provinces, all of whom had appealed to Bachelet for permission to attend.
The six-hour session in Santiago produced some promising initial results. Soon after it concluded, Evo Morales' government and the rebel leaders of the country's hydrocarbon-rich eastern "Media Luna" [or "Half Moon"] provinces of Tarija, Pando, Beni and Santa Cruz agreed to participate in mediation led by Bachelet and Brazil's President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva. According to Morales, it was "the first time in history that we South Americans are deciding to solve the problems of South America."
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, emphatically echoed this feeling: "For the first time in our history, we, the South Americans, are demonstrating that we are capable of understanding each other and searching for common solutions."
And even before the meeting convened, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa summed up the position of UNASUR: "We all know very well what is happening in Bolivia. These ghosts that we believed had been banished from the region have returned in other forms, with other clothing. We will never accept dictators or the breaking of the democratic order. We came here to give our unconditional support to democracy in Bolivia."
- Bachelet told her colleagues that UNASUR members could assist in bringing the sides together while supporting the efforts of the Bolivian people and of the Bolivian government to "head towards a guarantee of their democratic process and stability and peace in Bolivia."
In their final declaration, the leaders stated firmly that they would not recognise any situation "that implies an intent of civil coup d'etat" aimed at breaking the constitutional order and compromising the territorial integrity of Bolivia. This was a clear message against any secessionist aims of the rightwing opposition forces in the eastern provinces who vehemently oppose Morales. They also firmly denounced attacks on and unlawful occupation of government installations by groups seeking to destabilise Bolivia's democracy and demanded their immediate evacuation as a condition for the start of the dialogue process.
Their declaration also condemned the massacre of 17 persons in the Pando province for which the government blamed the local anti-Morales governor. In addition, they called on all political and social groups involved in acts of violence, intimidation, attacks on democratic institutions and established judicial order to immediately cease those actions
Further, they urged a dialogue in Bolivia to overcome the current situation and search for a sustainable solution. In this respect, the leaders of UNASUR formed three commissions to deal with the conflict. One commission will investigate the Pando massacre, another will coordinate "logistical" support for the Bolivian government, and the third will help mediate dialogue between President Morales and the opposition groups who are demanding full autonomy for the eastern provinces.
Last August, Morales and Bolivia's four "separatist" provincial governors faced "recall" referendums on their terms in office. Morales's presidency was ratified by an overwhelming two-thirds majority of voters in that process. At the same time, the mandates of the governors of the eastern provinces, where violence broke out recently, were also ratified. Since then, the opposition forces have used the referendum to strengthen their demand for regional autonomy and have launched sabotage attacks against Morales' government.
For several days, clashes between government supporters and opponents raised tensions, with opposition backers seizing government buildings and staging roadblocks and demonstrations to demand greater regional autonomy. These clashes led to the killing of the 17 pro-Morales indigenous farmers in Pando. This situation led to the declaration of a state of siege in the province and, ultimately, to the expulsion of American ambassador Philip Goldberg who was accused by Morales of supporting the opposition separatists.
The eastern opposition governors and their supporters have also expressed opposition to Morales' decision to have sales taxes from oil and gas controlled directly by the central government, instead of being managed by the respective provincial administrations. They have also opposed Morales' plan to revise the constitution to give greater rights to the indigenous majority – a proposal which they label as "communist". For his part, the president does not recognize as legal and valid the earlier referendums held in the eastern provinces where the population voted for autonomy from the central government.
The political tension has also highlighted the sharp ethnic divisions in the country where the highland indigenous Amerindians, forming the great majority of the population, provide the strength of Morales' political support. The eastern provinces are populated mainly by people of European descent who form the bulk of the opposition supporters, even though Morales, an Amerindian, in the recall referendum received majority support in Pando province and more than 40 percent in the others. Understandably, neighboring countries such as Brazil, Peru, Chile, Paraguay and Argentina are greatly concerned about the crisis since it is hampering their gas imports from Bolivia.
Infrastructure authorities, such as port terminal operators, are also worried about the effects the crisis will have on Bolivian exports, while countries such as Brazil and Paraguay are already having problems with their routes to port terminals on the Pacific Ocean. Regional authorities are also apprehensive about foreign intervention and the effect this might have on investment and integration initiatives such as railway and highway networks, and on the region's economic scenario in general.
For Brazil, particularly, the Bolivian situation can have serious effects. A continuation of the crisis would hit Brazil very hard if there is a stoppage of natural gas supplies from eastern Bolivia. And Brazil certainly does not want civil unrest in these areas near its western border. Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay are the chief clients of Bolivian natural gas and up to mid-September supplies were reduced due to attacks on gas pipelines and by the occupation of petroleum plants by supporters of the opposition. But not only economic interests are at stake. The integration process in South America can be seriously compromised if secessionist movements in Bolivia and elsewhere in South America manage to gain ground.
Also at issue in Bolivia is the threat of internal violence. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, recently issued a report condemning the violent actions of the opposition groups, warning that the rightists governors in the eastern provinces were endangering democracy and human rights throughout the country.
The Santiago meeting is already producing some positive results. Dialogue between the Morales and the opposition umbrella group, the National Democratic Council, re-convened in the eastern city of Cochabamba on September 16. Facilitators for the talks include UNASUR, the OAS, the UN, the European Union and the Roman Catholic Church.
Shortly after this first meeting, the opposition grouping said 80 percent of the preconditions necessary to initiate a dialogue with the government had been settled, but so far the opposition governors have refused to sign a preliminary agreement aimed at ending violence There was a further shift towards understanding on September 19 when Morales offered to include eastern provinces' autonomy demands in his proposed new constitution. This proposal immediately raised hopes for a solution to the country's political crisis.
The South American Presidents attending the UN General Assembly in New York met on September 24 to review the situation, and President Bachelet later declared that UNASUR had received strong backing from the European Union for its efforts to safeguard Bolivia's democracy. Undoubtedly, the South American leaders anticipate a resolution to the crisis, and if a positive result emanates from the current dialogue in Bolivia, it will certainly prove that UNASUR can have an influential role in conflict resolution within the continental community.
Dr. Odeen Ishmael
(The writer is Guyana's ambassador to Venezuela. The views expressed are solely those of the writer).
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