In La Paz
In June 2009, the Bolivian state-run newspaper Cambio reported that Alán García, the then president of Peru, had accused Boliva’s president, Evo Morales, of inciting genocide against the Peruvian police force. Morales had expressed solidarity with inhabitants of the Peruvian Amazon opposed to the multinational corporate exploitation of the region’s resources.
Since then, Morales seems to have adjusted his position on both environmentalism and the rights of indigenous peoples. There are plans to build a highway through Bolivia’s Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). The government has portrayed the road’s opponents as politically motivated allies of US imperialism, and the police have cracked down violently on protesters. The road would benefit Brazilian energy companies and coca-growing Morales supporters who have moved into the area.
Cambio has meanwhile cast the Bolivian police as the victims in a confrontation with disabled protesters in La Paz last month. The protesters arrived in the city at the end of a 1000-mile march to request an annual disability subsidy of 3000 Bolivianos (around $400). Amnesty International drew attention to reports that the police had used electric shocks and pepper sprays indiscriminately on the crowd. Cambio dwelled on the injuries sustained by the police and blamed the violence on a group of infiltrados posing as disabled people.
Having watched the marchers arrive in La Paz on 23 February in wheelchairs and on crutches, some of them missing limbs, I was surprised to hear from my newspaper vendor the following day that the disabled had attacked the police in the city centre.
As evidence of the violent infiltration, Cambio unveiled a photograph of a man in a striped sweater standing in front of a policeman in riot gear, accompanied by the caption ‘Activist beats up policemen at disabled protest’. Below that were two more photographs, purportedly of the same man protesting against the TIPNIS road.
Through such manoeuvres, Cambio has shown itself to be no better than the right-wing Honduran paper that in 2009 ran a headline claiming that Morales had been declared president of Bolivia for life. The non-story underneath was about a Bolivian citizen who said he’d like Morales to be president for life.
As for the Bolivian state’s insistence that indigenous opposition to the TIPNIS road is inextricably linked to the US embassy, USAID, various pro-US NGOs and followers of the US-backed former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, there’s no denying the meddlesome history of the US in Latin America. But that doesn’t give Morales a free hand to suppress dissent. It’s worth remembering that one of the grievances against Sánchez de Lozada, whose retirement in the US has been undisturbed by Bolivia’s extradition requests, was his harsh way of dealing with public protests.