Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Guyana's ambassador to Venezuela
Guyana's Ambassador to Venezuela, Dr. Odeen Ishmael writes: On September 15, leaders of the 12-member Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), meeting in an emergency session at La Moneda Palace in Santiago de Chile to discuss the Bolivian political crisis, declared their unilateral support for the government of leftist President Evo Morales.
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.
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." 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."
- 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.
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.