Peru-Bolivia: Hanging by a Thread

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Peru-Bolivia relations are hanging by a thread, opined one Peruvian senator this past week. Although neither country is threatening to cut diplomatic ties with the other, the causes of the conflict are ideological and are unlikely to subside in the near future.

First there is the back and forth over the Bagua incident, where at least 34 Peruvians were killed in a showdown between the police and a group of Amazonian Indians. The latter were blockading a road that leads into the Amazon region which President Garcia would like to open up to foreign investors. President Evo Morales of Bolivia has called the government crackdown “genocide.”Morales is also fundamentally against opening up the Amazon. In a letter to indigenous leaders, Morales states that “free trade agreements break up harmonious human relationships with nature; they commodify natural resources and national cultures; they privatise basic services; they try to patent life itself."

Peru responded to the genocide comment by recalling its ambassador to Bolivia back to Lima for consultation. The government has stated that there is no excuse for Morales to refer to the Bagua incident as genocide since a United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and the fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples declared this past week that no genocide has occurred. The Garcia government sees the Morales administration as meddling into Peruvian sovereignty and has even implied that Bolivia has manipulated the Peruvian indigenous groups in order to stir them to action.

Despite the outcry, the Garcia administration was forced to repeal the two decrees that were the cause of the crisis in the first place. On Thursday, Congress passed the bill repealing the decrees by a total of 84-12. President Garcia even admitted that it was a mistake not to consult the heads of the indigenous groups prior to implementing the decrees. This may signify that the political elite in Peru are coming to terms with the fact that indigenous groups in Peru are much better organized politically than they were in the past.

Garcia and Morales have never been on good terms since both came to power in 2006. Garcia was highly offended when Morales openly sympathized with Garcia’s main opponent, Ollanta Humala, in the 2006 elections. Humala, who comes from Incan descent, beat Garcia in the first round of voting but was knocked out in the second round when corruption allegations surfaced right before the elections.

Garcia and Morales have also knocked heads on granting political asylum to each others’ nationals. This past May, Peru granted political asylum to three former Bolivian cabinet officials accused of involvement in the killing of 63 protestors in the Andean city of El Alto in 2003 during the Sanchez de Lozada administration. The protestors (mostly Aymara Indians) were frequently blocking access to the airport as well as to oil and gas supplies. After Morales (who is also an Aymara Indian) came to power in 2006, Bolivia indicted 17 former government officials for the 2003 incident. Former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who fled to the United States, was tried in absentia in May.

In 2007, Bolivia granted political asylum to Walter Chavez, a former member of the Peruvian revolutionary group Tupac. Chavez was facing charges of terrorism by the Peruvian government. At the time, he was working as a political aide for Morales.

The divide between Garcia and Morales is deep. Morales opposes Garcia’s push for a regional trade pact with the European Union and also criticizes Peru’s free trade agreement with the United States. Garcia is an economic liberal, while Morales is a Bolivarian leftist. If Peru’s large indigenous population continues to mobilize, then right-of-center parties may not last long in Peru. In the meantime, however, it is hard to see how Peru-Bolivia relations improve.

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