Distortion on the Andes: Right-wing foreign policy advocates showcase non-representative Indigenous “leaders” from Bolivia

In 2011, the newly elected House of Representatives will likely move U.S. foreign policy in Latin America toward intervention. Right-wing politicians in the U.S. maintain close ties with Latin American elite. In recent years, many of these opposition leaders have appealed to U.S. conservative interests in their region, expressing concern about their loss of power at the ballot box in countries such as Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador.

On November 17, the Americas Forum and the Hudson Institute[i] will sponsor an event in the Capitol Visitors Center entitled “Danger in the Andes,” presenting a slate of speakers on terrorism, radical Islam, drug trafficking and threats to democracy and human rights. Speakers include the new leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as Otto Reich, Roger Noriega and John Walters, architects of Latin American foreign policy under Reagan and both Bush administrations. The organizers have also invited well-known critics of the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian governments, in addition to three Bolivian guests.

Problematic Panel

The most prominent of the Bolivia speakers is Luis Nuñez, president since 2009 of the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee, an organization of business and elite society in Bolivia’s lowland department of Santa Cruz. The organization is known for advocating regional autonomy and proposing secession from Bolivia’s majority indigenous Andean highlands.  Mr. Nuñez served as Vice President of the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee from 2007-2008 and helped to instigate the violent attacks on government institutions and indigenous organizations in September 2008, which led the Bolivian government to expel U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg for allegedly supporting the autonomy movement.

Mr. Nuñez is closely linked to Victor Hugo Velasco Iporre, another invitee and head of a phantom organization, the National Confederation of Indigenous and Original Nations of Bolivia (CONNIOB). This organization has been promoted by Bolivian elites as an alternative to actual indigenous organizations. However, in reality CONNIOB lacks a grassroots base.[ii]

Unlike Mr. Velasco, the third Bolivian, invitee, Marcial Fabricano, had a long history as a leader within the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB). He played an important role in indigenous protests of the early 1990s, winning territorial rights for lowland indigenous peoples. Yet, Fabricano’s case is disturbing and complicated, and again fails to represent a wider Bolivian indigenous identity or cause. Fabricano’s own people, the Mojeños, have charged him with corruption dating back to the 1990s.[iii] Long before the election of Evo Morales, Fabricano lost legitimacy as an indigenous leader by forming an alliance with the right-wing government of the Beni department. In September 2008, in an indigenous community justice proceeding undertaken by his own people, Fabricano was sentenced to a public whipping. In April 2009, the community carried out the punishment, causing serious injuries to Fabricano.

The event caused considerable outcry and many leaders from across the political spectrum, including MAS officials, denounced the community justice sentence, citing the human rights guarantees against cruel punishment in the new Bolivian Constitution. Other leaders remained silent or defended the indigenous communities’ right to enact the punishment according to their own traditions. While capital punishment is clearly prohibited in the Bolivian Constitution, the limits of indigenous community justice in relation to written Bolivian law have not yet been defined.  The lowland indigenous leaders who most vigorously defended Fabricano’s whipping maintained an extremely tenuous alliance with the Morales government, which has since been broken.  Even though many Bolivians would likely agree that Marcial Fabricano’s lashing constituted a human rights violation, few would continue to view him as a legitimate representative of indigenous peoples.

The invitation of Javier El-Hage of the Human Rights Foundation, an organization connected to the Venezuelan right, is also disturbing. The Bolivian representative of the Human Rights Foundation has been linked to the European mercenaries in Santa Cruz led by Eduardo Rozsa.[iv] The Rozsa gang attempted to set up and train elite paramilitary organizations in coordination with the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee. They also allegedly carried out the bombing of the house of Cardinal Julio Terrazas in an apparent effort to provoke right wing backlash against the government. Instead, the bombing prompted a controversial police action, killing three of the mercenaries. Given the subsequent investigation linking the Human Rights Foundation representative in Bolivia to the separatist mercenaries, it is troubling to see this organization included in a forum held in the U.S. Capitol Building.

Delicate Timing and Unfair Focus

Overall, the political legitimacy of the invited Bolivian speakers is dubious within their native country. Although everyone has a right to present their perspectives, the three Bolivian invitees should speak for themselves, but not the bulk of Bolivia’s indigenous people, especially during such a critical moment in Washington when the balance of U.S. foreign policy is likely to shift.

*Doug Hertzler is an anthropologist who serves on the board of the Andean Information Network. He has spent a total of over 6 years in Santa Cruz since 1988. His most recent research in Santa Cruz was during August 2009.

[i] The Hudson Institute played a key role in introducing Ahmad Chalabi’s ideas on invading Iraq.

[ii] http://www.cidob-bo.org/images/2009/onu.pdf

[iii] Bolpress, “Azotaron a Marcial Fabricano por las fechorías que cometió.” May 15, 2009. http://www.bolpress.com/art.php?Cod=2009051502

[iv] Witnesses in the Rozsa case claimed that Foundation’s former Bolivian representative, Hugo Achá, was key contact for mercenary group, who’s alleged “terrorist” activities remain under investigation.

El Mundo, “Testigo implica a importantes líderes de Santa Cruz en caso de terrorismo.”  http://www.elmundo.com.bo/Secundarianew.asp?edicion=05/05/2009&Tipo=Nacional&Cod=8802