Earlier this month, we were shocked by the news that at least 30 indigenous Bolivians had been massacred as they protested a wave of attacks targeting supporters of Bolivia’s indigenous-led government.
As members of First Nations living in Canada who visited Bolivia in 2006, the news of this massacre was a painful reminder of the connection we have to the struggles of indigenous peoples in all parts of the world.
In this instance, it is the struggle of the indigenous people of Bolivia. A struggle which we believe should also be a critical concern for the Canadian Government.
President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state, was democratically elected in 2005. Recently, 67% of voters again endorsed his leadership in a “recall referendum”.
But despite this support, opposition groups representing the traditional elite from the wealthier eastern provinces have used violence and racist attacks to intimidate supporters of President Morales. They have occupied and burned over 70 buildings, taken over airports and blocked roads in attempts at destabilizing the government. They temporarily cut off natural gas exports to neighbouring Brazil and Argentina in order to sabotage the economy.
It is far cry from the hope-filled future we had envisioned for Bolivia when we visited the country as a member of a church/NGO delegation in December 2006. During that visit our delegation witnessed first-hand the close bond between President Morales and the indigenous majority of Bolivian citizens. We met with cabinet Ministers and the President of the Constitutional Assembly and learned first-hand about the steps Morales is taking to begin to redress nearly 500 years of injustice – a history marked by the oppression and marginalization of indigenous peoples by foreign colonizers and a privileged elite of European descent.
We came away inspired by a process of non-violent social change involving the recognition of indigenous rights and land reform.
But rather than cede their privileges, opposition groups are threatening to provoke a civil war or a coup d’état. A secessionist movement in four eastern departments wants to break up the country rather than share the wealth from large landholdings and natural gas reserves with the indigenous peoples from the highlands. Opposition leader Oscar Urenda made their intentions clear when he said: “We will not be beaten, if we are talking about confrontations let’s talk about confrontations, if we are going to talk about war, let there be war, but they will not impose anything on us. We are sufficiently strong to split off from the country, and if I have to take a stick, a sling, a gun, I will do it…..”
On Sept. 11, in Pando, an isolated province bordering Peru and Brazil, a large group of indigenous campesinos marched towards the city of Cobija to denounce the violence perpetrated by the State Governor, Leopoldo Fernandez. Along the road, people employed by Governor Fernandez set an ambush. They dug a wide trench and when the marchers approached, sharpshooters in the trees began firing machine guns. At least eight people were killed immediately, and dozens more were wounded. People scattered into the countryside, fleeing the assassins. According to reports at least 30 people were killed, dozens captured, and over a hundred are missing.
The victims were pursued, tortured, and murdered before the government declared a state of siege to end the rampage. These horrendous actions have elicited a huge outrage from civil society, social movements, the media, and many governments from the hemisphere.
There is evidence for President Morales’ assertions that the U.S. Embassy is supporting these violent, autonomy-seeking groups and “conspiring against democracy”. President Morales has expelled the US Ambassador, Phillip Goldberg, after documenting months of Goldberg’s meetings, exchanges, contacts and involvement with secessionist leaders.
These events in Bolivia are reminiscent of the US-supported overthrow of democratically-elected Chilean President Salvador Allende who also sought peaceful change through democratic means.
On September 15th the South American Heads of State, whom we first observed at their meeting in Bolivia in 2006, reassembled in Santiago, Chile and issued an emergency declaration stating their “complete and resolute support for the Constitutional Government of President Evo Morales whose mandate was backed by a large majority in the recent Referendum.”
Canada, too, must support the Bolivian people’s right to a democratically-elected government. We cannot allow our hemisphere to succumb to past practices of covert destabilization programs nor return to the dark days when dictators like Augusto Pinochet seized power through the barrel of a gun.
We urge the Canadian Government to immediately condemn the Pando massacre and make it clear that Canada stands firmly opposed to attacks by groups aiming not only to compromise the territorial integrity of Bolivia, but also to destabilize Bolivian democracy and undermine the rights of its indigenous peoples.
Grand Council Chief, Anishinabek Nation
Member of the Moravian Delaware First Nation