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Opposition Leader Calls Morales a Macaca: Racist Rhetoric in Bolivia

In a careless slip of the tongue in August, 2006 Virginia Senator George Allen shot himself in the foot and ended his political career. During a campaign rally Allen pointed to a man of Indian descent and remarked “This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent. He’s following us around everywhere. And it’s just great.”

Allen’s supporters began to laugh.

“Let’s give a welcome to macaca, here,” the Senator added. “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”

The word macaca is an ethnic slur meaning either a monkey that inhabits the Eastern Hemisphere or a town in South Africa. In some European cultures, macaca is also considered a racial slur against African immigrants.

Allen’s infamous outburst was captured on video and circulated widely on the internet after the footage was posted on YouTube. The Senator’s campaign manager dismissed the issue with an expletive and insisted the Senator had “nothing to apologize for.” But once the story started to circulate, Allen sought to salvage his career by claiming that the word had no derogatory meaning for him. He then said he was sorry.

The issue however did not go away. S.R. Sidarth, the man who Allen had slurred, remarked that he suspected the Virginia politician singled him out because he was the only nonwhite face amongst about 100 Republican supporters. “I think he was doing it because he could, and I was the only person of color there, and it was useful for him in inciting his audience,” Sidarth remarked. “I was annoyed he would use my race in a political context.”

Allen’s stunning gaffe contributed to his defeat in the 2006 election when the veteran politician lost against long-shot Democrat Jim Webb. Some Republican strategists believe that Allen might have been a contender for the 2008 Republican presidential ticket if he had not made his macaca gaffe.

Racist Rhetoric in Bolivia

Such ethnic slurs have no place in modern politics and yet the United States continues to openly support backward and racist figures in South America who hurl such insults with wanton abandon.

Take for example the case of Rubén Costas, an opposition figure in Bolivia. Speaking to his followers last month, Costas called indigenous socialist President Evo Morales a “macaca.” Costas has also insulted Morales as an “animal” and a “monkey.”

Fair skinned and European looking, Costas hardly resembles Bolivia’s indigenous president Morales. Elected Prefect of the energy-rich, western department of Santa Cruz in 2005, Costas has become a key advocate for greater regional autonomy and a thorn in the side of the La Paz government.

Costas, like many of his white and mestizo racist followers, regard the Indians in the highlands with contempt. The Santa Cruz politician would like to retain control over the lucrative gas industry and deprive the cash-strapped government in La Paz of much needed revenue.

Following Costas’ election, the right opposition escalated its pressure on the Morales government, organizing protests in the city of Sucre against the President’s proposed Constitution which would have given the country’s indigenous majority a greater say in political decision making. An advocate for powerful business interests, Costas was also one of the right wing politicians who called for a referendum on autonomy for Santa Cruz. When 85% of the residents of Santa Cruz voted for autonomy, Morales called the vote illegal and nonbinding.

A demagogic populist who likes to stir ethnic hatreds, Costas continued to up the ante last month. As a result of Morales’ victory in an August 10 recall referendum, the Santa Cruz politician called the President “murderous” and demanded that Morales cease his “bullying.”

Speaking in a plaza full of his supporters, Costas said Bolivia should say “no to the big foreign monkeys.” It was an obvious racial barb aimed at Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a key Morales ally [physically, Chávez has indigenous-African features].

When asked by the Brazilian magazine Terra whether he would retract his statements about Chávez, Costas remarked “I don’t regret it at all.” The Santa Cruz politician said that “monkey” was based on the concept of gorilismo, “a term which is very common in Latin America to refer to soldiers. We can’t forget that Hugo Chávez is a military coup plotter who has turned himself into a neo-populist.”

Our Man in Bolivia

Even as he was escalating the racist rhetoric, Costas sought importantly allies. On August 25th, he met with U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg. Though the diplomat claimed that he had met Costas in public while on a routine trip to Santa Cruz, the meeting provoked suspicion amongst Bolivians that the United States was supporting the lowland opposition movement. A portion of U.S. aid to Bolivia is directed towards eastern provincial governments that are the nexus of opposition to Morales.

The La Paz government, desperately fighting to keep the country together, expelled Goldberg and accused him of conspiring with the conservative opposition. Having made a blunder and seriously imperiled U.S.-Bolivian relations, the State Department made things worse by retaliating and expelling the Bolivian ambassador to Washington. Coming to the aid of a friend, Chávez ordered the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador in Caracas. Predictably, the State Department again seriously erred, this time by expelling the Venezuelan ambassador.

The diplomatic tit-for-tat brings political tensions to new heights. Last week, anti-Morales sentiment reached a crescendo when protesters burned government offices in Santa Cruz. Anti-government activists also took over several natural gas installations in the east. Morales, who called the protests a “civil coup,” ordered additional troops to the eastern provinces to secure gas and oil installations. The protesters have been fighting Morales supporters with clubs, machetes and guns. In all, more than 30 people have died in the fighting.

Even Virginia Senator George Allen, a politician with a long history of making racist comments, ultimately realized that he had made a mistake and apologized at long last. Not so Rubén Costas, a figure who is unabashed about his views. Far from shunning racist leaders like Costas, the United States has embraced the Bolivian opposition. By doing so, the Bush White House has seriously inflamed U.S.-South American relations even more.

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From a Texan-Venezuelan to an Ecuadoran Giuliani: Meet South America’s New Secessionists

Having failed to halt the tide of South America's Pink Tide, Washington is
seeking to cultivate relationships with secessionist leaders in order
to facilitate the breakup of countries which share left leaning
governments.  In Bolivia, the United States Agency for International
Development (USAID) has explicitly supported demands of the political
opposition for greater regional autonomy in the eastern section of the
country and has funneled millions of dollars to the right.

 

It's an inflammatory move which has incited a diplomatic firestorm
throughout the region.  Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, an important
ally of the Morales government in La Paz, has said that his country
will not stand for secession in Bolivia's eastern lowland states.  The
stage now seems set for confrontation, as Bolivia's largest and richest
state overwhelmingly backed a referendum calling for greater autonomy
earlier this month. 

 

Chávez declared that his government has not meddled in the domestic

affairs of other Latin American nations, but would do so if Bolivian states now
seeking greater autonomy from Bolivia's central government push for
total independence.  On his weekend radio and television program, the
Venezuelan leader blamed "oligarchs" and "fascists" in Bolivia for the
unrest.

 

"The CIA and its lackeys" aimed at seizing control of regional
governments through illegal referendums, Chávez said, "but we will
defeat that plan through integration, political union and ideological
strength." 

 

News of the secession movement in Bolivia has alarmed the Venezuelan
authorities.  It's not difficult to see why: in western Venezuela, the
right wing opposition is pushing for greater autonomy from the central
government.  In response to the political crisis in Bolivia, Chávez
likened opposition efforts to win control of states near Venezuela's
border with Colombia to "separatist" moves in the impoverished Andean
nation to the south.  With secession rapidly turning into a worrisome
political dilemma for regional governments, right wing opposition

figures are now coming to the fore.  Who are these secession leaders

who wish to derail South America's Pink Tide?

 

A Texan Venezuelan

 

With the largest inland lake in Latin America, the most fertile land

and 40 percent of Venezuela's oil production, the western state of Zulia and
its capital Maracaibo may rightly claim to be the country's productive
backbone.  Zulia has always thought of itself as the Texas of Venezuela
-- a land dominated by oil, cattle and predominantly conservative
politicians.  It is the country's most affluent and populous state.

Local residents have long taken pride in zulianidad - a state identity

based loosely on Caribbean food and hospitality, a local musical genre

known as gaita,and the syncretic Christian practices that dominate

local religious life, chief among them worship of the "Black Christ"

housed in Maracaibo's cathedral. 

 

In the twentieth century some "Zulianos" sought greater autonomy

from the central government.  Historical documents in the Public

Records Office of Kew Gardens in London suggest that U.S. oil companies

have been embroiled in secession plots.

 

Currently, the most high profile politician pushing for greater Zulia

autonomy is Manuel Rosales.  Born in 1952, Rosales began his political

career in the 1970s as a local member of the city council in the town

of Santa Barbara del Zulia.  A teacher, Rosales rose through the ranks of

Acción Democrática, one of the two corrupt parties that dominated

Venezuelan political life in the twentieth century. 

 

Rosales went on to be elected mayor of Maracaibo and formed his own

party, A New Time.  An implacable foe of Hugo Chávez, Rosales went

on to be elected Zulia governor in 2000.  Even as Chávez and his

followers racked up one electoral victory after the next, Rosales defied
conventional political wisdom by winning reelection in 2004. 

 

"I Made a Mistake in Good Faith"

 

A politician who defines himself as a believer in freedom and social
justice, Rosales nevertheless supported the U.S.-supported 2002 coup
against Chávez.  Rosales was a signatory to the infamous "Carmona
Decree" dissolving Venezuela's democratic institutions.  He later
claimed, unconvincingly, that he had made a mistake "in good faith." 
At the time he signed the decree, Rosales argued, it appeared as if
Chávez had voluntarily resigned from the presidency amidst urban
confusion and gun battles erupting in the streets of Caracas.

 

In December, 2006 Rosales ran against Chávez in the presidential
election.  Though he received support from the middle class opposition
he went down to bitter defeat, losing by some 25 percentage points. 
The campaign unfolded amidst a climate of intrigue, as Chávez accused
Rosales and the U.S. of promoting Zulia's political independence and
having ties with Rumbo Propio (or "Own Way"), a group which supported
Zulia separatism.  Néstor Suárez, an anti-Chávez figure who opposed the
government's social programs in favor of "liberal economics," led the
right wing organization.

 

Though Chávez has failed to prove that Rosales had any link to

secessionist plots launched by the likes of the U.S. or Rumbo Propio,

the Zulia governor has cultivated close ties to the U.S. since

his electoral defeat in 2006.  Last year, prior to Venezuela's vote on a
constitutional referendum, Rosales went to Washington to meet with
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas
Shannon.  Rosales urged the U.S. to press Chávez to slow his
constitutional overhaul plan which would have accelerated the
government's progressive social agenda and abolished presidential

term limits.

 

Ratcheting up the pressure yet further on Chávez, Rosales now says

that he favors some degree of regional autonomy for Zulia.  The Zulia

governor has said that he favors greater independence from Caracas

on the groundsthat the government intends to take power away from

states and municipalities, and "centralize everything." 

 

Rosales's statements come in the wake of a renewed autonomy push

by New Time state legislators.  In early May, they proposed a feasibility

study for potential autonomy from the federal government which they

compared to the autonomy efforts in Bolivia's wealthy province of

Santa Cruz. 

 

In response to the inflammatory moves by Rosales' party, Chávez

supporters have lashed back.  "We legislators categorically reject this
separatist, secessionist proposal of the state because it goes against
our values and the integral development of the country," said José Luis
Acosta, a pro-Chávez state legislator from Zulia.  Acosta added that
"We, with the law, with the People in the street, and with the armed
forces, will put up a fight."

 

Guayaquil Secessionst Sentiment

 

Venezuela is not the only country facing an internal secessionist movement.

In Ecuador, the right opposition to President Rafael Correa is coalescing
around Jaime Nebot, the mayor of the coastal city of Guayaquil. 
Affiliated to the country's Social Christian Party, Nebot ran twice for
the Presidency, in 1992 and 1996.  During his second presidential bid,
Nebot ran on a pro-business platform stressing privatization of public
services. 

 

Born into a prominent Guayaquil family, Nebot entered politics in 1984

when President Leon Febres-Cordero appointed the ambitious young man
Governor of Guayas province, the district encompassing Guayaquil.  

Nebot's association with Febres-Cordero, a key ally of Ronald Reagan at the
time, is not flattering.  As I explain in my new book, torture and killing by

the military as well as disappearances and arbitrary arrests multiplied in

Ecuador during this unfortunate period of the country's political history.

 

Later, Nebot rose to national prominence when he won a seat in Congress

on the Social Christian Party slate.  While serving in Congress, Nebot

became known for his colorful and tasteless outbursts.  In August, 1990

Nebot, visibly agitated, began yelling hysterically at a fellow congressman,
Víctor Granda of the Socialist Party. "Come here so I can urinate on
you," Nebot shouted memorably at Granda. "I can't just hit you. I have
to urinate on you."  Police had to physically intervene to stop Nebot
from physically assaulting his adversary.  The incident was caught on
Ecuadoran national TV and has been preserved for posterity on YouTube. 

 

Ecuador's Giuliani

 

In 2000 Nebot was elected Mayor of Guayaquil where he pursued a
conservative, pro-business agenda emphasizing gentrification and crime
busting (he was reelected in 2004 to another four year term).  In his
zealous drive to emulate tough guy Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Nebot
contracted former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton to
help shape the city's urban regeneration strategy in 2002.  Nebot flew
Bratton in from the United States, paying him an enormous sum of money
for just three days of work.  Bratton proposed an overhaul of
Guayaquil's anti-crime structure which later became known as "Plan
Bratton."

 

The New York cop's anti-crime structure has formed part and parcel of the
city's regeneration plan, which has turned Guayaquil into a kind of
dystopian urban nightmare.  In the new Guayaquil, urban "undesirables"
found working in gentrified areas face tough penalties: beggars and
itinerant vendors may be imprisoned for up to seven days and fines can
reach as high as $500.

 

"Just Like Miami"

 

A newly constructed boardwalk called the Malecón 2000
is praised by many local residents as being "just like Miami." 
However, indigenous street vendors do not fit into this ideal and

there have been ongoing efforts to remove them from cleaned up

urban spaces.  In an excellent and thorough recent scholarly article,

University of Glasgow geographer Kate Swanson described the

contours of Nebot's social policy. 

 

The boulevard, she writes, "is monitored by heavily armed police who
individually assess who can enter the gated grounds and who cannot.
Within the regenerated area, there are now at least 52 police-operated
video cameras running 24 hours a day. This municipal gaze is not only
concerned with crime control; rather, a key function of the cameras is
to monitor the regenerated areas for the occupation of public
space—particularly by informal workers."

 

The Malecón, which lies adjacent to the Guayas River, is totally manicured

and sanitized.  Pedestrians may lounge in cafes and gardens, sit on benches
or even eat in a local McDonald's.  "Yet," notes Swanson, "this too is
guarded and monitored by heavily armed police during all opening hours.
The gates close at midnight to prevent undesirables from sneaking in
and spending the night. This boardwalk was designed with tourists and
Guayaquil's upper-middle classes in mind."

 

According to Swanson, there's been much criticism of the social

impacts of Nebot's revitalization projects.  In fact, she notes,

newspaper articles have been replete with complaints by informal

workers denouncing police harassment.  In 2003 alone, the media

reported 10 cases of excessive police force in Guayaquil, many of

which were captured on film.  At night, informal workers are not

allowed to pass into revitalized areas of the city, and the streets

are patrolled by truckloads of young, heavily armed police officers.

 

Nebot to Correa: "We Refuse to Be Guinea Pigs"

 

Having failed in his presidential ambitions, Nebot is now seeking to
capitalize on secessionist sentiment in Guayas, the nation's most
affluent province.  The populous, agricultural region contributes a
huge share of money to the central government and is rich in natural
resources.  Banana, cocoa, rice, sugar cane, cotton, tropical flowers
and fruits are grown there, both for domestic consumption and export. 
There is a fishing industry, focused mainly on tuna and on shrimp
farming, and food, cement, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries. 
What's more, Guayaquil is the nation's largest port.  

 

If Guayas were to ever secede from Ecuador, such a move would prove
economically devastating for the country.  Nebot however is determined
to turn up the pressure on Correa, saying that the government needs to
stop its "socialist project" before the country cracks up.  Nebot and
his followers argue that Correa's desire to reform the country's
constitution is aimed at making the President a "Chávez-style"
dictator.  

 

In January, 2008 Nebot led a march of tens of thousands through
Guayaquil's streets in the name of defending the city's autonomy from
Correa's plans for further centralization.  Supporters waved the city's
blue and white flag and chanted "Long live Guayaquil, dammit," and
"Down with Correa." 

 

"As long as you are alive and I am alive, he will never push us around,"
Nebot shouted to the crowd. "We will not be guinea pigs of a failed
experiment."  An estimated 150,000-200,000 people attended the protest,
around double the number who joined a government-sponsored march in
Guayaquil a week earlier to mark the Correa government's first
anniversary in power.

 

Meet Rubén Costas: Bolivia's Secessionist

 

Fair skinned and European looking, Rubén Costas hardly resembles

Bolivia's indigenous president Evo Morales.  Elected Prefect of the western
department of Santa Cruz in 2005, Costas has become a key advocate for
greater regional autonomy and a thorn in the side of the government in
La Paz. 

 

Following Costas' election, the right opposition escalated its pressure on the
Morales government, organizing protests in the city of Sucre against
the President's proposed Constitution which would have given the
country's indigenous majority a greater say in political decision
making.  When clashes erupted which resulted in the deaths of three
demonstrators and a policeman, Costas pounced by calling for a

24-hour business strike. 

 

An advocate for powerful business interests, Costas was also one of the
right wing politicians who called for a referendum on Santa Cruz
autonomy earlier this month.  Prior to the referendum, Costas

remarked hopefully that the departments of Tarija, Pando and Benin

would join Santa Cruz in its drive for autonomy and "a second Bolivia

will be created."

 

On the eve of the referendum vote, Costas assured Bolivians that there
would be no violence.  At a rally, he announced "We don't want
dynamite, nor clubs, nor rancor. The democratic vote is our only
weapon."  Predictably however, Election Day was marked by violent
clashes between government supporters opposed to the autonomy

statute -- mainly indigenous migrants from Bolivia's impoverished

western highlands provinces -- and members of the rightwing Santa

Cruz Youth Union.  

 

As a result of the May referendum, the stage is now set for irrevocable
future conflict: 85% of the residents of Santa Cruz voted for
autonomy.  As part of the referendum Costas himself will take over as
Governor of the department, though Morales has called the vote illegal
and nonbinding.  Making further mischief, Santa Cruz leaders have
pledged to withhold levies paid by energy companies operating in the
area.

 

Santa Cruz, Guayas, and Zulia: What Do They Have in Common?

 

Like Guayas and Zulia, affluent provinces in Ecuador and Venezuela
respectively, Santa Cruz is the richest department in Bolivia. 
Bolivia's eastern departments account for most of the country's natural
gas production, industry and gross domestic product.  Like Chávez, who
is worried that Zulia secession would lead to a cutoff of oil revenue,
Morales can ill afford secession in the east: Bolivia is South
America's poorest country and desperately needs proceeds from the gas
industry. 

 

There's a racial and political dimension to these conflicts too.  In Ecuador,
it is Nebot and the predominantly white and mestizo coastal elite which
seek to secede from the Indian highlands.  In the small Andean nation,
it's the Indians who are pushing radical social change, whereas whites
and mestizos on the coast fear the rise of socialism. 

 

In Bolivia, there's a similar dynamic at work: Morales's indigenous
supporters in the highlands constitute the radical political vanguard
which are increasingly at odds with whites and mestizos in the
lowlands.  In Santa Cruz, the elite fears Morales' plans to promote
land reform and to capture greater energy revenue for the central state.

 

The similarities between these secessionist movements are not lost on the
region's leaders.  Javier Zárata, the Bolivian Ambassador to Ecuador,
recently remarked that"what is occurring in Bolivia is not an isolated
action." "I know there have been coordination meetings last year and
the year before among representatives from Santa Cruz and
representatives of Guayaquil, and other states of other countries," the
diplomat added.

 

Speaking on his weekly radio show, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa

said that "oligarchical and separatist" Bolivians were trying to

destabilize the Morales government.  Correa remarked that regional

governments would not stand for secessionist movements in Santa Cruz,

Zulia and Guayas.  Elites in all three countries, Correa declared, sought

to roll back progressive social change "so as to continue with imperialistic

and neo-liberal policies."

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