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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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