Drugs, unrest and socialism

Top Bolivian politician Silvia Lazarte talks about her role in reforming the South American country

For a politician whose country is wracked by such violent unrest some commentators predict civil war, Bolivia's Silvia Lazarte is surprisingly positive about her nation's prospects – steely, even, in her insistence the outlook is good.

As one of the most senior politicians in the ruling party, MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo, or Movement towards Socialism), Lazarte is understandably keen to emphasise the widespread support enjoyed by Bolivian president, Evo Morales.

At a referendum held in August, she points out, he won 67 per cent of the vote.

But, equally, the division and dispute at the heart of Bolivian politics are clear when she speaks about the government's right wing opposition.

“These are people who never accepted their downfall in the last elections, who don't accept that they were kicked out of power. They were used to being in control and being in power and ignoring the people,” she tells me when we meet at the New Statesman's offices in Victoria.

The most recent illustration of the opposition's refusal to submit came on 11 September this year, when at least fifteen people were killed on their way to a pro-government rally in the northern region of Pando.

Bolivia's political polarisation is matched by its shockingly wide poverty gap: despite rich reserves of oil, natural gas and minerals, it is one of Latin America's poorest countries.

Most of the country's resources are concentrated in a few wealthy lowland regions in the east known as the “Half Moon”, which are largely populated by a European-descended elite.

However, the majority of the population – about two-thirds – belong to Bolivia's 36 indigenous peoples and live at subsistence level in the country's more mountainous, western regions. The current constitution ignores both women and the indigeous peoples.

So as the president of the Constitutional Assembly, Lazarte's importance to Morales's socialist reforms is clear.

She has led the drafting of the charter – expected to pass into law when it is put to a referendum in January next year.

The new constitution aims to improve the living standards for the indigenous population by redistributing profits from the gas fields in the east of the country.

Like Morales, Lazarte is herself an indigenous Bolivian, and she arrives for interview in full traditional dress: layered skirts, a narrow-brimmed white hat and an almost neon-bright patterned shawl.

For a Brit used to the funereal gloom of Western political fashions, her colourful appearance gives an immediate impression of flamboyance, but in her choice of words, of course, Lazarte is no less calculating than a British cabinet minister would be.

Her comments on the new constitution are unequivocal: “It is inclusive. That is the most important thing about the constitution, that everybody is taken into account,” she explains, her expression completely neutral. “The rights of women ... the indigenous, first peoples of Bolivia, all the ethnicities, languages, these are all recognized.”

What she glosses over though is the response from the right wing, which has been vehement, sustained and extremely violent: the incident in Pando is only the most recent in a series of anti-government gestures which have erupted repeatedly in the two years since the Assembly was first created. Five of the wealthy regions have also voted for greater autonomy.

However, Lazarte is adamant that the situation has started to improve in recent months. “There really isn't as much division now. We got through this with the formulation of the constitution - the writing of the constitution was everybody's work. The government had their representatives there [on the Assembly] and in congress just like the opposition did.”

The MAS government has made several major concessions in order to secure a date for the referendum, including an agreement that the president, Evo Morales, must only seek one more term in office.

Surely this suggests that the opposition has retained its ability to strongarm the government? Lazarte insists not: "the right wing has recently lost a lot of power, it's fighting within itself.”

Her view stems from the aftermath of the killings in Pando. Leopoldo Fernandez, Pando's regional governor, has been jailed and stands accused of hiring hitmen to kill farmers on their way to a pro-government rally.

There is also an investigation looking at “the broader network” of regional governors and civic committee members who may have been involved in the killings.

As a result, she says, several suspects appear to have fled: “Branco Marinkovic, who is a key figure in Santa Cruz politics, apparently is no longer in the country, according to the information we have. Ruben Costas, who is the prefecto [regional governor] of Santa Cruz, apparently left, went to his hacienda and is not at large.” Lazarte does admit though that there are “a few other groups around the place”, such as the Santa Cruz Youth Union, who have been implicated in violence, but as the investigation is ongoing, will not go into further detail.

The US has also waded into this strained relationship. Concerned by Morales' warm relationships with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and his support for coca-leaf growers, whose crop is important both culturally and for the Bolivian economy but also provides the raw material from which cocaine is produced, the US has never been supportive of Morales.

In 2005 the then US ambassador warned that if Morales was elected, Bolivia would lose Washington’s financial support and goodwill.

Last month his successor, Philip Goldberg, was expelled after holding meetings with opposition politicians including Ruben Costas. Morales accused Goldberg of “seeking the division of Bolivia”.

“The US ambassador was constantly meeting up with the right wing,” Lazarte claims. “What happened with the ambassador from the United States was that instead of complying with Bolivian law and Bolivian policies, he decided to conspire against the government, and the Bolivian people will not accept that.

"What the Bolivian people don't want are impositions. We don't like it, we never will like it, and we won't allow it.”

She claims that, along with Leopoldo Fernandez' arrest, his expulsion was “significant” in weakening the right wing, although Morales clearly didn't feel Goldberg's ejection was enough: just days ago he also suspended the activities of US drug enforcement agency, accusing its agents of working “to conduct political espionage and to fund criminal groups” involved in anti-government protests.

In this context, Lazarte's calm assurances that Bolivia has a united, peaceful future ahead of it - “we are now in a process of consolidation and achieving more consensus every day” - seem less than reliable.

With Fernandez in jail and the US presence in Bolivia weakened, the dangerous minority of right-wingers appears to have been brought under control for the meantime. But it is unlikely that the US will stop meddling in the country's affairs as long as Morales is in power; and how the right wing will behave as the referendum draws closer still remains to be seen.