Friday, June 6, 2014

Thousands of Bolivian soldiers go on strike, call for military reform

The current high command in Bolivia proclaims a “decolonized, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist” armed forces.  The military reforms that are being incorporated into a new organic law that is currently being drafted, demonstrates the Castro-Chavez influences in the Bolivian barracks.  Reportedly, since 2010, the Bolivian military salutes with the Cuban inspired slogan “Patria o Muerte, Venceremos” (Fatherland or Death, We will Overcome).  The reforms, however, did not go far enough for a group of non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and sergeants of the armed forces (ASCINALSS).  On April 21, 2014, NCO Johnny Gil Leniz, president of the ASCINALSS, announced an indefinite strike across the country demanding more “decolonization.”  The move follows the previous day’s decision announced by Defense Minister Rubén Saavedra to expel Gil Leniz and three other NCOs from the Armed Forces for “contempt.”  The four NCOs had been calling for internal reform of the armed forces and a meeting with Bolivian President Evo Morales

As well as the strike, to which Gil said some 10,000 NCOs would adhere, the wives of NCOs have also gone on hunger strikes in the departments of La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz to protest the sackings.
Some 10,000 lower-ranking Bolivian soldiers went on strike on Tuesday (April 22), demanding to speak directly to President Evo Morales about discrimination and military reform aimed at opening opportunities for non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Thousands of soldiers marched peacefully in front of the Defense Ministry calling for more equal treatment. The troops say they are victims of "racism" and "discrimination", claiming they cannot advance in the military because they cannot enroll in the country's elite military academies due to their indigenous backgrounds. The strike comes following a breakdown in talks between soldiers and their superior officers. According to protest leader Johnny Gil Leniz, the group wants to negotiate only with President Evo Morales.  Gil Leniz explained that they are claiming their “rights and fundamental guarantees” and affirmed that they are not against the government nor against the officers.  We are against the “capitalist, colonialist system” which is maintained intact at the heart of the institution according to Gil Leniz.

But Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra responded by saying the negotiations between the high command and NCOs would continue. He added that the group must follow proper protocol to request an audience with Morales.  In addition to the expulsion of the four NCOs, approximately fifty students were expelled from the Military School of Engineering and the School of Technical Aviation (Escuela de Perfeccionamiento Técnico de Aviación) for having attended a meeting to hear about the draft petition for the decolonization of the military.  Saavedra defended the discharge by saying that "indiscipline is not allowed in the Armed Forces." But the wives of the soldiers were angry. "We do not want to negotiate with the high command nor with Saavedra nor with the commanding officers. We ask for a defense commission and ask that our brother president, Evo Morales, listens to us because we are his children," said Sandra Lopez.

During the month of March, Bolivian sergeants and NCOs presented a draft Law to reform the armed forces to the attention of the high command.  The draft included several claims such as access to university studies and granting of housing.  But the central issue was the reform of the system of hierarchies that copied the model imposed by Chavez on the Venezuelan Armed Forces in 2008.  The Bolivian NCOs sought the disappearance of their category and that they would be termed “technical officers” comparable to the officers that graduated from military academies.  Another proposal raised was the creation of a “National Guard.”

Rubén Saavedra, Bolivian Defense Minister, rejected the reform proposed by the NCOs alleging that it pretended to dilute the discipline at the interior of the Armed Forces and to break down the hierarchical structure of the military institution.  The Chavist-inspired reform of the Bolivian military structure, rejected by the high command, remained in Evo Morales’s hands, whose support the military in rebellion sought.  This reform caused malaise in the Venezuelan barracks, given that the officers who had graduated from military academies resented the fact that the “technical officers” commanded troops and career officers.

The military chiefs rejected the demands of the sergeants and the NCOs in this vertical institution that does not admit any kind of unionization or even less, strike, and according to military norms considers five days of absence from one’s activities desertion in time of peace.

The following week military disciplinary measures increased.  On April 23, 2014, nine NCOs of the Air Force were expelled.  Then the high command issued a communique announcing the “forced retirement” of 702 sergeants and NCOs for “sedition, mutiny, carrying out political actions and attacking the dignity and honor of the Armed Forces in a collective manner.”   Approximately nine percent of all the troops in these categories was affected.  Of those expelled, 381 were from the Army and 300 from the Air Force.  Gil Leniz is currently in military detention.  The massive expulsions were justified on April 24, 2014 by Admiral Baldivieso because the accused had “instigated a coup d’état.”

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