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With a Right-Wing Agenda, Argentina's Macri Wants to Play a Role in Bolivian Elections.

Although voters won't head to the polls for another year, the presidential campaign in Bolivia is already in full swing, and the political right is playing all its cards to prevent President Evo Morales from continuing to control a process that has made the country grow like no other in South American. In this scenario, efforts by Argentine President Mauricio Macri, a supporter of US President Donald Trump's policies, to insert himself in the election process are generating a negative climate in the relations between Bolivia and Argentina that could help right-wing candidates (NotiSur Aug. 4, 2017).

Immigrants become pawns in the game

The more than 1.16 million Bolivians in Argentina are the third largest group, after Bolivians in Spain and the US, in terms of sending remittances to families back home. This is one of several reasons that a conflict with Argentina could have a profound impact on the elections.

Government spokesmen in La Paz said that Macri has tried to generate that conflict since the beginning of the year, so far without success. The first step involved a plan to levy special fees on Bolivians studying at universities in Argentina, where public schools are tuition-free at all levels. It also called for charging fees to Bolivian citizens being treated at public hospitals. The second part of the plan was to accuse Morales of refusing to sign reciprocity agreements for comparable services in Bolivia.

Bolivia defused this campaign by pointing at statistics that show that Bolivians studying in Argentina account for less that 1% of the university population. It also noted that Bolivia provided vision-restoring operations to more than 44,000 Argentines who crossed the border to benefit from Operacion Milagro (Operation Miracle), a free program financed by Bolivia and Venezuela with Cuban ophthalmologists doing eye surgeries.

Historically, Argentina has been a major recipient of Bolivian immigration, which has grown exponentially since the first half of the 20th century, when it was barely significant. Bolivians are now the second largest immigrant group in Argentina, behind Paraguayans. Projecting 2010 census data, estimates of the number of Bolivians living in Argentina--a country with a population of 44 million people--reach a little over 360,000 registered residents and approximately 800,000 undocumented residents, accounting for 19.1% of Argentina's foreign population. Although the current Argentine government has stigmatized them as frontline actors in the world of drug trafficking, statistics from Argentina's Ministry of Justice indicate Bolivians are the immigrants with the lowest index of criminal activity. They occupy the places on the bottom rung of the labor pyramid, and their unemployment rate is close to zero.

Bolivians are perhaps the immigrant group that has best integrated into Argentine society. In 1982, when Argentina confronted a more powerful Great Britain in the war over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, more than 25,000 Bolivian living the border provinces of Jujuy and Salta volunteered to defend Argentina's claim on the South Atlantic islands.

Contraband mostly food, not drugs

Despite sharing a 773-km border, incidents between Bolivia and Argentina are minimal and pertain mostly to minor contraband issues related to illegal sales of household goods.

President Morales has noted on numerous occasions that Argentina is of vital importance to Bolivia. Nevertheless, the tensions between the two countries have been growing since the right-wing government headed by businessman Macri came to power in December 2015 (NotiSur, Dec. 4, 2015). Frictions have been constant since the beginning of 2016 when, driven by several false stories from the Ministry of Security, Macri transmitted an unfounded "concern" over the alleged role Bolivians were playing in the drug trafficking business. Since then, Bolivia has moved carefully so as not to harm relations between the neighboring peoples.

Argentina not only is a good customer for Bolivian gas--between 19.9 million and 23.9 million cubic meters of natural gas per day, depending on the time of year. It also is the principal source of remittances from any country in South America, money with which the emigrants help their families in Bolivia.

'Xenophobic attitudes'

"The government dirties the scenario with xenophobic attitudes that unfortunately work well in a society that Macri knows is quite susceptible to racists arguments," said Milagro Sala, an indigenous leader who has been held, without being convicted, in a Jujuy jail since Jan. 16, 2016 (NotiSur, Jan. 13, 2017). "The president supports the hate strategy Donald Trump encourages, and with these antiimmigrant actions, he's trying to undermine the democratic life of the Bolivian people, against the brother Evo, and in favor of the internal servants of American imperialism."

Sala leads the social organization Tupac Amaru and is a representative to Parlasur, the parliament of MERCOSUR (Mercado Comun del Sur or Southern Common Market).

"Macri tries to take the relations to the full extreme and seeks to generate frictions that lead to forced reductions of remittances, which generates a deep discomfort for tens of thousands of families--hundreds of thousands of people--just when internal politics is heating up again as the presidential elections of 2019 near," Sala told a Buenos Aires radio station on March 2.

According to Bolivia's Central Bank, remittances coming into the country in 2017 were up 7.1% from 2016, reaching US$1.29 billion, a record that represents a formidable injection of money into a country with a gross domestic product of about US $33 billion.

At the end of February, the Argentine government redoubled its offensive, using the governor of Jujuy province, Gerardo Morales. On Feb. 27, a group of Morales' followers threatened to lynch a woman who was waiting for her son to be treated at a public hospital. Confusing her for a foreigner because of her indigenous features, they shouted slurs at her. After that incident, the governor and a congressman from Jujuy drafted a bill that would charge school and hospital fees to all South American immigrants and students, but singled out Bolivians. Before presenting the bill to the full Congress, the government accused President Morales of refusing to sign a reciprocity agreement.

Even though a document proposing the agreement was never sent to La Paz, the opposition succeeded in getting right-wing media outlets to report something that never occurred. Not one media organization corrected the error, even after the Bolivian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on March 2 that said, "Argentine Ambassador Normando Alvarez should publicly apologize for manipulating the press on the topic that left both neighboring countries on the verge of a diplomatic conflict."

The history behind this acceleration of tensions includes several events dating back more than a year. On Jan. 30, 2017, Macri decreed a modification to Argentina's immigration law aimed at speeding up the deportation process and prohibiting foreigners from entering the country. Four days earlier, Patricia Bullrich, the public security minister, an anti-immigration cheerleader, referred to Paraguayan, Peruvian, and Bolivian immigrants saying, "We cannot continue to allow this scourge to decay our society." A few days before that, Alfredo Olmedo, a congressman from the border province of Salta and one of the spokesmen for the official line in Congress, said, "We need to build a border wall to keep the delinquents from entering whenever they want."

On Nov. 1, 2017, Senator Miguel Angel Pichetto spoke about immigrants using terms such as an "hangover" and "drug dealers." And documents show that by August 2016, just nine months after Macri's inauguration, the government had begun budgeting for a detention facility "exclusively to house persons who had broken immigration laws and regulations."

The government lost control of the situation to such a degree that La Nacion, a Buenos Aires daily and the government's main media mouthpiece, came to the rescue with an extensive report highlighting the opinion of Gonzalo Lantaron, who coordinates a citizenship program for a private, public policy institute (Instituto de Desarrollo y Estudio de Politicas Publicas). Lantaron decried the use of terms such as "hangover" by government leaders, saying their stigmatization of countries in the region is "xenophobic and does not contribute to the solution of the problems."

Using official statistics and the International Labour Organization (ILO), La Nacion undermined three of the official racist campaign: 1) It showed that the presence of foreign students in Argentine universities does not hurt the financing of these houses of learning (only 38,000 of the nearly 2 million students in Argentina's public universities, or less than 2%, are foreigners; 2) according to the Ministry of Justice, only 6% of the prisoners in the entire country are foreigners; and 3) according to the ILO, "immigrants from border countries do not compete for jobs with native workers, increase unemployment, or worsen local working conditions."
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Article Details
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Author:Gaudin, Andres
Publication:NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Apr 27, 2018
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