The battle for Bolivia

By Gonzalo Villanueva, in La Paz

On the eve of the 35th anniversary of the September 11, 1973, CIA-backed military coup that overthrew the elected social-democratic government of Chilean president Salvador Allende, Washington was again attempting to orchestrate a coup against a left-wing government in South America. The target this time was Bolivian President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president.

The recall referendum of August 10 demonstrated the overwhelming support that Morales has in Bolivia. The president and vice-president were ratified by 67.4% of voters. Morales announced that his ratification would also be an indicative support for the new Political Constitution for the State (CPE) which, according to the government, will fortify the achievements so far made by Morales’ “democratic and cultural revolution”.

On August 28, Morales decreed that on December 7 a referendum will decide the proposed CPE. At the same time, voters will also have to decide on the amount of unproductive land an individual can own — 5000 or 10,000 hectares. Subsequently, the National Electoral Court (CNE) ruled the decree to be unconstitutional and rejected the proposed referendum. The referendum will now be discussed and decided on by the national parliament. However, passing the law is only one step. Morales still faces an opposition that has declared it will not permit a constitutional referendum to take place in the areas it controls.

Oligarchic opposition

Santa Cruz — the centre of the oligarchic opposition to Morales’ reform agenda, which aims to use the country’s large natural gas resources to lift its predominantly Amerindian population out of extreme poverty — emerged during the 1950s as a prosperous and populated city. Bolivia’s ruling oligarchy originated as powerful landowners who later invested in industry and exports, but still remained rooted in agro-industry.

From their base in Santa Cruz they maintained key positions in the state machine, masterminding military dictatorships that ensured their interests were protected and advanced. Today, gas-rich Santa Cruz province accounts for 30% of Bolivia’s GDP. The oligarchy — displaced from government in the elections of December 2005 by the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), the party led by Morales — is directly threatened by the “process of change” being led by Morales, including the proposed constitution.

The opposition-controlled eastern “half-moon” provincial governments — Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija — have persistently protested against the proposed CPE, demanded the “recuperation” of the hydrocarbon taxes paid by the transnational companies to central government, and for the application of “regional autonomy” — a tactic to avoid central government control. The autonomy statues, approved in the “half-moon” region earlier in 2008 under high voter abstention, would assign to the provinces, among other things, management of the provincial economy, the right to sign international treaties and control of land titles.

Recently the attempts to apply regional autonomy escalated into coordinated acts of violence, including the blockading of main roads, disruption of food supplies to the western provinces and economic sabotage. Street battles waged against the military and the police by oligarchy-organised ultrarightist youth gangs in the “half-moon” capital cities were followed by the seizure, looting and destruction of state institutions, including the recently nationalised Entel telecommunications network, the state-controlled Channel 7 and land titles offices in the “half-moon” capital cities. Pipelines through which natural gas is exported to neighbouring countries were also sabotaged. It is estimated that this sabotage cost the central government US$100 million. The rampaging mobs that carried out the acts of vandalism and sabotage were led by ultrarightist groups that included the Union Juvenil Crucenista (Santa Cruz Youth Union). These groups are funded and directed by the provincial “Civic Committees”, bodies that politically group the “half-moon” regional oligarchy.

In the “half-moon” province of Pando the violence peaked on September 11 when 1000 unarmed peasants, who were marching in protest against the acts of sabotage, were ambushed by an armed mob led by members of the Pando Civic Committee and its ultraright youth wing. At least 30 peasants were massacred. “They came out of nowhere and started shooting with rifles. They didn’t even care that there were women and children with us”, one of the peasants was quoted by the September 17 Time magazine.

The next day Morales declared a state of emergency in Pando, sending in troops to maintain order. Pando’s prefect (governor), Leopoldo Fernando, was arrested four days later and is to be charged with genocide. In his place, Morales appointed a military official.

Imperialist intervention

US imperialism is actively seeking to destabilise, divide and foment violence in Bolivia. “Without fear of the empire, I declare Mr [Philip] Goldberg, the US ambassador, persona non grata”, Morales announced on September 11, adding: “He is conspiring against democracy and seeking the division of Bolivia.” Goldberg frequently held secret meetings with “half-moon” prefects, business leaders and former military officials to plot against the Morales government.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez expelled the US ambassador to Venezuela in solidarity with Bolivia. Both governments have stated they are willing to resume diplomatic relations only after the November US presidential election.

An emergency session of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), organised by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, convened on September 15 in the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, to discuss the unfolding crisis in Bolivia. The extraordinary meeting unanimously declared its support for the government of Evo Morales. The third point of the declaration issued by the meeting stated that the UNASUR governments “condemn the attack on government installations and public forces by groups that look for the destabilisation of Bolivia’s democracy, and demand the prompt return of those installations as condition for the start of the dialogue process”. Furthermore, it condemned the massacre of peasants, and announced UNASUR would not permit the consolidation of a “civic-coup”.

In conjunction with the unequivocal support from South America’s presidents, the social movements and trade unions that constitute the MAS began a series of mobilisations against the “half-moon” provinces. One of the focal points of the street battles in Santa Cruz city was in the district of Plan 3000, a MAS stronghold where some 200,000 people reside. Outside of the “half-moon” region, 20,000 peasants mobilised to blockade main roads into Santa Cruz province.

On September 17, the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), the main labour organisation, and the National Committee for Change (Conalcam), a body that groups the indigenous, peasant, urban and social movements, signed an agreement “for the defence of democracy, unity and integrity of the country”.

The support from UNASUR, the pressure of the popular mobilisations and expressions of international solidarity have dealt a political blow to the oligarchic opposition. Through the opposition National Democratic Council (Condale), chaired by Mario Cossio, the prefect of Tarija, an agreement was reached for negotiations between the “half-moon” prefects and the Morales government on three issues — the tax on the hydrocarbon sector, regional autonomy and the CPE. Negotiations began on September 18 in Cochabamba, in central Bolivia. They are being facilitated by the UN and the Organisation of American States, among others. Violent confrontations, for the time being, have abated, but both camps remain on alert.

It is difficult to see a solution to the conflict based solely on the latest round of negotiations, all previous ones having failed. Both sides have antagonistic economic and political projects, and even a minimal agreement will prove difficult. The opposition has signalled it is willing to utilise violence to attain its goals. Its frequent attempts at political and economic destabilisation are aimed at frustrating the implementation of the mandate for social change given the Morales government by the majority of voters. These attempts resemble those carried out in Chile that created the conditions for the 1973 military coup.

However, the latest events in Bolivia, stemming from a long process of popular struggles, have demonstrated the widespread support that the Morales government has. By contrast the Allende government never enjoyed the support of a majority of Chile’s voters. With a solid majority of voters having just voted to reaffirm Morales’ mandate, his government is unlikely to easily compromise with the opposition.

On September 25, Morales rejected a proposal from the opposition prefects to give full autonomy to their provinces during talks aimed at ending the political crisis. Morales accused his opponents of seeking de facto independence. “A full autonomy over any region is de facto independence”, Morales told reporters in Cochabamba. “Those pro-coup people”, he said, “would not get the national and international support” for such a move. Cossio, speaking on behalf of his counterparts from Beni, Santa Cruz and Chuquisaca, said the talks had “taken a step forward”, but that more time was needed to overcome “real problems” over regional tax issues.