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Fear and Loathing in Bolivia

by BENJAMIN DANGL

“Let’s go unblock the road, compañeros!” a man in an old baseball cap yells as he joins a group of people hauling rocks and tires from a central intersection in Cochabamba. This group of students and union activists are mobilizing against a civic strike led by middle class foot soldiers of the Bolivian right. These actions in the street are part of a political roller coaster which is dramatically changing Bolivia as it enters the new year.

Two major developments marked the close of the year in Bolivia: the passage of a new constitution and the worsening of political polarization in the country. The new constitution reflects the socialistic policies advocated by indigenous president Evo Morales, while racism, regional and political divisions still threaten to push Bolivia into a larger conflict.

In the final weeks of 2007, a variety of protest tactics were used by political factions to advocate competing visions for the future of the country. From November 24-25, clashes between security forces and opposition protesters in Sucre left three people dead and hundreds wounded, forcing the assembly rewriting the country’s constitution to move to Oruro. Anarchists dressed in black and pounding drums marched against racism in Cochabamba, while older Bolivians in La Paz organized rallies in support of a new pension plan. In the town of Achacachi, Aymara indigenous leaders sacrificed two dogs in a ceremony declaring war on the wealthy elite in Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz is a department with a capital city of the same name and is the center of the right’s growing movement against the Morales government. The Bolivian right is led by four right wing governors in the eastern departments of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija, civic committees, business and land owners, and the political party Democratic and Social Power (PODEMOS). The right organized various civic strikes throughout 2007, while supporters of the Movement Toward Socialism, (MAS, the political party of Morales), also flexed their political muscle in protests, blockades and strikes. Though government and media battles often carve new policies and shape debates, street mobilizations remain a vital part of Bolivian politics.

Transformation Through a New Constitution?

On December 8-9, MAS assembly participants and their allies passed the new constitution in Oruro. Opposition party members boycotted the meeting. Representatives of neighborhood councils, mining unions, coca growers’ unions, student and farmer groups mobilized in Sucre to defend the assembly from right wing intervention. Activists blew up dynamite to intimidate political opponents while assembly participants chewed coca to stay awake throughout the weekend-long gathering.

The new constitution paves the way for many of the changes the government has been working toward since Morales was elected in 2005. The document gives the state greater control over natural resources and the economy, and guarantees expanded autonomy for departmental governments and indigenous communities. It also calls for a mixed economy, where the rights of private, public and communal industries are protected. Indigenous community justice systems are better recognized through the new constitution and the document establishes that Supreme Court judges are to be elected instead of appointed by congress. The constitution also lifts the block on second consecutive terms for the president. This change would allow Morales to run again for two more terms in a row, in addition to his current time in office.

Though it was passed in the assembly in Oruro, the new constitution still has to be approved in a national referendum along with a vote on an article on land reform which is still in dispute. This controversial article puts a limit on private ownership of land to 100,000 hectares. Such a policy would greatly impact large land holdings in the department of Santa Cruz and other regions. On top of these challenges will be the difficulty of actually implementing these policy changes which so far only exist on paper.

Rightwing assembly members from PODEMOS, civic leaders and governors announced that they will not recognize the new constitution as it was passed without their support. MAS’s take on this, as represented by Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, is that the light-skinned elite do want to give up any of their privileges. Linera told the Los Angeles Times that these elites “have to understand that the state is no longer a prolongation of their haciendas [estates.]”

As a way out of the tense divisions, Morales announced that a referendum would be held in 2008 on his presidency and all governorships. In this referendum, which is scheduled to happen sometime before September 2008, Morales established a rule that he has to receive over 54% of votes ­ what he received when elected president in 2005 ­ supporting his presidency to remain in office. If he doesn’t receive this support, he is to hold elections within 90-120 days. At the same time, there will be a referendum on whether the governors will stay in office. If the governors do not receive more votes than they did when they were elected in 2005, then they can be replaced by an interim governor of Morales’ choosing until the next elections.

This referendum could be a way for Morales to strengthen his own mandate, while weakening the right. Though criticism among Morales’ base of support has increased recently, when given a choice between supporting the right and Morales, this large voter group would likely vote for Morales. There is also a lack of alternatives to Morales among the Bolivian left. A massive voter registration drive, largely in rural areas, launched by the Morales administration is also likely to play into the president’s favor in this referendum. A recent poll conducted by Ipsos Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado showed that 56% of the population currently approves the performance of Morales.

The Right and New Polarization

Shortly after Morales announced plans for the referendum, the right made another bold announcement which made political negotiations even more unlikely. On December 15, right wing leaders in Santa Cruz declared autonomy from the central government. Leaders announced the creation of Santa Cruz ID cards, a television station and its own police force; the Bolivian national police force will no longer be recognized. In addition, the autonomy declaration establishes that 2/3 of taxes from the oil and gas industry in that department will remain in Santa Cruz, rather than going to the central government. Expanded autonomy for four of the opposition led, resource rich, departments would further threaten the stability of the Morales government.

Meanwhile, strikes, road blockades and protests have been organized among all political factions and violence has often erupted throughout what has been a turbulent end to the year. There have been approximately eight political bombings in Bolivia in 2007. Most of these incidents involved dynamite or grenades, and the majority of them were against leftist unions or MAS party officials

Morales and his opponents have shown interest in meeting to negotiate some kind of compromise. Such a meeting was put at risk when on December 31 right wing leaders said they threw the new constitution into the garbage. Morales responded by saying that their autonomy statute should be thrown in the garbage. These declarations are likely to further erode relations between political opponents and increase division in the country.

A government plan to redirect gas industry taxes from departmental governments into a national pension plan has resulted in outcries from the right, and praise from MAS supporters. This pension, called the Dignity Salary, was approved in congress on November 27 without many opposition members present. The pension plan gives Bolivians over age 60 approximately $26 per month. The funds, which are to be an estimated $215 million annually, would be redirected from current gas tax funds which had previously gone to departmental governments. Right wing governors protested the pension, demanding that this redirected tax money stay in their departments.

Another of the right’s criticisms of the Morales administration is that the president’s policies are bad for business and international relations. Recent events and reports prove otherwise. On January 1, the government announced that in 2007 the Bolivian economy grew by 4.2%, which is more than the 1.7% growth in 2001 when Jorge Tuto Quiroga was vice president of the country. Quiroga, of PODEMOS, is a key leader of the current opposition against Morales.

In mid-December, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Chilean president Michelle Bachelet met with Morales in Bolivia to show their support for his government and the new constitution. The three heads of state negotiated a plan to develop a $600 million highway from Santos, Brazil, across Bolivia and to sea ports in Arica, Chile . During the same visit, the Brazilian hydrocarbon company Petrobras announced it would invest up to $1 billion to further develop the Bolivian gas industry.

Morales also cut a deal with a South Korean company to collaborate with Bolivian state-owned COMIBOL to exploit a copper mine in Corocoro, outside La Paz. On December 21, Bolivian foreign minister David Choquehuanca, during a visit in Beijing, announced proposals for Chinese investment in Bolivian telecommunications, transportation, hydrocarbons and minerals. Though specific deals with China were not discussed, Choquehuanca told Reuters that “We need investment but we need investment that gets us out of poverty, not investment that strips our natural resources and leaves us poor.”

Last November, in the cold lobby of a museum in La Paz, Bolivian vice president Garcia Linera arrived late to a panel on political change in Latin America. It was raining heavily in the Bolivian capital and the political crisis threatened to tear the country apart. Throughout the presentation, Linera left the panel to field numerous cell phone calls. When he finally commented on the polarization and conflicts in the country, he warned about the risk of widespread division, and said this moment of “bifurcation” is “much closer than it appears.” He spoke of how the “new state is consolidating itself” and how the right may “gradually accommodate” itself to these changes. Yet, he warned, the right could also work to block the government’s changes to revert to a past balance of power, which could create more tension. As Bolivia enters the new year, this tension is more present than ever.

Bolivia ended 2007 with more questions than answers about the future of the nation. Will the government be able to transform the state into something useful for a majority of Bolivians? What role will the social movements of Bolivia play in pushing for radical change? Will the policies in the new constitution be applied in effective ways? Though many of these issues may not be resolved in 2008, the good news is that Bolivia is directly addressing these critical questions.

BENJAMIN DANGL is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, (AK Press, March 2007). Email Bendangl(at)gmail.com

 

 

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Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America, covering social movements and politics in the region for over a decade. He is the author of the books Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia. Dangl is currently a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at McGill University, and edits UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Twitter: https://twitter.com/bendangl Email: BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com

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