Having avoided any meaningful coverage of Bolivia since the election of Evo Morales in December, 2005, the international media is now obliged to play catch up. Yesterday, the Andean nation of 9.1 million held a crucial vote which could pave the way for secession of the resource-rich Santa Cruz region.
In a challenge to Morales’ authority, more than 80% of voters approved a referendum which would allow more powers for Santa Cruz, an area which is responsible for about 30 percent of Bolivia’s gross domestic product while making up about a quarter of the country’s population. Morales, who rejected the autonomy vote as illegal, called on the opposition to engage in a dialogue with his government.
Fundamentally, the Santa Cruz imbroglio is a struggle over oil and gas.
The mixed race elite in the lowlands wants more local control over the resources while Morales, who has the support of indigenous peoples in the highlands, wants the wealthier eastern regions to contribute more to the poorer west.
Affluent leaders in Santa Cruz are particularly incensed by a new draft constitution which would limit large land holdings. In a repudiation of the constitutional reforms, the people of Santa Cruz voted yesterday to give their region more control over land distribution, as well as rich oil and gas reserves.
So what happens next?
The Santa Cruz referendum has set an ominous precedent: three other eastern provinces, Tarija, Pando, and Bendi, which also possess large fields of crude oil and natural gas, have said they too will vote on greater autonomy. If voters there move to repudiate the central government as well, it could set up a civil war scenario leading to national breakup.
The Secret Hand Behind Secession
If political tensions were not high enough, Morales escalated matters further when he accused the U.S. of backing eastern secessionists. Warning that he would take “radical decisions” against foreign diplomats who become involved in Bolivian politics, Morales remarked “I cannot understand how some ambassadors dedicate themselves to politics, and not diplomacy, in our country. That is not called cooperation. That is called conspiracy.”
Meanwhile, Vice President Álvaro García accused the U.S Embassy of financing “publications, trips, and seminars” to help Morales’ opposition develop “ideological and political resistance” to the administration.
Morales has some just reason to be paranoid. As I document in some detail in my current book,Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left(Palgrave-Macmillan), Morales’s socialist agenda, coca-style nationalism and hostility to economic neo-liberalism has hardly succeeded in ingratiating himself amongst the Beltway elite. The Bolivian leader’s increasingly close ties to Venezuela and Cuba have similarly set off the alarm bell for U.S. diplomats.
In an effort to rollback social and political change in Bolivia, the U.S has funneled millions of dollars to opposition groups through USAID and The National Endowment for Democracy. What’s more, USAID explicitly supports demands of the right wing for greater regional autonomy in the east.
It’s not the first time, however, that the U.S. has sought to encourage secessionist sentiment within South American regions possessing rich natural resources.
In 1908, the US helped to support a military coup d’etat in Venezuela launched by Juan Vicente Gómez. Gómez’s primary goal was to establish a strong, centralized state. To achieve this, he would have to head off secessionist sentiment in the westernmost state of Zulia.
Gómez, a brutal dictator, could ill afford political problems in the west. Measuring 63,100 square kilometers, with 178,388 inhabitants in 1908, Zulia was not only large in terms of sheer land mass, but also economically important. When Gómez took power, Zulia had the most substantial budget of any Venezuelan state. The largest city, Maracaibo, had a population of about 39,000 at the turn of the century.
The discovery of vast oil deposits in Lake Maracaibo complicated matters somewhat for Gómez. U.S. President Warren Harding attached singular importance to promoting the expansion of U.S. oil interests abroad, and the State Department was riddled with officials compromised by conflicts of interest.
For example, William T.S. Doyle, the resident manager of Shell Oil in 1919-1920, was a former head of the State Department’s Division of Latin American Affairs. Jordan Stabler, another State Department official, went on to work for Gulf Oil. Francis Loomis, a powerful State Department official, later worked for Standard Oil.
In December 1921, Gómez received a shock when he was apprised of a plot for a military invasion of Venezuela. The plan was foiled when the Dutch authorities stopped a ship setting forth from Holland. The ship had been chartered to travel to Venezuela, apparently to engage in a “filibustering expedition.” Another ship was prevented from setting sail from England. Both ships, the British Public Records Office stated, had been funded to the tune of $400,000 by “oil interests of the United States,” which “had been pulling every possible string in order to block the development of the British Concessions which they ultimately hoped to get hold of.”
Though the plot hatched by American oil interests never came to fruition, the growing oil presence was a concern for Santos Gómez, the Zulia state governor. In 1923, he personally wrote Gómez, warning his chief that oil workers could be subverted by enemies of the regime.
The U.S. Navy in Zulia
Officially, the later Republican administration of Calvin Coolidge espoused a policy of non-intervention in Latin American affairs. Nevertheless, Gómez acted decisively to appoint a stronger and more competent state governor in Zulia, Vincencio Pérez Soto. According to the historian Brian McBeth, rumors of oil companies sponsoring Zulia secession concerned Gómez and convinced the dictator of the need to appoint a stronger man as state president. Clearly, the oil-rich Zulia region was increasingly critical. By 1928, in fact, Venezuela would become the leading world oil exporter.
In the 1920s, U.S. economic interests in Zulia grew, with American oil companies such as Standard Oil and Gulf joining their British counterparts in the Lake Maracaibo area. According to the U.S. consul in Maracaibo, Alexander Sloan, there was widespread disaffection in Maracaibo against the Gómez government. Sloan said that Zulia natives as well as Maracaibo residents “do not now and have not for years felt any great affection for the central government.”
Meanwhile, Pérez Soto was confronted with unsettling news. On July 2, 1926 the USS Niagara arrived off the coast of Zulia. The U.S. consul requested that the sailors be allowed to celebrate the 4th of July in Venezuela. When an air officer attached to the Niagara requested permission to fly over Maracaibo in honor of July 4th, Pérez Soto grew suspicious. Reports reached the governor that the real reason for the over flight was to take aerial photographs of the region. Pérez Soto barred the disembarking of the Niagara crew and refused to authorize the over-flight.
Writing Gómez, the governor related that the U.S. sought to station the Niagara in Venezuelan waters “as a kind of sentinel of North American interests in Venezuela.” Pérez Soto then employed his intelligence to obtain detailed reports concerning the activities of U.S. marines from the Niagara on Zapara island, located in the mouth of the Maracaibo Bar.
Pérez Soto uncovered that the Niagara crew had mounted a wireless radio with a reach of 2,000 miles. Pérez Soto was particularly concerned that powerful sectors of Maracaibo society might conspire with the United States to further Zulia secession with the aim of separating the state from the rest of Venezuela.
The Republic of Zulia
In an effort to lessen tensions with foreign interests, Pérez Soto assured oil company managers that he was “anxious to discuss their problems with them and to lend them any aid in his power.” Pérez Soto sought to assert his authority over the oil companies through diplomatic and legal means. As the U.S. consul put it, Pérez Soto and local officials were determined “that conditions such as existed in Tampico [Mexico] are not to be tolerated here, and [they] have become much stricter in enforcing discipline and obedience to the laws.” In a note to Gómez, Pérez Soto mused that perhaps the oil companies would put up with legality and honesty—”or maybe not, and they will try to undermine me,” through their representatives in Caracas.
In many respects Pérez Soto had been more a more forceful governor than his predecessors. For Gómez, however, the risk was that the more powerful Pérez Soto became, the greater the possibility that the charismatic politician would become a rival in his own right. As Gómez consolidated power he faced yet further military unrest, and there were ample opportunities for Pérez Soto to create intrigue.
In July 1928 Col. Jose Maria Fossi, a trusted Gómez subordinate, turned against the dictator, taking the city of La Vela de Coro for a few hours. The military uprising, which called for revolutionaries to be reinforced by 300 Venezuelan and 90 Dominican rebels working in Curacao, was crushed by Gómez’s troops. Fossi later remarked that Pérez Soto had approached him and offered him money in exchange for his support in fomenting a separatist movement. The ultimate aim was to form a new republic comprising the Venezuelan states of Zulia, Falcon, and the Catatumbo region of Colombia. The venture, added Fossi, would have the support of the oil companies in Lake Maracaibo.
While such reports must be treated cautiously, Colombian authorities were apparently concerned about a plot and Bogotá’s House of Deputies met in secret session to discuss “moves of Yankee agents in the Departments of Santander and Goagira which sought to provoke a separatist movement which, united to Zulia, would form the Republic of Zulia.” Pérez Soto dismissed rumors of his involvement in Zulia secession as “treason against the Fatherland, and an immense dishonor.” However, Pérez Soto’s credibility was further damaged when correspondence reached Gómez himself hinting at efforts to involve Pérez Soto in Zulia secessionist plots. McBeth writes that “important oilmen with close connections with the State Department had enquired about the suitability of Pérez Soto as President of Zulia.”
What is the present day relevance of all this history? We must remember that the U.S. helped to install Gómez in the first place and sent U.S. gunboats to help the dictator to power in 1908. What’s more, Gómez himself was a solid anti-Communist. And yet, powerful interests in the United States were still not satisfied with Gómez’s reactionary credentials and sought to intrigue against the dictator. Given the history, it is hardly surprising that the U.S. would now encourage secessionist sentiment in Bolivia, a country whose President displays far less ideological affinity with Washington than Gómez during the early twentieth century.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2008).