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Having failed to halt the tide of South America’s Pink Tide, Washington is seeking to cultivate relationships with secessionist leaders in order to facilitate the breakup of countries which share left leaning governments. In Bolivia, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has explicitly supported demands of the political opposition for greater regional autonomy in the eastern section of the country and has funneled millions of dollars to the right.
It’s an inflammatory move which has incited a diplomatic firestorm throughout the region. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, an important ally of the Morales government in La Paz, has said that his country will not stand for secession in Bolivia’s eastern lowland states. The stage now seems set for confrontation, as Bolivia’s largest and richest state overwhelmingly backed a referendum calling for greater autonomy earlier this month.
Chávez declared that his government has not meddled in the domestic affairs of other Latin American nations, but would do so if Bolivian states now seeking greater autonomy from Bolivia’s central government push for total independence. On his weekend radio and television program, the Venezuelan leader blamed “oligarchs” and “fascists” in Bolivia for the unrest.
“The CIA and its lackeys” aimed at seizing control of regional governments through illegal referendums, Chávez said, “but we will defeat that plan through integration, political union and ideological strength.”
News of the secession movement in Bolivia has alarmed the Venezuelan authorities. It’s not difficult to see why: in western Venezuela, the right wing opposition is pushing for greater autonomy from the central government. In response to the political crisis in Bolivia, Chávez likened opposition efforts to win control of states near Venezuela’s border with Colombia to “separatist” moves in the impoverished Andean nation to the south. With secession rapidly turning into a worrisome political dilemma for regional governments, right wing opposition figures are now coming to the fore.
Who are these secession leaders who wish to derail South America’s Pink Tide?
A Texan Venezuelan
With the largest inland lake in Latin America, the most fertile land and 40 percent of Venezuela’s oil production, the western state of Zulia and its capital Maracaibo may rightly claim to be the country’s productive backbone. Zulia has always thought of itself as the Texas of Venezuela — a land dominated by oil, cattle and predominantly conservative politicians. It is the country’s most affluent and populous state.
Local residents have long taken pride in zulianidad – a state identity based loosely on Caribbean food and hospitality, a local musical genre known as gaita, and the syncretic Christian practices that dominate local religious life, chief among them worship of the “Black Christ” housed in Maracaibo’s cathedral.
In the twentieth century some “Zulianos” sought greater autonomy from the central government. Historical documents in the Public Records Office of Kew Gardens in London suggest that U.S. oil companies have been embroiled in secession plots (for more on this murky history, see my earlier Counterpunch articles on Zulia secession).
Currently, the most high profile politician pushing for greater Zulia autonomy is Manuel Rosales. Born in 1952, Rosales began his political career in the 1970s as a local member of the city council in the town of Santa Barbara del Zulia. A teacher, Rosales rose through the ranks of Acción Democrática, one of the two corrupt parties that dominated Venezuelan political life in the twentieth century.
Rosales went on to be elected mayor of Maracaibo and formed his own party, A New Time. An implacable foe of Hugo Chávez, Rosales went on to be elected Zulia governor in 2000. Even as Chávez and his followers racked up one electoral victory after the next, Rosales defied conventional political wisdom by winning reelection in 2004.
“I Made a Mistake in Good Faith”
A politician who defines himself as a believer in freedom and social justice, Rosales nevertheless supported the U.S.-supported 2002 coup against Chávez. Rosales was a signatory to the infamous “Carmona Decree” dissolving Venezuela’s democratic institutions. He later claimed, unconvincingly, that he had made a mistake “in good faith.” At the time he signed the decree, Rosales argued, it appeared as if Chávez had voluntarily resigned from the presidency amidst urban confusion and gun battles erupting in the streets of Caracas.
In December, 2006 Rosales ran against Chávez in the presidential election. Though he received support from the middle class opposition he went down to bitter defeat, losing by some 25 percentage points. The campaign unfolded amidst a climate of intrigue, as Chávez accused Rosales and the U.S. of promoting Zulia’s political independence and having ties with Rumbo Propio (or “Own Way”), a group which supported Zulia separatism. Néstor Suárez, an anti-Chávez figure who opposed the government’s social programs in favor of “liberal economics,” led the right wing organization.
Though Chávez has failed to prove that Rosales had any link to secessionist plots launched by the likes of the U.S. or Rumbo Propio, the Zulia governor has cultivated close ties to the U.S. since his electoral defeat in 2006. Last year, prior to Venezuela’s vote on a constitutional referendum, Rosales went to Washington to meet with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon. Rosales urged the U.S. to press Chávez to slow his constitutional overhaul plan which would have accelerated the government’s progressive social agenda and abolished presidential term limits.
Ratcheting up the pressure yet further on Chávez, Rosales now says that he favors some degree of regional autonomy for Zulia. The Zulia governor has said that he favors greater independence from Caracas on the grounds that the government intends to take power away from states and municipalities, and “centralize everything.”
Rosales’s statements come in the wake of a renewed autonomy push by New Time state legislators. In early May, they proposed a feasibility study for potential autonomy from the federal government which they compared to the autonomy efforts in Bolivia’s wealthy province of Santa Cruz.
In response to the inflammatory moves by Rosales’ party, Chávez supporters have lashed back. “We legislators categorically reject this separatist, secessionist proposal of the state because it goes against our values and the integral development of the country,” said José Luis Acosta, a pro-Chávez state legislator from Zulia. Acosta added that “We, with the law, with the People in the street, and with the armed forces, will put up a fight.”
“I Need to Urinate On You”
Venezuela is not the only country facing an internal secessionist movement. In Ecuador, the right opposition to President Rafael Correa is coalescing around Jaime Nebot, the mayor of the coastal city of Guayaquil. Affiliated to the country’s Social Christian Party, Nebot ran twice for the Presidency, in 1992 and 1996. During his second presidential bid, Nebot ran on a pro-business platform stressing privatization of public services.
Born into a prominent Guayaquil family, Nebot entered politics in 1984 when President Leon Febres-Cordero appointed the ambitious young man Governor of Guayas province, the district encompassing Guayaquil.
Nebot’s association with Febres-Cordero, a key ally of Ronald Reagan at the time, is not flattering. As I explain in my new book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan), torture and killing by the military as well as disappearances and arbitrary arrests multiplied in Ecuador during this unfortunate period of the country’s political history.
Later, Nebot rose to national prominence when he won a seat in Congress on the Social Christian Party slate. While serving in Congress, Nebot became known for his colorful and tasteless outbursts. In August, 1990 Nebot, visibly agitated, began yelling hysterically at a fellow congressman, Víctor Granda of the Socialist Party. “Come here so I can urinate on you,” Nebot shouted memorably at Granda. “I can’t just hit you. I have to urinate on you.” Police had to physically intervene to stop Nebot from physically assaulting his adversary. The incident was caught on Ecuadoran national TV and has been preserved for posterity on YouTube.
In 2000 Nebot was elected Mayor of Guayaquil where he pursued a conservative, pro-business agenda emphasizing gentrification and crime busting (he was reelected in 2004 to another four year term). In his zealous drive to emulate tough guy Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Nebot contracted former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton to help shape the city’s urban regeneration strategy in 2002. Nebot flew Bratton in from the United States, paying him an enormous sum of money for just three days of work. Bratton proposed an overhaul of Guayaquil’s anti-crime structure which later became known as “Plan Bratton.”
The New York cop’s anti-crime structure has formed part and parcel of the city’s regeneration plan, which has turned Guayaquil into a kind of dystopian urban nightmare. In the new Guayaquil, urban “undesirables” found working in gentrified areas face tough penalties: beggars and itinerant vendors may be imprisoned for up to seven days and fines can reach as high as $500.
“Just Like Miami”
A newly constructed boardwalk called the Malecón 2000 is praised by many local residents as being “just like Miami.” However, indigenous street vendors do not fit into this ideal and there have been ongoing efforts to remove them from cleaned up urban spaces. In an excellent and thorough recent scholarly article, University of Glasgow geographer Kate Swanson described the contours of Nebot’s social policy.
The boulevard, she writes, “is monitored by heavily armed police who individually assess who can enter the gated grounds and who cannot. Within the regenerated area, there are now at least 52 police-operated video cameras running 24 hours a day. This municipal gaze is not only concerned with crime control; rather, a key function of the cameras is to monitor the regenerated areas for the occupation of public space—particularly by informal workers.”
The Malecón, which lies adjacent to the Guayas River, is totally manicured and sanitized. Pedestrians may lounge in cafes and gardens, sit on benches or even eat in a local McDonald’s. “Yet,” notes Swanson, “this too is guarded and monitored by heavily armed police during all opening hours. The gates close at midnight to prevent undesirables from sneaking in and spending the night. This boardwalk was designed with tourists and Guayaquil’s upper-middle classes in mind.”
According to Swanson, there’s been much criticism of the social impacts of Nebot’s revitalization projects. In fact, she notes, newspaper articles have been replete with complaints by informal workers denouncing police harassment. In 2003 alone, the media reported 10 cases of excessive police force in Guayaquil, many of which were captured on film. At night, informal workers are not allowed to pass into revitalized areas of the city, and the streets are patrolled by truckloads of young, heavily armed police officers.
Nebot to Correa: “We Refuse to Be Guinea Pigs”
Having failed in his presidential ambitions, Nebot is now seeking to capitalize on secessionist sentiment in Guayas, the nation’s most affluent province. The populous, agricultural region contributes a huge share of money to the central government and is rich in natural resources. Banana, cocoa, rice, sugar cane, cotton, tropical flowers and fruits are grown there, both for domestic consumption and export. There is a fishing industry, focused mainly on tuna and on shrimp farming, and food, cement, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries. What’s more, Guayaquil is the nation’s largest port.
If Guayas were to ever secede from Ecuador, such a move would prove economically devastating for the country. Nebot however is determined to turn up the pressure on Correa, saying that the government needs to stop its “socialist project” before the country cracks up. Nebot and his followers argue that Correa’s desire to reform the country’s constitution is aimed at making the President a “Chávez-style” dictator.
In January, 2008 Nebot led a march of tens of thousands through Guayaquil’s streets in the name of defending the city’s autonomy from Correa’s plans for further centralization. Supporters waved the city’s blue and white flag and chanted “Long live Guayaquil, dammit,” and “Down with Correa.”
“As long as you are alive and I am alive, he will never push us around,” Nebot shouted to the crowd. “We will not be guinea pigs of a failed experiment.” An estimated 150,000-200,000 people attended the protest, around double the number who joined a government-sponsored march in Guayaquil a week earlier to mark the Correa government’s first anniversary in power.
Meet Rubén Costas: Bolivia’s Secessionist
Fair skinned and European looking, Rubén Costas hardly resembles Bolivia’s indigenous president Evo Morales. Elected Prefect of the western department of Santa Cruz in 2005, Costas has become a key advocate for greater regional autonomy and a thorn in the side of the government in La Paz.
Following Costas’ election, the right opposition escalated its pressure on the Morales government, organizing protests in the city of Sucre against the President’s proposed Constitution which would have given the country’s indigenous majority a greater say in political decision making. When clashes erupted which resulted in the deaths of three demonstrators and a policeman, Costas pounced by calling for a 24-hour business strike.
An advocate for powerful business interests, Costas was also one of the right wing politicians who called for a referendum on Santa Cruz autonomy earlier this month. Prior to the referendum, Costas remarked hopefully that the departments of Tarija, Pando and Benin would join Santa Cruz in its drive for autonomy and “a second Bolivia will be created.”
On the eve of the referendum vote, Costas assured Bolivians that there would be no violence. At a rally, he announced “We don’t want dynamite, nor clubs, nor rancor. The democratic vote is our only weapon.” Predictably however, Election Day was marked by violent clashes between government supporters opposed to the autonomy statute — mainly indigenous migrants from Bolivia’s impoverished western highlands provinces — and members of the rightwing Santa Cruz Youth Union.
As a result of the May referendum, the stage is now set for irrevocable future conflict: 85% of the residents of Santa Cruz voted for autonomy. As part of the referendum Costas himself will take over as Governor of the department, though Morales has called the vote illegal and nonbinding. Making further mischief, Santa Cruz leaders have pledged to withhold levies paid by energy companies operating in the area.
Santa Cruz, Guayas, and Zulia: What Do They Have in Common?
Like Guayas and Zulia, affluent provinces in Ecuador and Venezuela respectively, Santa Cruz is the richest department in Bolivia. Bolivia’s eastern departments account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry and gross domestic product. Like Chávez, who is worried that Zulia secession would lead to a cutoff of oil revenue, Morales can ill afford secession in the east: Bolivia is South America’s poorest country and desperately needs proceeds from the gas industry.
There’s a racial and political dimension to these conflicts too. In Ecuador, it is Nebot and the predominantly white and mestizo coastal elite which seek to secede from the Indian highlands. In the small Andean nation, it’s the Indians who are pushing radical social change, whereas whites and mestizos on the coast fear the rise of socialism.
In Bolivia, there’s a similar dynamic at work: Morales’s indigenous supporters in the highlands constitute the radical political vanguard which are increasingly at odds with whites and mestizos in the lowlands. In Santa Cruz, the elite fears Morales’ plans to promote land reform and to capture greater energy revenue for the central state.
The similarities between these secessionist movements are not lost on the region’s leaders. Javier Zárata, the Bolivian Ambassador to Ecuador, recently remarked that“what is occurring in Bolivia is not an isolated action.” “I know there have been coordination meetings last year and the year before among representatives from Santa Cruz and representatives of Guayaquil, and other states of other countries,” the diplomat added.
Speaking on his weekly radio show, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa said that “oligarchical and separatist” Bolivians were trying to destabilize the Morales government. Correa remarked that regional governments would not stand for secessionist movements in Santa Cruz, Zulia and Guayas. Elites in all three countries, Correa declared, sought to roll back progressive social change “so as to continue with imperialistic and neo-liberal policies.”
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan)