Bolivia: a Coup in the Making?

Yesterday, in Bolivia, Minister of Government, Alfredo Rada, accused the right-wing autonomist leader Branko Marinkovic, and Santa Cruz prefect, Rubén Costas, of orchestrating a wave of violence as part of a “civic governors’ coup d’état.” Rada accused Marinkovic of having just returned from the United States where he allegedly received instructions for fomenting the coup attempt.

“Bolivia on the Brink,” is a phrase too often uttered by passing journalists unaccustomed to the country’s regular politics of the streets. But events of the last two weeks cannot be passed off as the ordinary business of protest. Rather, a right-wing coup attempt is in the offing in the five departments (states) governed by the right-wing opposition to President Evo Morales, of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party. The critical “media luna” departments of the eastern lowlands – Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando – have been joined in part by far-right elements in the government of the department of Chuquisaca. Thus far, these right-wing autonomists have not achieved critical support within the military, but the passivity of the Morales government in the face of ferocious racism, violence, and the takeover of state institutions and airports on an unprecedented scale, does not bode well for the future of Bolivia.

One indication of the seriousness of the situation is that Morales just announced that US ambassador Philip Goldberg is no longer welcome in Bolivia and will be asked officially to leave the country in the coming hours. Morales accused Goldberg of meeting with the oppositional prefects (governors) of the five departments in rebellion, to help coordinate what has become a full-scale destabilization campaign.

The campaign is being led by the Consejo Nacional Democrático (National Democratic Council, CONALDE), which brings together the prefectures and civic committees of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija, and Sucre, under the banner of “departmental autonomy.” These prefectures and civic committees in turn represent the agro-industrial, petroleum, and financial elite of these departments. While they are led by the bourgeoisie, the autonomists have won over substantial sectors of the popular classes by manipulating real democratic desires for decentralized “autonomous” self-governance, as opposed to alienating central state control. If the civic committees and prefects are the pretty face of autonomism, a growing network of proto-fascist youth groups linked to them are the clenched fist in the streets.

The immediate objective of the autonomist right is to destabilize the Morales government and to weaken left-indigenous forces throughout the country. One longer term goal is to reaffirm and consolidate private elite control over the natural gas and agricultural wealth of the country that is currently under threat due to widespread popular sentiment in favour of expropriation, nationalization, redistribution, and the establishment of social control over Bolivia’s riches. A related long-term objective of the autonomist right is to re-conquer state power at the national level.

The Post-Referendum Conjuncture

Evo Morales and Álvaro García Linera won the support of nearly 7 of every 10 Bolivians in a recent recall referendum. At the same time, however, right-wing prefects consolidated power in five of the country’s nine departments.

While the Morales and García Linera line since the referendum has been moderation and calls for negotiation and dialogue with the far-right, CONALDE has launched massive and coordinated direct actions: road blockades; racist attacks against unarmed pro-government rallies; gang-land terrorization of poor, mainly indigenous neighbourhoods in the eastern lowlands; armed assaults on military and police personnel guarding public institutions; occupations and shutdowns of airports; looting and burning of state offices; and the vandalizing of state-owned media outlets.

In so doing, the autonomist have established real power in most of the departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando, and urban areas of Chuquisca, particularly the departmental capital of Sucre. It is literally unsafe for the President and state representatives to visit these areas. Momentum is on the side of the right, and they are in no mood for negotiation.

Morales and his government have refused to declare a state of emergency and thus the right-wing advances and brutal acts of racist violence in over half of the country’s territory continue apace with impunity. “We are not going to declare a state of emergency,” stated Vice-Minister of Social Movements, Sacha Llorenti. “We are not going to succumb to the provocation.” Likewise, Foreign Affairs Minister, David Choquehuanca, said, “This is a government of dialogue…. The groups committing the violence, violating laws and human rights are small. We call on these violent groups to return to negotiations.”

But a state of emergency, in combination with the concerted mobilization and organization of popular left-indigenous forces throughout the country, might allow the government to reestablish constitutional order and to detain and bring to justice right-wing subversives bent on destroying a government which enjoys the support of 68 percent of the population. It would help to guarantee military and police protection of state property and basic rights for the civilian population in the face of racist terror. It would help to provide a means of defense against right-wing autonomists wielding guns and Molotov cocktails.

It might turn the tide against the colonial-era violence and public denigration of the indigenous poor in urban plazas of the major eastern lowland cities: whippings, beatings with clubs and two-by-fours, and punching, kicking, and swarming captured on private and state media alike. All of this is accompanied by disgusting racist epithets, and legitimated by the departmental prefectures and civic committees who say Morales’ “dictatorship” brought it all on.

Jorge Soruco, a human rights activist in the department of Beni, conveyed the exasperation of popular sectors loyal to the government living in the five departments in rebellion: “This is racist dementia, madness that we can’t allow. We are living in an era of insanity, where the people of the opposition… are confronting the people with situations of extreme violence.”

A Late-August Festival of Hate against the Indigenous of Santa Cruz

After registering astonishing levels of support in the referendum, the MAS government declared that it was going to bring forward for popular referendum the draft of a new constitution approved by the Constituent Assembly in Oruro several months ago.

In celebration, indigenous peasant and working-class supporters of the government set off on August 29 for a peaceful march to the Plaza 24 de Septiembre, in the centre of the city of Santa Cruz. A gathering of autonomists, organized in part by the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (Cruceño Youth Union, UJC), were there to greet them.

According to the mainstream daily La Prensa, one UJC speaker at the autonomist rally declared: “We are not going to permit [the entrance of the masistas] into the Plaza. When we go to their communities, they treat us like dogs. We want independence. We don’t want this damned race in our territory.” Other chants and phrases used that day, according to the vociferously anti-Morales La Razón newspaper, included: “shitty collas,” (colla is a racial epithet used in Santa Cruz to refer to indigenous people from the western highlands), and, “Indians return to your lands.”

After the speeches, the racists when on a rampage against the unarmed trade unionists and peasants, as well as any visibly indigenous person in proximity of the plaza. Indigenous women wearing the traditional pollera, or gathered skirt, were particularly vulnerable to beatings and racist taunts. One autonomist youth leader, Amelia Dimitri, was captured in video footage and photographs whipping an indigenous woman wearing a pollera. This occurred immediately after Dimitri addressed the crowd of autonomist thugs in a rousing speech. She’s only the latest face of hatred on the autonomist right.

On national television, Bolivians watched as racist teenagers wielded clubs, whips, and two-by-fours against unarmed indigenous workers and peasants. Images of men and women with broken noses and shirts literally drenched in blood quickly made their way to You Tube, private and national state media, and the front pages of the local newspapers. These are the “democracy supporters” supported by imperialism against the “dictatorship” of Evo Morales.

But where were the cops? Where was the military? The MAS government refused to act, calling instead for negotiations.

And in the following weeks things intensified further, such that in the last two days Bolivia has been perched on a precipice, below which lies the defeat of left-indigenous power – on the rise since the wave of insurrections between 2000 and 2005 – and the conquest of power by imperialism and the rich and the white-mestizo elite who have long-ruled the country, and who retain control of economic power despite Morales’ electoral victory.

The Makings of a Coup

The latest phase of pressure tactics in the “media luna” departments began in earnest with the initiation of a road blockade on August 25 in the Chaco region of the department of Tarija, followed a week later by parallel road blockades in the departments of Beni and Santa Cruz. This latter period also saw the occupation by force of several public institutions in Santa Cruz, as well as an attempt by the proto-fascist UJC to take over the police barracks in the capital city of that department, also named Santa Cruz.

As many analysts have pointed out, the latest actions by the autonomist right are merely the consolidation of their power in the eastern lowlands, given that for most of this year it has been impossible for the President and other government officials to safely visit major cities in the eastern lowlands, due to airport occupations and violent acts perpetrated against state ministers.

Yesterday, at least 22 state entities were occupied and taken over by the youth wing of the Pro Santa Cruz Committee and their sister organizations in the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija, Pando, and Sucre. The right-wing occupiers have declared that they will transfer power of these state institutions to autonomous departmental authorities.

In Pando, for example, the prefect, Leopoldo Fernández, named a departmental director of the National Agrarian Institute (INRA). President of the Beni Civic Committee, Luis Alberto Melgar, and Vice-President of the Pando Civic Committee, Ricardo Shimokawa, announced that the occupations and mobilizations in their departments to date were just beginning.

Among the state institutions taken over across the country were the state television channel, Televisión Boliviana, and radio station, Patria Nueva. The airports of the eastern lowland cities of Trinidad, Guayaramerín, and Riberalta were also seized by autonomist forces. Two natural gas stations were seized, and 29 different road blockades were erected on the highways of these five departments.

Despite presidential authorization to protect state institutions, the National Police and Military Police lost control of these entities, as they were forcefully driven from their stations by violent mobilizations of the far-right.

University students, proto-fascist political youth gangs, functionaries of the departmental prefectures, and an array of other social sectors, including organized housewives (amas de casa), participated in the right-wing autonomist assaults on public institutions and confrontations with the coercive apparatuses of the state. These street actions are directly linked, however, with the finely-dressed men occupying the highest institutions of departmental power – the prefectures and the civic committees. And these men represent the agro-industrial, petroleum, and finance capitalists. Indeed, many autonomist politicians have millions of their own money invested in these sectors.

The Scope of Right-Wing Assault

Santa Cruz, where the confrontations between the National Police and the Military Police and the UJC were most intense, witnessed the takeover of the National Tax Services (SIN) offices, the National Agrarian Institute (INFRA), and the state telecommunications company (ENTEL).

The offices of Televisión Boliviana and Nueva Patria in Santa Cruz were initially broken into at night by young thugs who damaged equipment and lit parts of the offices on fire. Security of the premises was then reestablished by state forces for a period of time yesterday morning, until bands of the UJC effectively drove the police forces away with Molotov cocktails. The state then lost control entirely of their state media companies in the city.

Right-wing autonomist forces also launched violent attacks against various indigenous NGOs and human rights organizations, such as the Centro de Estudios Jurídicos y de Investigación Social (CEJIS). CEJIS on two earlier occasions this year was attacked with Molotov cocktails.

The El Trompillo and Viru Viru airports have been taken over by the state military to ensure they are not taken over by autonomist forces.

In Tarija, where road blockades have persisted for the last 16 days in the Chaco region, the right-wing autonomist forces took over government tax offices (SIN), the offices of the National Agrarian Institute (INRA), and the border state’s migration offices. Perhaps most importantly, they also managed to occupy the offices of the Superintendent of Hydrocarbons. Given that roughly 82 percent of natural gas production occurs in the department of Tarija, this is of major concern.

In the department of Beni, the Jorge Henrich airport was taken over, and its runways blockaded with transport trucks and piled debris. The offices of the Administration of Airports and Aerial Navigation (AASANA) were taken over. Likewise, the airport of Riberalta was shutdown. Also in Riberalta, the doors of the offices of Televisión Boliviana were damaged, while the mob didn’t manage to enter the premises. The Bolivian Postal Service (ECOBOL), ENTEL, and the Migration offices were also taken over in this city.

In the community of Guayaramerín, autonomist activists violently seized the offices of the National Customs office and the airport terminal.

Elsewhere, in the city of Villamontes, the Civic Committee took illegal control of a natural gas station, giving it the capacity to turn off supplies to the Yacuiba-Río Grande Gas Pipeline (GASYRG), the main natural gas source for Brazil.

In Sucre, the Unión Juvenil de la Chuquisaqueñidad (Youth Union of Chuquisaca, UJCh – Sucre is the capital of the department of Chuquisaca) and associated organizations, took over the tax offices and other state institutions. These protests were led in part by the notorious Roberto Lenin Sandóval, currently awaiting trial for his participation in the right-wing take over of state institutions several months ago, as well as for his role in racist attacks against indigenous peasants as part of the Chuquisaca Conscience movement.

However, unlike in the other four departments controlled by the right, Chuquisaca’s autonomist actions against the central government have been limited to the capital of Sucre, as the countryside is controlled by indigenous peasants overwhelmingly aligned with the Morales government.

The future of left-indigenous liberation struggle in Bolivia lies in the balance. If this right-wing tide is to be turned, there must be wide-scale direct actions by the vast majority of the country against the right-wing conspiracy. Such action would be greatly facilitated by a shift in the Morales government away from negotiation with a right that clearly is uninterested in dialogue. Let’s hope that the banishment of US Ambassador Goldberg from the country marks the first step in such a turn.

JEFFERY R. WEBBER is a Canadian currently in Venezuela. He writes frequently on Latin American affairs.


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