A popular upheaval is sweeping Bolivia, threatening the departmental capital of Santa Cruz, the bastion of the right wing rebellion against the government of Evo Morales. Some twenty thousand miners, peasants and coca growers are moving on the city to reclaim state institutions occupied by autonomist forces. They are also demanding the resignation of the Santa Cruz prefect (governor), Rubén Costas, and the apprehension of Branko Marinkovich, an agro-industrial magnet who heads up the Santa Cruz Civic Committee comprised of large land owning and business interests.
Five hundred kilometers away in Cochabamba in central Bolivia negotiations are taking place between the Morales government and the opposition. Thousands of demonstrators occupy the city’s streets, serving notice that the country’s social movements will tolerate no concessions to the right wing. The “Dialogue,” facilitated by Jose Miguel Insulza, the president of the Organization of American States, is to resolve the issues that have brought the country to the precipice of civil war. “I want to sign a document that will allow for the pacification of the country … and guarantee a new political constitution for the state,” proclaims Morales.
But the opposition is raising procedural and substantive objections to the governments’ proposals, even to an autonomy accord that contains concessions for the rebellious departments. According to Fidel Surco, the head of the National Coordination for Change, the coalition of Bolivia’s social movements allied with MAS, the Movement Towards Socialism: “We aren’t going to wait any longer…we know that the prefects are simply stalling so that no accords are reached.” Morales, in a warning to those in attendance at the Dialogue, said: “I have a letter from the mobilized social movements, they also want to participate. As far as I am concerned they are welcome, we await their participation.”
Almost a month ago the National Democratic Council (Conalde)–the organization of the right wing prefects and politicians based in the rebellious departments in the “Media Luna” of eastern Bolivia–sparked this crisis by launching an offensive to seize complete control of their departments. They set up road blockades and violently took over government facilities, including customs offices, airports, the agrarian reform offices and the national hydrocarbons company.
Their protests initially focused on reversing the government’s decision last year to use a portion of the revenue from the hydrocarbon gas tax to create a universal pension for citizens over sixty. Now they have expanded to include complete departmental autonomy, the end of agrarian program and a gutting of the new constitution slated to be voted on in a referendum late this year. Control over the oil and gas resources, which for the most part are located in the Media Luna, is the fundamental objective of the autonomy movement.
The conflict came to a head on September 11 in the Media Luna department of Pando when peasants from the community of El Porvenir began marching to Cobija, the departmental capital, to protest the right-wing sacking of government offices. They were ambushed by a para-military force with machine guns, resulting in 15 dead, 37 injured and 106 disappeared. Morales responded by declaring a state of siege in the department, sending in the army to retake government offices, and throwing the Pando prefect, Leopoldo Fernandez, in jail after he admited to giving orders to forcefully subdue protesters. A new prefect, Navy Admiral Landelino Rafael Banderia Arce, was appointed by Morales to impose order as many of the right wing leaders fled across the border to Brazil.
The events in El Porvenir precipitated a national mobilization of the indigenous peoples and social movements as well as a sense of outrage in neighboring countries. Chilean president Michelle Bachelet called an emergency meeting of South American countries (UNASUR) in Santiago to discuss the Bolivia crisis. The “Declaration of La Moneda”, signed by the twelve UNASUR governments, denounced the atrocities committed in Pando and any attempt to undermine the central government and Bolivia’s territorial integrity.
Morales, thanking UNASUR for its support, declared: “For the first time in South America’s history, the countries of our region are deciding how to resolve our problems, without the presence of the United States.” On September 10, the day before the massacre, Morales had expelled US ambassador Phillip Goldberg from Bolivia for meddling in the country’s internal affairs and meeting with Ruben Costas and the autonomous leaders.
For his part, Morales has thus far shown tremendous restraint in cracking down on the right wing violence, almost too much in fact. He has drawn criticism from the social movements, particularly in peasant and indigenous working-class communities, such as the “Plan 3,000” community adjacent to Santa Cruz, which has been living under constant threats from right wing racist groups like the Cruceño Youth Movement.
Although after the massacre, Conalde decided to lift the road blockades and relinquish some of the government offices (albeit with hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages), the political forces it represents retain effective control of the major urban areas of the Media Luna outside of Pando. This is why the peasant and indigenous movements are marching on Santa Cruz, to assert their rights and dignity throughout the Bolivian nation, with or without the support of Morales and the government.
Branko Marinkovich, for his part, is hitting the road in a “public relations campaign” to explain the autonomist cause. According to the newspaper La Razon, he is traveling to Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay to “denounce the acts of violence that were provoked by MAS in Pando and the government threats that loom over the negotiations underway in Cochabamba.” Following Marinkovich’s logic, the fifteen slain peasants are not only the authors of their own fate, but are to blame for all of the violence of the past month. Presumably, their very existence, let alone their demands for a share of the country’s resources, is provocation enough. By launching his South American tour, Marinkovich is also conveniently leaving the country before he can be apprehended for the damage and havoc of the past few weeks.
The marchers are isolating Santa Cruz as they set up fortified road blocks at strategic points while they continue to move on the city. Minister of Government Alfredo Rada expressed his support of the protesters, stating that they are merely reacting to the violence initiated by the Santa Cruz Civic Committee via the Cruceño Youth Movement. Likewise, Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera stated: “They have mobilized to defend the country and the integrity of our democracy.”
President Morales, on the other hand, seemed to be experiencing a spell of cold feet as he expressed his frustration with the actions of the social movements at a press conference in Cochabamba: “It frightens me because they say they will march until the prefect [Costas] resigns. I don’t agree with it, and it scares me.”
Nonetheless, the marchers are proceeding with their plan to descend on Santa Cruz. According to Joel Guarachi, the head of the National Confederation of Peasant Workers, some 600,000 protesters are located throughout the fifteen Santa Cruz provinces. He declares the march and occupation of the city’s plaza will be peaceful.
Throughout the crisis, Morales has been avoiding the appearance of government oppression in favor of appeals for peaceful negotiation and the rule of law. But the social movements are demanding more, a social revolution that over turns the political and economic order in the Media Luna. And Morales may be moving with the tide. The day after he said that Costas should not be forced to resign, he recalled the siege of La Paz in 1781 led by Tupac Katari, who demanded an end to Spanish oppression and the recognition of the basic rights of the Indian peoples and their communities. Now more than two centuries later the Indians and popular classes of Bolivia may finally be on the brink of realizing their aspirations.
Tanya M. Kerssen is a correspondent of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) in Bolivia, and a Masters candidate at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She was tear-gassed on Monday in the Yungas region as she marched in a demonstration to demand justice for those who fell in the Porvenir massacre. firstname.lastname@example.org
Roger Burbach is Director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) based in Berkeley, CA. He has written extensively on Latin America and is the author of “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice.”