Bolivia under siege

US-funded autonomy movements threaten to tear the country apart.

(Fred Jones, Straight Goods, Canada) Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bolivia is facing a new crisis, which many Latin Americans believe is caused by the United States. On one hand is a proposed new progressive constitution, which gives significant rights to the native majority; on the other is an up swelling of separatist movements, which the Bolivian government calls the Kosovo strategy - an American attempt to destabilize a national government it cannot control.

On May 4, the oil-rich department (province) of Santa Cruz held a vote on autonomy - that is, declaring its independence from the rest of Bolivia. Those who organized it call the vote a referendum. As the vote ignored all national laws and regulations, the national government calls it a public opinion poll.

The vote count showed 85.9 percent in favour of the proposal - hardly a surprise, since opponents had called for a boycott of the vote, in the belief that vote counting would be rigged. The lack of neutral observers meant that no one could verify the vote.

What was not expected was the level of opposition to the vote. In large parts of the countryside and in the poorer areas of the cities no voting took place. Either crowds prevented the setting up of voting stations or no one showed up to vote. This continued despite mobs of young shock troops who invaded the poorer barrios with clubs and whips. The result was that the voting authorities were forced to recognize the level of abstention, which they claimed was 40 percent.

The Catholic Church played an interesting role in the May 4 vote. Before the vote, there were reports about natives working in slavery conditions on large estates in Santa Cruz, which happened to be owned by leaders of the autonomy movement. Cardinal Julio Terrazas denied these report. He then participated in the May 4 voting.

As a result, the national government claims the church hierarchy is supporting the pro autonomy movement, and has rejected church involvement in negotiations. For their part, the leaders of the autonomy movement refuse to engage in any negotiations without the presence of the church.

Tracking the US role in all this requires some digging. One indicator is that Philip Goldberg is the US Ambassador to Bolivia. He was the US chief of mission in Kosovo from 2004 to 2006 and is widely regarded as the pilot for US plans to separate Kosovo from Serbia.

According to Venezuela-American attorney and writer Eva Golinger, US government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that the United States has provided over $120 million dollars to various elements of the Bolivian opposition since 2005 through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID.

For example the Office of Transition Initiatives of USAID has given 116 subsidies for $4,451,249 dollars, which includes paying for the work of Juan Carlos Uranda who is the main advisor to the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz. The NED has financed projects to break links between radical native youth and the union movement and also to train right wing youth in political action.

Applied to Bolivia, the Kosovo strategy has several elements. First, it involves discrediting the proposed new constitution. The elite-controlled media have provided virtually no information about the content of the new constitution except to suggest that it only favours natives. There was nothing, they said, for workers, union members, for street workers or the middle class.

Instead, the media focused on the process, declaring it antidemocratic, and argued against any referendum vote. The media has also tried to discredit the National Election Organization (The Corte Nacional Electoral CNE). This focus made it easier for media to ignore the illegality of the Santa Cruz autonomy vote.

The constitution. Also faced widespread whispering campaigns that spread disinformation. In Sucre, a young educated 22 year old told me that the new constitution denied parents the right to will property to their children. He also told me that the state would become the owner of all housing.

He had not read the constitution as it was too long but had been informed of the details by a reliable person. Of course, his information was wrong. The proposed new constitution guarantees the right to inheritance and does not change the government power to expropriate.

Second, the US embassy has encouraged the creation of a movement for autonomy in the resource-rich areas of the Bolivian Amazonia and nearby regions. These efforts involved the creation of unelected Civic Committees (chosen from the elite and backed by a massive media campaign) and lots of money to establish them as regional spokespersons. Where the elite controlled the prefects (governors), the prefects worked in cooperation with the Civic Committees. Much of their effort was to expand existing disaffection with the central government for unsolved local and regional problems

Another tactic was to create a violent racist student movement with students from the elite universities and high schools - as an alternative to those students who supported progressive changes. Internationally, this support by students was used to give a progressive tinge to the idea of autonomy.

The right-wing student movement formed the majority in the mob, which attacked the members of the Constituent Assembly in Sucre in November 2007. They beat many delegates with fists and clubs and held at least one, a native, over a burning fire of tires threatening to burn him alive. He only survived due to the lucky arrival of an opposition deputy with several journalists. Killing the native delegate in front of the press would have created bad publicity. Nevertheless, to escape he had to run a gauntlet of students armed with wooden clubs. These students also provided a shock force to attack native demonstrations and to intimidate those who did not agree with autonomy. None of this was reported in the mass media .

Evo Morales has offered to negotiate with the dissident departments. However, there is not much to negotiate. Santa Cruz and the other dissident departments want significant changes in the proposed constitution, which would gut it of all social progress. They also want most of the oil and gas.

Also, Morales had imposed a temporary ban on soy oil exports when Bolivia was faced with a shortage of cooking oil and increasing prices. Branco Marinkovic, the president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, is the major exporter of soy oil. He was not amused. He does not want it to happen again.

Marinkovic also owns 90,000 hectares of land, much of it unused. Another family close to the committee has 120,000 hectares. The national referendum on the constitution gives the population of Bolivia the choice of a maximum land area owned by one individual of either 5,000 or 10,000 hectares. It is unlikely that Marinkovic would accept losing most of his latifunda. Therefore, he fiercely opposes further land reform.

Three other autonomy votes are already scheduled. Pando and Beni will vote on June 1 and Tarija on June 22. However these are not the only votes scheduled.

Fearing that the Morales government would schedule its national referendum on the new constitution as an alternative to the autonomy votes, the elite-dominated Senate passed a law, which calls for a recall referendum on Morales, his Vice-President and the prefects. Morales has accepted the challenge and the vote will take place on August 10.

Therefore, it seems that the national government has decided to devote much of its efforts in the next three months to a campaign to win a large vote of confidence for Evo and to unseat the pro-autonomy prefects - which shelves for the moment the referendum on the new constitution. As the recall referendum comes almost two months after the last autonomy vote, it also gives the pro-autonomy elite lots of time to deepen its organization.

Meanwhile the autonomy movement in Santa Cruz will likely try to strengthen its military position by the acquisition of arms, the training of a militia and by a purge of the department police force. There have already been reports of arms shipments arriving in Santa Cruz. We could also expect paramilitary groups to surface to provide training and support - recruited from right wing groups in Latin America (especially from Columbia) with the help of the CIA.

Many Latin American specialists have commented on how Evo's commitment to discussion, consensus and negotiations is anchored in native culture. Military conflict is counter to this approach.

Although there may be no alternative to the eventual use of military force, the national government also fears following the Kosovo example. If the national government sent troops into the departments [provinces] to prevent secession, the autonomy movement might demand international protection from bloodshed. The United States might be ready to provide the military protection needed for independence despite the political cost in such a move - even though such a move would be unpopular with a population weary of the occupation of Iraq.

An alternative for the national government would be to mobilize the social movements throughout the country to march on Santa Cruz protected by the Bolivian army with massive international media coverage. The presence of international media might reduce the bloodshed and make a US intervention more difficult.

This approach would require political support from the Organization of American States (OEA). Military support from Brazil, Argentina and Chile for the Bolivian army would significantly reduce the likelihood of resistance from Santa Cruz and save many lives. Both of the above strategies require the commitment of the Bolivian army to maintain the unity of the country.

For the time being, the situation in Bolivia is very difficult. Moreover, it reflects similar but less serious problems in Ecuador and Venezuela. In Ecuador, an autonomy movement has developed in Guayaquil, the largest city. In Venezuela, the question of autonomy has been raised in Zulia, the state with most of the Venezuelan oil.

Predictably, the US government has been supporting both those autonomy movements. Whatever happens in Bolivia will have important impacts in the rest of Latin America and in the world.

Fred Jones is a teacher at Dawson College in the Economics Department and the North-South Studies program and active in the Quebec trade union movement. He has just spent one month in Bolivia, a second month in Ecuador and almost a month in Venezuela.