No Smooth Sailing for Bolivia’s Morales

This analysis was prepared by Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) Research Associate Nicki Mokhtari, February 23rd, 2007

As Bolivia’s President Evo Morales celebrated his first anniversary in office on January 22, mounting tensions in the city of Cochabamba led to violent confrontations between two groups—government supporters and those opposed to his authority. The anti-Morales forces rallied in support of former opposition presidential candidate and Cochabamba governor Manfred Reyes Villa. As a result, two were killed and 150 wounded in the strife stemming from seemingly irreconcilable divisions between wealthy anti-government elites and Bolivia’s poor and indigenous who overwhelmingly back Morales.

Villa sparked the Cochabamba protests with his announcement that he would overturn the July 2006 election results in which Bolivian voters rejected the autonomy referendum which would have decentralized four of Bolivia’s nine districts. While the wealthier and more European-like districts in the east pushed for greater self-rule from the central government, Morales fought back by instituting an agrarian reform program in favor of the poor and the indigenous, which would redistribute land that previously was held by the country’s elite. In taking this action, the Morales administration will now have to expect a growing challenge that could eliminate the ties between the two sides, leaving a genuine class struggle likely to plague Bolivia for months, if not years to come.

Class Conflict

Tensions between supporters of Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and a fractious opposition have existed since his inauguration. After triumphing in the December 2005 presidential elections, Morales defended coca farmers’ rights and flaunted his status as Bolivia’s first indigenous president. At the same time, he thrust hydrocarbon nationalization and land redistribution programs into the spotlight of his socialist movement, as well as toyed with the advanced design of the nation’s new constitution. The new organic document, at last being worked upon by the constituent assembly, will include the revival of the previous 1996 Agrarian Reform Law that was never enacted. This law was intended to redistribute land not presently serving a social or economic function to the poor. On March 6, 2006, the Bolivian Congress approved legislation to create an assembly to draft a new constitution that would include

Morales’ agrarian reform measures

Although the guidelines for change were ambiguous, elections in July 2006 allowed voters to directly select candidates for the Constituent Assembly, with 255 members having approximately one year from the following August, to rewrite the constitution. However, due to the Assembly’s attempt at creating a diversified and representative body that would guarantee seats to minority parties, the necessary two-thirds’ ratification formula for achieving the new constitution consequentially became all but impossible to achieve. Podemos, the country’s leading opposition group holds 24 percent of the seats, while other minority parties have 3 percent or less, and the ruling MAS dominates with 54 percent. With no political party controlling a two-thirds majority of the seats, the drafting process up to now has been frustrated with scant forward motion being registered.

A democratic and representative constitution protecting the rights of Bolivia’s geographically, ethnically and economically diverse population is crucial to the country’s cohesion. This is especially true in relation to the nation’s historically under-represented indigenous communities that normally make up about 62 percent of the total population of Bolivia. Already a few months into what has turned out to be an unusually arduous process, opposition in the Assembly, particularly to specific constitutional changes is more ferocious than anticipated. Not only is there a crippling lack of consensus being demonstrated there, but (as was quickly seen) fierce street fighting eventually materialize between Cochabamba’s poor and indigenous and its euro-elites.

Civil Disobedience

Cochabamba was a divided city on January 11 as coca farmers, many of them members of a Morales-led coca growers union, and various indigenous campesinos occupied the city’s colonial central plaza in opposition to the eastern departments’ autonomy demands. Morales loyalists demanded Governor Villa’s resignation as they were surrounded by mainly middle-class Villa supporters who had blocked off nearby streets. Villa, accused of corruption and the theft of public property, has become identified in the public’s mind as perhaps the most outspoken critic of the central government. He is credited with sparking the protests that began to mushroom in Cochabamba after he announced that he would attempt to repeal referendum results which rejected the idea of eastern autonomy. Armed with rocks and sticks, the campesinos marched around the departmental government building, and, even after being gassed, managed to set the building’s front doors ablaze. Calling themselves “Youths for Democracy,” the ultra right-wing pro-autonomists resembled paramilitary gangs as they beat protesting indigenous with two-by-four planks after the crowds had been gassed by the authorities. The ensuing violence reveals that Bolivia may be rapidly moving towards a militarization of the class conflict that could ignite a civil war between the prosperous eastern and the impoverished western portions of the country.

East vs. West

During the same July 2006 elections, Bolivians had voted on a departmental autonomy referendum that was called for by the secession-minded eastern provinces. The eastern lowland area historically has been estranged from the western highlands due to geopolitical, socioeconomic, and ethnic differences. While the eastern region— profoundly influenced by the presence of the nation’s oil and natural gas deposits, the western provinces typically consist of a subsistent income population. Currently, the constitution grants the department minimal autonomous authority. The central government fears that the four eastern departments are in fact striving for independence, while a majority of the nation has rejected increasing the country’s autonomy. The terms of autonomy and the relative degree of decentralization, (with negotiations being shrouded in obscurity) are supposed to be spelled out in detail by the Constituent Assembly. Yet, the inability to agree on the technicalities of the voting procedure—specifically the dispute over the two-thirds majority vote rule—has frozen the process while pressure mounts from both the opposition as well as pro-government forces to make some concessions to resolve the problem.

The Slippery Slope

These protests are budding beyond Cochabamba’s departmental borders to other regions—more recently to La Paz— where protestors demanded that Villa-backer Governor Jose Luis Paredes resign. Ultimately, the demonstrations previously held on January11 and 22 were unsuccessful in catapulting the pro-Morales group Fejuve (Federación de Juntas Vecinales) into ascendancy because they were unable to force Paredes or Villa to step down from office. Despite the failure of the pro-Morales militants, they have refused to call off their efforts and continue to advocate street action as the means to achieving the desired revolutionary changes.

In the aftermath of the bitter protests in Cochabamba, it became clear that Morales was losing much of his original support among Bolivia’s middle class at the same time that his own constituency—largely composed of the indigenous and working-class— is becoming more radicalized. The middle-class’ deepening opposition to the government’s proclaimed socialist initiatives pose a significant challenge to the forward thrust of the left-leaning Pink Tide movement that connects Morales with such other political notables as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa. The fundamentally class-based confrontation at Cochabamba was representative of the destructive socio-economic divisions that tenaciously prevail in South America’s poorest country, where 65 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Indigenous representatives recognize that regional autonomy would further segregate the country, and with it, intensify their poverty. Their fight for unity in the face of eastern Bolivia’s drive for sovereignty, and perhaps later independence, is motivated by well-ingrained traditions of socioeconomic divides.

Civil War?

Although there has been speculation that a civil war could develop from the escalating tension in the country, some argue that left-wing protestors must resort to more constitutional ways to reform the political system in their favor if they wish to achieve their goals. The coca farmers, who set up a revolutionary committee on January 16 to replace Villa, had hoped for the central government’s speedy credentialing of its mission. Morales, however, denied them the sought-after recognition and insisted that a dialogue be carried out between the factions in order to more easily resolve the issue. Morales’ inability to satisfy his supporters through more effective ways of dealing with their extreme demands demonstrates the challenges he must juggle in order to maintain accord, please his constituents, and check the opposition’s growing momentum in favor of eastern autonomy.


For the time being, prospects for a civil war have fizzled. Although Villa has returned to Cochabamba where he will attempt to resume his rule there, the sensitive class divisions are deeply embedded in different parts of the country. As persistent frictions have prevailed since Morales’ election, the current congressional stalemate has created a grey area in which refulgent rhetoric projects a false image of efficacy, while in actuality, few tangible results beyond utter confusion are to be seen. Cochabamba points to breaking point for the traditional system’s growing irrelevance that has been constantly communicated throughout Bolivia’s modern era. Today, both sides are entrenched in positions that don’t allow for easy compromise.
The president is in a political bind. As he attempts to keep the indigenous population reasonably content, he must also avoid simply placating the opposition too egregiously, while he strives to attract at least some of them to adopt his platform. At the same time, and in order to prevent further street unrest, Morales has proposed a recall referendum where unpopular mayors and prefects—or even presidents—who have not won at least 50 percent of the vote, will have to be reelected by a popular vote in order to keep their seats. Governor Villa will be the first official to have to submit himself to a recall because of his 47.5 percent voters’ approval, whereas Morales’ 53 percent in the December 2005 elections exempts him from the process.


Morales’ inability to satisfy the country’s indigenous communities is a prime example of the current crisis that he has attempted to downplay by announcing that it would never experience a civil war. However, Morales’ tacit acknowledgment that the concept of civil turmoil in his country cannot be ruled out is admission enough that dangerous internal divisions exist in the country and could erupt with devastating consequences. The protracted incapacity of Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly to reach an agreement on the necessary voting procedures for rewriting the constitution showed that Bolivia’s divisions go at least as deep as the oil beneath its soil.

Victory at Last

The Constituent Assembly finally achieved a two-thirds majority with its ‘article 70’ provision that was signed on February 6 by MAS and the opposition group National Unity (UN). This tentative settlement has enabled the drafting process to begin anew after being on hold since the assembly’s initiation last August. The deal has so far been the first step towards actual progress in Morales’ otherwise stagnant reform process. The slippery slope of political dissent, however, is an issue that even a two-thirds vote cannot resolve. Morales’ primary support is from the indigenous activists and after their failures in Cochabamba and La Paz, many of them believe that the president has not gone far enough to meet their needs. The commission of the Continental Indigenous Encounter expressed dissatisfaction over the adequacy of indigenous representation in the constitutional assembly, and demanded that a separate native people’s legislative body be formed. They also argue that the constitutional assembly represents political parties as opposed to social movements, and therefore undermines the integrity of Morales’ movimiento. The President’s decision to deploy the nation’s armed forces to take control of Bolivia’s oil and gas fields in Camiri, which had previously been taken over by protestors demanding proper renationalization of the energy industry, as decreed on May 1, 2006, illuminates the problem of Morales’s diminishing power over the radicals within his own support base. Protestors blockading the main roads leading into Argentina and Paraguay—through which 85 percent of the country’s trade is transported — reveal that the socialist movement possesses a limited thrust at this time.

Crisis for Morales

With his popularity at 59 percent, Morales still holds a relatively high level of support in Bolivia. During his anniversary speech on January 22, he reinforced his confidence in the current regime by reminding Bolivians that “some thought [they] would be a government without a future… [while] others asked how a campesino could end up being president.” Morales has promoted numerous achievements in the first 12 months of his rule: reducing the salary of high government officials, including cutting his own by 57 percent, reducing energy rates for the poor, raising teachers’ and doctors’ salaries, instituting literacy programs, bringing in thousands of Cuban volunteer doctors to provide free medical care, and endeavoring to nationalize the country’s natural gas resources are just a few of them. Such successes are indicative of Morales’ pledge to give the indigenous Bolivians a voice in their society that they previously had lacked.

However, one must also question the long term prospects of his reforms and see the threats to them as illustrated by the recent combative but inconclusive protests against the government. The question still very much remains: Is Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo really a bona fide 21st century movement like Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution or does it have another, slower-moving agenda, which is ultimately influenced by U.S. desiderata? Despite his efforts to legalize the coca plant and make the product’s legal use available in various manufactured products, there is much to be done if this important goal is to be realized.

The central government has yet to agree on its coca eradication objectives for 2007, fully nationalize its hydrocarbons, or negotiate the control of many strategic multinationals now operating within Bolivia. Vice-minister for coca and development Felix Barra told the local press that as of January 31 the president was considering a proposed reduction of 4,000 hectares in coca cultivation, yet he promised the coca-growers union that he intended to increase the legal plantings from 12,000 hectares to 20,000 hectares. These contradictory commitments prompted one to wonder whether Morales is yielding to U.S. drug-policy pressures to reduce the existing 30,000 “illegal” hectares of coca (according to U.S. estimates), or if he truly feels honor bound to protect the cocaleros rights.

Revolución Boliviana?

Winning the presidential race on a campaign promise to reject unwarranted U.S. exploitation in Bolivia along with his pledge to revamp the constitution for it to display more accountability, from Morales’ point of view, represent the voiceless cocaleros, indigenous and poor, Morales has thus far moved at a pace slow enough to create some doubts over his resolve to serve the people who elected him. Although Morales has been criticized for relying on the guidance provided by his close relationships with Chávez and ailing Cuban president Fidel Castro, his past year in office has shown relatively little for it to compare with the past 12 months of Chávez’s rule. The relatively slow pace of change now being witnessed in Bolivia might run counter to the tempo of Venezuela’s blistering revolutionary-guided agenda. Their difference in pace further helps differentiate the two leftist leaders, yet it is difficult and almost a misuse of time to compare the two left-wing leaders with their dissimilar constituencies and the potential for political polarization that is at least as volatile in Bolivia as is the case with Venezuela.

Surpassing Sectionalism

Bolivia has experienced both the forward movements and setbacks that have affected the Morales administrations this past year. That could have been predicted. Throughout its history, Bolivia has experienced turmoil that appeared to make it unmanageable. In spite of recent upheavals, this Andean nation will most likely not disintegrate as a result of sectionalism. Yet, it seems that the eastern conservatives and the western indigenous could very well perpetuate the country’s historical legacy of unequal wealth, power and privilege, at least for a while. A constitutional drafting process may prove to be an irrefutable prerequisite to mend the political polarization gripping the country and a necessary pre-condition to instill trust among Bolivians. It is hopeful that Bolivian delegates to the Assembly will supersede given political affiliations and act in their nation’s best interest.

Republished from COHA

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