Bolivia on the edge of 'explosion'

Alfonso Daniels, 29 April 2008

Santa Cruz - Entering the tiny sun-drenched two-storey Spanish colonial building in the capital of the energy-rich Bolivian province of Santa Cruz, it is difficult to imagine that this is the epicentre of preparations for armed struggle – and possible civil war – ahead of the region's forthcoming and hugely controversial autonomy referendum on Sunday.

"We are ready to respond to any provocation. The government wants to implement a copy of Cuban socialism and is encouraging violence through its social groups, but we'll not tolerate this," David Sejas, 34, the president of Santa Cruz's Juvenile Union, told The Scotsman, claiming that his organisation, whose headquarters is located in this quaint building, has 85,000 well-trained, mostly former military, members.

War rhetoric is growing in the final countdown to Santa Cruz's unilateral autonomy referendum, which is expected to be approved by a huge margin, the first of four in the regions that make up the better off and ethnically European eastern half of the country.

An autonomy leader of this region rich in farmland and gas reserves went as far as saying that a "new republic" will be born on Sunday – further angering Evo Morales, the country's first-ever indigenous Indian president, who denounces the referendum as an illegal attempt by a rich minority of European descent to hold on to their privileges and undermine the rights of the majority poor Indians mostly living in La Paz and the central highlands.

Indians make up about 60 per cent of the population and Mr Morales has won support with his drive to nationalise Bolivia's natural resources and rewrite the constitution, giving greater power to indigenous groups.

"It is discrimination. If they call me animal, stupid, what would they be calling the population?" Mr Morales said recently in New York, adding that the Santa Cruz referendum is illegal and will change nothing.

"I feel there will be fraud as there will be no observers. They can manipulate it as they wish, but for us it is a survey, an opinion poll, so it's non-binding," he said.

A close ally of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, who leads an anti-US bloc in Latin America, Mr Morales also repeated claims that Washington was actively trying to force him from power.

"The United States is leading the conspiracy against my government," he said. "They do not agree with Bolivia's direction and they plan to weaken, to topple Evo."

But he ruled out using the armed forces to keep the country united. "There will be no state of emergency, there will be no militarisation, I believe in the people's conscience."

But fear is already noticeable in the streets of the "rebel" province where it is commonplace to find provincial green and white flags hanging from cars and balconies, with some people beginning to lock up houses located in the countryside amid mounting reports of isolated incidents. Violent clashes now seem inevitable between Morales supporters, especially coca growers, and Santa Cruz's militant pro-autonomy Juvenile Union.

"Bolivia is about to explode," Mr Chavez warned last week in Caracas during an urgent summit with Bolivia.

The Cuban vice-president Carlos Lage, also present in the summit, accused the United States of trying to create a "Kosovo" in the hydrocarbon-rich eastern provinces of Bolivia. And Dante Caputo, the political affairs chief of the Organisation of American States, said that the possibility of violence taking place is real before engaging in last-ditch and, for now, failed attempts to bring both sides together.

"The key issue is not autonomy but land, the government made the fatal error of limiting the amount of land in the hands of one person to 10,000 hectares which, for Santa Cruz's powerful livestock and soya farmers, is nothing," Raul Prada, congressman of the ruling MAS party, told The Scotsman in an unusually open self-criticism despite emphasising that land reform is desperately needed.

"I don't think the government will fall, but we're in a very dangerous situation: Evo wants to avoid bloodshed, but social movements are pushing him over the edge."

Many observers, however, still believe that both sides will step back from the brink of civil war, as they have repeatedly done in the recent past, even though they admit that the situation may get out of hand, with the military too weak to intervene.

Their optimism is rooted in the belief that the government wants to avoid further incensing pro-autonomy protesters, while the opposition would be reluctant to topple the government since that could create chronic instability in the country.

After all, the reasoning goes, there are only two years left before the next elections and Mr Morales's popularity is dropping fast due to rising inflation which is especially affecting his own constituency near La Paz, allegations of corruption and a recent spate of internal squabbles within his government.

Also, sources close to the Brazilian and Argentine foreign ministries confirmed to The Scotsman on condition of anonymity that their countries would never accept a break-up of Bolivia, the poorest South American country but a major provider of gas to the region, defusing any temptation of autonomy supporters – who still lack a strong leader and the military's backing – from seeking outright independence.

When pressed, senior Santa Cruz autonomy officials admit that the ultimate aim of the referendum is to reopen negotiations with Mr Morales from a position of strength. These were broken late last year after government supporters approved a controversial draft constitution despite a boycott from the opposition forcing an abrupt transfer of the constitutional assembly to Oruro, a Morales bastion in the western highlands.

"Circumstances forced us to radicalise our proposals. Of course we'll have to sit down to negotiate after the referendum, we're open to changes, but the government is more interested in exacting vengeance than building a country," said Juan Carlos Urenda, the main drafter of the autonomy statute.

"Our campaign boss is actually Evo Morales, he's played to our hands by provoking us and trying to ignore our legitimate autonomy demands," he added.

"I hope Bolivia won't be shattered, but if the government doesn't change its stance a break-up will be inevitable."

Key players in struggle

Evo Morales cuts a remarkable figure as Bolivia's first Indian leader in the 470 years since the Spanish Conquest.

The 47-year-old former coca farmer is known for his love of football – he plays for a second division club.

Mr Morales is the leader of Bolivia's cocalero movement – a loose federation of coca leaf-growing campesinos who are resisting the efforts of the United States to eradicate coca in central Bolivia.

His Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism) party describes itself as "an indigenous-based political party that calls for the nationalisation of industry, legalisation of the coca leaf and fairer distribution of national resources."

Mr Morales has said: "The worst enemy of humanity is US capitalism. That is what provokes uprisings like ours. If the entire world doesn't acknowledge that nation states are not providing even minimally for health, education and nourishment, then fundamental human rights are being violated."

Republished from The Scotsman

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