Bolivia: Who Won the May 4th Referendum?

Marta Harnecker

Following uncertain results, the two conflicting sides claim to have won the referendum on the autonomy statute held in the Department of Santa Cruz, [Bolivia] last Sunday, May 4th.

How should the winner be determined?

In order to judge or measure the results of any action, it’s essential to take into account the objective sought by both sides.

The Cruceña oligarchy sought to achieve a massive poll turnout: it was the only way to diminish the government’s arguments about the illegality of the process; if this objective was accomplished, then it might be argued that although it was not a legal process, it was a legitimate one because the people had massively expressed their feelings in regard to the autonomy statute and the government would have to take popular sentiment into account.

For its part, the government, the MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) and the social movements wanted to achieve the largest abstention possible, to diminish the voting results, where a large “Yes” vote was forecast.

The concept of abstention promoted by official propaganda came together in a slogan to vote “NO,” a slogan that some sectors promoted, thinking of the pressures that the [autonomy] opposition was using to force people to go and vote.

Although the available figures are not official and probably never will be, because there was no neutral body observing the process and furthermore, ballots pre-marked “Yes” were discovered, if we take the latest figures provided by the media and used by the government, it can be said that the abstention rate was larger than expected: in Santa Cruz, the abstention was 17% in the 2006 autonomy referendum and now it amounts to 39% and this figure, a total of the “No” and null votes, represents a little less than half the electorate; some 48.3%. For every 10 people who should have voted, around 4 did not or could not, and 1 voted “No” or canceled their vote.

From this analysis, the government and its followers can feel satisfied. However, one must ask if one can really speak of victory when a little more than half the Cruceña population expressed itself as opposing the country’s direction, represented by Evo Morales, and either consciously or under manipulation, supported the large oligarchies that dominate the region economically, ideologically and politically.

One must also ask oneself if this result can solely be attributed to the Machiavellian actions of the local oligarchy, supported by imperialism.

It seems more likely that the government’s own mistakes and weaknesses, and those of MAS, its key policy instrument, played a role.[1] Didn’t Evo Morales not call for a “No” vote in the 2006 autonomy referendum, held at the same time people were being chosen to make up the Constituent Assembly, leaving the autonomy banner in the hands of reactionaries (something which the MAS leaders themselves later acknowledged)? Weren’t organizational schemes and criteria applied in the eastern part of the country that were in conflict with the lowlands’ own idiosyncrasies? Hasn’t there been a tendency to group the secessionist oligarchs with all those who, following a sense developed over generations, have manifested themselves to be in favor of autonomy; ignoring the contradictions that exist between the large pro-imperialist oligarchs and a significant part of the urban white sector which, although critical of specific policies and actions of the present government, generally support it because it means dignity at last for the indigenous people and an affirmation of the country’s sovereignty?

Yet while the outcome of the election can be debated, with each side claiming victory based on various arguments, it is indisputable that the country’s agenda, headed by Evo Morales, emerged strengthened. The majority of Bolivia’s popular sectors, especially the indigenous campesino movements and the workers in the cities, managed to understand that the Cruceña oligarchy was behind the vote and was using the banner of autonomy as demagoguery. Important professional and technical sectors had the same reaction. It was especially significant that the group “Santa Cruz Somos Todos” (All of Us Are Santa Cruz), risking their physical well-being and that of their families, raised a dissenting voice from the belly of the beast, and called for a “No” vote.

What the oligarchy sought and continues to seek is the toppling of Latin America’s first indigenous president, in order to regain control of the immense wealth that surrounds the region and has begun to be controlled by the state, which on May 1st ratified the government’s decision to move ahead with the recovery of control over four transnational oil companies and the nationalization of ENTEL, the telecommunications company. It’s an oligarchy that never understood the call for a real agrarian reform and more equitable distribution of Latin America’s wealth, such as that made nearly half a century ago by the President of the United States, John Kennedy.

One must bear in mind that the person who made this call was a liberal bourgeois who could never be classified as a communist and who made it to halt the advance of revolution in our América.

But the [Bolivian] people not only understood what was at stake, they felt the need to articulate their struggles in order to hit back for once at a tiny elite which, supported by the United States, sought a reversal of the democratic and cultural revolution happening in the country. Since Evo Morales was elected, this was the first May 1st in which the workers movement represented by the legendary Bolivian Workers Central, presided over by its Secretary General, the miners leader Pedro Montes, participated along with the indigenous campesino movements in the same mobilization, and this made everyone believe that this gesture of unity, coming as it did on top of the natural differences and contradictions between various groups, signified that the interests of a Bolivian homeland were here to stay.

The popular Bolivian organizations appear to have understood that unity between all sectors defending the country’s agenda of humanity and solidarity, respectful of differences and respectful of nature, represented by Evo Morales, is the only way to make it irreversible.

And speaking of unity, I’d like to recall the words of Fidel, the great architect of Cuban unity:

I also belonged to an organization. But the glories of that organizatino are the glories of Cuba, the glories of its people, the glories of all. And one day, I ceased to belong to that organization. What day was it? It was the day when we’d made a revolution greater than our organization…And on the march through towns and cities I saw many men and many women; hundreds, thousands of men and women in their black and red uniforms of the July 26th Movement; but many thousands more had uniforms that were not black and red, but the shirts of workers, and campesinos, and humble men of the town. And since that day, frankly, in the depths of my heart, I went, from that movement that we cherished, under whose flags we fought as companions. I went to the people; I belonged to the people, to the revolution, because really, we’d created something higher than ourselves.” [2]

[1] A new book about this “sui generis” political organization: MAS-IPSP de Bolivia: Instrumento político que surge de los movimientos sociales by Marta Harnecker and Federico Fuentes.

[2] Speech, Fidel Castro, May 26, 1962 in “Obra revolucionaria” No. 11, May 27, 1962, pp. 36-37. Text cited in “La estrategia politica de Fidel. Del Moncada a la victoria,” various Latin American editions; see, Autores, Harnecker

Translation: Machetera

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