War on Bolivia

Fred Jones, April 30,2008

In Bolivia the social movements have organized to defend a new progressive constitution and social change which begins to deal justly with the native majority for the first time. Three years ago when Evo Morales, the first native president, was elected the right wing political parties were discredited. This meant that here were no significant forces available to defend the wealthy and prevent social change. The strategy of the right therefore was to delay any change while it rebuilt its forces.

With significant financial aid and advice from the American embassy, the right and the wealthy it protected developed a strategy to recover their influence. This strategy is similar to that used in Venezuela during the campaign for the December 2, 2007 referendum and to that also used but with less effect now in Ecuador. The hand of the United States can be seen guiding the resistance to change in all three of these countries.

The government of Evo Morales has three important advantages. First, most of the population, in all the departments, want an important change toward greater equality. The new constitution will initiate some of this change. Second, the social movements are strong and mobilized. Third, Morales holds all the resources of the Bolivian state including a network of state television and radio stations and has a strong political movement in his political party MAS.

However the right also has advantages. It controls almost all the radio and TV stations and the written press both nationally and in each department. The elected prefects, who administer the departments (similar to provinces), in Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando, Beni are from the right wing parties and there are no existing elected departmental assemblies. This places all the power of the department in the hands of the prefects. The right wing also has much influence in two other departments: Chuquisaca (Sucre) and Cochabamba. Finally it has lots of money and advice both courtesy of the American embassy.

It is important to examine the American aid. Eva Golinger, an American researcher claims 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.

However not all grants are intended for the opposition. Unemployed youth in El Alto were the main figures in the revolt against president Gonzalo de Sánchez. USAID subsequently provided funding for a leadership program which worked to separate young leaders in El Alto from the unions and other social movements and to then integrate them into the civil service. The result was to demobilize what had been a significant social movement. At about the same time the NED recruited young right wing university students and sent them for training in the United States.

The strategy of the right wing is the following:

1. First they used all the possibilities to slow down any movement to a new constitution. Therefore they were content to negotiate with the government for 9 months over the process to create the new constitution. Did it need a two thirds vote which would have given the right wing a veto or did it just require a majority vote. This gave them time to develop a strategy that would increase its influence.

2. Once the constitutional process began, the right wing media ignored the content of the new constitution and instead focused on criticizing the process. The media constantly stated that the process was corrupt and that it would be antidemocratic to hold the referendum. However they deliberately provided no information about the text of the new constitution which would have been very popular.

3. There was a deliberate strategy to divide the population. The media suggested frequently that only natives gained from the changes in the new constitution. There was nothing, they said, for workers, union members, for street workers or the middle class. Again this was said with no analysis of the new clauses in the text of the constitution.

4. The right worked to create a movement for autonomy in the departments where they controlled the Prefect and where they had a significant influence. In order to do this they worked to increase resentment in the population regarding previous central governments which had failed in the past to resolve local problems. For example in Santa Cruz there are significant economic resources but a lot of poverty. In Chuquisaca, where the right does not control the prefect, they constructed a movement for autonomy based on resentment in the department capital, Sucre. Sucre was the former capital of all of Bolivia. In principle it still is. However, only the Supreme Court is in Sucre. As the result of a civil war between Sucre and LaPaz in 1889-1899, the National Assembly, the Presidency and the civil administration are all in LaPaz. If the all the elements of government were moved back to Sucre there would be significant economic gains and lots of new jobs. Sucre currently has a high level of unemployment.

5. As the traditional political parties of the right had become discredited through many years of inaction on social issues, the right created Civic Committees in each department where their influence was strong. These committees were not elected but set up by the local elite and promoted by their newspapers. Where the right controlled the prefect, the prefects supported the formation of the committee and worked with the committee. The Civic Committees then united to form the Democratic Assembly (Junta) of Bolivia.

6. In departments where the right had significant influence but did not control the prefect, they selected an alternate prefect to replace the elected official. In Chuquisaca it was necessary for the elected prefect to move his office from Sucre for his own security.

7. The right created a violent racist student movement with students from the elite universities and high schools. This is similar to the right wing student movement in Venezuela. The CATO foundation has just awarded the Milton Friedman award for freedom of $500,000 to Yon Goicoechea one of the leaders in the right wing student movement who led the fight to defeat the Venezuelan referendum. Analysts in pro government media in Venezuela claim this is a way to finance further right wing student activity without the odium of obvious American government financing.

The right wing student movement in Bolivia formed the majority in the mob which attacked the members of the Constituent Assembly in Sucre in November 2007. They beat the delegates to the assembly and held at least one, a native delegate, over a burning fire of tires threatening to burn him alive. He only survived due to the fortuitous arrival of one of the opposition deputies with several journalists. It would have been bad publicity to kill the native delegate in front of the press. Nevertheless he had to run a gauntlet of students armed with wooden clubs who beat him as he ran to the car which allowed him to escape. None of this was reported in the mass media. According to the right wing media, those in the student mob were the victims and heroes of the day. In December 2007 there was a concert organized in Sucre to raise money for these heroes.

8. The right built a campaign to deform the proposed new constitution. In Sucre, a young educated man of about 22 years 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 it was a lie. The proposed new constitution guarantees the right to inheritance and does not change the government power to expropriate.

This is similar to the strategy used in Venezuela against the December 2007 referendum on their proposed new constitution. The week before the vote there were ads in Venezuelan national papers explaining the problems with the proposed constitution. One of the problems explained in the ads was the requirement that all students attend government boarding schools. Of course it was a lie.

9. The right has used its control of the media to try to discredit the National Election Organization (The Corte Nacional Electoral CNE). This helps the movement for autonomy to claim that their referendum is legal despite the ruling of the CNE.

The May 4 Referendum on autonomy in Santa Cruz

On May 4 Santa Cruz will hold its referendum despite the ruling by the CNE that the referendum is illegal. The national government has declared that, as there is no constitutional authority for such a referendum and as it is not being organized by a neutral state electoral body, the referendum is really a public opinion poll and has no legal effect.

What is going to happen? The national government has taken no action to prevent the referendum. Instead it has allocated more police to ensure that there is no confrontation. It fears a Kosovo type of outcome. They believe that the Santa Cruz autonomy movement wants a confrontation and bloodshed in order to give the United States the moral authority to intervene and protect its independence as in Kosovo.

It is clear that Santa Cruz will win the referendum. They have already spent massive amounts of money promoting a yes vote. The first question for the ballot was biased in favour of a yes vote. After fierce criticism they promised to change it.(I have not yet seen the final ballot). The autonomy movement is organizing the vote. They will count the ballots without any neutral observers to check the vote. The result is that the leaders of the autonomy movement can choose the results they want. With good advice from the American embassy, they will choose results which seem reasonable. The results will not claim that 100% voted or that 100% who voted were in favour. Eighty percent voting and 85% in favour sound like good figures. Perhaps they will drop the figure to the seventies but I doubt it. They need to be able to claim massive support to gain international support for their independence.

Undoubtedly there will be massive lineups in the areas where they have support. The department election organizers will ensure that there are a limited number of polling stations in these areas and that voting takes a long time. A significant number will not take part in the vote, especially in the country and among the social movements, despite the fear generated by the repression of pro-autonomy mobs. Abstentions will be discounted by the national press and television which have been cheerleading for the autonomy movement. What we will see on our televisions will be the long lineups and commentary by American journalists impressed by these lines.

What about the national referendum on the proposed new constitution which had also been scheduled for May 4? The CNE ruled that there was not enough time to organize the national referendum in two months. As a result the national government postponed the referendum and called for negotiations. 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 revenue and a lifting of any government control over exports and internal markets. Branco Marinkovic, the president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee owns 90,000 hectares of land, much of it unused. Another family close to the committee has 120,000 hectares. The national referendum 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 further land reform is ruled out.

What is Santa Cruz likely to do once it has won its referendum? Although it will declare victory it is unlikely it will take any immediate action to break from the national government. The other dissident departments have scheduled referendums. It is likely that Santa Cruz will wait for the others as this will strengthen its position. However, it will likely try to strengthen its military position by the acquisition of arms, the training of a militia and by a purification of the department police force. The Santa Cruz electoral organization claims that it has 22,000 men to oversee the voting and 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 coming from right wing groups in Latin America and especially from Columbia recruited with the help of the CIA.

What will the Evo Morales national government do? It is clear that once there is a break with the national government, Morales will have to assert his authority. Otherwise with time the federation of the dissident departments will develop defacto recognition. However until there is open defiance there is no justification for radical action by the national government. After all the national government has claimed that the referendum is just a public opinion poll.

How can Morales exert his authority? A first step will be to hold the national referendum on the proposed new constitution. This will give him further moral authority for his action. Moreover it will precipitate a resolution to the conflict. Delay plays into the hands of the autonomy movement.

In the long run there may be no alternative to the eventual use of military force. However, a military invasion would be used by the autonomy movement to claim international protection from massive bloodshed. The United States might be ready to provide the military protection needed for independence despite the political cost to such a move. However this would need a major media campaign in the United States to get popular support because of public disenchantment with the American military occupation of Iraq and because of the November elections. This would take some time.

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 so that the bloodshed which would undoubtedly occur would be identified as the result of attacks by the Santa Cruz militia. This would be a very serious step. Political support would be needed from the OEA. However, this could lead to significant deaths and injuries to members of the social movements in the march: civilian natives, students and union members. Military support from Brazil, Argentina and Chile for the Bolivian army would significantly reduce the likelihood of significant resistance from Santa Cruz and save many lives.

The military option raises the question of the response of the Bolivian army. Will it remain loyal to the national government? Its commander-in-chief has declared the army’s loyalty. However does he speak for all the officer corps. Often in the past the army has served as the military arm of the oligarchy. They have intervened to repress popular mobilization. Moreover in other situations of potential civil war, the army has split. In such a case it is unclear what would happen.

However, if Morales rejects the military option and negotiates a deal acceptable to the oligarchy which is ultimately behind the autonomy movement, it is unlikely that Morales will survive as President. The indigenous population in the area of LaPaz has overthrown other governments and would be unlikely to accept a shelving of the first effort to deal with hundreds of years of racism and inequality. So Evo Morales and his government are between a rock and a hard place.

As you can see the situation in Bolivia is a difficult one. 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. Whatever happens in Bolivia will have important impacts in the rest of Latin America and in the world.

This is an important time for international solidarity. We must not let our newspapers spread lies about the autonomy movements in Bolivia. We must not let our media create a movement to United States military intervention.

Fred Jones is part of the North-South Program at Dawson College. He has recently been in Bolivia and Ecuador, currently in Venezuela

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