Bolivia’s Autonomist Right

Jeffery R. Webber

On Sunday, May 4, 2008 autonomist right-wing forces in the Bolivian department (state) of Santa Cruz – acting through the offices of the prefecture (governorship) and Santa Cruz Civic Committee – held an illegal referendum on departmental autonomy. According to the consulting agency Captura Consulting the “yes” side won 85 percent of the votes cast, with 15 percent against. However, many organizations within the left-indigenous bloc of the department had called for a boycott of the referendum, and were successful in obtaining an abstention rate of over 40 percent. Compare that to the remarkably low abstention rate of 15 percent in the December 2005 general elections that brought Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, to office at the national level. Nonetheless, the right declared the results a triumphant victory.

There are many facts that suggest the results of the referendum were circumspect. The process violated the constitution and was declared illegal by the judiciary branch of the Bolivian state and the democratically-elected Morales government. There were no external observers at the referendum to ensure transparency and an environment free of intimidation, nor to evaluate the counting of ballots and final results. Instead, some polling stations were policed by the thugs of the Cruceño Youth Union (UJC), a notoriously racist and violent group of neo-fascists whose members act as the shock troops behind the respectable face of the autonomist movement. No governments with membership in the Organization of American States (OAS) recognized the results of the referendum.

These clear irregularities, though, did not prevent the other three departments of the so-called “media luna” (half moon), in which right-wing autonomist forces hold sway, from announcing similarly illegal referendums for the following month. On June 1, Pando and Beni held their referendums, with Tarija scheduling one for June 22. In Pando, 81 percent of votes cast favoured autonomy, but, as in Santa Cruz, the boycott campaign was quite successful, with 41 percent of eligible voters abstaining. In Beni, 80 percent of cast votes were for the “yes” side, but 32 percent abstained. The referendum in Tarija has not yet taken place at the time of writing.

These four lowland departments are home to the extreme right of political forces within the country, representing the coalescence of large agro-industrial capitalists (mainly exporters of soy and sunflower oil, as well as cattle ranchers), foreign and domestic petroleum capitalists (Bolivia has the second largest deposits of natural gas in South America after Venezuela, most of which is found in Tarija and Santa Cruz), and foreign and domestic finance capitalists – many of the biggest players in this scene are involved in all of these sectors simultaneously. The elite in question is mainly white or mestizo (mixed race), while the majority of the country’s peasant and proletarian masses are indigenous.

The regional elite’s aim is to retain the economic and racial privileges they derive from the political, social and economic arrangements of the status quo. This means squashing both the revolutionary aims of the left-indigenous movements that rose up in an insurrectionary cycle between 2000 and 2005 and the moderately reformist objectives of the government of Evo Morales that assumed office in early 2006.

The referendums on autonomy are merely the latest attempt by the far right to destabilize the Morales government. Throughout 2006 and 2007 autonomist forces sought to derail the Constituent Assembly process introduced by the Morales administration. As a result, there was legitimate concern of a descent into civil war at several junctures over this two year period.

How has the right been able to slowly rearticulate itself in the wake of a five-year cycle of left-indigenous insurgency, the overthrow of two neoliberal presidents (in 2003 and 2005), and the election of Morales?

When Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party began its term in January 2006, there was a distinct window of opportunity through which the government might have opted to trust in the mass mobilization of the indigenous proletarian and peasant majority to defend a radically transformative project of structural reform leading even to the possibility of socialist and indigenous-liberationist transition.

The Bolivian right’s legitimacy had been crushed. Defeat after defeat in the streets and parliamentary politics alike made it obvious that it had no project with which to respond to the crisis of neoliberalism in the country. American imperialism was overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neighbouring South American countries were no longer under the control of right-wing military dictatorships, as they had been in recent decades. Venezuelan oil wealth provided a vast new line of credit as an alternative to neoliberal financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Moreover, these neoliberal institutions had suffered a series of setbacks in their influence over Latin America. Finally, the Bolivian working class and peasantry were arguably the best organized and militant social forces in the western hemisphere.

However, the MAS government acted timidly and indecisively. It demobilized its supporters and attempted to co-opt and divide those revolutionary forces in society to its left. At the same time, it sought conciliation with far right autonomist groups, whose power it consistently exaggerated. Because of the room afforded to it by the Morales government, the bourgeoisie of the lowlands began to rearticulate a political project in the form of right-wing autonomism.

The current situation is an extremely dangerous one. And yet, it is also an opportunity for the Bolivian process to change course from indecisive reformism to revolutionary audacity.

The right is attempting to build on its regional base in the lowland departments to destabilize the Morales government so that it might eventually rebuild a platform at the national level through the political party PODEMOS, led by Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga. On August 10, 2008 Evo Morales, vice-president Álvaro García Linera, and the prefects of all nine departments face recall referendums through which they could lose their posts.

In my view, two possible trajectories exist for the Morales government. The first one is more hopeful. Spurred by the whip of counter-revolutionary reaction, the Morales government might abandon its conciliation with the far right, radicalize its reform measures, and mobilize and arm the popular organizations of the working class and peasantry so as to defend those reforms. This will depend on the independent self-activity, self-organization and strategic mobilization of these same social forces, as Bolivian social movement leader Oscar Olivera suggested so eloquently in a talk delivered in Vancouver, Canada at the beginning of June. Olivera has no illusions about change coming from the top down under the Morales government. He told the Vancouver audience that social movements are organizing to mobilize from below independently from the government, but not against the government. They are planning to confront the far-right head on, while simultaneously demanding that Morales submit his government to the will of the organized left-indigenous majority who brought him to office in the first place.

A second scenario would see the MAS become absorbed in regular election campaigning for the August 10th recall referendums. There would be little to no facilitation of mobilizing popular forces outside of the electoral domain. The government would continue to invest hope in reconciling the interests of the popular classes and indigenous majority with those of the autonomist right. Officials would continue to speak of building a “social pact” between the two camps. The government might present this as the only way of averting a possible civil war, and would insist on the demobilization and moderation of its grassroots supporters so as to reassure the right of its commitment to negotiation.

In this scenario, the right would continue to mount its offensive and determine the national agenda, even though it is still comparatively weak and restricted in its political influence mainly to the lowland departments of the media luna. In attempting to avert civil war in this manner, the MAS government might in fact set the stage for a stronger, more belligerent and violent right-wing that might eventually expand its objective from autonomy in the lowlands to recapturing entirely state power at the national level – through institutional or coupist means. The modest reforms achieved so far by the Morales government would be lost, and the hope of combined liberation to end capitalist exploitation and racial oppression of the indigenous majority would be delivered a massive historical setback.

Jeffery R. Webber is a socialist scholar-activist currently based in The Netherlands.

Republished from New Socialist

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