Bolivia: Historic Vote Confirms Will for Change

Federico Fuentes

With 99% of the votes counted, Bolivia’s first indigenous president won a crushing 67.43% majority in the August 10 recall referendum. Surpassing the 53.7% he received in the 2005 national elections, which until then was the highest vote recorded by a presidential candidate in Bolivia’s history, the result confirmed the broad support for the Morales government’s project for wide-ranging social change.

The vote was one of multiple referendums on whether to ratify or recall the president, vice-president, and eight of the nine departmental prefects (governors), held in an attempt to break the deadlock caused by opposition to the process of change by the right-wing oligarchy whose base of support lies in Bolivia’s resource-rich and predominantly white eastern region.

Relationship of forces

The vote not only ratified Morales and Vice-President Álvaro García Linera in their posts, it also revoked the mandates of two opposition prefects, José Paredes in La Paz and Manfred Villa Reyes in Cochabamba. Their positions will undoubtedly be filled in the upcoming elections by prefects aligned with the government, increasing the number of prefects from Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) from two to four.

The vote has confirmed that Morales has maintained wide support among the middle classes, and it reflected growing class struggle in the east, where Morales’s vote dramatically increased, refuting the notion that the government’s support is limited to the west.

At the same time, however, the project of “autonomy” promoted by the oligarchy in the “half moon” — the four eastern departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija — was bolstered by the victory of pro-autonomy prefects in those departments.

Coming out of the referendums, a new political configuration has emerged, which many hope will open up space for an agreement between the competing social blocs on integrating the autonomy statutes proposed by the eastern prefects with the new draft constitution (drawn up by pro-government delegates in the Constituent Assembly after right-wing delegates boycotted Assembly sessions).

The challenge now is for the government to use its powerful electoral majority to overcome what many commentators have referred to as a “catastrophic deadlock” and open the path towards the “new Bolivia” sought by the indigenous majority and other oppressed sectors and violently opposed by the oligarchy.

When the initiative for the recall referendums came from Morales in December as a way to break this deadlock, the main opposition party, Podemos, refused to approve it and used its Senate majority to stall the project.

However five months later, when the eastern prefects took the initiative through a wave of autonomy referendums, Podemos moved to regain leadership of the opposition by accepting the recall vote proposal.

The oligarchy regroups

Behind the push for autonomy is the desire of large landowners and gas transnationals to shield the natural resources and agribusiness interests in the east from the government’s nationalization and land reform projects.

As the Morales government has advanced in its project to re-establish state control over natural resources —including the May 1, 2006, nationalization of Bolivia’s gas reserves — the elites located in the east have worked to build a regional pro-autonomy movement. This project aims to give the prefects legislative power over taxation, natural resources, land distribution, and trade agreements.

Not only do they hope to take decision-making power over these questions out of the hands of the central government, they aim to undermine Morales’s project and his base of support in order to pave the way for his removal, either at the ballot box or by violent means.

Facing a new draft constitution that enshrines state control over natural resources and dramatically expands the rights of indigenous people, the oligarchy is fighting tooth and nail to defend its interests against a national movement driven by the indigenous peoples.

The right wing’s confidence was boosted in the aftermath of unconstitutional referendums on the question of autonomy organized in the eastern departments during June and July, against the opposition of the central government. The departmental authorities announced massive victories in votes that were in fact marred by right-wing violence and high abstention rates.

The pro-autonomy prefects then shifted from their initial rejection of the recall referendums and agreed to participate, as their anti-government project seemed to be expanding with the victory of an opposition candidate in the elections for prefect of Chuquisaca. (The former prefect, who is aligned with MAS, is currently in exile in Peru following a wave of racist attacks and violent protests against the constituent assembly, which met in Sucre, the state capital and constitutional capital of Bolivia.)

Violent campaign

Yet as August 10 approached and polls predicted a large victory for Morales, most of the media began to comment on the lack of any serious political campaign by the opposition for an anti-Morales vote. Instead, the week leading up to the vote saw an intensification of violent and racist right-wing attacks.

These involved mobilizing fascist youth to attack indigenous people in the cities, blockading airports to stop Morales from campaigning in the east and the attempted assassination of a government minister. These rightist forces even sent small groups of right-wing thugs wearing balaclavas to the airport in Tarija, forcing postponement of a scheduled meeting of Morales with the presidents of Venezuela and Argentina. The mayor of Santa Cruz called on the military to overthrow Morales because he was “useless.”

But there were only isolated incidents on the day of the referendums. While the vote affirmed strong support for the prefects in the east, it also confirmed the emergence of “the other Santa Cruz” — forces in the opposition’s heartland that oppose the project of the elites.

In Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas was ratified as prefect with 66% of the vote, while Ernesto Suarez in Beni received 64%, Mario Cossio in Tarija 58% and Leopoldo Suarez in Pando 56%.

At the same time, Morales scored 52% in Pando, just under 50% in Tarija, and his support in Beni jumped from less than 20% in December 2005 to 44%. He also received the not insignificant total of 40% support in Santa Cruz.

Only in Chuquisaca was Morales’s vote lower than in 2005, but it was still a solid 54%.

While it was still a long way from the remarkable results of 80% support in the departments of La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí, 70% in Cochabamba, and the 90% achieved almost everywhere among rural electorates, the results in the east represent an important advance for the government.


Speaking from the balcony of the presidential palace in front of thousands of supporters, Morales declared that the vote was a mandate “to continue advancing in the recovery of natural resources, in the recovery and nationalization of companies.”

Morales called the vote a mandate to unite all Bolivians, east and west, rich and poor — a mandate that would be applied at all the different levels, sectors and regions of the country.

“I call on all the prefects to work for the unity of Bolivians and to work respecting Bolivian norms … The people want the prefects to be part of the nationalization of other natural resources,” Morales declared.

Morales called a meeting of all prefects to discuss how to integrate autonomy statutes into the new constitution.

The conciliatory tone of Morales’s speech, which was well received by most Bolivians, contrasted sharply with the confrontational stance of the eastern prefects.

Costas declared that the vote had ratified a de facto autonomy and a rejection of the “racist” (read: indigenous) constitution that the “monkey” (Morales) wants to impose through “state terrorism,” as crowds gathered in the centre of Santa Cruz to celebrate the “recall” of Morales in this region — chanting that “Evo will never set foot in Santa Cruz again.”

Toning down their rhetoric in the following days, the other prefects announced they had agreed to come to the negotiating table and discuss with Morales a way to combine the two projects.

The meeting took place on August 14. The government proposed attempting to make the new constitution and autonomy statutes compatible, reaching agreement on the designation of magistrates for the constitutional tribunal and the national electoral court, and discussing the question of the national “direct tax on hydrocarbons.” (Despite massive windfalls from the tax following the gas nationalization, the opposition has rejected government attempts to use part of this tax to fund the new pension scheme.)

Immediately afterwards, the prefects from the eastern departments flew to Santa Cruz where they announced their rejection of the government’s proposal and called for a “civic stoppage” on August 19. With no legal basis whatsoever, Costa announced plans for elections to a legislative assembly in “the autonomous department of Santa Cruz” for next January 25.

Meanwhile, the violent campaign in the east has continued. On August 13, six youths threw 10 Molotov cocktails into the headquarters of the Centre for Legal Studies and Social Investigation (CEJIS), which provides legal advice to indigenous and peasant organizations and is the home organization of some Morales cabinet members.

“I feel that the prefects only want money and do not want to touch the political question,” said Morales after the meeting. “If we interpret the sentiment expressed through the recall referendums, the Bolivian people want profound changes in the structural and especially in the political sphere. That is why I have come to the conclusion that the Bolivian people want autonomy and a new constitution.”

Morales’s vice-minister for decentralization, Fabian Yaksic, added that the government would propose another referendum “where the people would settle the question as to whether the autonomy proposed in the new constitution is the one that most benefits the country, or whether the autonomy proposal reflected in the regional statutes [promoted by the eastern authorities] does.”

Other, more hard-line voices from the radical sectors of the MAS are calling for tough measures against forces in the east that continue to violate the law. During Morales’s victory speech, important sections of the crowd began to chant: “Now, for sure, it’s time to be heavy handed.”

Republished from Socialist Voice

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