Bolivia: Oligarchy stokes political crisis

Gonzalo Villanueva, La Paz, Bolivia

On August 10, a recall referendum will decide the fate of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, the vice president and eight prefects (governors). The referendum campaign was launched by opponents of Morales in an attempt to oust Morales, who was elected president in December 2005 with 53.74% of the vote.

Morales leads the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), which describes itself as the “political instrument” of the social movements and trade unions. Morales is an indigenous Aymaran and former leader of the cocaleros (coca workers). Popular struggles against neoliberal “free market” policies, which had swept Bolivia in the previous few years, propelled Morales into office. Those struggles had two specific demands: nationalisation of the country’s natural gas resources and a constituent assembly to redraft the country’s constitution.

The “democratic and cultural revolution” articulated by the MAS seeks the “refoundation” of Bolivian society, decimated by decades of neoliberalism; national sovereignty against foreign capitalists who have bled Bolivia’s wealth through their control of its hydrocarbon and other natural resources; and the political involvement of the previously excluded indigenous peoples, who constitute 60% of the country’s 9.2 million inhabitants. Despite having the second largest natural gas reserves in South America (after Venezuela), Bolivia has the continent’s lowest per capita GDP (US$1440 in 2007).

The Morales government is confronted by intransigent resistance from a racist big-business oligarchy, which has no specific political party and no distinctive leader, but dominates a crescent-shaped region known as the “half-moon” — the eastern departments (states) of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija, Cochabamba and more recently Sucre.

On June 29, in the department of Chuquisaca, the opposition candidate for the prefecture, Sabina Cuellar, a chola (an indigenous woman who maintains the fashion of the Spanish colonial era) won with 55% of the vote. Cuellar is a former MAS member and ex-delegate to the constituent assembly. She was expelled from the MAS after supporting the opposition plan to move the capital from La Paz to Sucre. Cuellar and the opposition are attempting to obtain the 250,000 signatures required to hold a referendum on where the capital should be located.


One of the strategies of the oligarchy is departmental “autonomy” — independence from the economic and social policies of the central government in La Paz. The autonomy statutes would allow the prefects, among other things, to manage the department economy, sign international treaties and control land titles, i.e., maintain the concentration of land and mineral resources in the hands of the oligarchs.

The department of Santa Cruz — rich in hydrocarbon resources, and which contributes 30% of the national GDP — is the base of oligarchic opposition to the Morales government. On May 4, Santa Cruz held an autonomy referendum — illegal under the constitution and not recognised internationally. The separatist strategy of the Santa Cruz elite was followed by the other half-moon departments. The “yes” vote claimed victory but, as MAS has highlighted, in some cases abstentions were up to 45% of eligible voters.

The Civic Committee Pro-Santa Cruz, an organisation that arose prior to the 1952 nationalist political revolution, represents the regional oligarchy — the big capitalist landowners and the local representatives of the foreign energy corporations, which have their headquarters in Santa Cruz. Under the auspices of the Civic Committee, the ultrarightist Union Juvenil Cruzenista (UJC) militia group acts as a shock force against supporters of the Morales government. With funding from the Civic Committee, UJC gangs frequently travel within the half-moon departments to carry out shock missions. The UJC recently began hijacking the offices of central government institutions in Santa Cruz, claiming it was implementing the autonomy that was voted for. When 12 UJC members were arrested, a UJC gang attacked the police station and released them.

The anti-Morales opposition enjoys political hegemony in the cities of the half-moon. Utilising the corporate media to evoke uncertainty and fear, the oligarchy-run opposition parties have promoted the idea that the “Indianisation” of the Bolivian state will mean that the urban middle classes will be racially discriminated against or their interests ignored — an argument that does not necessarily win them to support the opposition, but does distance them from the government.


The Spanish “discovery” of the “new world” led to the dispossession and enslavement of the Native American peoples. When Spanish colonial rule ended in Bolivia, the rich descendants of white Spanish-speaking colonial-settlers, criollos, took over. At the end of the 19th century, Emilio Barbier reflected on the state of the indigenous peoples, writing: “More fortunate are the mules, horses, and llamas: these at least are taken care of for the capital that they represent”. The indigenous Bolivians face a double oppression: for being indigenous and for being poor.

Racism today provides a brutal ideological weapon for the anti-Morales opposition. A disturbing example of this occurred on May 25. Morales was scheduled to present ambulances and funds to the city of Sucre. However, the socio-political tensions exploded into a violent racist action against the indigenous campesinos (peasants) who came to support Morales. The attackers were led by the Civic Committee of Sucre, UJC militants who travelled especially for the event, the mayor and university students. Ironically, this was a mestizo (mixed race) mob, which had abandoned any identity with its indigenous origins, brutally beating and humiliating the campesinos.

US imperialism

The Morales government’s nationalisation of key industries — such as hydrocarbons and the telecommunications network, Entel — and its collaboration with Venezuelan socialist President Hugo Chavez’s working people’s government and socialist Cuba, are causing concern to the US imperialist rulers. Although preoccupied with their faltered attempt to conquer oil-rich Iraq, the US rulers continue an interventionist policy in South America to protect their economic domination of the continent — for example, the April 2002 failed CIA-sponsored military coup in Venezuela.

In an article published on the Venezuelanalysis website last September 12, Venezuelan-American writer Eva Golinger observed that “in Bolivia, USAID-OTI [US Agency for International Development - Office of Transition Initiatives] has focused its efforts on combating and influencing the Constituent Assembly and the separatism of the regions rich in natural resources, such as Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. The majority of the $13.3 million [in USAID funds] has been given to organizations and programs working towards ‘reinforcing regional governments’, with the intention of weakening the national government of Evo Morales.” The cocaleros confederation of Cochabamba, however, recently expelled USAID from the Chapare region, an action praised by Morales. However, USAID continues its work in other regions.

Philip Goldberg, the US ambassador in Bolivia, frequently meets with the prefects of the half-moon departments and leaders of the opposition parties. Goldberg was recently recalled to Washington by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss a June 9 confrontation at the US embassy, where a crowd protested outside and threatened to burn the building down.

It is widely expected that Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera will emerge victorious from the recall referendum. This may partially change the political terrain, electorally legitimising the process of change being led by Morales. However, given a determined opposition with tendencies to resort to extralegal violence and the active support of US imperialism, the outcome of the recall referendum may not solve much.

Any meaningful change, particularly one that empowers an excluded majority, will inevitably disturb an established order. After August 10, the socio-political tensions may intensify in what is already a volatile situation. Morales has frequently expressed his concern about the prospect of a military coup, which cannot be ruled out. However, it will be those forces that placed Morales in office — indigenous workers, campesinos and the lower middle class — that will be fundamental to resisting and breaking the opposition to Bolivia’s nascently anti-capitalist “democratic and cultural revolution”.

Republished from Direct Action

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