Bolivia: Between politics and violence (Á propos the Constituent Assembly and the recall referendum)

Eduardo Dimas

On Sunday, Dec. 9, Bolivia's Constituent Assembly approved in Oruro, by two thirds of the deputies in attendance (about 160), 410 of the 411 articles in the nation's new Constitution, whose process of drafting and ratification was systematically boycotted by the opposition, led by the oligarchy. Only one, the article on land holding, did not earn the necessary votes.

The new Constitution contains many of the historic vindications of the Bolivian people, one of the ignored and exploited in the region. Among them is the autonomy of the indigenous peoples, approved recently by the United Nations General Assembly, which restores the rights denied by colonialism to the native peoples of the world.

It also establishes legal precepts to maintain the State's ownership of natural resources; it imposes social security, which exists only in certain sectors of the Bolivian economy; allows for free medical care and education, and grants the level of autonomy required by the nine departments and ethnic groups that compose the country.

It is obvious that such constitutional principles are not to the liking of the local oligarchy, the oligarchies of other countries, and the transnational corporations. In fact, it is a bad example for the rest of the people of Latin America who hope that the constitutions of their respective nations vindicate their rights as human beings.

If anything has characterized the Bolivian oligarchy ever since the country's independence, it has been its profound reactionary nature, its racism and its conviction that it can do whatever it wishes in Bolivia, with the approval of the United States government, of course, particularly since World War II.

Since its independence from Spain, Bolivia has had the highest number of coups d'état in Latin American history. It is not surprising, therefore, that, on several occasions, leaders of the opposition to the government of Evo Morales have requested the intervention of the Army. In all cases, that request has been denied by the high command of the Bolivian Armed Forces, who have reiterated their obedience to the Constitution's principles.

Nevertheless, the possibility of a coup cannot be ruled out. Many of the high-ranking officers in the Army have family ties to the oligarchy, and share interests with it. As in other countries of Latin America, there is a military caste in Bolivia that has participated in the country's government, whether directly, in the ruling circles, or defending the people in power.

To some observers, the government and the opposition are at an impasse. The oligarchy is unable to overthrow Morales without the help of the Army, because of the president's rate of popular support (62 percent), and the government is in no condition to neutralize the opposition without the use of force. Besides, the latter option has never been the policy of the president or his administration.

Therefore, the Army can act as a counterweight that can tilt the balance to one side or the other of Bolivia's political spectrum. If we look at historical precedent, it will most likely tilt on the side of the oligarchy and its interests. Evo's popular support is strong but might not be enough to deter a military coup, particularly in view of the division that exists in the Bolivian left.

And this is a situation that is repeated everywhere in the planet. The oligarchies, the Empire and its allies can reach an accord with relative ease when their interests are in danger, despite the competition and contradictions among them.

Not so with the left, where ideological differences, sectarianism and (worse yet) individual egocentrism become obstacles impossible to clear. That's one of the principal dangers faced by the process of changes in Latin America at a time when the reaction -- represented by the government of the United States, the oligarchies and the rightist international organizations such as Christian democracy -- are trying to prevent those changes from consolidating in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Cuba.

Returning to the topic of Bolivia, I believe that Evo Morales has just made an intelligent and at the same time dangerous political move. Seeing the impossibility of halting the actions of the oligarchy, and facing the ever-increasing aggressiveness of the prefects (governors) of six of Bolivia's nine departments, he has asked the Senate to carry out a recall referendum for himself and the nine prefects.

The Senate has not yet given a green light to the referendum, which would be held in the first half of 2008, but it is evident that it will hard pressed not to approve it, since it would be assailed by the nation's public opinion. The call to a recall referendum further reduces the range of movement of the oligarchy and its allies.

All that remains for the opposition is violence, which it has utilized to keep the Constituent Assembly from meeting in Sucre (it had to move to Oruro) and to threaten the sectors of the population that support the process of changes advocated by Evo Morales.

That explains the new calls to a coup d'état and the trip to the United States of four prefects (Santa Cruz, Pando, Tarija and Cochabamba) right after President Morales asked them to join a dialogue. In the U.S., the four prefects met with former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada (who is sought by the Bolivian courts) and followers of former dictator Hugo Bánzer. There is no information that they met with White House officials, but...

They also contacted José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, and asked him to intervene in Bolivia because “of the lack of democracy that exists in our country.”

Insulza said he would send an OAS delegation to Bolivia if the government requested it. It seems evident that the OAS should tell the prefects off, instead of playing the game of people who have at all times violated constitutional and democratic principles. But we cannot ask the elm to produce pears.

Approval of the new Constitution by the people seems inevitable. If it is approved, Bolivia will enter into a period of inevitable definitions. If the Senate approves the recall referendum -- in which the people will decide whether or not President Morales and the prefects remain in office -- we can expect new and strong actions from the oligarchy to impede both democratic processes.

These actions might involve the secession of the Half Moon (the departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Benin, probably joined by Cochabamba and Chuquisaca). This would create an extremely dangerous situation, because it would be up to the Army to prevent that option. Or they might involve an armed conflict in the Half Moon departments that would also have to be quashed by the armed forces.

The arrogance of the leaders of the Half Moon is such that they have said that, in the event of military intervention to prevent secession, the Army would be defeated. In that sense, we should remember that the oligarchy in those four departments has created paramilitary groups trained by mercenaries from Colombia and other countries.

The photograph of U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg with a well-known Colombian paramilitary is not a coincidence but an expression of the White House' policy toward Bolivia, which has been denounced repeatedly by Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera.

A period of important definitions now begins in Bolivia, which can lead either to the creation of a fairer, more equitable country, or to a new period of exploitation and slavery for the Bolivian Indians. I believe that everything will depend on what the majority of the people do.

If the people mobilize and support the new Constitution, the oligarchy and its allies can do little to stop it -- except to provoke a blood bath whose consequences for all of Latin America would be unpredictable. Apparently, the dice have been cast. Time will tell.

Republished from Progreso Weekly

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