Reports from inside Bolivia right now are tumultuous given the circumstances.
As the BBC and various other US/UK media outlets have reported, separatists in Bolivia have taken over their government buildings and gas pipelines in support of autonomous control of the gas field regions. The majority of analyses tend to focus on isolated incidents, like the take-over of several airports near Santa Cruz, and firefights in the countryside. The larger picture is that separatists are seeking to recast the question of power in regional terms and in the rhetoric of a struggle against centralism and dictatorship, while the indigenous indios are trying to maintain socialist unity and prevent what they see as a fascist takeover.
At the heart of this issue is racism towards native indios on the one hand, and the controversial oil revenue redistribution scheme organized by the socialist government on behalf of the broader electorate on the other.
Jorge Martin, a Cuban writer for In Defense of Marxism who supports Evo Morales, writes that “armed thugs”, or prefects, from the Union Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC) have taken over the buildings and infrastructures as part of a “right wing offensive” to take control of the oil-rich regions of the country. The UJC is an armed and paid youth cadre, the paramilitary arm of rich Eastern Bolivian landowners in the Santa Cruz Civic Committee. In the past they have attempted an assassination of President Evo Morales.
The indigenous Bolivians, mostly peasants, are generally opposed to the UJC and have begun mounting a counter-offensive to the take-over. Morales’s political party, MAS, tried to discourage the indigenous from protesting, and the military from cracking down on the UJC. They said “We should not fall for provocations”, “what the prefects want is for people to die so they can have their martyrs”.
Pro-separatist governor of Pando, Leopoldo Fernandez, described a recent massacre of peasants to Reuters not as an “ambush”, but rather as a clash between “rival groups”, suggesting that the attack was not asymmetric. He added “The government has a great ability to distort things, and its arguments are always the same, accuse without reason.”
United States Involvement
The United States Federal Government also has a great ability to distort things. The U.S. was chastised this week by Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales for spurring the separatist movement. Bolivia is a major recipient of USAID money, says the U.S. Center of Economic and Policy Research, with millions of dollars sent to “groups” there. The U.S. also funds “groups” in Bolivia through the National Endowment for Democracy and related organizations. The U.S. Embassy in Bolivia has gone so far as to encourage Peace Corp volunteers to “keep tabs” on Cubans, Venezuelans and Bolivians, essentially asking the Peace Corp to violate Bolivian espionage laws.
“USAID is not supposed to be a clandestine organization,” said Mark Weisbrot, the co-CEPR director, in the report, “but nevertheless the U.S. government refuses to divulge which groups in Bolivia are supported with U.S. tax dollars”,
…“By providing clandestine aid to groups that are almost certainly in the opposition, it gives the impression that the U.S. is contributing to efforts to destabilize the Bolivian government.”
Airports, offices, telecommunications companies, radio stations, post offices, tax offices, trade offices, and oil companies in several cities are now occupied by the UJC, who have forced the leftist media to leave and workers to cease operations.
“In most of the cases,” Jorge Martin wrote, “police and army units that were protecting these buildings were overrun by the violent gangs of fascists, because they were under strict orders not to shoot and not to use violence to protect them.” But since then martial law, Estado de Excepción, was declared and 26 people have been killed in clashes.
The Morales government’s semi-pacifist posturing here is reminiscent of former Bolivian president Carlos Mesa, who valued the idea of “social peace” by trying (and ultimately failing) to maintain a centrist politics between the indigenous left and the autonomist right. The goals of Evo Morales, however, involve the deepening of the revolutionary process of indigenous empowerment, a process that creates conflict when it hits the wall of the entrenched resistance of privileged classes.
The autonomist movement has not succeeded through referendums in the past five years, even though autonomy statutes for a free Santa Cruz appear to be victorious according to the numbers. The government alleges that the referendums were held illegally. Far from a movement toward genuine autonomy, one that would involve “participatory democracy” and “government from below”, writes Tom Lewis from CounterPunch, “the Bolivian autonomy movement is tied to the entrenched interests of international capital and the dominant sectors of national capital, in particular, the hydrocarbon industry and agribusiness.”
The autonomists challenged Morales to another referendum just last month in which had voters decide whether Morales and various governors should step down or not. Fortunately for Morales, the numbers show he won while some of the autonomist governors lost. During the referendum, the UJC blocked pro-MAS voters and Morales himself from getting to the ballot boxes, saying that the government should respect their autonomy statues. The intimidation and the dangers involved with the referendums are a major problem for democracy and social cohesion.
Fears of Military Coup
Rumor has it that the Bolivian military is plotting a coup against the Morales government to restore order. After a different coup plot was reportedly uncovered in Venezuela against Hugo Chavez this week, both Chavez and Evo Morales have decided to expel their U.S. ambassadors and bring their own ambassadors home. “We don’t want people here who conspire against democracy,” Morales said. The Eastern Bolivian oligarchs are accused of conspiring with the U.S. and the Bolivian military is accused of “coup-mongering”.
From the Bolivian military’s perspective, the institution of the military has been humiliated by all of this, and over-run by civilians. After Chavez expelled the US ambassador, he then added a warning to the Bolivian military, saying: “Any movement by the oligarchy, the yanquis, or the army to overthrow the Bolivian government or kill Evo Morales, would give us carte blanche to intervene and support any armed movement to restore the people in power”. But Bolivia’s military command said emphatically it would not allow any foreign intervention on their soil.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said this week that Bolivia has displayed an “inability to communicate effectively and internationally in order to build international support”. The charges leveled against the US government and its ambassadors, he said, are false.