Last Sunday (4th May) over 80% of the inhabitants of the Santa Cruz district of Bolivia voted in favour of autonomy in a referendum opposed by Evo Morales’s left-wing government. Many incidents of violence broke out between the pro-government indigenous population, who burnt ballot boxes and blocked roads in protest at the referendum, and the pro-autonomy white-skinned, wealthy cruceÃ±os, who attacked indigenous street vendors and sported military gear.
Santa Cruz, situated in the Eastern lowlands of the country, is the most affluent of Bolivia’s nine departments. Together with the other rich departments of Pando, Beni and Tarija, which are to hold similar autonomy votes next month, it comprises what is known as the “half moon” area of Bolivia due to the shape it forms. It seems that this “moon” of landed elites, establishment politicians, bankers and middles classes of European descent is attempting to turn the “pink tide” of left-wing indigenous movements that have swept across Latin America in recent years.
The Civic Committee of Santa Cruz (CCSC) is behind the autonomist movement. Cultural, racial, class and economic factors have contributed to its agenda. Whereas poor indigenous people form the majority of Bolivia’s population, most reside in the Western highlands of the country, whereas Santa Cruz in the lowlands has few indigenous residents. The region accounts for around 40% of the country’s export earnings and tax revenues, and is at the centre of Bolivia’s prosperous energy sector. Morales’s plans to share this wealth with the poverty-stricken indigenous populations have threatened Santa Cruz’s elites, as have plans for land reform. The big landowners claim a huge majority of cultivable land in the region, and bitterly oppose its redistribution. They also attack Morales’s plan to alter the constitution in a way that would give more power to the indigenous peoples, and thus the CCSC leaders demand the power to raise taxes, control some of Santa Cruz’s energy revenues and hold on to their giant estates.
The Morales government was catapulted to power in December 2005, when the indigenous population, tired after five centuries of foreign exploitation and stirred by memories of the Spanish conquest which saw the native inhabitants converted into impoverished slaves, mobilised itself through democratic channels and voted for Morales, himself an Aymara Indian, for President. This has been part of a larger, Latin America-wide indigenismo movement, which features the powerful voice of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez amongst many others.
Morales views the referendum as an illegal and unconstitutional “survey”, and believes that the 40% absenteeism at the polls and the ensuing violence amongst Santa Cruz residents proves its failure. Many of his supporters see the autonomy process as a manifestation of racist exclusion and a bigoted rejection of an indigenous person as President of the Republic. Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua, has called the autonomy referendum an “imperial conspiracy”, alluding to the involvement of the United States, which has a long history of violent interventions all over the continent. The United States launched a campaign of low-intensity warfare against Ortega’s Sandinista party in the 1980s, funding and training right-wing terrorists who devastated Nicaragua over a number of years. He claims the US is attempting to divide Bolivia with its own internal “instruments” because the country will not fawn over George W. Bush. The President of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, has also come out in support of Morales, arguing that the autonomy referendum “has no links to the constitutional principles” of Bolivia.
This autonomist rebellion is symbolic of the wider political fault-line embodied in the polarisation of the Bolivian population: the Western highlands versus the Eastern lowlands, the poor indigenous versus the rich landed elites and their powerful allies, the revolutionary left versus the oligarchic right. Each has a contrasting ideological and political vision of the future identity of the Bolivian nation, yet instead of debating ideas with arguments and reason, violent attacks have been launched and the proliferation of military groups on both sides is rising. If these growing tensions remain uncurbed, not only could they severely destabilize the government and lead to the secession of Santa Cruz, but they could also form a path to civil war.
The time for serious dialogue in order to curtail the confrontations and polarisations has evidently arrived. The government has invited leaders of the dissident autonomist departments to the negotiation table and indeed the vice president Ãlvaro GarcÃa Linera seems open to a compromise, stating that the autonomous projects of the departments of Tarija, Pando and Beni are less “confrontational and more reasonable” than that of Santa Cruz, and are therefore more likely to be compatible with the new constitution. However, does this mean that painful concessions will have to be made at the expense of pro-indigenous socialist goals in order to appease the elites? Will the government’s aims of land reform, wealth redistribution and the nationalisation of the energy sector away from the hands of transnational corporations continue at the hoped-for pace and level? Ensuring the maintenance of peace through negotiation could be Morales’s biggest test yet.
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This post was written by Joanna Allan