Bolivia: Morales Confronts the Insurrection

Mark mark at
Tue Sep 16 14:38:47 BST 2008

*Bolivia and the Echoes of Allende * *Morales Confronts the Insurrection *


As Bolivia teeters on the brink of civil war, President Evo Morales
staunchly maintains his commitment to constructing a popular democracy by
working within the state institutions that brought him to power. The show
down with the right wing is taking place against the backdrop of the
thirty-fifth anniversary of the overthrow of Salvador Allende, the heroic if
tragic president of Chile who believed that the formal democratic state he
inherited could be peacefully transformed to usher in a socialist society.

Like Allende, Morales faces a powerful economic and political elite aligned
with the United States that is bent on reversing the limited reforms he has
been able to implement during his nearly three years in power. Early on,
Morales--Bolivia's first indigenous president--moved assertively to exert
greater control over the natural gas and oil resources of the country,
sharply increasing the hydro-carbon tax, and then using a large portion of
this revenue to provide a universal pension to all those over sixty years
old, most of whom live in poverty and are indigenous.

The self-proclaimed Civic Committees in Media Luna (Half Moon) - Bolivia's
four eastern departments - have orchestrated a rebellion against these
changes, demanding departmental autonomy and control of the hydro-carbon
revenues, as well as an end to agrarian reform and even control of the
police forces. The Santa Cruz Civic Committee, dominated by agro-industrial
interests, is supporting the CruceƱo Youth Union (UJC), an affiliated group
that acts as a para-military organization, seizing and fire bombing
government offices, and attacking Indian and peasant organizations that dare
to support the national government.

Morales' efforts to transform the institutions of the country have focused
on the popularly elected Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution.
The assembly was convened in mid 2006 with representatives from Morales'
political party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) holding 54% of the
seats. In the drafting of the new constitution, the right wing political
parties, led by Podemos (We Can), insisted that a two-thirds vote was needed
even for the working committees to approve the different sections of the
constitution. When they were overruled and a new constitution was close to
being approved in November, 2007, members of the assembly, including its
indigenous president, Silvia Lazarte, were assaulted in the streets of
Sucre, the old nineteenth century capital where the assembly was being held.

Using words that evoked Allende's last stand in the Chilean presidential
palace, Evo Morales declared "dead or alive, I will have a new constitution
for the country." He quartered the assembly in an old castle under military
protection where it adopted a constitution that has to be approved in a
national referendum. Labeling Morales a "dictator," the civic committees and
the departmental prefects (governors) of Media Luna were able to stall the
vote on the referendum, and instead organized departmental referendums for
autonomy in May of this year that were ruled unconstitutional by the
National Electoral Council.

Taking recourse in democracy rather than force, and searching for a national
consensus, Morales then held up the vote on the new constitution, and
instead put his presidency on the line in a recall referendum in which his
mandate as well as that of the prefects of the departments could be revoked.
On August 10, voters went to the polls and Morales won a resounding 67% of
the vote, receiving a majority of the ballots in 95 of the country's 112
districts with even the Media Luna department of Pando voting in his

However, the insurgent prefects also had their mandates renewed. Based on
the illegal, departmental plebiscites held in May, they moved to take
control of Santa Cruz, the richest department. UJC shock troops roamed the
streets of the city and surrounding towns, attacking and repressing any
opposition by local indigenous movements and MAS-allied forces. Not wanting
to provoke an outright rebellion, Evo Morales did not deploy the army or use
the local police, leaving the urban area under the effective control of the

Simultaneously, the right wing--led by the Santa Cruz Civic Committee--began
sewing economic instability, seeking to destabilize the Morales government
much like the CIA-backed opposition did in Chile against Salvador Allende in
the early 1970s. As in Chile, the rural business elites and allied truckers
engaged in "strikes," withholding or refusing to ship produce to the urban
markets in the western Andes where the Indian population is concentrated,
while selling commodities on the black market at high prices. The
Confederation of Private Businesses of Bolivia called for a national
producers' shutdown if the government refused "to change its economic

The social movements allied with the government have mobilized against this
right wing offensive. In the Media Luna, a union coalition of indigenous
peoples and peasants campaigned against voting in the autonomy referendums,
and have taken on the bands of the UJC as they try to intimidate and
terrorize people. In the Andean highlands, the social movements descended on
the capital La Paz in demonstrations backing the Morales' government,
including a large mobilization in June that stormed the American embassy
because of its support for the right wing. In July, the federation of coca
growers in the Chapare, where US anti-drug operations are centered, expelled
the US Agency for International Development.

This past week the Civic Committees stepped up their efforts to take control
of the Media Luna departments. In Santa Cruz on September 8, crowds of youth
lead by the UJC seized government offices, including the land reform office,
the tax office, state TV studios, the nationalized telephone company Entel,
and set fire to the offices of a non-governmental human rights organization
that promotes indigenous rights and provides legal advice. The military
police, who had been dispatched to protect many of these offices, were
forced to retreat, at times experiencing bloody blows that they were
forbidden from responding to due to standing orders from La Paz not to use
their weapons. The commanding general of the military police, while angrily
denouncing the violent demonstrators, said that the military could take no
action unless Evo Morales signed a degree authorizing the use of firearms.

What was in effect occurring was a struggle between Morales and the military
over who would assume ultimate responsibility for the fighting and deaths
that would ensue with a military intervention in Media Luna. The armed
forces do not support the autonomous rebellion because it threatens the
geographic integrity of the Bolivian nation. Yet they are reluctant to
intervene because under past governments, when they fired on and killed
demonstrators in the streets of La Paz, they were blamed for the bloodshed.

On September 10th, as violence intensified throughout Media Luna, Evo
Morales expelled US ambassador Philip Goldberg for "conspiring against
democracy." The month before, Goldberg had met with the prefect of Santa
Cruz, Ruben Costas, who subsequently declared himself "governor" of the
autonomous department and ordered the formal take over of government
offices - including those collecting tax revenues. Costas is the principal
leader of the rebellious prefects, and the main antagonist of Evo Morales.

September 11th, the 35th anniversary of the coup against Allende, was the
bloodiest day in the escalating conflict. In the Media Luna department of
Pando, a para-military band with machine guns attacked the Indian community
of El Porvenir, near the departmental capital of El Cobija, resulting in the
death of at least 28 people. In a separate action, three policemen were
kidnapped. The Red Ponchos, an official militia reserve unit of Indians
loyal to Evo Morales, mobilized its forces to help the indigenous
communities organize their self defense.

The next day Morales declared a state of siege in Pando and dispatched the
army to move on Cobija and to retake its airport that had been occupied by
right wing forces. Army units are also being sent to guard the natural gas
oleoducts, one of which had been seized by the UJC, cutting the flow of gas
to neighboring Brazil and Argentina. General Luis Trigo Antelo, the
commander in chief of the Bolivian Armed Forces declared: "We will not
tolerate any more actions by radical groups that are provoking a
confrontation among Bolivians, causing pain and suffering and threatening
the national security." In signing the order authorizing the use of force in
Pando, Morales stated that he felt responsible for the humiliation of the
military and the police by radicals and vandals because he had not
authorized them to use their weapons. This was the quid pro quo for getting
the military high command to act.

After sustained fighting with at least three dead, the army took control of
the airport and moved on the city. An order for the arrest of the prefect of
Pando was issued for refusing to recognize the state of siege and for being
responsible for the massacre in El Porvenir. In Santa Cruz, the police
arrested 8 rioters of the UJC. Peasant organizations have announced they
will march on the city to retake control of the government offices. The
dissident prefects, led by Costas, are still demanding departmental autonomy
and refusing to accept a national vote on the referendum for the new

Evo Morales refuses to back down, declaring in a meeting with supportive
union leaders, "we will launch a campaign to approve the new constitution."
He did, however, indicate he may modify the draft to accommodate some of the
demands for autonomy by the prefects. Like Allende, Morales continues to
search for a democratic solution to the crisis in his country. For the
moment, he has the backing of the Bolivian armed forces along with
overwhelming popular support, thereby avoiding the ultimate fate of the
Chilean president.

*Roger Burbach* is Director of the Center for the Study of the Americas
(CENSA) based in Berkeley, CA. He has written extensively on Latin America
and is the author of "The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global
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