Bolivia: Reform and Reaction in the Hemisphere

Nowhere in the hemisphere have recent political tensions between progressive and reactionary forces been sharper than in Bolivia. The country has become a flashpoint for international contests over natural-resource exploitation and revenue, constitutional reform, and U.S. influence in Latin America.

Seemin Qayum and Sinclair Thomson

Nowhere in the hemisphere have recent political tensions between progressive and reactionary forces been sharper than in Bolivia. The country has become a flashpoint for international contests over natural-resource exploitation and revenue, constitutional reform, and U.S. influence in Latin America.

Evo Morales’s presidency was tested in a national recall referendum on August 10 in which the electorate was asked to ratify the process of change under his leadership. Morales achieved an impressive victory, winning more than 67% of the vote and far exceeding the absolute majority (54%) he garnered in the 2005 presidential election. His support grew even in the eastern lowlands, where departmental prefects (state governors) lead the right-wing opposition to his Movement to Socialism (MAS) government.

The opposition wasted little time in reacting. Its immediate objectives: to offset the electoral triumph, to show the MAS to be incapable of governing, and to force a military intervention with civilian bloodshed. Attempting to provoke the mano dura (iron fist), it sought to prove its claims that the MAS is a “totalitarian dictatorship.” Its medium-term objective: to derail the national referendum on a progressive new constitution called for originally by the social movements and approved by the Constituent Assembly in February.

Armed youth gangs went on a rampage in the lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando. They burned down or occupied some 50 government offices, seized police and military officials, blew up a vital gas pipeline to Brazil, and stoked a climate of fear. On September 11, a paramilitary band apparently answering to Leopoldo Fernández, prefect of Pando, shot and killed at least 18 peasant MAS supporters. Morales called the campaign of violence and destabilization a “civil coup,” and the date of the massacre stirred up dark memories on the 35th anniversary of Salvador Allende’s overthrow.

Morales expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg on September 10, accusing him of backing opposition forces. Venezuela and Honduras followed suit, and the United States retaliated with expulsions of Bolivian and Venezuelan diplomats in Washington. Days later, and for the first time ever, the United States placed Bolivia on the blacklist of countries, including Venezuela and Burma, that refuse to cooperate in the “war on drugs.” This despite Bolivia having seized more than 20 tons of cocaine so far this year, far beyond the annual amounts recorded under previous administrations.

Within the Beltway, Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden warned of a “move to autocracy” and “de-democratization” in Latin America, alluding to Hugo Chávez and his allies. The Washington Post held Morales and his “authoritarian socialism” responsible for the recent political unrest in Bolivia. For his part, Morales declared: “It is the ambassador of the United States who conspires against democracy and seeks to divide Bolivia.”

Washington is still dressed in the outworn habits of the hegemon, and the mainstream U.S. media echo passé Cold War rhetoric. Meanwhile, the most constructive response came from within Latin America. On September 15 an emergency session of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) declared its unanimous support for the democratically elected Bolivian government and condemned the opposition’s destabilizing tactics. UNASUR later sent high-level officials to monitor the talks between the government and the opposition and created a task force to investigate the Pando violence.

The Bolivian government is counting on international pressure and popular support for Morales to bring the right to the bargaining table for a new constitutional compromise. Given the deep roots of the racist violence and regional conflict, the prospects for reconciliation remain doubtful as we go to press. Right-wing elites are unlikely to approve national state control over natural resources, redistribution of state revenues to benefit marginalized Bolivians, and broader political participation for the indigenous majority. Yet the popular forces that brought Morales to power—in waves of insurgency and at the ballot box—are unlikely to settle for less.

—October 2008

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After the November/December edition of the NACLA Report went to press, political developments in Bolivia continued to unfold rapidly and with unexpected results. In the aftermath of the Pando massacre, talks in Cochabamba in late September between the MAS government and the opposition prefects made more progress than any previous round of negotiations. These talks set the stage for Congress to revise the draft constitution approved by the Constituent Assembly in December 2007, with more than a quarter of its articles rewritten to achieve a consensus between the MAS and the opposition parties. On October 21, Congress ratified a national referendum on the new constitutional document to be held on January 25.

A major concession by the MAS, and an important gain for lowland elites, limits agrarian reform. The new constitution would still make large-scale landed property (the latifundio) illegal, but would not apply retroactively to already existing estates. The final concession by the MAS—which the government and opposition fought over until the last minute—is Morales’s reelection. He can run again in the elections now scheduled for December 2009, but if victorious, would be ineligible to seek another term in 2014.

Who benefits from this unexpected settlement? If a historic new charter is established during its government, the MAS will claim it has fulfilled the popular mandate—set by social movements during the insurrection of October 2003—for a constitutional “refounding” of the country. Some radical Indianist voices and the Bolivian Workers Central (the trade-union umbrella COB) denounced the MAS concessions as a betrayal of indigenous and popular interests. Yet the bulk of the social movements, which converged on La Paz en masse to pressure Congress into ratifying the referendum, celebrated the outcome as a popular victory. This constitutional agreement, in the end, grants the MAS a legitimacy that the right had sought to prevent at all cost.

Although the opposition was forced into the agreement, the proposed constitution does not threaten dominant class interests (especially agrarian property) and it legalizes departmental autonomy, which the right has fought for aggressively in recent years. The right, in other words, has been able to fend off potential challenges and to consolidate long-standing demands of its own.

If the antagonistic forces in the country were unable to achieve a constitutional agreement for more than two years, what explains the breakthrough now? The willingness of the MAS to compromise in order to reach a settlement certainly made it possible. Building pressure from the social movements also contributed to the outcome. But the opposition had consistently undermined such negotiations in the past. The decisive factor in forcing the opposition into a settlement was international intervention. The right-wing campaign of violence in the lowlands—video uploaded to YouTube showed images of peasants in Pando fleeing under gunfire into the Tahuamanu river—triggered widespread domestic as well as international repudiation. International observers, including the Organization of American States, UNASUR, and the European Union, oversaw the Cochabamba negotiations and monitored those in Congress, thereby preventing the opposition, now on the defensive, from scuttling the dialogue. Meanwhile the United States—the right-wing opposition’s only source of backing—once again found itself politically isolated in the new hemispheric context.


Seemin Qayum is a member of the NACLA editorial committee, a scholar of Bolivia, and co-author, with Raka Ray, of Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India (forthcoming, Stanford University Press). Sinclair Thomson teaches Latin American history at New York University and is co-author, with Forrest Hylton, of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007).="right">
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