Bolivia's Separatist Movement

September 25, 2007

“What we should do is simply and smoothly separate ourselves [from Bolivia].” One might assume these words were spoken by a radical Aymara indigenista, but they were actually uttered by the powerful right-wing leader of a business association in the eastern city of Santa Cruz. The statement is representative of a growing social movement with interests that are diametrically opposed to those of the powerful indigenous-based popular movements.

Right-wing civic and business groups from the media luna region, which is the crescent or “half-moon” shaped region comprising the northern, eastern and southern lowlands of the country, are at the forefront of this drive to challenge the indigenous movements’ supremacy as the nation’s most influential political force.

The long-standing tension between the two forces—based in two separate regions—ignited over last year’s referendum on the fate of the nation’s gas reserves. Indigenous groups from the altiplano (highlands) continue to demand the unequivocal nationalization of the reserves, while media luna groups believe they stand to benefit from the continued exportation of gas by a handful of multinational corporations. The ongoing controversy has radical groups from the resource-rich media luna calling for the creation of a nation independent from the impoverished western highlands.

These well-heeled civic and business groups use a racist and regionally chauvinistic discourse, saying the future of the gas reserves should not be held hostage by what they see as extremist and obstructionist indigenous movements. Some analysts now openly discuss the possibility of a two-state solution or, worse yet, a civil war.

Alvaro García Linera, a prominent Bolivian university professor, tells me President Carlos Mesa is trying to defuse the situation by building support for a more moderate position between the two poles. “If he fails and doesn’t channel popular discontent by stabilizing the country, then the poles will amass power,” says García. “And this would open the possibility of a civil war to mediate the clash between the poles.”

The cleavage between the two regions runs deeper than the gas controversy. The cultural identity and ethnic makeup of the regions differ dramatically. The altiplano is primarily indigenous—Aymara and Quechua—while the media luna has a much larger mestizo population. Economically, the altiplano is geared towards domestic markets, yet the resource-rich media luna is export-oriented. “They are two national projects,” says García, “and this is what’s defining Bolivia’s political trajectory at the moment.”

The most public face of the regional autonomy movement is the 40,000 member-strong Movimiento Nación Camba de Liberación (Movement for the Liberation of the Camba Nation). The group’s name is derived from the proposed breakaway country that would potentially encompass more than two-thirds of the national territory. According to the group’s Web site, this part of the country “constitutes ‘the other vision’ of Bolivia and this movement aspires to achieve the radical autonomy of this oppressed nation.”

It describes Bolivia as “a miserable and backwards country … that decrees a system of state-centralized colonialism, which exploits its ‘internal colonies,’ appropriating our economic resources.” Nación Camba consistently vilifies the federal government, arguing that federal institutions are overly beholden to altiplano indigenous groups. It calls the national police, for example, an “army of occupation,” because its recruits have an “ethno-cultural affinity to the Aymara masses.”

Although the organization describes itself as nonviolent, the orientation of some of its subgroups leads many observers to doubt its nonviolent underpinnings. The movement’s most combative arm is its Youth Brigade. During the October 2003 so-called “gas war,” the Youth Brigade in Santa Cruz along with another militant separatist youth group violently repelled an approaching march of mostly indigenous protestors from entering the city.
Because Nación Camba’s proposed separation from Bolivia is presented as a vehicle for greater economic independence and prosperity, the group has found a powerful ally in the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CAINCO). It was CAINCO president Zvonko Matkovic who proposed “simply and smoothly” seceding from the nation.

CAINCO represents about 1,500 companies operating in the region, and according to its mission statement, it “serves to protect and defend the interest of its member companies,” among them, international oil companies.

CAINCO enjoys generous funding from local and international organizations. According to documents obtained from the U.S. government under the Freedom of Information Act by investigative journalist Jeremy Bigwood, CAINCO receives funds from the congressionally funded U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Its first ever NED grant, totaling $128,285, came almost three months before the July 18, 2004, gas referendum. The stated purpose of the grant is to research and advocate for the modification of the federal law on “Contracts of Goods, Labor, General Services and Consulting,” which sets the rules for purchases, bids and contracts—gas exploration and exportation contracts, for instance.

The NED grant, among other things, is therefore helping CAINCO pave the way for private companies to obtain favorable government contracts and invest in the exploration and exportation of the region’s natural gas.
Clearly, the gas issue has become one of the most contentious issues facing Bolivia. But the fallout from the gas war along with other recent and similar upheavals has forced a nationwide evaluation of the gamut of neoliberal policies imposed in recent decades.

The majority of groups in the altiplano, the region most devastated by these policies, wholly reject the neoliberal model. Groups like CAINCO and Nación Camba—along with its offshoots—have recently gained prominence because they are directly contesting this blatant rejection. As the landed elite and captains of industry, neoliberalism continues to serve them particularly well.

As a minority elite, these groups have manipulated and exploited prevalent threads of racism and regional divisions that have long-plagued Bolivian society. Much like the U.S. conservative movement, these groups, for the most part, wage their battles with culture rather than economics, because the latter would alienate their less-affluent base.

About the Author
Teo Ballvé is a NACLA editor and a contributing news editor for the Resource Center of the Americas

Tags: Bolivia, Aymara, autonomy, elite, Santa Cruz, CAINCO

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