Bolivia: Reform and Reaction in the Hemisphere

October 31, 2008

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.

For an update on this story, click here.

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).

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