This article first appeared in the January/February 2011 edition of NACLA Report on the Americas.
On December 13, 2010, Luis Núñez, president of a civic committee from the lowland eastern city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, presented a petition with more than a million signatures to the Organization of American States in Washington. The petition denounces and calls for an international investigation into human rights violations allegedly committed by the government of Bolivian president Evo Morales against 10 civic leaders from six of the country’s departments (states).
The list of victims named in the document reads like a who’s-who of the right-wing Bolivian opposition: Branko Marinkovic, Mario Bruno, and Guido Nayar, all former civic leaders from the department of Santa Cruz; Ana Melena de Suzuki, Ricardo Shimokawa, and Everto Mayna, influential figures from Pando; Jhon Caba of Chuquisaca; civic leaders Patricia Galarza Ale and Alan Echart of Tarija; and Alberto Melgar Villarroel, the president of a civic committee in Beni. All have been accused of conspiring to overthrow the Morales administration, and they now claim that the government’s legal proceedings against them amount to a violation of their rights to “liberty, life, and dignity.”1
Threatened by new forms of indigenous and populist power, agrarian elites and their leaders in the political sphere have regrouped after a series of setbacks since Morales was first elected in 2005. They are now working within the realm of “popular citizenship,” joining forces across regional bounds to demand territorial “autonomy” and decentralized governance to maintain control over the resource wealth in their departments. The new legalistic, human rights frame provides a powerful and distinctive platform for rightists who feel underrepresented and marginalized in the new “plurinational” state, as Bolivia has been redefined under its new constitution, ratified by popular vote in 2009. This strategic shift once again places rightists center stage in Bolivian politics.
The OAS petition is only the latest in a series of tactics that civic leaders have employed, having previously pulled from leftist protest traditions by staging cultural shows, sit-ins, hunger strikes, and building occupations. Moreover, the Bolivian right’s “democratic” turn sharply contrasts with the violence it unleashed in 2008. When Morales achieved an impressive victory that year in a recall referendum—winning more than 67% of the vote, far exceeding the absolute majority of 54% he garnered in the 2005 presidential election—eastern elites launched a series of counter-attacks to seize regional militia power. They occupied central government buildings, including the tax office, the Agricultural Reform offices, and the national telecommunications company. They set fire to the offices of NGOs that promote indigenous rights and provide legal assistance to leftist movements like the Landless Peasant Movement (MST).
This golpe civico, or “civic coup”—a phrase coined by Morales to describe the right-wing destabilization campaign—also resulted in the seizure of a local airport and roadblocks cutting off the critical highways linking Santa Cruz to the rest of the country. The civic leaders’ shock troops in the Cruceño Youth Union (UJC), a militant, neofascist group based in Santa Cruz, roamed the streets of the departmental capital attacking members of local social movements and organizations aligned with the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Morales’s political party. These rightist tactics travel across national borders and through time and space, as the national police force in Ecuador attempted similar protest strategies of roadblocks and civil disorder this past fall to spectacularly illustrate their discontent with the administration of Rafael Correa for cutting their benefits.
In its bid to weaken the Morales government, the opposition borrowed tactics from the CIA-backed coup of the democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. As in Chile, the business elites launched civic strikes, refused to ship agricultural products (disproportionately produced in the lowland regions) to urban markets in the western Andean departments, while selling products on the black market at higher prices. Attempting to control regional space through the flow of commodities on the free market, the Confederation of Private Businesses of Bolivia in 2008 called for producers to shut down if the national government refused to comply with their demands.2
The United States was directly and indirectly involved in orchestrating this rebellion, which emboldened politicians in the region. Just as in recent right-wing coups in Latin America—from the 2002 coup attempt against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez to the 2009 Honduran coup against President Manuel Zelaya—the United States had been fomenting tension and supporting elite projects in “targeted areas,” where new forms of governance pose a threat to free-market capitalism. USAID documents indicate that the Office of Transition Initiatives funded 116 grants totaling almost $4.5 million to enable departmental or regional governments “to operate more strategically” in Bolivia.3 These grants financed a number of the spectacular and festive events that led up to the destabilization campaign, such as the rally against the proposed constitution attended by about a million people at the Christ the Redeemer statue in Santa Cruz. Signs at the rally bearing slogans like “Autonomy = Democracy” abounded, as did U.S. flags, underlining the relationship between the United States and the rebels.
Following these events, the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, flew to Santa Cruz to meet with Governor Rubén Costa, one of the leaders of the autonomy movement and a primary antagonist of Morales. Immediately after the meeting, Costas ordered an “official” takeover of national government offices in the region. It is therefore reasonably clear that Goldberg signaled U.S. approval for such actions. For this reason, Morales expelled Goldberg on September 10, 2008, declaring him persona non grata for having “conspired against democracy and Bolivia.” Goldberg’s expulsion sparked right-wing violence on the following day, September 11, the 35th anniversary of the overthrow of Allende. This conjuncture of dates and events created a powerful symbolic political connection between Allende’s Chile and Morales’s Bolivia. Shortly thereafter, in the department of Pando, another lowland agro-industrial center where civic elites are aligned with Santa Cruz, paramilitary autonomistas armed with machine guns attacked pro-Morales indigenous organizers near the departmental capital city of Cobija.
The confrontation escalated and resulted in 13 deaths and hundreds of wounded. When these wounded peasants were later transported to hospitals for treatment, autonomistas intercepted the ambulances, pulled out the wounded people, and dragged them into the main plaza of Cobija, where they were publicly tortured with barbed wire.4 The next day, Morales declared a state of siege in Pando and mobilized the army to reclaim the airport, which had been occupied by the regional elites. Army units were also sent to the areas where natural gas pipelines had been seized by autonomistas attempting to cut off the flow of gas to Brazil and Argentina—a crucial source of capital for the Bolivian state. Soon after the Pando massacre, Morales won the 2009 reelection with a record 64% of the vote, and the new constitution was ratified by popular referendum with more than 60% that same year. The Bolivian right, in this moment of victory, appeared to have been defeated.
However, despite their defeat, the right remains a powerful threat to Bolivian democratic movements. It has had extraordinary resilience, in great part traced to its capacity to reunite and reinvent new and increasingly effective formations. The regionalist civic movement is restrategizing, gaining inspiration from the post-Obama U.S. right, and these international dynamics will likely embolden new forms of right-wing populist power in the next decade. The strategies and tactics of manipulative historical and cultural reclamation, like the occupation of government buildings and assertion of regional control, are being replaced by tropes of “popular participation” that work within the democratic realm to once again destabilize the Morales administration. This time, instead of civil disobedience and brute force, the destabilization campaign works through democratic and popular participation. Interviewed in June, Sarita Muñoz of the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee declared:
“It would be a brilliant decision on the part of MAS to reject the 1 million signatures, because it would show the world that [Morales] is an impostor. If he acts with a little bit of intelligence, he will go with the million signatures and the 14,000 booklets and hand them to the UN. He would say to the UN, ‘We Bolivians want you to help us. We want you to cooperate with us in order to resolve these problems of impunity.’ ”
Although sieges of agro-industrial centers and spectacular forms of violence against Morales supporters might be one side of the coin, democratic and legal frames of “civic participation,” which could lead to new kinds of coups in the 21st century, are the flip side. These legalistic battles have the power and capacity, like spectacular cultural performances, to reshape stories and erase long histories of elite-backed violence against indigenous peoples. As the right regroups, these democratic manipulations will prove ever more dangerous and difficult to confront, as much of their organizing will take place on a global stage, far from the city centers of Santa Cruz. Understanding these “new benign and democratic” strategies will be an important task in the years to come, as the new nodes of rightist networking taking shape across borders—posing a great threat to the fragile left-leaning governments in the region.
Nicole Fabricant is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Towson University.
1. El Deber (Santa Cruz, Bolivia), “Luis Núñez denuncia en la OEA violación de derechos de cívicos,” December 27, 2010.
2. Roger Burbach “How Bush Tried to Bring Down Morales: Orchestrating a Civic Coup,” Counterpunch.org, November 18, 2008.
3. “An Open Letter to the US State Department Regarding Recent Violence in Bolivia,” nacla.org, September 22, 2008.
4. Bret Gustafson, “9/11: Bodies and Power on a Feudal Frontier,” Caterwaul Quarterly 2 (spring–summer 2009), caterwaulquarterly.com/node/85.