[News] US is Promoting Secession in Bolivia

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue May 6 11:28:43 EDT 2008

May 6, 2008

It's Not the First Time

U.S. is Promoting Secession in Bolivia


Having avoided any meaningful coverage of Bolivia 
since the election of Evo Morales in December, 
2005, the international media is now obliged to 
play catch up.  Yesterday, the Andean nation of 
9.1 million held a crucial vote which could pave 
the way for secession of the resource-rich Santa Cruz region.

In a challenge to Morales’ authority, more than 
80% of voters approved a referendum which would 
allow more powers for Santa Cruz, an area which 
is responsible for about 30 percent of Bolivia's 
gross domestic product while making up about a 
quarter of the country's population.  Morales, 
who rejected the autonomy vote as illegal, called 
on the opposition to engage in a dialogue with his government.

Fundamentally, the Santa Cruz imbroglio is a struggle over oil and gas.

The mixed race elite in the lowlands wants more 
local control over the resources while Morales, 
who has the support of indigenous peoples in the 
highlands, wants the wealthier eastern regions to 
contribute more to the poorer west.

Affluent leaders in Santa Cruz are particularly 
incensed by a new draft constitution which would 
limit large land holdings.  In a repudiation of 
the constitutional reforms, the people of Santa 
Cruz voted yesterday to give their region more 
control over land distribution, as well as rich oil and gas reserves.

So what happens next?

The Santa Cruz referendum has set an ominous 
precedent: three other eastern provinces, Tarija, 
Pando, and Bendi, which also possess large fields 
of crude oil and natural gas, have said they too 
will vote on greater autonomy.  If voters there 
move to repudiate the central government as well, 
it could set up a civil war scenario leading to national breakup.

The Secret Hand Behind Secession

If political tensions were not high enough, 
Morales escalated matters further when he accused 
the U.S. of backing eastern 
secessionists.  Warning that he would take 
“radical decisions” against foreign diplomats who 
become involved in Bolivian politics, Morales 
remarked “I cannot understand how some 
ambassadors dedicate themselves to politics, and 
not diplomacy, in our country. That is not called 
cooperation. That is called conspiracy."

Meanwhile, Vice President Álvaro García accused 
the U.S Embassy of financing "publications, 
trips, and seminars" to help Morales' opposition 
develop "ideological and political resistance" to the administration.

Morales has some just reason to be paranoid.  As 
I document in some detail in my current 
South America and the Rise of the New 
Left(Palgrave-Macmillan), Morales’s socialist 
agenda, coca-style nationalism and hostility to 
economic neo-liberalism has hardly succeeded in 
ingratiating himself amongst the Beltway 
elite.  The Bolivian leader’s increasingly close 
ties to Venezuela and Cuba have similarly set off 
the alarm bell for U.S. diplomats.

In an effort to rollback social and political 
change in Bolivia, the U.S has funneled millions 
of dollars to opposition groups through USAID and 
The National Endowment for Democracy.  What’s 
more, USAID explicitly supports demands of the 
right wing for greater regional autonomy in the east.

It’s not the first time, however, that the U.S. 
has sought to encourage secessionist sentiment 
within South American regions possessing rich natural resources.

Flashback: Venezuela

In 1908, the US helped to support a military coup 
d'etat in Venezuela launched by Juan Vicente 
Gómez. Gómez's primary goal was to establish a 
strong, centralized state. To achieve this, he 
would have to head off secessionist sentiment in 
the westernmost state of Zulia.

Gómez, a brutal dictator, could ill afford 
political problems in the west. Measuring 63,100 
square kilometers, with 178,388 inhabitants in 
1908, Zulia was not only large in terms of sheer 
land mass, but also economically important. When 
Gómez took power, Zulia had the most substantial 
budget of any Venezuelan state. The largest city, 
Maracaibo, had a population of about 39,000 at the turn of the century.

The discovery of vast oil deposits in Lake 
Maracaibo complicated matters somewhat for 
Gómez.  U.S. President Warren Harding attached 
singular importance to promoting the expansion of 
U.S. oil interests abroad, and the State 
Department was riddled with officials compromised by conflicts of interest.

For example, William T.S. Doyle, the resident 
manager of Shell Oil in 1919-1920, was a former 
head of the State Department's Division of Latin 
American Affairs. Jordan Stabler, another State 
Department official, went on to work for Gulf 
Oil. Francis Loomis, a powerful State Department 
official, later worked for Standard Oil.

In December 1921, Gómez received a shock when he 
was apprised of a plot for a military invasion of 
Venezuela. The plan was foiled when the Dutch 
authorities stopped a ship setting forth from 
Holland. The ship had been chartered to travel to 
Venezuela, apparently to engage in a 
"filibustering expedition." Another ship was 
prevented from setting sail from England. Both 
ships, the British Public Records Office stated, 
had been funded to the tune of $400,000 by "oil 
interests of the United States," which "had been 
pulling every possible string in order to block 
the development of the British Concessions which 
they ultimately hoped to get hold of."

Though the plot hatched by American oil interests 
never came to fruition, the growing oil presence 
was a concern for Santos Gómez, the Zulia state 
governor. In 1923, he personally wrote Gómez, 
warning his chief that oil workers could be 
subverted by enemies of the regime.

The U.S. Navy in Zulia

Officially, the later Republican administration 
of Calvin Coolidge espoused a policy of 
non-intervention in Latin American 
affairs.  Nevertheless, Gómez acted decisively to 
appoint a stronger and more competent state 
governor in Zulia, Vincencio Pérez Soto. 
According to the historian Brian McBeth, rumors 
of oil companies sponsoring Zulia secession 
concerned Gómez and convinced the dictator of the 
need to appoint a stronger man as state 
president. Clearly, the oil-rich Zulia region was 
increasingly critical. By 1928, in fact, 
Venezuela would become the leading world oil exporter.

In the 1920s, U.S. economic interests in Zulia 
grew, with American oil companies such as 
Standard Oil and Gulf joining their British 
counterparts in the Lake Maracaibo 
area.  According to the U.S. consul in Maracaibo, 
Alexander Sloan, there was widespread 
disaffection in Maracaibo against the Gómez 
government.  Sloan said that Zulia natives as 
well as Maracaibo residents "do not now and have 
not for years felt any great affection for the central government."

Meanwhile, Pérez Soto was confronted with 
unsettling news. On July 2, 1926 the USS Niagara 
arrived off the coast of Zulia. The U.S. consul 
requested that the sailors be allowed to 
celebrate the 4th of July in Venezuela. When an 
air officer attached to the Niagara requested 
permission to fly over Maracaibo in honor of July 
4th, Pérez Soto grew suspicious. Reports reached 
the governor that the real reason for the over 
flight was to take aerial photographs of the 
region. Pérez Soto barred the disembarking of the 
Niagara crew and refused to authorize the over-flight.

Writing Gómez, the governor related that the U.S. 
sought to station the Niagara in Venezuelan 
waters "as a kind of sentinel of North American 
interests in Venezuela." Pérez Soto then employed 
his intelligence to obtain detailed reports 
concerning the activities of U.S. marines from 
the Niagara on Zapara island, located in the mouth of the Maracaibo Bar.

Pérez Soto uncovered that the Niagara crew had 
mounted a wireless radio with a reach of 2,000 
miles. Pérez Soto was particularly concerned that 
powerful sectors of Maracaibo society might 
conspire with the United States to further Zulia 
secession with the aim of separating the state from the rest of Venezuela.

The Republic of Zulia

In an effort to lessen tensions with foreign 
interests, Pérez Soto assured oil company 
managers that he was "anxious to discuss their 
problems with them and to lend them any aid in 
his power." Pérez Soto sought to assert his 
authority over the oil companies through 
diplomatic and legal means. As the U.S. consul 
put it, Pérez Soto and local officials were 
determined "that conditions such as existed in 
Tampico [Mexico] are not to be tolerated here, 
and [they] have become much stricter in enforcing 
discipline and obedience to the laws." In a note 
to Gómez, Pérez Soto mused that perhaps the oil 
companies would put up with legality and 
honesty­"or maybe not, and they will try to 
undermine me," through their representatives in Caracas.

In many respects Pérez Soto had been more a more 
forceful governor than his predecessors. For 
Gómez, however, the risk was that the more 
powerful Pérez Soto became, the greater the 
possibility that the charismatic politician would 
become a rival in his own right. As Gómez 
consolidated power he faced yet further military 
unrest, and there were ample opportunities for Pérez Soto to create intrigue.

In July 1928 Col. Jose Maria Fossi, a trusted 
Gómez subordinate, turned against the dictator, 
taking the city of La Vela de Coro for a few 
hours. The military uprising, which called for 
revolutionaries to be reinforced by 300 
Venezuelan and 90 Dominican rebels working in 
Curacao, was crushed by Gómez's troops.  Fossi 
later remarked that Pérez Soto had approached him 
and offered him money in exchange for his support 
in fomenting a separatist movement. The ultimate 
aim was to form a new republic comprising the 
Venezuelan states of Zulia, Falcon, and the 
Catatumbo region of Colombia. The venture, added 
Fossi, would have the support of the oil companies in Lake Maracaibo.

While such reports must be treated cautiously, 
Colombian authorities were apparently concerned 
about a plot and Bogotá's House of Deputies met 
in secret session to discuss "moves of Yankee 
agents in the Departments of Santander and 
Goagira which sought to provoke a separatist 
movement which, united to Zulia, would form the 
Republic of Zulia."  Pérez Soto dismissed rumors 
of his involvement in Zulia secession as "treason 
against the Fatherland, and an immense dishonor." 
However, Pérez Soto's credibility was further 
damaged when correspondence reached Gómez himself 
hinting at efforts to involve Pérez Soto in Zulia 
secessionist plots. McBeth writes that "important 
oilmen with close connections with the State 
Department had enquired about the suitability of 
Pérez Soto as President of Zulia."

What is the present day relevance of all this 
history?  We must remember that the U.S. helped 
to install Gómez in the first place and sent U.S. 
gunboats to help the dictator to power in 
1908.  What’s more, Gómez himself was a solid 
anti-Communist.  And yet, powerful interests in 
the United States were still not satisfied with 
Gómez’s reactionary credentials and sought to 
intrigue against the dictator.  Given the 
history, it is hardly surprising that the U.S. 
would now encourage secessionist sentiment in 
Bolivia, a country whose President displays far 
less ideological affinity with Washington than 
Gómez during the early twentieth century.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of 
Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the 
U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and 
South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2008).

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