[News] Polarizing Bolivia

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri May 9 11:41:37 EDT 2008

May 9, 2008

Santa Cruz Votes for Autonomy

Polarizing Bolivia


A vote for autonomy in Santa Cruz, Bolivia was 
passed by approximately 82% of voters on Sunday, 
May 4th. The vote endorses a move by Santa Cruz 
to, among other things, gain more control of gas 
reserves in the area and resist the central 
government’s break up of large land holdings. 
Clashes during the vote in Santa Cruz left 35 
injured. One man died from asphyxiation due to 
tear gas fired by police forces. The vote and 
conflict marks a new phase in the polarization of 
Bolivia, and a new challenge for the region.

However, various aspects of the autonomy vote 
weaken its legitimacy. The Bolivian Electoral 
Court, the Organization of American States, the 
European Union, Bolivian President Evo Morales 
and other South American leaders have stated that 
the vote is illegal. The national average for 
voter abstention in Bolivian elections is 20-22%. 
In the Santa Cruz referendum on May 4th, the rate 
of abstention was 39%. This abstention percentage 
added to the number of "No" votes means that at 
least 50% of Santa Cruz voters did not support 
the autonomy statute, according to 
The organizers of the vote in Santa Cruz hired a 
private firm to count and collect the votes, and 
voters reported widespread fraud and intimidation 
across the department. In some cases, ballot 
boxes arrived in neighborhoods with the "Yes" 
ballot already marked. (For an extensive report 
with interviews and photos on the vote and 
conflict in Santa Cruz, see 
"<http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1270/1/>Santa Cruz Divided.")

The Santa Cruz autonomy movement’s architects and 
leaders are right wing politicians, wealthy 
business owners and large landholders. The 
autonomy statute voted on calls for increased 
departmental control of land, water and gas. This 
would potentially block Morales’ plans to break 
up large land holdings and redistribute that land 
to small farmers. The application of the autonomy 
statute would also mean a redirection of gas 
wealth from the central government to the Santa 
Cruz government. Such a move would run counter to 
the new draft of the constitution passed in 
December of 2007, which states that the Bolivian 
people are the owners of the nation’s natural 
resources, and that those resources should be 
managed under largely state control. This draft 
constitution is set to be voted on in a referendum sometime this year.

Morales announced a partial nationalization of 
gas reserves in Bolivia on May 1st of 2006. The 
subsequent renegotiated contracts have led to $2 
billion a year in government revenues, an 
increase from $180 million in 2005, according to 
IPS journalist and political analyst 
<http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=42220>Franz Chavez.

This revenue for the Morales administration could 
be put at risk, particularly if autonomy 
referendums in the departments of Beni, Pando and 
Tarija pass in the coming weeks. Tarija is a 
department producing approximately 80% of 
Bolivian gas. Autonomy for these four departments 
is to include the ability to sign new gas 
exportation contracts with foreign entities. 
However, Brazil and Argentina, two of the biggest 
importers of Bolivian gas, continue to support 
the Morales government and do not officially 
recognize the autonomy referendums. This would 
likely cut off pro-autonomy departments from 
negotiating new gas exportation deals.

In addition to economic powerhouses such as 
Argentina and Brazil, the leaders of Venezuela 
and Ecuador have also come out against the 
autonomy vote in Santa Cruz. Rafael Correa, the 
president of Ecuador commented on the autonomy 
movement in his weekly radio program: "This is 
not just Bolivia's problem, and we aren't going 
to allow it. Nobody is going to recognize this 
illegal referendum. It's a strategy to 
destabilize progressive governments in the region."

The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas 
(ALBA), a coalition of progressive governments in 
Latin America, made a declaration 
that the countries in ALBA "reject the 
destabilization plans that aim to attack the 
peace and unity of Bolivia". It stated that ALBA 
nations would not recognize "any juridical figure 
that aims to break away from the Bolivian 
national state and violates the territorial 
integrity of Bolivia". This support is important 
for Morales, as it shows he is not alone in the 
region and has backing from major nations in 
negotiating with the Santa Cruz autonomy movement.

In the current draft of the Bolivian 
constitution, passed in the constituent assembly 
in December 2007, stipulations do exist for 
various forms of autonomy and decentralization to 
develop for departments as well as indigenous 
groups. Bolivian Foreign Minister David 
"We’re not against autonomies, but rather support 
constitutional, legal autonomies that strengthen 
the country’s unity. In Bolivia there’s an 
attempt to use a legitimate and democratic 
instrument as voting for an anti democratic, anti constitutional objective."

President Morales and other leaders and analysts 
in the region have denounced US interference in 
Bolivian affairs, stating that Washington is 
supporting the autonomy movement in Santa Cruz 
through USAID funding and the National Endowment 
for Democracy. (See 
Bolivia" for more information on this 
intervention.) Thomas Shannon, the US State 
Department’s top Latin American diplomat 
in an interview with the Madrid newspaper El 
Pais: "We are committed to the territorial unity 
of all the countries of the region
 At the same 
time we are in favor of the expression in a 
democratic manner of the interests of the different groups and sectors."

Meanwhile, the Morales government is moving ahead 
with planned changes. On May 1st of this year the 
government took over the Italian-owned Entel 
company, the largest telephone company in 
Bolivia. The government had accused the company 
of failing to expand their phone network 
sufficiently. At the same time, Morales announced 
a $6.3 million deal with Repsol, a Spanish oil 
company. During a May 1st speech, Morales 
"we are consolidating the energy nationalization. 
The Bolivian state has 50 percent plus one share 
of the capitalist, or so-called capitalist, companies."

In spite of the opposition in Santa Cruz, Morales 
support throughout the country remains strong. A 
poll conducted in Bolivia on May 5th by 
Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado indicated that Morales 
has a 54% approval rating, down just 2% from March.

Though the goals of the autonomy movement may not 
be realized for some time, the May 4th vote 
increases tensions in an already polarized 
nation. Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia 
Linera suggests this conflict is a part of the 
historic changes that Bolivia has been going 
through since the election of Morales.

"What‘s interesting is how important the struggle 
for identity has become ­ the importance of 
asking ‘Who are we?‘ to place ourselves in the 
world," Linera explained to the 
Press. "The crisis unites us," he said. "Today 
the elite have to think, ‘What do I have in common with my maid?‘"

Benjamin Dangl is the author of 
Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements 
in Bolivia," (AK Press). He is an editor at 
UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and 
politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, 
a progressive perspective on world events. Email bendangl(at)gmail.com

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