Monday, September 15, 2008

Bolivia and the other Sept.11

Bolivia and the Echoes of Allende
Morales Confronts the Insurrection


September 15, 2008

As Bolivia teeters on the brink of civil war, President
Evo Morales staunchly maintains his commitment to
constructing a popular democracy by working within the
state institutions that brought him to power. The show
down with the right wing is taking place against the
backdrop of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the
overthrow of Salvador Allende, the heroic if tragic
president of Chile who believed that the formal
democratic state he inherited could be peacefully
transformed to usher in a socialist society.

Like Allende, Morales faces a powerful economic and
political elite aligned with the United States that is
bent on reversing the limited reforms he has been able
to implement during his nearly three years in power.
Early on, Morales--Bolivia's first indigenous
president--moved assertively to exert greater control
over the natural gas and oil resources of the country,
sharply increasing the hydro-carbon tax, and then using
a large portion of this revenue to provide a universal
pension to all those over sixty years old, most of whom
live in poverty and are indigenous.

The self-proclaimed Civic Committees in Media Luna
(Half Moon)--Bolivia's four eastern departments--have
orchestrated a rebellion against these changes,
demanding departmental autonomy and control of the
hydro-carbon revenues, as well as an end to agrarian
reform and even control of the police forces. The Santa
Cruz Civic Committee, dominated by agro-industrial
interests, is supporting the Cruceno Youth Union (UJC),
an affiliated group that acts as a para-military
organization, seizing and fire bombing government
offices, and attacking Indian and peasant organizations
that dare to support the national government.

Morales' efforts to transform the institutions of the
country have focused on the popularly elected
Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. The
assembly was convened in mid 2006 with representatives
from Morales' political party, the Movement Towards
Socialism (MAS) holding 54 percent of the seats. In the
drafting of the new constitution, the right wing
political parties, led by Podemos (We Can), insisted
that a two-thirds vote was needed even for the working
committees to approve the different sections of the
constitution. When they were overruled and a new
constitution was close to being approved in November,
2007, members of the assembly, including its indigenous
president, Silvia Lazarte, were assaulted in the
streets of Sucre, the old nineteenth century capital
where the assembly was being held.

Using words that evoked Allende's last stand in the
Chilean presidential palace, Evo Morales declared "dead
or alive, I will have a new constitution for the
country." He quartered the assembly in an old castle
under military protection where it adopted a
constitution that has to be approved in a national
referendum. Labeling Morales a "dictator," the civic
committees and the departmental prefects (governors) of
Media Luna were able to stall the vote on the
referendum, and instead organized departmental
referendums for autonomy in May of this year that were
ruled unconstitutional by the National Electoral

Taking recourse in democracy rather than force, and
searching for a national consensus, Morales then held
up the vote on the new constitution, and instead put
his presidency on the line in a recall referendum in
which his mandate as well as that of the prefects of
the departments could be revoked. On August 10, voters
went to the polls and Morales won a resounding 67
percent of the vote, receiving a majority of the
ballots in 95 of the country's 112 districts with even
the Media Luna department of Pando voting in his favor.

However, the insurgent prefects also had their mandates
renewed. Based on the illegal, departmental plebiscites
held in May, they moved to take control of Santa Cruz,
the richest department. UJC shock troops roamed the
streets of the city and surrounding towns, attacking
and repressing any opposition by local indigenous
movements and MAS-allied forces. Not wanting to provoke
an outright rebellion, Evo Morales did not deploy the
army or use the local police, leaving the urban area
under the effective control of the UJC.

Simultaneously, the right wing--led by the Santa Cruz
Civic Committee--began sewing economic instability,
seeking to destabilize the Morales government much like
the CIA-backed opposition did in Chile against Salvador
Allende in the early 1970s. As in Chile, the rural
business elites and allied truckers engaged in
"strikes," withholding or refusing to ship produce to
the urban markets in the western Andes where the Indian
population is concentrated, while selling commodities
on the black market at high prices. The Confederation
of Private Businesses of Bolivia called for a national
producers' shutdown if the government refused "to
change its economic policies."

The social movements allied with the government have
mobilized against this right wing offensive. In the
Media Luna, a union coalition of indigenous peoples and
peasants campaigned against voting in the autonomy
referendums, and have taken on the bands of the UJC as
they try to intimidate and terrorize people. In the
Andean highlands, the social movements descended on the
capital La Paz in demonstrations backing the Morales'
government, including a large mobilization in June that
stormed the American embassy because of its support for
the right wing. In July, the federation of coca growers
in the Chapare, where US anti-drug operations are
centered, expelled the US Agency for International

This past week the Civic Committees stepped up their
efforts to take control of the Media Luna departments.
In Santa Cruz on September 8, crowds of youth lead by
the UJC seized government offices, including the land
reform office, the tax office, state TV studios, the
nationalized telephone company Entel, and set fire to
the offices of a non-governmental human rights
organization that promotes indigenous rights and
provides legal advice. The military police, who had
been dispatched to protect many of these offices, were
forced to retreat, at times experiencing bloody blows
that they were forbidden from responding to due to
standing orders from La Paz not to use their weapons.
The commanding general of the military police, while
angrily denouncing the violent demonstrators, said that
the military could take no action unless Evo Morales
signed a degree authorizing the use of firearms.

What was in effect occurring was a struggle between
Morales and the military over who would assume ultimate
responsibility for the fighting and deaths that would
ensue with a military intervention in Media Luna. The
armed forces do not support the autonomous rebellion
because it threatens the geographic integrity of the
Bolivian nation. Yet they are reluctant to intervene
because under past governments, when they fired on and
killed demonstrators in the streets of La Paz, they
were blamed for the bloodshed.

On September 10, as violence intensified throughout
Media Luna, Evo Morales expelled US ambassador Philip
Goldberg for "conspiring against democracy." The month
before, Goldberg had met with the prefect of Santa
Cruz, Ruben Costas, who subsequently declared himself
"governor" of the autonomous department and ordered the
formal take over of government offices--including those
collecting tax revenues. Costas is the principal leader
of the rebellious prefects, and the main antagonist of
Evo Morales.

September 11, the 35th anniversary of the coup against
Allende, was the bloodiest day in the escalating
conflict. In the Media Luna department of Pando, a
para-military band with machine guns attacked the
Indian community of El Porvenir, near the departmental
capital of El Cobija, resulting in the death of at
least 28 people. In a separate action, three policemen
were kidnapped. The Red Ponchos, an official militia
reserve unit of Indians loyal to Evo Morales, mobilized
its forces to help the indigenous communities organize
their self defense.

The next day Morales declared a state of siege in Pando
and dispatched the army to move on Cobija and to retake
its airport that had been occupied by right wing
forces. Army units are also being sent to guard the
natural gas oleoducts, one of which had been seized by
the UJC, cutting the flow of gas to neighboring Brazil
and Argentina. General Luis Trigo Antelo, the commander
in chief of the Bolivian Armed Forces declared: "We
will not tolerate any more actions by radical groups
that are provoking a confrontation among Bolivians,
causing pain and suffering and threatening the national
security." In signing the order authorizing the use of
force in Pando, Morales stated that he felt responsible
for the humiliation of the military and the police by
radicals and vandals because he had not authorized them
to use their weapons. This was the quid pro quo for
getting the military high command to act.

After sustained fighting with at least three dead, the
army took control of the airport and moved on the city.
An order for the arrest of the prefect of Pando was
issued for refusing to recognize the state of siege and
for being responsible for the massacre in El Porvenir.
In Santa Cruz, the police arrested 8 rioters of the
UJC. Peasant organizations have announced they will
march on the city to retake control of the government
offices. The dissident prefects, led by Costas, are
still demanding departmental autonomy and refusing to
accept a national vote on the referendum for the new

Evo Morales refuses to back down, declaring in a
meeting with supportive union leaders, "we will launch
a campaign to approve the new constitution." He did,
however, indicate he may modify the draft to
accommodate some of the demands for autonomy by the
prefects. Like Allende, Morales continues to search for
a democratic solution to the crisis in his country. For
the moment, he has the backing of the Bolivian armed
forces along with overwhelming popular support, thereby
avoiding the ultimate fate of the Chilean president.

Roger Burbach is Director of the Center for the Study
of the Americas (CENSA) based in Berkeley, CA. He has
written extensively on Latin America and is the author
of "The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global

1 comment:

peace said...

This is amazing. I avidly watch the news and read the newspaper, but have not heard of these happenings until now. It is amazing that our media and government can hand pick injustices to fight and ignore the ones in its own territories (the Americas) or subvertly aid and abet the criminals. This is an outcry on humanity. There should be world wide support for the Bolivian people and Morales efforts to obtain democracy and the constitution for Bolivia. We must stop selectively choosing which peoples are entitled to humanity and which are not. All of us are God's people and deserve to live without this type of corruption.