AFTER JEFFERY Webber finished his in-depth article for this issue of the ISR, the situation in Bolivia turned even more violent, leading to the most dangerous level of polarization between the national government and right-wing state governors since President Evo Morales took office in 2006.
As explained in the last issue of the ISR, Morales’ 70 percent approval vote in the recall referendum held last August represented a “hollow victory.” Morales hoped to use the referendum results to defeat his opponents—the governors of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, Pando, and Chuquisaca—at the negotiating table. But this was always an illusion, since the Bolivian oligarchy has no interest in negotiation.
Following the referendum, civic committees and fascist youth gangs launched a “bosses strike” aimed at crippling the Morales administration. Even before the referendum, Morales and his cabinet were unable to travel within the territories controlled by the right. Now the rebellious governors refuse to recognize central government authority in their regions and ratified their own statutes of autonomy.
Events came to a head during the second week of September. On September 10, Morales expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, whom many suspected of aiding and abetting a coup. The next day paramilitaries and armed thugs used machine guns, dynamite, and machetes to attack pro-Morales peasant enclaves in Porvenir, a town in the state of Pando. At least fifteen peasants were slaughtered, more than thirty suffered wounds from bullets and machetes, and hundreds either fled or were disappeared. These were people who had resisted Pando’s separatist drive and who had voted for Morales in the recall referendum.
Local (anti-Morales) government officials and businessmen from the civic committees had ordered the Porvenir massacre. On September 16, Morales responded to the atrocity by arresting its principal conspirator, Pando governor Leopoldo Fernández, and sending in troops to secure Porvenir.
Three weeks of negotiations between the La Paz government and its opponents ensued with no results. The rebellious governors and representatives of the oligarchy broke off negotiations the night of October 5 over the issue of holding a referendum on the new Constitution. The Right had bitterly opposed the constitution, the text of which a pro-Morales rump finally passed during last year’s Constituent Assembly.
Even though they boycotted the final vote of the Constituent Assembly, the Right is now calling for a complete rewriting of the proposed constitution. They object to its failure to include provisions that make state laws higher in authority than national laws, that reduce the oligarchy’s control over natural resources and agriculture, and that allow presidents to hold office for up to ten years.
Of course, neither the anti-Morales governors nor the oligarchy have any expectation of winning these points at the negotiating table or the ballot box. Theirs is merely another delaying tactic—one designed to block any reform at any cost.
In the face of the failed negotiations, Morales determined to ask Congress October 15 for the authority to set the constitutional referendum in motion. The social organizations and members of Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party planned to pressure Congress to support Morales by marching across the altiplano to La Paz and encircling the congressional building.
Approval of the law convoking the constitutional referendum is highly probable, although the outcome is unknown as the ISR goes to press. Nevertheless, it is far from certain that Morales will actually be able to carry out the referendum. To do so in the altiplano and several of the valleys would be easy. In the eastern part of Bolivia and in other main valleys, however, the right-wing governors exercise strong control over the territory, as well as over most of the civic and neighborhood associations.
The political situation overall remains quite fluid. The present impasse can only be broken by an end to government concessions and a mass movement dedicated to the radical agenda of October 2003: (1) nationalization of natural gas, petroleum, and mining; (2) a new agrarian reform that actually expropriates the great landowners and gives arable land to the peasants; (3) salary increases, better employment, and a decent pension for workers in the cities.