News Analysis: The Battle in Bolivia

By Roger Burbach, New America Media
Tuesday December 04, 2007

While international attention is focusing on President Hugo Chavez and the Sunday referendum on the Venezuelan constitution, a conflict that is just as profound is shaking Bolivia. Evo Morales, the first Indian president of the country, is forcing a showdown with the oligarchy and the right wing political parties that have stymied efforts to draft a new constitution to transform the nation. He declares, “Dead or alive I will have a new constitution for the country by December 14,” the mandated date for the specially elected Constituent Assembly to present a constitution for the country to vote on by popular referendum. 

A violent conflict that left three dead and hundreds injured erupted over the past weekend in the city of Sucre where the Constituent Assembly has been meeting. After more than a year of obstructionism by the right wing parties, Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and its allied parties that control 60 percent of the Assembly’s vote, approved the broad outlines of a new constitution designed to alleviate economic inequalities, codify a new agrarian reform program and end the apartheid system that the indigenous population has lived under for centuries. 

The “New Left” presidents that have emerged in Latin America in recent years reflect a social insurgence that is challenging the old political leadership and demanding an economic alternative to the neo-liberal policies of Washington that favor foreign interests and the multinational corporations. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador and even Chilean leaders are carrying out social and economic reforms, although with the possible exception of Ecuador under President Rafael Correa, these reforms are taking place with little or no defiance of their country’s dominant business and financial interests. Upheavals verging on a revolution are taking place in Venezuela and Bolivia. 

In Bolivia the upheaval is very different from Venezuela’s in that it is lead by the Indian majority against the historically dominant “k’aras,” meaning whites and mestizos. The opposition to Morales is lead by the eastern city of Santa Cruz where the business elites and the right wing parties exercise political and economic control. In Sucre and some of the other major departmental (state) capitals where the whites and lighter-skinned peoples tend to concentrate, Santa Cruz has recruited allies, particularly among young university students who are acting as shock troops to confront indigenous organizations and members of the Constituent Assembly.  

In Sucre, the opposition demanded that the new constitution move the executive and congressional branches of government from La Paz to Sucre, which used to be the center of government until the late 19th century. This was clearly a spoiler strategy that plays heavily to racist sentiments – as La Paz and its nearby sister city of El Alto are at the heart of the country’s majority Indian population that supports Morales and mobilized in 2003 to topple a “k’aras” president in La Paz who murdered Indian demonstrators in the streets. 

When the Assembly passed a draft of the new constitution last weekend, the opposition violently took over the streets and all the major public buildings in Sucre using dynamite and Molotov cocktails, demanding the resignation of “the shitty Indian Morales.” Parts of the city were in flames as the Assembly members fled, followed by the police a day later, who had been ordered not to use live ammunition against the mobs. 

The right wing and the business organizations in Santa Cruz and allied cities are threatening to declare autonomy and even talking of secession. A special assembly convoked by the Santa Cruz Civic Committee declared that it would only recognize Sucre as the “location of all the powers of the state.” Branko Marinkovic, a major business magnate and the head of the Santa Cruz committee, declares, “The fight has begun for our autonomy and liberty…. ” Along with Santa Cruz, civic committees in five other major departmental capitals are calling for an economic boycott to withhold basic consumer commodities from the market and sow economic chaos. A move is afoot by the Civic Committees to “declare de facto autonomy” on December 14. 

A massive mobilization of the Indian population in La Paz and the western highlands is taking place in support of Morales and the new constitution. Even in the eastern departments where the opposition controls the major cities, rural indigenous organizations are on the move, including in the department of Santa Cruz. The leader of Bolivia’s largest peasant workers confederation, Isaác Ávalos, is calling for a blockade of the cities, declaring, “we will seize their lands …if they impose de facto autonomy.” 

“We are at a national impasse,” says Miguel Urisote, a political analyst and director of the Land Foundation, an independent research center in La Paz. “The right wing led by the Santa Cruz oligarchy is in open rebellion, but Morales, the Movement Towards Socialism and the popular movements will not back down. The military is supporting the president.  

The radical upsurges in Venezuela and Bolivia have very different roots. In Venezuela, where over 80 percent of the population lives in the cities, it is primarily an urban upheaval that predates the rise of Hugo Chavez. In 1989, the “Caracazo” threw the existing political order into crisis when tens of thousands of people from the outlying slums of Caracas descended on the center of the city where the rich lived. The social and economic transformations of the past eight years under the presidency of Chavez have been carried out in tandem with the popular classes. The main battle has centered over the control and distribution of oil revenues, while in Bolivia the struggle over land and the right of the Indians to grow coca plants are major areas of conflict.  

While a close rapport exists between Chavez and Morales, the transformations in each country will assume distinct trajectories. They are part of the broader process of social change occurring at different paces and intensities throughout Latin America as the old models of the 20th century and the historic dominance of the United States are disputed. 


Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.