On Jan. 8, a year after Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president, 25,000 indigenous peasants and unionized coca growers rallied in Cochabamba in central Bolivia. They called for the resignation of the state governor, Manfred Reyes Villa, an outspoken advocate of state autonomy and an opponent of the president’s progressive reforms.
The demonstrators clashed with city police, who were backed by gangs. Twenty people were wounded. Three days later, three people were killed and over 200 wounded.
The strife reflects the sharpening problem of separatism in Bolivia.
In December, Reyes tried to instigate a referendum to make Cochabamba autonomous. His action was seen as subverting the electorate’s 63 percent vote against autonomy in July. Reyes has also called for the “independence,” i.e. secession, of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija — states in eastern Bolivia that have already approved autonomy.
The protesters also denounced Reyes for his role in the right-wing campaign to have the Constituent Assembly require two-thirds approval for constitutional provisions.
Reyes previously served in the government of reviled former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who was ousted after national troops killed 43 demonstrators and wounded hundreds more in October 2003.
On Jan. 11, demonstrators burned cars and set fires close to government offices. Simultaneously, well-organized, white middle-class youths assaulted indigenous protesters. Observers noted parallels between those racist attacks and recent actions in Santa Cruz by the notoriously anti-indigenous Union of Santa Cruz Youth.
That Reyes had been elected rather than appointed, as had been the custom, gave him a veneer of independence. City police, refusing to obey orders from military police, turned a blind eye to right-wing violence.
The governor sought refuge in the state of Santa Cruz before the conflict peaked. That state and three others in the eastern “half moon” area contain most of Bolivia’s hydrocarbon reserves, aquifers and productive agricultural lands. Wealthy families of European descent and managers of multinational corporations control the region’s politics and economy.
In the midst of the turmoil, Germán Antelo, president of the right-wing Santa Cruz Civic Committee, called for Evo Morales’ assassination.
En route to Santa Cruz, Reyes met in La Paz, the nation’s capital, on Jan. 11 with the separatist governors of five other states, reportedly to force the government into a national debate on autonomy. The next day, after threatening to foment a 24-hour general strike, the troublesome governors asked Bolivian Cardinal Julio Terrazas to mediate their dispute with the government.
Morales sent Juan Ramon Quintana, one of his ministers, to Cochabamba to negotiate. He also proposed a constitutional provision that governors, mayors and even the president be subject to a recall vote.
After denouncing Reyes for “abandoning his functions in Cochabamba to go to La Paz to stir up politics, to conspire against the government,” Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linares nonetheless assured him of the federal government’s protection if he resumed his office.
Increasingly protesters in Cochabamba manifested a divide between far-left, union-based elements and moderates faithful to constitutional requirements. Representatives of the social movements, meeting in the State Workers’ Center, announced the formation of a parallel government under the aegis of a “revolutionary committee.”
By Jan. 18, peasants were returning to their communities. Spokespersons said a “Judgment of Responsibility” was being prepared against Reyes, who, they vowed, would never return as governor. President Morales was set to meet with peasant leaders on Jan. 27.
In a related development, 3,000 unionists and peasants from Omasuyos province in eastern Bolivia rallied Jan. 16 in La Paz against the pro-autonomy governor Papelucho Paredes. Unions and peasant groups in Los Altos, a large city adjacent to La Paz overflowing with poor people, took up the call for his resignation.
The recent appointment of Phillip Goldberg as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia suggests that the separatists’ call for division is grist for Washington’s mill. Goldberg, having served in Bosnia and Kosovo in recent years, knows about ethnic conflict and the dissolution of nations.
“It’s not by chance that this gentleman has been translated from Kosovo to Bolivia,” according to Santa Cruz university professor Róger Tuero. Goldberg is said to have close ties with Manfred Reyes Villa.