Bolivian army commander Freddy Bersatti is worried about “subversive groups” and “abnormal movements.” His worries intensified after a two-day meeting in Santa Cruz of an Autonomous Council following which, on June 18, well-heeled right-wing separatist leaders issued a manifesto promising stepped-up attacks on Bolivia’s socialist government.
Ever since Evo Morales’ accession to the presidency by a 54 percent majority in January 2006, class- and race-based divisions have bogged down Bolivia’s first indigenous-led government in 500 years. Opposition forces centered in the nation’s eastern “half moon” have demanded autonomy for four states, or departments, there — Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija. The Autonomous Council met simultaneously in each department.
The Santa Cruz manifesto vowed “to convert a state of emergency into a state of citizen mobilization for organizing civil and democratic resistance.” It demanded that Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly, in session for almost a year, implement a July 2006 national referendum that approved autonomy for the four eastern departments.
The Santa Cruz Civic Committee is the sparkplug of separatist agitation in the East. Leader Branko Marinkovic, a big rancher and president of the local federation of industries, emphasized to reporters the committee’s resolve to take action if the Constituent Assembly fails to approve a new constitution by a two-thirds vote or refuses to honor the referendum vote. Such resolve was the “mandate of our peoples,” he declared, expressed by “popular assemblies” held in the four departments last Dec. 15.
The separatists announced that on July 2 proposed statutes on autonomy would be submitted to people in the four departments and that on July 7 a national gathering of “a united and democratic Bolivia” would decide specific actions. Roberto Gutiérrez of the Santa Cruz committee said marches and vigils would start soon throughout the nation.
The eastern states are unique in Bolivia for their European-descended majority and concentrations of wealth. Export-oriented Santa Cruz boasts 90 percent of the nation’s industry, 50 percent of its GDP, and 60 percent of the oil wells. In this epicenter of separatism, 25 individuals own 60 percent of the land. Amid charges of corruption, eastern moneyed interests held decisive national power prior to Morales’ election victory.
Political leaders there reject the Morales government’s moves to nationalize the country’s petroleum and gas resources, its many-sided empowerment of workers and farmers, and its proposal to divide the nation into 42 regions and 36 autonomous indigenous territories, a move that might undermine the power of departmental governments.
The Autonomous Council’s manifesto called upon the “armed forces to fulfill their constitutional role” in defending national integrity. Armed forces head Wilfredo Vargas affirmed June 19 that the army would comply, but castigated “divisive posturing from the oligarchic sectors of Bolivia’s East.” The armed forces, he promised, would support the constitution and legally constituted government and reject “those political actors bringing back from the past century coup d’etats, military takeovers.”
Indigenous spokespersons also denounced the autonomists’ manifesto. They said autonomy for departments could end up as central power relocated and perpetuate past neglect of indigenous needs and rights. Leader Diego Faldin told reporters, “We will fight for indigenous autonomy,” which is our “way of life and our right.”
Just weeks prior to the Aug. 6 target date to complete its new constitution, the Constituent Assembly appears to be floundering. All 21 assembly commissions were to have submitted final reports on June 21. Only six were ready. Others were delivered with omissions or withheld because of unresolved conflicts and lack of consensus.
The commission dealing with international relations epitomized the divide between government supporters and right-wing minority delegates. Commission members, for example, could not agree upon a chain of authority applying to the constitution, national sovereignty, and international treaties. Nor could they compromise sufficiently to devise means for approving treaties and international conventions, especially those relating to human rights and international trade.
The Constituent Assembly’s uncertain fate and the mounting separatist storm suggest a precarious future for Bolivia’s new people’s government and are slowing momentum toward transformative change, especially for the nation’s indigenous majority.