As the struggle sharpened to uphold national authority and oppose forces for autonomy in Bolivia’s East, Washington’s role in weeks of conflict there led the government of Evo Morales to eject U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg on Sept. 10.
Two days later the government established martial law in Pando department (state). There, hired thugs and paramilitaries killed at least 30 unarmed peasants, wounded 80, and “disappeared” over 100 on their way to a pro-government rally. Prefect (governor) Leopoldo Fernández, whom government-friendly media label the “butcher of Porvenir” (the town where the ambush took place), is accused of organizing and financing the slaughter. Fernandez, who had promised resistance to government troops, was arrested Sept. 16. He stands accused of hiring the hitmen who did the killing.
Only the army and national police remained as manifestations of national authority in four eastern departments, Pando, Beni, Tarija and Santa Cruz, and in Sucre, capital of Chuquisaca. Paramilitaries and bands of right-wing youths occupied national tax and land reform offices, transportation centers, pro-Morales television and radio stations and regional airports. They blocked highways and sabotaged natural gas pipelines to keep oil and gas from reaching Brazil and Argentina.
Interior Minister Alfredo Rada characterized the situation as a “coup” by civic committee leaders and prefects to “carry out this strategy of violence, destabilization and assault on Bolivian Democracy.”
Last month, Ambassador Goldberg met with Prefects Savina Cuellar of Chuquisaca and Ruben Costas of Santa Cruz. The government based its expulsion of Goldberg on that violation of diplomatic norms and on U.S. funding of separatist agitation.
Armed Forces head Luis Trigo assured reporters the “state of siege” in Pando is legal and described the military’s role as guaranteeing “constitutional rule.” He pledged protection of the “national patrimony and functioning of the state apparatus.”
Santa Cruz and Tarija are centers of large-scale soy and cattle production and natural gas extraction. They are controlled by 20 families who shape decisions elsewhere in Bolivia’s East, according to analyst Joaquín Saravia. Racist slander directed against the country’s indigenous majority is a staple of autonomist propaganda. The malcontents are demanding the return of $49 million in natural gas taxes that has been applied to pensions.
The crisis follows Morales’ two-thirds majority victory in an Aug. 10 referendum on his tenure as president, in which he gained pluralities in 82 of the country’s 98 provinces.
In response, Morales set a Dec. 7 referendum vote on Bolivia’s new constitution. The National Electoral Council, however, ruled that congressional approval is required.
The government is now mobilizing its social base to pressure the Congress. The proposed constitution calls for limiting the size of large land holdings, reason enough, say observers, for moneyed interests to use chaos to derail the referendum.
Peasants, indigenous people and women’s groups are opposing the paramilitary brawling. The National Coordinating Group for Change called for permanent demonstrations throughout the nation until the Congress acts. Fidel Surco of the Confederation of Colonizers urged that citizens defend democracy and unity. Government supporters are attempting to fence in Santa Cruz, at the center of the autonomy drive, by means of demonstrations and roadblocks.
President Morales has persisted with attempts at dialogue. Earlier in the week he assembled a new cabinet to promote “convergence among Bolivians” through measures to lessen poverty and build unity. Later, he promised eastern leaders that if stolen goods are returned and natural gas and oil facilities protected, other regions could avoid Pando’s fate. Far left critics — notably econoticiasbolivia.com — chastised the government for inaction while “fascists walk over the police and military.”
Analysts attribute government caution to the view that tumult and confusion are right-wing tools to provoke a full-fledged military response, demonstrating inability to govern. That was the situation in Chile 35 years ago, explains Angel Palacio, writing on rebelion.org, except that unlike President Salvatore Allende, Evo Morales is not alone.
Venezuela and Honduras took diplomatic action against U.S. ambassadors (see article below). Support also came from Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador, Uruguay, Cuba, the Organization of American States and even Peru. President Chavez initiated a Sept. 15 meeting in Chile of the South American intergovernmental group UNASUR, to fashion a collective response to Bolivia’s plight.
Bolivia’s government got high marks for standing up to Washington, historically prone to exploiting chaos and homegrown right-wing bullying for imperial advantage as in 1970s Chile.
“Without fear of anybody, without fear of the empire, I declare before the Bolivian people the U.S. ambassador is persona non grata,” declared President Morales. Defense minister Walter San Miguel chimed in: “The fascists will not pass.” Imagine, asked Angel Palacio: “An Indian booting out a gringo! When have we seen such daring?”