Crisis mounts in Bolivia

Meeting in the southwestern city of Oruro on Dec. 8-9, Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly approved “99.8 percent” of a new constitution by a two-thirds majority. The full text of the constitution, including some hitherto unresolved land reform provisions, will be put before the voters for approval in a referendum sometime next year.

According to Article 1, Bolivia will become “a unified, social state — multinational, communitarian and autonomous.” It will be “decentralized, independent, sovereign, democratic and intercultural.” Among other things, the draft charter provides for the nationalization of natural resources and the right of voters to recall the president.

But racial and class-based strife, quickened by the election two years ago of Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state, now threatens to break apart the nation. “Either we now consolidate the new state,” asserted Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, “or we will move backwards and the old forces will again predominate.” For trade union leader Edgar Patana, it’s “the final battle.”

Conflict between white, landowning, business elites in Bolivia’s east and the country’s indigenous majority roiled the Constituent Assembly throughout its tenure, from Aug. 6, 2006, to its dissolution this month.

President Evo Morales’ Movement toward Socialism party won its first victory when his supporters in the assembly rejected a proposal requiring two-thirds majority approval for each constitutional provision.

Then, in August, Morales’ supporters overturned an opposition plan to move the government’s executive and legislative offices from La Paz, located in an indigenous stronghold, to Sucre, the meeting place of the assembly and home to Bolivia’s judiciary. In reaction, right-wing thugs unleashed street violence, causing the suspension of the assembly’s deliberations. As yet no constitutional provisions had been settled on.

The assembly reconvened in Sucre Nov. 18, but after five days moved to a military school outside the city to escape violence. Approval Nov. 24 of a prototype constitution led to an opposition walkout, racist assaults on delegates, and street fighting, leaving three dead and hundreds wounded. This time, the assembly moved to Chapare, where the physical protection of indigenous delegates was assured.

Beginning Dec. 2, political leaders in the eastern states embarked upon a hunger strike. Joining them, Branco Marinkovic, head of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, launched an autonomy campaign. That state accounts for a third of Bolivia’s GDP. Some 100 of its families own more land than all other residents combined.

The Morales government antagonized some opposition forces in October by diverting a portion of the country’s natural gas revenues from regional government treasuries to worker pensions.

Complaining of persecution, governors of four rebel states journeyed to Washington and New York to complain of alleged tyranny before the Organization of American States and the United Nations. Visiting in Miami on their way home, they were hosted by exiled leaders of former repressive Bolivian governments.

On Dec. 4, with attacks mounting on police, journalists, political associates and government officials, President Morales proposed a national referendum on his continued stay in office and that of nine state governors. His purpose, he told the Telesur network, was to prevent violence. According to public opinion polling in October, Morales enjoys a 60 percent approval rating among voters.

The same week, airport authorities in three eastern cities prevented a Venezuelan airplane from taking on fuel, forcing it to land in Brazil. On board were 22 natural disaster experts returning home after finishing humanitarian duties in Bolivia. They were not, as was alleged by the right wing, Venezuelan soldiers and guns.

Thousands of indigenous people took to the streets in four cities. One manifesto said, “We repudiate antidemocratic, separatist and subversive actions.” Others applied the label “dictatorship” to state governments.

Bolivia’s military leadership has so far showed no signs of plotting coups. Appearing with President Morales Dec. 6 at graduation exercises for new officers, army head Wilfredo Vargas denounced as cowards those full of “insinuations to break with the democracy and constitutional mandate.”

In the Telesur interview, Morales promised to “deepen the structural changes,” adding, “I will always be subordinate to the people. Before this, governments were subjected to the empire, controlled by the U.S. Embassy.” He criticized “international capitalism organized on a permanent basis to provoke governments and presidents.”

Denouncing threats of U.S. intervention in Bolivia, the Solidnet web site issued a call Dec. 10 on behalf of the Communist parties of many nations, including the U.S., for solidarity with Bolivia’s revolutionary government.

atwhit @megalink.net