The wealthy eastern Bolivian province of Santa Cruz held an unofficial referendum earlier this month to vote for greater autonomy from central government. After a large majority approved the move, Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, now faces his toughest challenge yet as the country falls deeper into crisis.
Santa Cruz isn’t alone in its separatist claims. A further three eastern provinces: Beni, Tarija and Pando, known collectively as the media luna (half-moon) in a reference to their shape on the map of Bolivia, will hold similar referendums in the coming weeks. Two other provinces, Chuquisaca and Cochabamba, are likely to follow suit.
Faced with such virulent opposition and his plans to ‘refound’ Bolivia along socialist lines stalled, President Morales has called on the Bolivian people to vote on whether or not he should stay in power.
A former llama herder and trade union leader Evo Morales won a historic victory in the 2005 elections, becoming Bolivia’s first indigenous president in the 500 years since the Spanish conquest.
During his election campaign he pledged to see through a ‘democratic revolution’ in Bolivia in an attempt to alleviate widespread poverty (Bolivia is the poorest country in South America) and improve the social welfare of the country’s indigenous majority (who make up 60% of the population).
Throughout his mandate, Morales has determinedly pursued a controversial programme of social change, initiating the part-nationalisation of the country’s energy resources which saw Bolivia record a fiscal surplus for the first time in 30 years.
Morales’ policies have created much opposition, not only among the multinationals made to pay increased dividends to the Bolivian government but also within certain regions in Bolivia.
The mainstay of this opposition is based in Santa Cruz. Rich in natural resources, including oil and gas, this is the wealthiest province in Bolivia and accounts for 30% of the country’s GDP. Unlike the rest of Bolivia its population is mainly made up of European descendants.
The opposition stronghold here is calling for fewer ties to central government and increased power to control the distribution of their profits and taxes.
Though they have been making demands for regional autonomy for many years, a number of factors have now brought this to a head.
The catalyst was the government’s approval of a draft constitution in December last year.
The proposed constitutional reform is a key component of Morales’ vision for Bolivia.
The opposition fear that if implemented it would threaten their land-holdings and way of life as it aims to re-distribute land and wealth from the richer east to the poorer west of the country.
Ethnicity is another contentious issue that deeply divides the half-moon provinces from those in the western highlands.
The new constitution would give a bigger political voice to Bolivia’s indigenous population – a sector of society that has long suffered marginalisation. The central government believes this is something the landed elite of the east feel threatened by.
Morales himself has described the calls for autonomy as ‘pure racism’.
“The issue of departmental autonomy is just a pretext,” he said in a recent interview, “what they [the opposition in the east] really want is autonomy from the indigenous people of Bolivia.”
Call for Autonomy
At the referendum in Santa Cruz on 4th May, 86% voted ‘yes’ to greater autonomy for the region, out of an estimated turnout of 64%. President Morales urged his supporters to boycott the vote, dismissing it as an ‘illegal petition’ as it lacked the presence of international observers or the authorisation of the National Electoral Court.
The polling stations were staffed by members of the Unión Juvenil Crucenista (the military-arm of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, an opposition party) who have been known to use violent tactics in the past and sport swastikas.
Despite widespread fears that voting would be accompanied by violence there were relatively few clashes; one man was confirmed dead and around 25 people were injured.
Following the results impromptu celebrations kicked off in the capital of Santa Cruz. Opposition leader Branko Marinkovic insisted that the vote was ‘truly democratic’.
“The right to vote has to be respected,” Branko Marinkovic said, “none of the votes were bought, the people of Santa Cruz voted ‘yes’ to autonomy and (the government) have to learn to accept that.”
The Autonomy Bill
The autonomy bill calls for the establishment of a regional ‘government’ that would have the right to protect land, raise taxes, control revenues from its gas fields and run its own police force. It also repudiates the government’s plans to grant new powers to indigenous communities. It does however avoid calling for outright secession.
Despite the illegality of the vote and Morales casting it off as a ‘total failure’ it does hold significant symbolic importance. The country now appears more divided than ever, the opposition have gained momentum and neighbouring oppositionist factions have been encouraged to pursue a similar path.
In real terms it puts pressure on the government to concede to the opposition and revise (if not shelve) the draft constitution and reach a compromise over regional autonomy.
All eyes are now fixed on Santa Cruz, to see what the triumphant opposition will do next. While the Morales administration has so far avoided involving the armed forces in the conflict, if Santa Cruz tries to take over oil and gas installations (in order to control revenues) the deployment of the army will become inevitable.
Yet political analysts don’t believe it will come to this and seem to agree that discussions will be held to try to reach a peaceful resolution.
“In Bolivia, we are very accustomed to precipices,” Rosana Barragan a historian based in La Paz told the BBC, “but they say we always step back from the brink.”
Back to the Ballot Box
Morales reacted to the vote on 4th May by calling for yet another referendum; this time to determine whether or not he should complete his four-year term.
“For the first time in Bolivian history, the people will not only have the right to choose but also to decide if the authorities are failing them,” he said.
And 10th August is the date set for the recall vote in which the public will decide whether Morales, the vice-president and the country’s nine regional governors should stay in power.
To win, the president will have to gain at least 53.74% of the vote – this being the percentage of support he achieved in the 2005 elections. If he fails to do so a general election will be called.
Morales has said that he will use a victory in this referendum as a springboard to push forward his reforms.
The Final Showdown
Many commentators have been using Evo Morales’ favourite sport, football, as a metaphor for the current crisis. Each successful referendum is a goal scored and control of Bolivia is the highly coveted prize for the eventual winner.
Some are now saying that in agreeing to the recall election the opposition have scored an own goal. Support for Morales remains high in much of the west of the country and in some cases the percentage needed for opposition governors to be recalled is substantially higher than that required by the president (as it directly correlates to their achievements in the 2005 elections.)
As the governor for the province of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes Villa, who is facing re-election of the 10th August said: “If we are going with the football metaphor than it is as if we have an enormous goal-post for Evo to score into and his goal-post is the size of one on a table-football game.”