A deadly threat in Bolivia

September 19, 2008

Sarah Hines, recently returned from Bolivia, looks at the deadly campaign to undermine the country's left-wing government.

THE MASSACRE of at least 30 Bolivian peasants at Porvenir in the department of Pando on September 11 was the latest in a series of efforts by the right-wing opposition to destabilize the leftist government of Evo Morales, a former coca growers' union leader and the country's first indigenous president.

The violent confrontation represents a major escalation of the right's provocations, which have led to the worst political crisis for Bolivia since Morales took office in January 2006. The massacre in Pando was the bloodiest episode Bolivia has experienced since October 2003, when police sent by then-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada attacked left-wing protesters, leaving 80 people dead.

As evidenced by the results of a recall referendum in August and the events of the last several weeks, Bolivia is polarized between two centers of power--the national government of Morales, whose support is concentrated in the western highlands and rural areas of the country's valleys and eastern provinces, and the right-wing governors of the eastern "media luna" (half moon) departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, along with the department of Chuquisaca.

Bolivia's right wing has used racism to mobilize its base against Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president
Bolivia's right wing has used racism to mobilize its base against Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president

In the days following the Pando massacre, there was reason to fear that the right might be preparing to step up its efforts to destabilize the country further. Fortunately, the violence has abated in the week since the Porvenir massacre, and an uneasy truce appears to be in place.

Yet the underlying tensions that led to this crisis have not been resolved, and the stalemate is unlikely to last.

The right is mobilizing against Morales because his government has instituted a series of reforms. While more moderate than much of Morales' base had hoped for, these measures--including the nationalization of hydrocarbons--have raised the ire of the oligarchy in the eastern provinces, where the country's rich gas, oil and lumber resources and agricultural sector are located.

In the near term, the right hopes to destabilize the Morales government, weaken the country's left and indigenous social movements, and put the brakes on approval of a new constitution proposed by Morales. If implemented, the constitution would give the Bolivian government more control over natural resources and allow Morales to be re-elected for up to two more five-year terms.

In the long run, as Jeffrey Webber wrote in a recent article published on the CounterPunch Web site, the right seeks "to reaffirm and consolidate private elite control over the natural gas and agricultural wealth of the country" and "re-conquer state power at the national level."

Despite the right's protests, the Morales government's tax hikes on foreign gas companies have meant more revenue for the national government and the departmental governments alike. And while the eastern departments already receive a disproportionately high share of the revenues, the eastern oligarchy is demanding full control of the revenues.

As Tom Lewis wrote in Socialist Worker in August, the "oligarchy of the 'half-moon' was quite happy to see a central government share the nation's wealth across Bolivia's various regions when, just a couple of decades ago, the country's riches were to be found primarily in the mining industry of the altiplano."

Nor did the oligarchs have a problem with "centralism" during the military dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s, so long as these governments were handing them huge tracts of land upon which to build their fortunes.

Now, the right demands "autonomy." Bolivia's social movements and popular classes have traditionally used this word to describe decision-making and participation from below. But for the media luna elite, "autonomy" is control of the country's most important natural resources, enterprises and revenues by the wealthy rulers of the eastern provinces.

THE RECENT wave of confrontations began with the August 28 announcement by Evo Morales of plans for a December referendum on the proposed constitution. The following day, a celebratory and peaceful march to the central plaza of Santa Cruz by indigenous and working-class supporters of the proposed constitution was met with violent attacks by members of the fascist Santa Cruz-based youth group Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (Cruceño Youth Union, UJC).

After a series of racist speeches in which UJC members proclaimed that "We don't want this race in our territory" and "Indians return to your lands," the UJC unleashed a violent attack on the unarmed marchers, beating them with clubs, whips and two-by-fours for all the country to see on television.

In the days that followed, opposition forces across the media luna provinces set up road blockades; attacked NGO offices and workers, as well as supporters of the government; and staged invasions and occupations of airports, police stations, state radio and television channels, and natural gas installations.

In Santa Cruz, on September 9, gangs of armed youths occupied the offices of the National Tax Services, the National Agrarian Institute and the state telecommunications company ENTEL. They also raided and set ablaze the office of the Center for Juridical Studies and Social Investigation, which has helped indigenous groups to make land claims.

The next day, the confrontations spread to the department of Tarija and left at least 80 people wounded. In the department responsible for 82 percent of Bolivia's natural gas production, right-wing forces took over the office of the Superintendent of Hydrocarbons, among others, and seized control of the Yacuiba-Río Grande Gas Pipeline, a major pipeline to Brazil. Opposition forces then blew up a gas pipeline to Brazil, which, according to government officials, has meant a loss of $8 million a day and will cost Bolivia $100 million to repair.

Right-wing forces took over three airports in Beni, and across the opposition-controlled departments, governors declared they would transfer power of national government institutions to "autonomous" departmental authorities.

All this set the stage for the march and subsequent massacre in Pando last Thursday, September 11.

While the department governor, Leopold Fernández, is one of the five opposition governors who lead the National Democratic Council (CONALDE), in the August referendum, he was confirmed by a smaller margin than his fellow right-wing governors (56 percent). A majority of the Pando electorate (almost 53 percent) voted in favor of confirming Evo Morales in office. Thus, Pando is a weak link for CONALDE.

The pro-Morales peasant marchers were en route to the department capital of Cobija in protest of the takeover of the city and airport by Fernández's paramilitary supporters when they were fired on near the town of Porvenir.

According to Roberto Tito, a rural worker who was at the bridge when the attack began, snipers shot indiscriminately at men, women and children. "We were unarmed, contrary to what they said," said Tito. "They stopped us some seven kilometers before Porvenir, and afterwards, they attacked us when we reached the bridge, where they ambushed us and began to shoot with automatic machine-guns.

"The comrades had to escape wherever they could. They didn't spare even the children or the women. It was a massacre of the peasants; it's something that we must not allow." At least 30 people were killed and many more were wounded.

It is very likely that Fernández himself organized the massacre. The national government has offered convincing evidence that Fernández had trained dozens of civilian paramilitaries, an allegation confirmed by the head of Citizens' Security for the Pando prefecture, Alberto Murakami. Furthermore, witnesses told the Bolivian press that many of the assassins at Porvenir were regional government officials who answer to Fernández.

THROUGHOUT THE two weeks of mobilization and violence from the right wing in the east, the Morales government did very little in response. Despite having the authority to protect the gas installations, police stations, airports and other public institutions, the national police were easily overwhelmed by autonomist forces.

It was only in the wake of the violence in Porvenir that the Morales government finally acted. Declaring a state of emergency in Pando, Morales sent troops to take back the airport and government offices occupied by the right and ordered the arrest of Fernández, who was apprehended and brought to La Paz on September 16.

Bolivia also expelled U.S. Ambassador Paul Goldberg, who has routinely advised and almost openly sided with the autonomist opposition.

Earlier this year, U.S. Fulbright scholars and Peace Corps volunteers reported being instructed by the embassy to spy on Venezuelans and Cubans living in Bolivia. Goldberg had held secret meetings with the opposition governors in the weeks leading up the massacre, including one the night before the Porvenir massacre. It was widely feared that he was helping to orchestrate a coup attempt.

While the U.S.'s evacuation of Peace Corps volunteers and some embassy volunteers on September 16 raised fears that further violence was in the making, international pressure, especially from other South American governments, has forced the right to back down and come to the negotiating table.

The heads of state of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), an organization that integrates the trade bloc Mercosur and the Andean community in an attempt to forge an integrated market, met on September 15. The presidents declared their support for Morales and their opposition to attacks on government property and to any coup attempt. They further condemned the massacre at Porvenir and called for dialogue between the government and the opposition, agreeing to send a commission to Bolivia to investigate the massacre and to assist with negotiations.

Brazil, Bolivia's largest customer for natural gas, which saw its supply cut in half for several hours last week, is the country to watch in the coming weeks and months. For now, Brazil has decided to place its bets on Morales. But we shouldn't expect democratic sensibilities to outweigh Brazil's concern with keeping the gas flowing across the border.

Meanwhile, Morales government, just days after finally taking strong action against Fernandez in Pando, appears to be set to make concessions to the right in negotiations getting underway in the city of Cochabamba.

It is the Morales government's failure to confront the right--and its reliance on concessions and negotiations rather than mobilization of its base--that led Bolivia to the brink of an abyss.

For every inch that the government has conceded, the right has taken a mile.

For example, the government initially backpedaled on its promise to allow representation based on social sector in the Constituent Assembly that would draft the new constitution. This gave the right-wing parties disproportionate influence, which they then used to stall the proceedings for months, and to secure rules that ensured that no radical reform measures would be enacted.

The result was that the proposed constitution respects private property and international investment, and would do nothing to redistribute wealth in the hands of the eastern oligarchs. Nevertheless, it is this proposed constitution that serves as the pretext for the right's violent opposition.

Morales made other major concessions to the right as well. The national government permitted illegal autonomy referendums in the opposition departments, thus allowing the right to further legitimize its demands and build its national profile.

Moreover, Bolivian government forces did nothing to oppose the fascist groups' airport and gas installation takeovers, invasions of public institutions, transit blockades and violent attacks on indigenous government supporters. It was only after the massacre in Pando that Morales acted.

Apparently, the Bolivian government believed that its victory in the recall referendum would force the right back to the negotiating table. Two weeks before the violence began, government minister David Choquehuanca said, "This is a government of dialogue...The groups that want violence are very few. We call on those violent groups violating the laws and human rights to return to negotiations."

But the last few weeks have proven that to be an illusion, and shown that pressure and confrontation are the only way to force the right to back down. But unfortunately, Morales appears to be continuing to pursue the same failed strategy.

As the Bolivian research group Econoticias wrote September 17, "The fact is that the oligarchy does not want to reach an accord with Morales, and for this reason requires that he submit to demands that he can only comply with by surrendering completely. So they demand that the government return all the taxes from natural gas to them (close to $200 million) and recognize the autonomy statutes (that would allow them to have their own legislatures, dictate laws above national laws, levy taxes and create their own police)."

THE VIOLENCE has abated for the moment, but the underlying problems that led to the deaths at Porvenir last week have not gone away.

While it seems that the eastern oligarchy is not prepared at this moment to attempt a coup, and that the military remains with Morales, this could change. Morales' expulsion of the U.S. ambassador and the forceful retaking of Pando has allowed him to regain control of the country, but the calm is tenuous and likely temporary.

Many commentators have alluded to the fate of Salvador Allende, the reformist president of Chile who was overthrown in a military coup 35 years ago last week. The parallels are real, and the lessons are crucial.

But there is another example that offers more hope. In Venezuela in 2002, U.S.-backed coup makers were defeated--not by police, government officials or presidents, but by a mass uprising of Hugo Chávez's poor and working-class supporters, who descended from their barrios, surrounded the presidential palace and refused to allow their democratically elected president to be deposed.

The Bolivian left has the capacity to resist the right. The left and indigenous movements have brought down two governments in recent years, and proven time and again that they have the ability to defend their interests. It will take the renewed mobilization of the forces that brought Evo Morales to office in order to prevent a coup and beat back the forces of the right.

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