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Bolivia in Crisis

Thursday, 21 August 2008
Article: Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Bolivia In Crisis

The contentious August 10 recall vote appears to have done little to quell the political tension that has pushed Bolivia to the brink of outright violence. Although Morales' overwhelming 68 percent win indicates broad national support for his reformist agenda, opposition leaders in four of the country's nine departmental prefectures also maintained their posts. The final tally leaves five opposition prefects, two Morales supporters, and two empty posts (which will be filled in the interim by appointees of the president). For a more comprehensive explanation of the vote, see COHA Research Associate Chris Sweeney's article "In Sunday's Recall Vote, Morales' Populist Agenda Clashes With Santa Cruz-led Eurocrats".

The lead-up to the vote and the referendum itself passed peacefully, a positive development in its own right. Also promising are reports from several domestic and international organizations which verified the recall's legitimacy. The OAS, who dispatched 125 observers throughout the country, concluded that fully 95 percent of the polls were supervised and protected in an appropriate form. At least 91 percent of the locations observed maintained a secret voting process. Considering that 84 percent of all Bolivians registered to vote participated in the referendum, the findings speak volumes to the desire of the citizenry to abide by the rule of law and the tenets of democratic processes.

Although the recall vote occurred without violence or fraud, there is still a clear potential for unrest in Bolivia as some of the country's most rambunctious political actors are contesting the vote's validity. Manfred Reyes Villa, for example, prefect of the department of Cochabamba and a staunch opponent of Morales, did not achieve the percentage necessary to retain his position. After initially challenging the accuracy and legitimacy of the vote and refusing to step down, Reyes subsequently declared that he was handing power to his deputy governor in order to pursue legal action against the government. His actions are just one example in a string of unconstitutional and bull-headed maneuvers by regional prefects designed to disrupt Bolivia's political processes.

Morales, for his part, maintained a conciliatory message following his victory. He has called for dialogue with his unyielding opposition, yet the breach between the president's rhetoric and that of his pro-autonomy opponents is wide. Ruben Costas, prefect of Santa Cruz, the wealthiest and one of the most European departments in the country, was confirmed by a large margin. However, he refuses to negotiate with La Paz and has polluted the level of discourse by calling Morales "the real criminal." The acrimony did not stop there. On August 5, Percy Fernandez, the mayor of the city of Santa Cruz, was quoted as saying, "This government has not learned how to govern, and for that reason I ask the armed forces to overthrow the president of the republic."

Despite his understandable anger over this blatant challenge to his authority, Morales continued to make clear his preference for peaceful dialogue. He offered to fly the opposition prefects to La Paz in the presidential plane for discussions without preconditions. On Wednesday, August 13, the meeting actually took place. However, as reported by the AFP, Tarija Governor Mario Cossio claimed that the encounter resulted in little progress. One must wonder what this sentiment means coming from an area leader who has not continues to support autonomy statutes so far-reaching as to transfer all police and military control to his office.

Morales' moderacy in the face of conservative obstinacy

An analysis of the events leading up to the August recall vote makes clear the intention of Bolivia's various political actors. The idea of a referendum was first suggested by Morales' Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party in November of 2007. At that time it was intended to consolidate support for the Constituent Assembly, then in the process of drafting a new constitution meant to institutionalize Morales' central reforms. The proposal was rejected, however, by a senate in which a working majority of the seats were held by Podemos, a right wing opposition group.

In a surprise move, and possibly in response to a growing push for regional autonomy, Podemos reversed its position on the recall vote in May 2008. Hopeful that the balloting would oust Morales from office and provide an opening for a power grab by right wing prefectures, the senate again began advocating for a vote. Morales accepted the challenge. Refusal to do so would have reflected both fear of the opposition's growing power and a lack of respect for the democratic process. Additionally, the vote still promised the same benefits that it had when his party proposed it five months earlier.

The movement in favor of regional autonomy, a reaction to Morales' aggressive hydrocarbon tax, proposed land reform and a wave of La Paz-staged nationalizations, gained steam in early 2008. Between May 4th and June 24th, Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni and Tarija, which together comprise the Media Luna, held illegal referendums to register their desire for a greater sense of regional autonomy. These autonomy statutes would grant each prefecture control of the establishment and implementation of taxation systems, the distribution of land, and in some cases, the control of all police and military assignments in their localities. Even though the statutes were approved by an overwhelming majority in all of the recalcitrant departments, the rate of abstention from the vote made it clear that the voice of the region's entire population was underrepresented. For example, while average abstention rates in Bolivia usually fall somewhere between 22 and 25 percent, in the Santa Cruz department, the heart of Morales' opposition, 39% of the populace abstained from voting in the autonomy referendum.

Despite the "success" of the autonomy referendums, by early June it was becoming clear to the opposition that the recall vote would not go their way. Prefects from the departments desirous of autonomy thus began to reject the legality of the very recall vote that they themselves had called for just weeks earlier. Many opposition prefects declared that they would not participate in the national referendum, all the while holding their own unsanctioned referendums on the issue of autonomy. The move typifies the opportunism of the autonomists, a group which appears disposed to using legitimate political processes only when they prove to be advantageous to their cause.

Bolivia On the Brink of Crisis

While Wednesday's meeting was a step in the right direction, the country may yet be headed towards disaster. Despite Morales' repeated attempts to demonstrate that Bolivian unity is his highest priority, the (perhaps intentional) failure of the autonomist political leaders to reign in rogue opposition groups and violent protesters is an ominous sign. Violent youth groups have been inciting aggressive protests sympathetic to the autonomy movement for some time. On June 20, two members of the Santa Cruz Unión Juvenil Cruceñista were detained on charges of attempting to assassinate the president. Additionally, on August 18, members of the Unión Juvenil Trarijeña organized the "peaceful takeover" of the department's Regional Customs Agency in order to demonstrate the nation's dependency on the wealthy prefectures. The government has been very sparing in its use of police and military assets throughout the crisis, despite the sharply antagonistic actions taken by the opposition. However, La Paz warned that it may be forced to mobilize the national police because, "departmental authorities of any type cannot be allowed to push around institutions of a national character."

Indeed, some critics have argued that, had Morales been more heavy handed in his response to the autonomy movement when it began, the situation would not have escalated to such heights. It seems that Morales' balanced response to the often fractious states-rights movement, his submission to the recall vote and repeated calls for dialogue and cooperation, may have ironically ended up working against him. In order to avoid descent into total division and chaos, pro-autonomy opposition leaders must do their best to ensure that groups like the UJT do not act rashly, inadvertently causing both physical casualties and severely damaging Bolivia's democratic institutions.

Towards a More Perfect Union

It is doubtful that the Bolivian government and the autonomists will reach an agreement any time soon. A general civic strike occurred in the Media Luna areas along with the department of Chuquisaca on Tuesday, August 19. This date has strong implications for the country: it marks the 37th anniversary of a coup d'etat staged by former-dictator Hugo Banzer, which began in Santa Cruz, one of the strongest pro-autonomy provinces. Organizers of the strike, which was estimated to have cost $18.4 million in lost revenue, are claiming the event was a success. However, government reports maintain that it was largely restricted to urban areas, an indication that Morales' opposition is isolated to small areas of the country. Tarija and Chuquisaca, two of the original five striking departments, have decided to discontinue protests.

While the potential for violence was high during the August 19 strike, the Bolivian press reported only minor incidences. Police action was limited, but tensions are still running extremely high. In a comment to the Bolivian daily La Prensa, former president Carlos Mesa argued for the wise use of the Constitutional Court, the National Electoral Court, and the construction of productive agreements on the proposed new Constitution. He added that, "the recuperation of the rule of law by means of the rational use of the police" may be necessary. It remains to be seen how far Evo Morales will have to go to preserve Bolivia's fragile present unity.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associates Jessica Bryant and Chris Sweeney
August 20th, 2008

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