Popular Struggle Intensifies in Bolivia by Federico Fuentes

Dandelion Salad

by Federico Fuentes
Green Left Weekly
May 19, 2008

These articles were first published in Green Left Weekly. Federico Fuentes is the editor of Bolivia Rising.

Recall referendum opens new struggle

May 17, 2008
—A new period of uncertainty and opportunity has opened up in Bolivian politics following the calling of recall referendums on August 10 for the national president and prefects of Bolivia’s nine departments (states) by the opposition-controlled Bolivian senate. President Evo Morales has been pushing for this measure since last year.

The law, first introduced into the House of Deputies by the governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) last December, had been gathering dust due to the refusal of the right-wing opposition to approve it in the Senate. The sudden move to pass the law has left many wondering why the opposition controlled senate would take such a decision.

The initial idea behind the law had been to let the people resolve through the ballot box the “catastrophic deadlock” between the popular government of Evo Morales, backed by the social movements, and the right-wing opposition, spearhead by the elites from the eastern region tied to gas transnationals and agribusiness.

MAS and the social movements have been campaigning to approve the new constitution, finally handed over by the Constituent Assembly last December, which would dramatically broaden recognition of indigenous rights within a new plurinational state, and increase state intervention into the economy and control over natural resources.

Right-wing ‘autonomy’

In reaction, the elites based in the eastern department of Santa Cruz, in a move to defend their economic and political interests, counterposed to the new constitution their proposal for increased autonomy for the eastern regions – where they control the prefectures and where most of the natural resources are located and more than 60% of GDP originates.

Stepping up a gear in their campaign, Santa Cruz held an illegal referendum on May 4 over proposed autonomy statute that would hand enormous power over to the prefectures, including control over natural resources, distribution of land titles, and the right to sign international treaties.

The rights claimed a massive victory, with supposedly 85% support for the Yes vote. But high abstention – promoted by the government and social movements – meant that the Yes vote in reality represents just over 50% of the electoral.

Since then, the four prefects of the eastern departments have rejected Morales’ calls for negotiations, forming a united bloc that will return to the negotiating table only after the other autonomy referendums are staged. Autonomy referendums will be held June 1 in Pando and Beni, and June 22 in Tarija.

These sectors received the Senate’s decision as a cold shower. “A grave error,” “a political stupidity” and “a disservice to autonomies” were just some of the comments to come out of these quarters.

Opportunity for popular forces

Among the prefects, the opposition control six, MAS two, and one is up for election on June 29, following the resignation of the prefect of Sucre who was elected on the MAS ticket.

Moreover, to be recalled, the president and prefects have to receive a vote of rejection superior in votes and percentage to those obtained in the December 2005 general elections. So whilst the opposition will have to surpass 53.74% of votes (1,544,374 votes national) to remove Evo Morales. The prefects are left in a more complicated situation: given none of them got over 50% they could be revoked with a minority vote against them.

The most precarious case is that of opposition La Paz prefect, Jose Luis Paredes, who received only 38% of the vote in the 2005 elections, and who will have to obtain 62% to remain in his post.

Many believe the move by Podemos, the largest opposition party in the Senate, was aimed at regaining the initiative within the opposition camp, pushing the Santa Cruz autonomists to the background. Part of the thinking behind the move was the hope to put a halt to the referendum to approve the new constitution, as the law on referendums allows only one consultation per constitutional period.

MAS senator Felix Rojas, quoted on Bolpress on May 13, said however that Podemos miscalculated and that “errors in politics are made to pay.” He argued not only do recall referendums fall under different regulations; it would also be possible to hold the referendum on the new constitution in conjunction with the recall referendums.

Right-wing defiance

Responding to these events, the proclaimed “governor” of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, announced on May 14 the constitution of a provisional legislative assembly of the “autonomous government of Santa Cruz.”

“Following the political earthquake caused by the approval of the recall referendums … Santa Cruz had to once again put on the agenda the issue of autonomy, and to do this it needed a radical dramatization” a well-known journalist from Santa Cruz told Argentine daily Clarin on May 15.

“They can call it what they want, it is only symbolic. For us what counts is the constitution,” was the response of Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera. MAS Senator Antonio Peredo called for charges of sedition to be laid against the Santa Cruz leaders.

Meanwhile, in the presidential palace, excitement is rising for the possibility of removing at least two opposition prefects –La Paz and Cochabamba, heartlands of the MAS base – and the further opportunities in Pando and Tarija, which have a strong presence of peasant movements and where MAS mayors control the departmental capitals.

The recent mobilizations in defence of national unity and against the autonomy referendum in Santa Cruz, along with the nationalizations announced on May 1, have not only seen Morales support increase, but have acted to bring about greater unity and mobilisation of the popular sectors.

A concerted campaign of mass mobilization that builds on the greater unity and mobilisation of the popular sectors of the last few weeks in defence of national unity could ensure an important victory for Morales. The upcoming referendum may become a vote to ratify Morales and his national project for change and strengthen him both nationally and internationally.

* * *

Fraud, violence and mass resistance marks right-wing push

May 9, 2008 — “A day of violence, fraud and a ‘grand rebellion’ against the Santa Cruz oligarchy.

This is how Bolivian president Evo Morales Ayma described the result of the unconstitutional May 4 “autonomy” referendum organized by the authorities in Santa Cruz — which many feared was aimed at dividing Bolivia.

The referendum was the first in a series of proposed referendums to be held in the departments of the so-called Half Moon — Santa Cruz plus Pando, Beni and Tarija, resource-rich departments in Bolivia’s east. The Half Moon remains dominated by the white oligarchy despite the coming to power nationally of Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, on the back of a mass movement against neoliberalism led by the indigenous majority.

Illegal vote

While the National Electoral Court had ruled that the autonomy referendum — which the government had proposed be held simultaneously with a referendum to approve the new constitution — could not go ahead on May 4 due to lack of time and suitable political conditions, the prefecture and civic committee of Santa Cruz, backed by the Santa Cruz Electoral Court, decided to go ahead with what was an illegal referendum.

The referendum revolved around proposed autonomy statutes, drafted by the oligarchy without any discussion, and which less than 15% of crucenos (Santa Cruz residents) had read before May 4. The statutes hand enormous power over to the opposition-controlled prefectures, including control over natural resources, distribution of land titles, the right to sign international treaties and its own police force and judicial system.

On the day, the Yes vote received 483,925 votes, representing around 85% of the votes cast, against 85,399 No votes. However, calls by the social movements and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS — Morales’s party) national government to abstain led non-participation to rise to 39%, or 366,839 registered voters — more than double the usual abstention rate.

This result was obtained in the face of threats and intimidation by bosses who told workers they would loss their jobs if they did not vote and the menacing patrols of the fascist Union Juvenil Crucenista (UJC) — renowned for carrying out violent, racist attacks on indigenous people.

Oppressed mobilize

However, in the “other Santa Cruz” — such as the popular urban area of Plan Tres Mil and the rural areas of San Julian and Yacapani — organized resistance by the popular civic committee and indigenous campesino (peasant) organizations ensured the non-installation of voting tables.

Despite physical attacks by the UJC, which left more than 20 injured and one dead, in these areas abstention was almost total.

Across the country, massive mobilizations were organized by the powerful indigenous campesino organizations, together with trade unions and urban popular organizations. A week before, Morales had called for demonstrations in all capital cities, except Santa Cruz in order to avoid violence, behind the banner of national unity.

Underlying these events is an intense class struggle, infused with strong ethnic and regional components. The ruling elites are fighting to restore the political power they have begun to lose.

The election of Morales came on the back of five years of intense social struggle by the combative indigenous and campesino movements, which gave birth to an alternative national project based on the demands of nationalization of gas and a constituent assembly to refound Bolivia.

In December of 2005, unified behind its “political instrument” — MAS — this movement propelled former coca growers’ union leader Morales into the presidential palace.

Since then, Morales has initiated a process of returning Bolivia’s gas to state hands, begun implementing an agrarian reform and organised elections for a constituent assembly that has prepared a new draft constitution to be submitted to a national referendum.

For the oligarchy, particularly those with interests tied to the gas transnationals and agribusiness, these changes are intolerable.

Forced to retreat to its trenches in the east, the elite has run a propaganda line that combines rallying against “La Paz centralism,” tapping into the long held sentiments of a “crucenista [Santa Cruz] identity” and outright racism to regroup and mobilise a section of the white population of the east against the government — whose stronghold is in the impoverished and largely indigenous west. This campaign is receiving heavy funding from the U.S. government.

While it cannot be ruled out that the oligarchy could use these social base to move to divide Bolivia through secession, its main plan at the moment is to put a halt on the process unfolding since Morales’ election — aiming to wear down popular support for the government by forcing concessions from the government at the negotiating table and paving the way towards ultimately getting rid of him, via a coup or elections.

Post-referendum struggle

In this context, the results of the May 4 referendum were clearly not a victory for the oligarchy. Forced to rely on fraud and intimidation, the right was unable to get the resounding vote they would have required to turn the results of their illegal referendum into a legitimate mandate.

Yet nor was it a complete defeat — the large Yes vote showed that an important section of Santa Cruz continues to back the oligarchy.

For the popular movements, the important resistance of the “other Santa Cruz” represents a new phase in their struggle. This was reflected in the high abstention and the emergence of an important middle-class layer grouped around Santa Cruz Somos Todos, who, although not part of the MAS project, called for a No vote and support autonomy within the framework of the new constitution.

The actions of the counterrevolution have pushed those forces in favour of change towards greater unity. This was demonstrated in the May Day rallies where, importantly, the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB), which had until now been very critical of the government, was on the main stage promoting a united front.

The oligarchy, claiming victory from the May 4 vote, will undoubtedly be calling for a return to the negotiating table to force concessions out of the government to water down the new constitution and insert its autonomy statutes.

However, these two projects are incompatible. The government needs to shift the debate back to the draft constitution by calling the referendum for its approval as soon as possible — as the social movements are demanding.

Any autonomy must be within the framework of what has been democratically decided by the constituent assembly. In this way, the movements can counterpose their autonomy based on social justice and solidarity to that of the Santa Cruz elites and win support among the Santa Cruz population.

Moreover, the government needs to continue to implement its economic program of nationalizations — such as those announced on May 1, which included recuperating majority control of four gas transnationals and total control over ENTEL, Bolivia’s largest telecommunications company.

These moves can demonstrate the role of a strong national state and build the confidence and dignity of the popular movements and middle classes to continue pushing the democratic revolution forward.

These nationalizations, along with agrarian reform and wealth redistribution, are crucial to give further momentum to the popular movements. Together with continuing to give soldiers and officials in the armed forces an active role in enacting these measures, this would make possible a strong campaign to win them over to the side of the popular movements. It is a vital to strengthen the nationalist wing of the military against those right-wing elements conspiring to overthrow Morales.

To ensure that the result of May 4 can become a real victory for the popular forces, it is necessary to continue to develop the unity that has been built over the last few weeks to continue the mobilization of the masses and deepen the revolutionary process through decisive economic and political measures.

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