Bolivia: The clash of autonomies

June 22, 2007

Not for the first time in recent years, politics in Bolivia has spilled out of the official institutions and onto the streets. With the constituent assembly entering into its decisive phase — less than two months from its official deadline to draft a new constitution to present to the people in a referendum — Raul Prada, a delegate from the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS, the party of Bolivia's indigenous president, Evo Morales), told La Razon on June 18: "it has become sufficiently clear that the issues this assembly is dealing with will not be resolved only inside the assembly, but rather outside".

Unable to politically win the argument, in a country where opposition to rampant neoliberalism has already buried the administrations of two presidents since 2003, Bolivia's right-wing opposition has once again turned to threats and violence to pursue its agenda. On June 14, delegates from the right-wing PODEMOS party attacked a number of MAS delegates inside the assembly. Two days later, PODEMOS Senator Tito Hoz de Vila was quoted by Radio Erbol calling for the use of violence "without any limits or restrictions" to impede the progress of the assembly. Meanwhile, violent right-wing student protests have disrupted proceedings in the assembly.

On June 18, the Pro-Autonomy Junta called for a "state of citizen mobilisation to organise a civil and democratic resistance", declaring itself in open revolt against the central government and the assembly. The junta — which groups together the pro-business civic committees and opposition prefects of the four eastern departments (states) of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija (known as the half moon) — called on the military to play "its constitutional role". The junta stated that if its demands for greater departmental autonomy with legislative power were not met, it would "comply with the mandate of the people expressed in the cabildos [open town meetings] of December 15, 2006".

On that occasion, around half a million people mobilised in Santa Cruz, with smaller demonstrations in the other three department capitals. The cabildo proclaimed the intentions of those present to not acknowledge any new constitution that did not grant the departments autonomy. The mobilisations were organised by the civic committees and prefects, which together with the right wing party PODEMOS, act as the public face of Bolivia's economic elites, who are predominately based in the half-moon region and whose activities are centred on hydrocarbons and agriculture.

Elite outrage

As each vote is taken in the commissions of the constituent assembly, the cries of outrage and threats of violence by the elites escalate. It has become abundantly clear to them that not only does MAS have a majority in the constituent assembly, it is rapidly approaching the two-thirds majority that the right wing had previously been demanding as a way to veto any radical measures in the constitution. Moreover, MAS has continued to demonstrate its willingness to politically confront the right wing and impose the will of the indigenous majority within the assembly.

Since 2000 and the rise of Bolivia's new militant social movements — centred in the west and centre of Bolivia, where the indigenous, campesino and cocalero (coca growers) movements are predominately based, but reaching into the poor and indigenous communities of the east — the elites have progressively been pushed out of their traditional positions of power. This rebellion fuelled by opposition to neoliberalism and the colonial state, which was built on the exclusion of the indigenous majority, has helped establish Bolivia's first indigenous government: a watershed in Bolivia history that marks a before and after in the life of this country.

In the face of this rising indigenous power and loss of political hegemony over the west, the elites have attempted to protect their economic interests and political hold over sections of the population of the east through calls for autonomy. Around 80% of Bolivia's gas reserves, Latin America's second largest, and most of the large agribusiness sector are in the east.

This is the backdrop to the belligerent push for autonomy by the right wing. These calls have resonance among large sectors of the east, as shown by the victory of the "yes" vote in the half moon in the July 2, 2006, referendum on autonomy.

An article by Pablo Stefanoni for the May-June Nueva Sociedad quoted Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera explaining that while the economic power of the east grew over the last few decades, political power remained in the west, which is also the centre of the anti-neoliberal rebellion. Therefore, while in the west people associated the economic crisis with neoliberalism, "in the east — where the political and cultural hegemony of the economic elites persists — they associated these sufferings with La Paz-based centralism, not the economic model".

Using this popular sentiment, the economic elites hope to fend of the encroachment by the Morales government and maintain control over the profits from gas extraction. The push by the Morales government to nationalise natural resources — gas and minerals — has directly affected the elites' economic interests. At the same time, this has increased state revenue through taxes and royalties, which last year amounted to almost US$3 billion. This revenue will increase even more under the new gas controls and rising international prices.

Currently 57% of this goes into the national budget and 18.8% to the prefectures (the departmental administrations). The proposal coming from Santa Cruz is that the prefectures should control 70% — most of it remaining with the gas-rich eastern departments — a reflection of their inability to regain national hegemony, at least in the short term.

This is not just a struggle over who should control this revenue, but how it is used. At stake is whether Bolivia remains dependent on transnationals and the external market or moves forward through a process of industrialisation, centred on gas and regional energy integration, undermining imperialist domination over the country's economy.

The autonomy proposal by the Santa Cruz elites includes not just legislative powers and complete financial control over its designated revenue, but also the ability to establish international agreements separate from those of the national state.

Indigenous self-determination

Ironically, as the right wing continues to pursue departmental autonomy it has also launched a sustained campaign against the demand of indigenous autonomy. They have done so in order to raise fears of the division of Bolivia into 36 tiny indigenous nations.

The position of the MAS leadership has been that while it supports departmental autonomy, it must be within the framework of national unity, with legislative power, taxes, land, natural resources, the armed forces and police remaining under the control of the national state. Moreover, it must be combined with the proposal for indigenous autonomy.

In the majority report adopted by the constituent assembly's Vision of the Country commission, which was presented by MAS, article 2 of the new constitution would read: "Given the pre-colonial existence of the indigenous peoples and originario nations and their ancestral dominion over their territories, this constitution guarantees their free self-determination, which is expressed in the will to conform, and being part of, a united, plurinational, communitarian state, and in the right to self-government, their culture and reconstitution of their territorial entities within the framework of the constitution."

This demand for indigenous self-determination — aimed at achieving indigenous sovereignty over all matters of concern to indigenous identity such as language, culture, community structures and natural resources — is a powerful challenge to the rule of the oligarchy and a key demand of the indigenous majority that has been the driving force of Bolivia's process of change.

It is central to a reawakening of indigenous pride, which is shown by the fact that today more people identify as indigenous than a few decades ago, even though the number of people who speak an indigenous language has dropped. While more marginal indigenist sectors may talk of the reconstruction of the Qullasuyu (an independent Aymara state), today the overwhelming sentiment is a type of indigenous nationalism: asserting indigenous self-determination within the framework of the refounding of Bolivia by decolonising the state, regaining control over land and natural resources and creating a new vision of what it means to be Bolivian, based on respect for different cultures and ethnic pride.

The election of the indigenous government in Bolivia is the high-water mark in this struggle for indigenous self-determination in the Americas, a major leap towards consolidating the right of the indigenous people to assert majority rule within a plurinational state. Today, this same indigenous majority is putting its hopes for this new Bolivia in the constituent assembly.

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