Pablo Stefanoni, La Paz
The arrows being fired between President Evo Morales and sectors of the Bolivian business elite found a new setting on June 2: the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The heart of this rich area, which has embarked on an offensive in favour of regional autonomy, was taken over by poor peasants who arrived from the most far-flung populations to celebrate the launch of the "agrarian revolution" headed by Morales.
"Justice, land and liberty", exclaimed some of the placards, carried by inhabitants of the "other Santa Cruz". Their faces and silhouettes contrasted with the "tall, white and English speaking" definition of the people of Santa Cruz recently offered by a Miss Bolivia.
This was the setting chosen by the Bolivian president to respond — in words and deeds — to the challenge launched two days before by a group of business organisations that had criticised Morales's economic policies, including his projected agrarian reform.
"When did these bosses' organisations raise their voices against imperial ambassadors that acted as viceroys? When did they oppose the entry of foreign soldiers in order to massacre and humiliate the indigenous peoples and peasants in the name of 'zero coca'?", he asked the peasants that had arrived to support him.
On June 2, seven of the nine private business owners' confederations published an appeal that denounced the new government for lacking an economic plan, rejected the nationalisation of hydrocarbons and denounced the "ideological adventure" that was creating a strong "dependence on Cuba and Venezuela".
The following day, Morales responded by describing the business owners' manifesto as "a solicitation of a group of militants from Podemos [the right-wing opposition] against the nationalisation of hydrocarbons". At the same time, Morales distinguished between "productive and patriotic business owners" and those who are "traitors and parasites of the state". Morales emphasised his 81% support in recent polls. "Those polls are only taken in the cities, in the countryside I feel 100% support", he said.
The other battlefront that opened up on June 1 was against the large landowners of the National Agrarian Confederation (CAN), whose representatives withdrew from dialogue with the government, unhappy with the official policy of redistribution of idle and public land. "They say that the peasants have taken over land, but the landowners, their parents and grandparents have subjugated us for more than 500 years and even today they continue to take over public lands", Morales said to applause. "Until now, we have been talking of public land, but the next step will be the large landowners who do not comply with their social and economic function. I am not afraid", Morales roared.
The issue of land is one of the thorniest that the Bolivian government has on its hands, as it also converges with the Santa Cruz elite's claims to autonomy. It is not a coincidence that one of the main demands of these elites is that the local government should be able to hand out titles for property that cannot be revised by the national government.
On June 3, Morales accompanied his words with action; he signed decrees envisaging the distribution of public land (around 2.5 million hectares) among communities and peasant unions as well as revoking the concessions on forest areas that had been transformed into the property of dealers by the previous government of Carlos Mesa.
Morales explained to his followers that the agrarian reform of 1953 only distributed land, while the current "agrarian revolution" is about "lands, markets and modernisation of farming".
To round off his challenge to the business elites, Morales launched an attack against the owner of Unitel, the main television network, which is opposed to the government. "I am telling the Monasterios family to return their land", acquired through trafficking, "or else we will take it off them".
Morales also referred to one of the government's successes of that week: the tender of the El Mutun iron ore mine, which had generated strong tensions with Santa Cruz after the government postponed its tender earlier this year, and which has now ended up in the hands of an Indian company, Jindal Steel and Power. Morales emphasised that the situation when he came to power was "the one the oligarchs wanted — we were only going to export primary materials without any benefits for the state", but "now, the resources will be industrialised".
[To read Morales's statement in response to the business owners' declaration, visit <http://www.greenleft.org.au>.]
From Green Left Weekly, June 14, 2006.
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