On June 1, the eastern Bolivian provinces of Beni and Pando followed the May 4 referendum in Santa Cruz, holding referendums for “autonomy” from the national government. Together with Tarija, whose “autonomy” referendum is scheduled for June 21, these four eastern provinces, known as the “half moon”, are a stronghold of the right-wing oligarchy that is attempting to destablise the government of President Evo Morales.
Below is a June 2 article by Paul Kellogg, originally published at Polecon.net, on what is behind the referendums, which have no legal standing under Bolivian law.
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On June 1, the eastern Bolivian provinces of Beni and Pando followed the May 4 referendum in Santa Cruz, holding referendums for "autonomy" from the national government. Together with Tarija, whose "autonomy" referendum is scheduled for June 21, these four eastern provinces, known as the "half moon", are a stronghold of the right-wing oligarchy that is attempting to destablise the government of President Evo Morales.
To understand the recent "autonomy" referendums in Bolivia, don't count the ballots — travel to the south-central city of Sucre. On May 24, a horrific scene of racism and violence played out that exposed the reactionary nature of the forces fighting for "autonomy".
That day, Morales was scheduled to appear in Sucre to announce the delivery of new ambulances and government funding for local projects.
However in the lead-up, according to a May 27 Inter-Press Service article, "organized groups opposed to Morales began to surround the stadium where he was to appear a few hours later. Confronting the police and soldiers with sticks, stones and dynamite, they managed to occupy the stadium."
It was a racist occupation. Morales cancelled his visit, but the mob wasn't satisfied. They surrounded several dozen Morales supporters — many of them Quechua Indians — robbed them, forced them to walk several kilometres, and then "to kneel, shirtless, and apologize for coming to Sucre", according to the IPS.
Morales is an Aymara Indian, the first indigenous president in Bolivia's history. Bolivia's population is two-thirds indigenous, mainly Quechua and Aymara. The largely indigenous people of the western highlands were the key to the election victory of Morales' Movement to Socialism (MAS) in 2005, when Morales won the presidency.
The racist mob that attacked his supporters in Sucre are part of a movement rooted in the European minority of Bolivia, resentful of Morales' attempt to redistribute wealth.
Central to that redistribution is a new constitution that will allow greater access to the land for the indigenous majority. This majority has been fighting for equality for centuries. It took a revolution in 1952 to abolish a system called pongaje, whereby rural indigenous people were virtual slaves to white landowners.
This is the necessary background to the "autonomy" referendums. On May 4, the voters in Santa Cruz supposedly voted "with a majority of no less than 85 per cent" to have greater autonomy, according to a June 2 Radio Netherlands Worldwide report. On June 1, the departments of Beni and Pando also voted for autonomy, "with a majority of nearly half a million".
But these claims are quite dubious. First, these referendums do not have legal status, and Morales' instructions to his supporters were to refuse to participate.
The "high rate of abstention in various provinces in Santa Cruz such as Camiri (42%), Puerto Suárez (31%), Montero (62%), Portachuelo (19%), San Ignacio de Velasco (17.8%), Charagua (40%) and Saipina (60%), indicate an overall abstention rate of between 40-45%, according to the Bolivian Information Agency", a May 5 Venezuelanalysis.com article reported.
As British-based journalist Mike Gonzalez pointed out in a May 10 British Socialist Worker article, those who did vote, often did so out of fear, voting "under the watchful eye of the thugs of the UJC — the neo-fascist youth organization of Santa Cruz".
The referendums all are couched in demands for "autonomy". These demands are accepted uncritically in most of the Western media. More balanced coverage is available from Al Jazeera.
On June 2, Al Jazeera reported, the autonomy statutes in the referendums "would protect huge cattle ranches and soya plantations from expropriation under Morales' ambitious land reform. Santa Cruz also voted to withhold a bigger share of its natural gas reserves, which Morales needs to finance his reforms, although the state has yet to enforce the rule."
The threat of withholding the natural gas reserves is now a central issue. The next referendum will take place in Tarija — the centre of most of Bolivia's gas reserves.
It is critically important that Venezuela has rejected the results of these "autonomy" referendums. Venezuela's representative to the Organization of American States, Jorge Valero, said he was certain that a majority of Bolivians rejected the results in Santa Cruz, "despite the media terrorism which aimed to persuade them of the suicidal policy of dividing their country", according to Venezuelanalysis.com.
These referendums are not just a cover for the European elite in Bolivia — they are seen by US imperialism as a vehicle for undermining the new sovereignty movements that are challenging its hegemony everywhere in Latin America.
Respected analyst Eva Golinger has convincingly documented that two US-government funded agencies notorious for undermining popular movements in Latin America — USAID and the so-called National Endowment for Democracy (NED) — are deeply involved in supporting the "autonomy" movement.
"In Bolivia", she wrote in a September 12, 2007 Venezuelanalaysis.com article, USAID "is openly supporting the autonomy of certain regions … and therefore promoting separatism and the destabilization of the country … [The NED] which promotes subversion and intervention in more than 70 countries across the world, including Venezuela, is also funding groups [that] fight for separatism."
We all have a stake in the desperate struggle underway in the poorest country in South America. It was in Bolivia, in 1999, that the poor rose up and delivered a central blow against neoliberalism when a mass movement in Cochabamba stopped the privatisation of water.
If the forces of neoliberalism and imperialism succeed in reversing this movement, all the people of the Americas will suffer, not just the poor and the oppressed in Bolivia.