A chain of events triggered by the passage of a new agrarian reform law, part of the "agrarian revolution" of indigenous President Evo Morales, has brought into sharp relief the drive by the right-wing opposition to overthrow Morales's government, even if it means pushing Bolivia towards a civil war.
On November 28, in front of thousands of cheering campesinos in La Paz, the left-wing president announced that the Senate had managed to pass the law, after three senators broke ranks with the opposition, which has been boycotting the Senate to prevent it from convening. The previous day, Morales had threatened to issue the law as a simple decree to get around the Senate.
Angered by this determined move, which gave the government greater powers to redistribute land that was not performing a "social function", the right-wing opposition launched a new phase in its destabilisation campaign, shifting the centre of gravity of the struggle to its home turf. A series of "cabildos" — open town meetings — were convoked on December 15 in the four eastern departments.
The core of Bolivia's opposition is the business elites from Santa Cruz, many of whom are tied to gas transnationals, large agribusiness and the US embassy. Their public face is the civic committee of Santa Cruz and the four opposition-controlled governorships of the east.
Santa Cruz's cabildo, the largest, brought half-a-million people onto the streets. The meeting resolved to not recognise the new constitution being drafted by the Constituent Assembly if it did not grant high levels of political, economic and administrative decentralisation to the governorships.
Rising tensions in the east saw clashes in the days leading up to and following the cabildos. Armed fascist youth organised by the Crucenista Youth Union patrolled the streets, attacking indigenous people, many of whom support Morales's Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and had migrated east over the last few years in search of employment.
That same day, rallies of several thousand were held in La Paz and El Alto condemning the divisive calls by the right and proclaiming themselves in favour of national unity and the process of change being led by Morales.
However, it was comments that day by Cochabamba governor Manfred Reyes Villa in favour of a new referendum on autonomy, and in support of the "independence of Santa Cruz", that swung the site of battle to the heart of Bolivia. Despite attempting to clarify afterwards that he had been wrong in referring to "independence", his statements — in a department where 64% voted against autonomy in a July 2 nationwide referendum and where MAS and Morales are particularly strong — meant Reyes Villa had triggered off a showdown.
Although there was an immediate response by the social movements, the mass mobilisations were deferred to after the New Year break. By January 8, tens of thousands of campesinos, cocaleros (coca growers), workers and other social movements had occupied the centre of Cochabamba demanding Reyes Villa resign for not listening to the will of the people. Attacked by the police, protesters burned down part of the building housing the offices of the governorship.
On January 11, residents from the middle-class northern suburbs of Cochabamba, incited by Reyes Villa and the corporate media, marched into the centre of the city armed with sticks, golf clubs and even firearms to confront the campesinos. They broke through police lines and viciously attacked the protesters, resulting in several hours of street clashes. More than a hundred people were injured and two died.
In response, Morales, cutting short an international trip, returned on January 12 in his dual capacity as president of the republic and of the Six Federations of Cocaleros of Cochabamba, a key force in the mobilisations. Morales said the conflict was one between the social movements and Cochabamba's authorities, but he squarely pointed the finger of blame at Reyes Villa, while asking the social movements to contribute to a solution through dialogue and remaining within the law.
"Now I am much more convinced that the indigenous peasant movement represents the moral reserve of humanity", said Morales, calling on the social movements to avoid any further violence or revenge attacks. He proposed to press through a new law to allow a recall referendum for all elected officials, to avoid further confrontations between those who held positions "legally" but not "legitimately" in the eyes of the population.
The same day, a cabildo of the protesters voted to radicalise their actions by cutting off the city from the rest of the country and not leaving until Reyes Villa resigned. Reyes Villa, fearing for both his safety and political future, went into "exile" in Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Civic Committee welcomed him with open arms, having already called for a 24-hour stoppage on January 16 in solidarity with the besieged governor.
Three days later a cabildo was convened in El Alto, where altenos declared themselves in a "war to the death" until they received the resignation of both Reyes Villa and La Paz governor Jose Luis Paredes, who had also recently come out in favour of autonomy. They gave Paredes 48 hours to resign or else be forced out.
On the other side of the country, in Santa Cruz, a rally called by the newly formed Popular Civic Committee, made up of organisations of the lower classes opposed to the official, right-wing controlled committee, suspended its mobilisation, fearing violent attacks. "We suspended the mobilisation … because there are other people who have gone there and are going around saying that they will not let us meet", declared Saturnino Pinto, president of the committee. He said the mobilisation would be postponed "until the authorities follow the law and tell us where we can meet without confrontations".
Reporting on the second cabildo held in Cochabamba on January 16, Pablo Stefanoni noted that the leaders of the key social organsations that had led the demonstrations were now "uncomfortable faced with the determination of the campesinos. They were facing pressure from both sides: the calls from the presidential palace and from their base, each time more radicalised after days of sleeping in plazas and precarious trade union headquarters."
In the end they put forward a resolution that although continuing to call on the governor to resign and maintaining the "state of emergency", gave the departmental council — controlled by a MAS majority — the mandate to continue meeting in Reyes Villa's absence in order to work out a legal way to remove him.
Stefanoni reported that the "pressure coming from the government had its effect. Bit by bit the leaders who respond to Evo Morales — especially the cocaleros — began disappearing and the massive presence in the plaza began contracting". Small groups of ultra-radicals decided to proclaim their own new prefect and "revolutionary government" and enter the governor's office, only to be easily repelled by the police. It seemed that a truce, albeit temporary, had been achieved.
However, the conflict is far from over. These two political projects — that represented by Santa Cruz elite, and that of the indigenous majority led by Morales — continue to battle for the future of the country.
With the advent of neoliberalism in Bolivia in 1985, the Santa Cruz elite, which had gained economic influence during the dictatorship years, moved to occupy directly or indirectly control positions in the state administration. Through the establishment of several pro-oligarchy parties that "fought it out" in a "pacted" democracy, they were able to preside over an illusory stability.
However, with the resurgence of struggle in 2000 by the indigenous people of the west and centre of Bolivia and the rise of the indigenous- and campesino-led Popular Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People — which runs under the registered name of MAS in elections — this stability was shattered.
With the October 2003 overthrow of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the elite began to gradually be displaced from the positions they traditionally held and the direct access they had to national decision-making.
Moreover, confronted with an organised indigenous majority in the west, hostile to neoliberalism and overwhelmingly supportive of Morales (polls in December showed 62% support for Morales in La Paz and 79% in El Alto), they began to build a political bloc, geographically based in the east (where Morales's support drops to a modest 35%), around the defence of "autonomy" and "democracy".
The aim was to solidify hegemony in the east, where the social movements are weaker and in many cases aligned with the elites, to shield themselves from the encroaching west. Strengthened, they could then move towards regaining influence in the west.
Their plan has been to confuse the population, projecting an image of instability outside of the country, coupled with calls for "international intervention" and stalling, by any means necessary, the "democratic and cultural revolution" initiated by Morales's overwhelming December 2005 election victory. By demobilising and promoting disillusionment among Bolivia's combative social movements, they hope to create the conditions to bring down Morales and his government.
They have been aided by the problems in the Constituent Assembly, which despite having been convened on August 6 has yet to even resolve its rules of procedure, because the balance of forces has allowed the right wing to stall the process.
The calls of autonomy are aimed at securing control of natural resources and wealth for the governorships, while the elite waits in the wings to recapture control of the central government. This helps undermine what the MAS government is able to do, and talk of "independence" also conjures up the fears of the disintegration of Bolivia and helps build support for its bid to take back the central government.
Added to this is the factor of the armed forces. Although Morales has been trying to incorporate the armed forces into his project, few are willing to speculate as to what is happening within an army that throughout its history has swung behind, or led, both pro-imperialist and nationalist regimes.
The latest push by the opposition has demonstrated its continuing hegemony over large sections of the population in the east, although it has also revealed an emerging, yet still weak, popular movement among the poorer sectors in Santa Cruz's surrounds.
The street presence of the opposition, the concerted media campaign and the troubles in the Constituent Assembly seem to have swung a section of the urban middle class, which voted for Morales a year ago on the idea that "if a blockader is in government then the blockades will stop", behind the consolidating bloc in defence of "democracy" and "autonomy".
However, it has also revealed that Bolivia's powerful social movements, which for now are almost entirely behind the Morales government, have not forgotten that their power lies in mass mobilisation. They demonstrated this on the streets of Cochabamba.
As Latin American opposition to Washington continues to grow — led by Cuba and Venezuela, which were recently joined by Ecuador and Nicaragua in the expanding Bolivarian axis — the US is looking for some way to counterattack. Within this alliance, the role of Morales as an indigenous president, consciously reaching out to indigenous struggles in the region, is crucial. The current push in Bolivia, perhaps seen as the weak link in this axis, is undoubtedly aimed at smashing this powerful example.