Bolivia: 'No going back'

September 7, 2008

On September 1, Bolivia's National Electoral Court (CNE) ruled that it would not allow the proposed December 7 referendum on a new constitution to go ahead.

In response, President Evo Morales and Bolivia's powerful social movements made clear their intention to mobilise in defence of the referendum.

Both have also come out strongly against the desperate and violent campaign by the right-wing opposition, which finds itself in a weakened position and divided following the massive 67.4% vote in favour of Morales and the process of change in the August 10 recall referendum.

In ruling against the electoral "combo" decreed by Morales on August 28, which includes a referendum on the new constitution, elections for new prefects in La Paz and Cochabamba (where opposition prefects were revoked) and elections for subprefects and departmental councillors, the CNE argued that these consultations could only be called via a law passed by congress.

While the ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party has a majority in the house of deputies, the opposition controls the senate.

The CNE also declared illegal the proposed "autonomy" referendum called by the anti-Morales indigenous prefect of Chuquisaca, as well as the elections called by leader of the radical wing of the opposition, Santa Cruz prefect Ruben Costas, to elect departmental legislators to a de facto local parliament to legislate for the department.

The call for elections to a departmental legislative body is in accordance with the illegal autonomy statutes promoted by the prefects of the "half moon" — the eastern departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija.


Finally approved by an elected constituent assembly amid of violent opposition protests in December, the proposed constitution dramatically expands indigenous rights within a new "plurinational" state, as well as codifies state control over natural resources, which the Morales government has already begun to carry out.

The opposition in the half moon have declared that they will not abide by this "racist" constitution "imposed" on the east, which does not include their vision of departmental autonomy.

The half moon authorities want to see the transfer of decision-making power over issues such as taxes, natural resources, land distribution and police forces out of the hands of the national government and to the departments.

The position coming from the presidential palace is that the referendum will goes ahead, based on the argument that Morales only set the date for a referendum already approved in February 2007, as part of the law to convoke the constituent assembly.

At the same time, Pablo Stefanoni in the September 3 issue of Argentine daily Clarin wrote that "voices in support of 'a serious dialogue', words that have lost meaning after a succession of failed attempts, have once again begun to make themselves heard. 'Enough with this stubbornness' pleaded the MAS deputy Gustavo Torrico."

"This is irreversible, there is no going back ... No matter what [the opposition] does, insult us, hit old people, hit children, carry out terrorism, burn houses, they will not hold us back", declared Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera, according to Bolpress on September 5.

"There will be complications because a minority right wing, cornered into some provinces of the country, continue to exist and have become violent, desperate, and want to generate conflict". For this reason, Bolivians have to "militantly defend our democratic rights", he argued.

"Victory is assured, but it will require mobilisations, consciousness-raising and support for Evo to continue move forward."

At the same time, Franz Chavez reported for IPS News on September 4 that "major discrepancies emerged among the right-wing authorities and landowning and business interests opposed to ... Morales in a 10-hour meeting held to coordinate a strategy aimed at the economic suffocation of the government".

The National Democratic Council (CONALDE), which included five provincial governors, business associations, conservative civic groups and legislators of the right-wing Podemos party, was held in Santa Cruz on September 3 to discuss a strategy to oppose the Morales government.

According to Chavez, following the crushing vote for Morales, in which the opposition half moon prefects also received a high vote, "the opposition attempted to weaken his government by creating food shortages through boycotts and roadblocks, but these measures petered out due to the losses suffered by producers and exporters".


The prefects have reverted to utilising violence and mobilising fascist youth to terrorise the local populations and challenge the government.

In Santa Cruz, MAS councillors and social movement activists have had attempts made against their lives, been bashed and had their houses burned down.

Recently, various state institutions became targets of oppositionists. In Pando, armed with bats and sticks, they occupied the Forestry Commission, the Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA), the Bolivian Administrator of Highways (ABC), the premises of the National Customs Office, the National Tax Service building (INS) and the National Directorate of Immigration of Pando.

On September 5, protesters attacked a Bolivian Air Force plane transporting anti-riot gear and tear gas to be used by security forces. Trying to set the plane alight, they took three soldiers hostage

The soldiers were released following negotiations with the military, but not before being bashed.

On September 2, members of the Beni Youth Union, modelled on the fascist Santa Cruz Youth Union (UJC), attempted to take over the offices of Internal Taxation in Trinidad with stones, sticks and firearms.

Impeded from entering these and other premises by the military police, the president of the Civic Committee of Beni, Alberto Melgar, gave a "deadline" of 48 hours for the commander of the army's 6th division, Coronel Fernando Rocabado, to abandon "Beni territory", reported ABI on September 4.

"The threat was repeated on Thursday, but it received a firm response from the military chief, who insisted that he would comply with his constitutional responsibility to ensure the security of the population of Beni". ABI reported.

In Tarija, violent groups took over natural gas compression stations that generate and supply electricity for parts of Tarija and Chuquisaca on September 4.

Raising opposition to these violent acts, several Podemos parliamentarians were kicked out of the CONALDE meeting. ABI reported on September 5 that the president of the National Chamber of Industries, Daniel Sanchez, also condemned the violent takeover of public institutions and asked the government to ensure that the law was implemented to guarantee the safety of the citizens and the institutions.

Denouncing the violence as part of a "civil coup", Morales called on the unity of the people and the armed forces to defend democracy.


Justice vice-minister Wilfredo Chavez argued that, confronted with this wave of violence, the government would reinforce the presence of security forces.

Implementing a state of emergency could not be ruled out, according to some MAS senators, although others fear that a crack-down by the state could stoke sympathy for the small violent groups among broader sectors opposed to the government.

The government issued a decree on September 4 that would give it the power to sanction prefects for involvement in damages to public institutions by reducing the amount of money transferred to them.

Meeting in the popular zone of Plan 3000 in Santa Cruz, the National Coalition for Change (CONALCAM), which groups the most important indigenous, campesino and social organisations, declared its support for the government's measures and resolved to campaign for the approval of the referendum.

Starting from September 15, they will begin to collect 150,000 signatures to demand that congress and the CNE go ahead with the constitution vote. According to Bolivian law, a national consultation can be called if 6% of the electorate sign a petition calling for it.

They also resolved to begin a national march on September 16, starting from Caracollo in Oruro, to La Paz, where they will surround the parliament until a law is approved to authorise the referendum.

They also supported a planned march on September 10 by indigenous and campesino organisations in Santa Cruz.

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