Monday, October 06, 2008

Crisis in Bolivia

Eva Morales uses democratic and diplomatic means to tackle right-wing opposition.

The domestic and international reaction to the Left parties that are in office in a number of countries in South America – most notably in Bolivia and Venezuela – has tended to utilise violent, non-democratic and even means of sabotage to destabilise the regimes. The ongoing developments in Bolivia are the most notable examples of the tactics of the opposition.

Bolivia is home to one of the most concentrated landownership patterns, particularly in the east, where a handful of big estate owners control large tracts of land. It is also home to vast reserves of natural gas and oil. In response to moves by the government headed by the socialist Eva Morales for a more equitable distribution of resources, the recent months have seen multiple attempts by a variety of right-wing, conservative and propertied forces to destabilise the country, allegedly aided and abetted by the United States (which needless to state has always gone out of its way to undermine elected Left governments in South America).

Eva Morales, the leader of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), is the first person of indigenous origin to be elected president of the country. Since coming to power in 2005, his government has tried to address the various inequalities in the vastly poor and land-locked country through land reforms, redistribution of returns from oil and natural gas production, and by enacting a new egalitarian constitution. The draft constitution, prepared after Morales came to power, envisages redistribution of wealth garnered from the extraction of natural resources to poorer provinces in the west and for use in funding welfare programmes that will benefit the poor, most of whom belong to long suppressed indigenous communities living on poor wages and by subsistence farming.

Predictably, these moves have received stiff resistance from the conservative elites in the country, particularly those governing the energy-rich and mestizo (people of mixed, European and indigenous, ancestry) dominated provinces in the east, such as Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija. To pre-empt these moves, the governors of the eastern provinces organised referendums on autonomy, which were deemed separatist and illegal by the central authority. In response to these referendums, Morales announced a national recall referendum for himself and vice president Alvaro Garcia, a risky move but one that paid off for Morales as he won 67 per cent of the vote, much higher than the percentage garnered in the elections in 2005.

Morales, following his victory, has tried to back a new political constitution set to be put to vote next year through another national referendum. This draft constitution includes concessions on autonomy as demanded by the provincial governors, who have formed a right-wing umbrella organisation, the National Democratic Council (Conalde), in opposition to Morales’ MAS. Yet, the response by Conalde since the recall referendum has been to take absolute control of these provinces by the use of force in capturing central government-run institutions, particularly the land reform offices and gas companies.

The crisis in September was precipitated when Morales alleged that the US was playing the role of an agent provocateur and charged the US ambassador of conspiring with the rebel governors. Relations between the US and the Morales-led government have never been very cordial, with the former using its policy of “War against Drugs” to undercut its relations with the Bolivian government. Morales has steadfastly opposed any moves to ban coca farming, as this is used for medicinal and herbal treatment purposes in the country.

When the crisis grew and violent incidents in the provinces began taking place, the US ambassador to Bolivia was expelled, triggering a reciprocal response by Washington. The role of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in funding initiatives by these provincial governors in the near past has also been called into question. This is not surprising, as the US has a history of meddling and intervening in South American countries going back to the Salvador Allende era in Chile, a trend that has been infused with new vigour after the shift to the left in many countries in the continent.

The Morales government has reacted with restraint to the violent tactics of the conservative opposition. It has garnered support in many countries in South America, which have rallied to the side of the Bolivian government and have denounced any moves that would be detrimental to the unity of the country. Resisting pressure from many quarters to stop being “pacifist” in dealing with the violent opposition groups, the Morales government has held on to this path despite provocations such as the massacre of MAS supporters in the Pando province. Morales’ patient and steady response has yielded a few dividends as the army – whose leadership is dominated by conservatives – has now come out on the side of the central government placing the opposition on the defensive.

The Bolivian story shows once again that the right-wing opposition in the continent will use any tactic to defeat radical reform, even of the social democratic variety. In this case, the conservatives in the rich provinces of the east have exploited the issue of regional autonomy to undermine the programmes to address centuries of economic exploitation and inequity in Bolivia. The constant mobilisation of the people through democratic means and building solidarity with international players must continue for the reform process to succeed. In this regard, the Morales government is on the right track.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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