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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La boîte de Pandore de la fièvre sécessionniste bolivienne

by Gérard Devienne

Pandora’s Box : Secessionist Fever in Bolivia

A new autonomy referendum in the “departamento” (region) of Tarija might well accentuate tensions even as Evo Morales is confronted with the worst crisis since his accession to the presidency in early 2006.

Translated Tuesday 1 July 2008, by Isabelle Métral

La Paz from our special correspondent

The separatist wind of revolt in the four “departamentos” (regions) of the half moon has widened the rift between the white and rich East and the poor and indigenously populated West.

In Santa Cruz where the autonomy status was backed by barely 50% of voters on May 4, disappointment is setting in following demagogic promises that cannot be so easily kept, like the doubling of the minimum wage. In the departamentos of Beni and Pando abstention has hit record levels, while yes votes either barely represented 50% of all registered voters (in the case of Beni) or were below that mark (as was the case in Pando). Hence the Right’s anxiety over the referendum to be held in the region of Tarija on June 22.

The autonomy fever has opened Pandora’s box. To prevent white, local cambas oligarchies from grabbing the oil, gas, and land revenues, their counterparts in the hydrocarbon-rich provinces (the nine departamentos are divided into 100 provinces) have come out in favour of the creation of a tenth departamento that would hold 90% of the country’s hydrocarbon resources so as to lie beyond the reach of a new, regionalist centralism. Obviously, this can only add fuel to the secessionist fire, from which the Right is hoping to emerge with a clean slate even after selling off the natural resources.

The new constitution has yet to be ratified by the people’s vote. Although it marks a break with the pro-market model that has so far prevailed, especially in its provisions for the nationalization of natural resources and a land reform to put an end to latifundia, it contains several other provisions that are liable to alienate potential middle-class government allies. The text’s excessively pro-native philosophy is often denounced, as are the native community’s anti-communist, anti-union biases in and around governmental circles. The greater challenge, besides, is still for the government to promote a healthy economy and create jobs when 40% of the country’s trade and craft industry depend on the unofficial sector. That would help bring home some of the exiled.

If popular discontent threatens, notably over the 8% inflation, still undeniable progress has been made. Evo Morales has started delivering on his promises to “share out the cake more evenly”. Wages have gone up by 20%; low-interest loans have been granted to small firms. Forty hospitals, offered by Cuba, now cover previously neglected rural areas.

The nationalization of hydrocarbon and telephone companies has made it possible to finance a universal pensions scheme and set up a minimum pension. The allowance given to each pupil has eased the burden on poor families and kept more young people in school and away from work. The universal literacy campaign is about to end (the illiteracy rate was 60%).

But the current tensions undermine the cohesion of political, social, and military forces. The national leaders of Podemos (the party for democratic and social power), former President Jorge Quiroga’s party, who drafted the autonomy statutes, now find their authority challenged in the half moon, where Rubén Costas, the Santa Cruz prefecto (governor), cuts an autocratic caudillo figure. The COB (Bolivian Trade-Union Congress) is divided over the issue of the autonomy statutes as well as on its own program of actions.

Voices on the Far Left criticize the form chosen for nationalizations: buying back shares instead of sheer expropriation. Rifts also appear within the army between the high command (which remains faithful to the government) and the middle ranks. Many human-rights activists reproach the army and police for their passivity in the face of anti-native racist violence.

Marcos Domich, secretary of the communist party, notes that “the government does not make the most of its authority in order to enforce its policy. The MAS (movement toward socialism), a heterogeneous alliance of social movements, lacks a clear ideological line: each component serves its own interest.”; and finally declares that “the Bolivian Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Trotskyite and Maoist Far Left, which have joined forces to form the Anti-imperialist Revolutionary Alliance, have proposed meeting Evo Morales to analyse the situation and bring their contribution.”

Bolivia, which has long been familiar with violent convulsions, is now enjoying the lull that precedes a storm – a storm that the opposition press (that is, almost all of the Bolivian press) is busy fomenting. Carlos Dietrich, an engineer who dreams of setting up a paper in Santa Cruz to counter the bulldozers of the press that serves the oligarchy’s interests, believes that “having set out on the road to deep social changes, the Bolivian people will be capable of upholding them in the ballot box, or if necessary by taking up arms, despite the hardships and traps along the way.”

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