The Clash Of Autonomies
By Federico Fuentes
25 June, 2007
for the first time in recent years, politics in Bolivia has spilled
out of the official institutions and onto the streets. With the constituent
assembly entering into its decisive phase — less than two months
from its official deadline to draft a new constitution to present to
the people in a referendum — Raul Prada, a delegate from the Movement
Towards Socialism (MAS, the party of Bolivia's indigenous president,
Evo Morales), told La Razon on June 18: "it has become sufficiently
clear that the issues this assembly is dealing with will not be resolved
only inside the assembly, but rather outside".
Unable to politically win
the argument, in a country where opposition to rampant neoliberalism
has already buried the administrations of two presidents since 2003,
Bolivia's right-wing opposition has once again turned to threats and
violence to pursue its agenda. On June 14, delegates from the right-wing
PODEMOS party attacked a number of MAS delegates inside the assembly.
Two days later, PODEMOS Senator Tito Hoz de Vila was quoted by Radio
Erbol calling for the use of violence "without any limits or restrictions"
to impede the progress of the assembly. Meanwhile, violent right-wing
student protests have disrupted proceedings in the assembly.
On June 18, the Pro-Autonomy
Junta called for a "state of citizen mobilisation to organise a
civil and democratic resistance", declaring itself in open revolt
against the central government and the assembly. The junta — which
groups together the pro-business civic committees and opposition prefects
of the four eastern departments (states) of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando
and Tarija (known as the half moon) — called on the military to
play "its constitutional role". The junta stated that if its
demands for greater departmental autonomy with legislative power were
not met, it would "comply with the mandate of the people expressed
in the cabildos [open town meetings] of December 15, 2006".
On that occasion, around
half a million people mobilised in Santa Cruz, with smaller demonstrations
in the other three department capitals. The cabildo proclaimed the intentions
of those present to not acknowledge any new constitution that did not
grant the departments autonomy. The mobilisations were organised by
the civic committees and prefects, which together with the right wing
party PODEMOS, act as the public face of Bolivia's economic elites,
who are predominately based in the half-moon region and whose activities
are centred on hydrocarbons and agriculture.
As each vote is taken in
the commissions of the constituent assembly, the cries of outrage and
threats of violence by the elites escalate. It has become abundantly
clear to them that not only does MAS have a majority in the constituent
assembly, it is rapidly approaching the two-thirds majority that the
right wing had previously been demanding as a way to veto any radical
measures in the constitution. Moreover, MAS has continued to demonstrate
its willingness to politically confront the right wing and impose the
will of the indigenous majority within the assembly.
Since 2000 and the rise of
Bolivia's new militant social movements — centred in the west
and centre of Bolivia, where the indigenous, campesino and cocalero
(coca growers) movements are predominately based, but reaching into
the poor and indigenous communities of the east — the elites have
progressively been pushed out of their traditional positions of power.
This rebellion fuelled by opposition to neoliberalism and the colonial
state, which was built on the exclusion of the indigenous majority,
has helped establish Bolivia's first indigenous government: a watershed
in Bolivia history that marks a before and after in the life of this
In the face of this rising
indigenous power and loss of political hegemony over the west, the elites
have attempted to protect their economic interests and political hold
over sections of the population of the east through calls for autonomy.
Around 80% of Bolivia's gas reserves, Latin America's second largest,
and most of the large agribusiness sector are in the east.
This is the backdrop to the
belligerent push for autonomy by the right wing. These calls have resonance
among large sectors of the east, as shown by the victory of the "yes"
vote in the half moon in the July 2, 2006, referendum on autonomy.
An article by Pablo Stefanoni
for the May-June Nueva Sociedad quoted Vice-President Alvaro Garcia
Linera explaining that while the economic power of the east grew over
the last few decades, political power remained in the west, which is
also the centre of the anti-neoliberal rebellion. Therefore, while in
the west people associated the economic crisis with neoliberalism, "in
the east — where the political and cultural hegemony of the economic
elites persists — they associated these sufferings with La Paz-based
centralism, not the economic model".
Using this popular sentiment,
the economic elites hope to fend of the encroachment by the Morales
government and maintain control over the profits from gas extraction.
The push by the Morales government to nationalise natural resources
— gas and minerals — has directly affected the elites' economic
interests. At the same time, this has increased state revenue through
taxes and royalties, which last year amounted to almost US$3 billion.
This revenue will increase even more under the new gas controls and
rising international prices.
Currently 57% of this goes
into the national budget and 18.8% to the prefectures (the departmental
administrations). The proposal coming from Santa Cruz is that the prefectures
should control 70% — most of it remaining with the gas-rich eastern
departments — a reflection of their inability to regain national
hegemony, at least in the short term.
This is not just a struggle
over who should control this revenue, but how it is used. At stake is
whether Bolivia remains dependent on transnationals and the external
market or moves forward through a process of industrialisation, centred
on gas and regional energy integration, undermining imperialist domination
over the country's economy.
The autonomy proposal by
the Santa Cruz elites includes not just legislative powers and complete
financial control over its designated revenue, but also the ability
to establish international agreements separate from those of the national
Ironically, as the right
wing continues to pursue departmental autonomy it has also launched
a sustained campaign against the demand of indigenous autonomy. They
have done so in order to raise fears of the division of Bolivia into
36 tiny indigenous nations.
The position of the MAS leadership
has been that while it supports departmental autonomy, it must be within
the framework of national unity, with legislative power, taxes, land,
natural resources, the armed forces and police remaining under the control
of the national state. Moreover, it must be combined with the proposal
for indigenous autonomy.
In the majority report adopted
by the constituent assembly's Vision of the Country commission, which
was presented by MAS, article 2 of the new constitution would read:
"Given the pre-colonial existence of the indigenous peoples and
originario nations and their ancestral dominion over their territories,
this constitution guarantees their free self-determination, which is
expressed in the will to conform, and being part of, a united, plurinational,
communitarian state, and in the right to self-government, their culture
and reconstitution of their territorial entities within the framework
of the constitution."
This demand for indigenous
self-determination — aimed at achieving indigenous sovereignty
over all matters of concern to indigenous identity such as language,
culture, community structures and natural resources — is a powerful
challenge to the rule of the oligarchy and a key demand of the indigenous
majority that has been the driving force of Bolivia's process of change.
It is central to a reawakening
of indigenous pride, which is shown by the fact that today more people
identify as indigenous than a few decades ago, even though the number
of people who speak an indigenous language has dropped. While more marginal
indigenist sectors may talk of the reconstruction of the Qullasuyu (an
independent Aymara state), today the overwhelming sentiment is a type
of indigenous nationalism: asserting indigenous self-determination within
the framework of the refounding of Bolivia by decolonising the state,
regaining control over land and natural resources and creating a new
vision of what it means to be Bolivian, based on respect for different
cultures and ethnic pride.
The election of the indigenous
government in Bolivia is the high-water mark in this struggle for indigenous
self-determination in the Americas, a major leap towards consolidating
the right of the indigenous people to assert majority rule within a
plurinational state. Today, this same indigenous majority is putting
its hopes for this new Bolivia in the constituent assembly.
Federico Fuentes is a frequent writer for the Australian
socialist newspaper, Green Left Weekly , and maintains the blog Bolivia
Share Your Insights
it! And spread the word!
Here is a unique chance to help this article to be read by thousands
of people more. You just Digg it, and it will appear in the home page
of Digg.com and thousands more will read it. Digg is nothing but an
vote, the article with most votes will go to the top of the page. So,
as you read just give a digg and help thousands more to read this article.