Bolivia’s Autonomist Right — A Dangerous Threat

Against the Current, No. 135, July/August 2008

Jeffery R. Webber

AUTONOMIST RIGHT-WING forces in the Bolivian department (state) of Santa Cruz — acting through the offices of the prefecture (governorship) and Santa Cruz Civic Committee — held an illegal May 4 rerendum on departmental autonomy. According to the consulting agency Captura Consulting the “yes” side won 85% of the votes cast, with 15% against. However, many organizations within the left-indigenous bloc of the department had called for a boycott of the referendum, and were successful in obtaining an abstention rate of over 40%. Compare that to the remarkably low abstention rate of 15% in the December 2005 general elections that brought Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, to office at the national level. Nonetheless, the right declared results a triumphant victory.

Many facts suggest that the results of the referendum were circumspect. The process violated the constitution and was declared illegal by the judiciary branch of the Bolivian state and the democratically-elected Morales government. There were no external observers at the referendum to ensure transparency and an environment free of intimidation, nor to evaluate the counting of ballots and final results.

Instead, some polling stations were policed by the thugs of the Cruceño Youth Union (UJC), a notoriously racist and violent group of neo-fascists whose members act as the shock troops behind the respectable face of the autonomist movement. No governments with membership in the Organization of American States (OAS) recognized the results of the referendum.

These clear irregularities, though, did not prevent the other three departments of the so-called “media luna” (half moon), in which right-wing autonomist forces hold sway, from announcing similarly illegal referendums for the following month. On June 1, Pando and Beni held their referendums, with Tarija scheduling one for June 22. In Pando, 81% of votes cast favoured autonomy, but, as in Santa Cruz, the boycott campaign was quite successful, with 41% of eligible voters abstaining. In Beni, 80% of cast votes were for the “yes” side, but 32% abstained. The referendum in Tarija has not yet taken place at the time of writing.

These four lowland departments are home to the extreme right of political forces within the country, representing the coalescence of large agro-industrial capitalists (mainly exporters of soy and sunflower oil, as well as cattle ranchers), foreign and domestic petroleum capitalists (Bolivia has the second largest deposits of natural gas in South America after Venezuela), and foreign and domestic finance capitalists — many of the biggest players in this scene are involved in all of these sectors simultaneously.

The elite in question is mainly white or mestizo (mixed race), while the majority of the country’s peasant and proletarian masses are indigenous. The regional elite’s aim is to retain the economic and racial privileges they derive from the political, social and economic arrangements of the status quo. This would mean squashing both the revolutionary aims of the left-indigenous movements that rose up in an insurrectionary cycle between 2000 and 2005 and the moderately reformist objectives of the government of Evo Morales that assumed office in early 2006.

The current situation is an extremely dangerous one. And yet, it is also an opportunity for the Bolivian process to change course from indecisive reformism to revolutionary audacity.

ATC 135, July-August 2008