Relative calm has returned to Bolivia following a three-week offensive of violence and terrorism launched by the US-backed right-wing opposition denounced by Bolivian President Evo Morales as a “civil coup.”
This campaign of terror, centered on the four resource-rich eastern departments (Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni, and Tarija) known as the media luna (half moon), was initiated following a national referendum in which Morales’s presidency was endorsed by 67.4% of the vote — greater than the almost 54% that voted for him in 2005 and with a higher voter turnout.
The violence was an attempt to impose by force what was lost at the ballot box.
Violently assaulting civilians, police officers, and soldiers, occupying and burning public buildings, blowing up gas pipelines, and blockading roads were among the tactics of the pro-neoliberal forces of the opposition, which used fascist shock troops of racist armed youth gangs, such as the Santa Cruz Youth Union (UJC).
The worst violence occurred on September 11, with the massacre in Pando of unarmed indigenous campesinos — including children and pregnant women — who were marching against the racist violence. It was carried out by paramilitaries created and controlled by Pando prefect Leopoldo Fernandez, since arrested over the atrocity.
At least 30 people were slaughtered, with more than 100 still missing.
However, the anger and mobilizations of the social movements, the Morales government’s decision to introduce martial law in Pando and restore order, and the historic convening of a meeting of all South American presidents under the auspices of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) on September 15 to pass a unanimous motion in defense of Bolivia’s legitimate government dealt the opposition a significant blow, putting them on the back foot.
With the opposition returning to the negotiation table, the government and the social movements that support it have clearly come out stronger in this latest round of the ongoing battle over Bolivia’s future.
The right-wing opposition, based on the half moon prefects and “civic committees” as well as the opposition Chuquisaca prefect, has been forced to temporarily retreat. The roadblocks and building occupations by the fascists have ended, and the military has managed to take control of Pando — the site of the worst violence.
The government also expelled US ambassador Philip Goldberg for his collaboration with the opposition in its attempts to bring down Morales.
Behind the destabilization campaign stand the agribusiness elites and gas transnationals, organized through the US embassy, who seek to destroy the Morales government’s self-declared “democratic and cultural revolution.”
Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president, despite indigenous people — who have suffered systematic discrimination, and poverty — making up a large majority of the population. Morales was elected on the back of growing anti-neoliberal movements and uprisings that brought down his two predecessors, in which indigenous people have played a leading role.
His government has sought to reverse the neoliberal polices that have devastated the nation over the last two decades, as well as 500 years of colonialism and genocide against indigenous peoples — via policies of nationalizing strategic industry, land reform to benefit indigenous campesinos, and the drafting of a new constitution by an elected constituent assembly to enshrine the rights of the indigenous majority.
These policies have clashed with the interests of US and European corporations and the big landowners that are powerful in the east.
With the referendum showing growing support for Morales in the opposition’s half moon heartland, the right wing struck back to prevent the government taking advantage of this to further erode its base.
Opposition fears were confirmed by the determination of the government to use its electoral mandate to push ahead for a referendum in December on the draft constitution.
The new constitution is at the heart of the process of change, aiming to institutionalize state control of natural resources and land reform, as well as establish a “plurinational” state to overcome the exclusion of indigenous peoples.
With a growing rebellion against US domination across Latin America, US imperialism has been furiously organizing to get rid of Morales.
Since his election, the US government-funded body USAID has poured more than US$120 million into opposition groups, while Goldberg continually held meetings with opposition leaders.
Two days after Goldberg’s expulsion, Bolivia was added to the US “black list” for countries that supposedly refuse to collaborate on the “war on drugs.”
Oppressed Take the Offensive
The government and social movements have gone on the offensive.
Having organized massive mobilizations nationally in response to the violence, and fighting off the fascist gangs in the half moon, the social movements have remained firm in their determination to advance the process of change.
On September 17, the National Coalition for Change (CONALCAM), which includes the most important indigenous, campesino, and urban movements, signed a pact with the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) to “defend the unity of the homeland that is being threatened by a civil coup lead by terrorists and fascists.”
Despite its often tense relationship with the government, the COB signed the agreement in the presence of Morales and other government leaders, pledging to “support and back this process of revolutionary change . . . led by our brother, President Evo Morales, to construct a new homeland with the approval of a new Political Constitution of the State.”
The organizations also signaled their intention to take over unproductive large landholdings and food production factories that have refused to ensure food for the population.
Explaining that his “grand desire” was to see the COB at “the forefront of this fight,” Morales insisted that “this struggle against the oligarchic groups, against the large landowners, against people who see themselves as pro-Yankee, can only be won by the social movements.”
He explained that it is impossible to negotiate a return to the past, as the elite “want to see the return of neoliberalism and we want to definitively bury the neoliberal model.”
The day before, social organizations and the local branch of Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism party (MAS) in the rebellious working-class neighborhood of Plan 3000 in Santa Cruz’s capital called for the immediate declaration of martial law in Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija, and Chuquisaca “because the Bolivian people and international public opinion demand justice.”
Over September 19-21, various social movements, including the COB, CONALCAM, and the United Union Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia, held national gatherings to discuss further actions.
Meanwhile, the roadblocks by indigenous campesinos around Santa Curz continue, with social movements stating that there cannot be any truce while the right continues to kill indigenous people.
More than 8,000 coca growers from the central Chapare region continue to blockade the main highway linking Santa Cruz to La Paz in the west, refusing to leave until a referendum is called on the constitution.
The Union Confederation of Colonizers of Bolivia (organization of land occupiers) stated that close to 5000 peasants from Ichilo had began a march on Santa Cruz on September 17 to demand the resignation of the Santa Cruz prefect Ruben Costas and the return of the public buildings occupied by the fascists.
The same day, it was announced that 12,000 miners were preparing to march on Santa Cruz as well.
This occurred as talks began between the government and the opposition bloc grouped together in the National Democratic Coalition (CONALDE).
On September 18, members of the national executive sat down with the opposition prefects (minus Fernandez) to discuss three central issues: the redistribution of the Direct Tax on Hydrocarbons between the departments and the government’s social programs, the new constitution and the regional autonomy statutes proposed by the opposition, and an agreement to fill the current vacancies in the constitutional tribunal and Supreme Court.
Also present were the Federation of Municipal Associations president, the president of the opposition-controlled Senate, and the MAS president of the chamber of deputies. Present as facilitators were representatives of the Catholic Church, the Organization of American States, and Unasur.
However, the vice-president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee (led by representatives of the large landowning oligarchy) Roberto Gutierrez argued that conditions for dialogue did not exist “if the blockade [of Santa Cruz] was maintained.”
Government spokesperson, Ivan Canelas, clarified that “The decisions that the social movements make are decisions independent of the government and we value them as reactions in defense of democracy.”
CONALCAM president Fidel Surco stated that the roadblocks would continue as long as the occupation of public buildings did, and that the social movements would organize a permanent vigil outside the negotiations between the government and opposition to ensure that dialogue advanced.
On September 17, Morales stated: “If anyone, despite the support we have . . . wants to remove me from the palace, while I am democratically elected as president, they will have to remove me dead.”
“The struggle to reach government has not been given to us for free . . . it is the result of all our efforts, and this struggle cannot just be thrown away,” he added.
“We have to finish this democratic and cultural revolution . . . they are conspiring with a fascist, racist coup.
“They may be able to overthrow the Indian, but they will not be able to overthrow the Bolivian people, they will not be able to overthrow the revolutionary people.
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Federico Fuentes is a frequent writer for the Australian socialist newspaper Green Left Weekly and maintains the blog Bolivia Rising. He is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a tendency within the Australian Socialist Alliance. This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly 768 (20 July 2008).