Since October 20, the conservative opposition sectors in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz department have been organizing different protest actions against progressive President Luis Arce and the government of the ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party. Their primary demand is that the Population and Housing Census be carried out in the first semester of 2023 and not in 2024. Since their protests began, the national government has been repeatedly calling on them to engage in dialogue. Nevertheless, the sectors have been rejecting all attempts of negotiation and insisting that the national government submit to their technically impossible demand.
The far-right opposition leader and governor of Santa Cruz, Luis Fernando Camacho, the president of the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee, Rómulo Calvo, and the rector of the Autonomous University Gabriel René Moreno (UAGRM), Vicente Cuéllar, called for an indefinite strike in the department to force the government to give in to their demand. The selective nature of the strike which began on October 22 has however backfired. Since October 27, workers from diverse sectors in the department have been marching and organizing road blockades and factory blockades in rejection of the strike, denouncing the fact that the strike only forced poor workers to stop while rich businessmen and large merchants continued to work and earn profits.
In the face of widespread rejection from the people, Camacho, who promoted violent and racist demonstrations against the MAS government and then President Evo Morales in October 2019, has once again resorted to violence. Far-right extremist groups and Camacho’s supporters have been attacking those who have opposed the strike.
President Arce warns against coup d’état
On Tuesday, November 1, President Arce warned that the conservative opposition is seeking to repeat the 2019 coup d’état by fomenting violence in the general strike in Santa Cruz. Under the circumstances, he called on the country’s armed forces to safeguard the stability of the country and defend the constitution.
“Today, Bolivia is once again threatened by those who, unable to contribute to democracy, use confrontation and violence, endangering democratic coexistence among Bolivians. They are only making it clear that only the People have an authentic democratic conviction because they know that they are the majority. The loyalty of the Armed Forces lies with the people, who have expressed their will to live together in peace and democracy. It is their obligation to defend the legally constituted government,” said President Arce during the inauguration ceremony of the new military commanders.
The head of state stressed that these actors who threaten Bolivia have “a particular way of seeing democracy where it only exists if the majority of Bolivians give in to their interests.” He added that under this logic now “they set in motion a strategy to repeat the 2019 coup d’état,” when the constitutional order was broken with the illegal self-proclamation by then second vice president of the Senate, Jeanine Áñez, as president in November 2019.
President Arce warned that “there are talks of marches to federalization and other de-facto processes and not as a result of a social pact process to change our State for another, this is why it is an attack against national integrity.”
In this regard, Arce recalled that “the constitutional mission of the Armed Forces is to guarantee and defend the independence, unity and integrity of our territory.” He then reminded the Military High Command that their “first objective is the protection of political stability and the uncompromising defense of the Political Constitution of the State.”
Violence in Santa Cruz
Acts of violence and intimidation have increased significantly in recent days in Santa Cruz.
On Wednesday, November 2, members of the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC), a Santa Cruz-based shock group, along with Camacho’s supporters, attacked the residents of the La Guardia municipality with firecrackers, clubs with nails, and sharp and cutting instruments. The group attacked them with the intention of forcibly lifting the blockade that the residents had set up on an entrance road to Santa Cruz in rejection of the strike. Initially, they succeeded in expelling whom they called supporters of the MAS party. However, shortly after, the residents regrouped and forced out Camacho’s goons. Confrontations between both sides lasted for hours.
The paramilitary group also attacked the local police with firearms, projectiles, stones and homemade explosives. Reportedly, they also temporarily took over the La Guardia police command, looted the headquarters, and caused damage to six patrol cars. One police officer received bullet injuries during the attack. Government Minister Eduardo del Castillo later reported that nine people were arrested for being involved in the armed attack.
Earlier, on Sunday, October 30, members of the UJC group tried to illegally take over the Palmasola refinery and storage plant of Bolivian Fiscal Oil Fields (YPFB) in Santa Cruz, attacking the security guards with firecrackers and stones. The takeover was prevented by the residents of the area, who confronted the invaders in order to protect the plant, leading to clashes between the two sides. Local police reportedly had to intervene to restore law and order.
Additionally, the same day, members of the civic committee and Camacho’s supporters attacked social, political, and Indigenous activists who had been organizing roadblocks against the strike in the Concepción municipality. Rocio Picanere, the spokeswoman for the Ayoreo Indigenous Central of the Eastern Bolivia (CANOB), denounced that paramilitaries burned houses and beat residents in five communes in Concepción.
At the same time, at least 50 people took garbage bags and threw them at the door of the headquarters of the Bartolina Sisa National Confederation of Native, Indigenous, and Peasant Women.
Last week, on October 25, Felipa Montenegro, the leader of the Bartolina Sisa Confederation, denounced that she and her family had received death threats from far-right groups that operate in Santa Cruz. Montenegro reported that there were drones flying over her house. She deemed the act as a form of intimidation. Montenegro is one of the social leaders who have opposed the strike. The Bartolina Sisa Confederation is a constituent organization in the ruling MAS party.
Citizens reject the strike in Santa Cruz
The residents and workers of the Santa Cruz department have also been increasingly condemning the strike, stating that it has been severely affecting their livelihood.
On Wednesday, November 2, workers from diverse sectors staged demonstrations in different parts of Santa Cruz to reject the indefinite strike. The protesters demanded that Camacho agree to enter into talks with the national government to find a way to end the strike. They demanded Camacho’s resignation, arguing that if he cannot fulfill his official duties towards the people, he should step down.
On Monday, October 31, thousands of people from various social and Indigenous organizations marched to the capital of Santa Cruz from four different points, demanding that Camacho lift the strike and respect the right to work.
Additionally, since October 27, under the banner of “Let’s all stop,” thousands of workers have been organizing roadblocks across the department against the discriminatory character of the strike.
On October 27, the Federation of Two-wheeled Transport Workers seized control of eight factories in Santa Cruz as part of this countermeasure. Groups of motorcycle taxi drivers, along with workers from other sectors, gathered outside the factories of companies including Cemento Warnes, Aceite Fino, Empresa Pil, Sobolma, Cuba Libre, Industrias Venado, Procesabol and Totalpec in the town of Warnes. They parked their bikes outside the factories and blocked the entrances and exits of the factories to prevent them from operating.
The leader of the Federation stated that the vigil installed at the doors of the companies will continue until Camacho suspends the strike. He also said that they plan to demand that the vice governor assume the governorship if the strike persists.
The measure was organized a day after Economic Minister Marcelo Montenegro accused Camacho and Calvo of issuing special permits to their friends to continue producing.
Government’s attempts to resolve the conflict
Since August, the Acre government has been calling on the opposition in Santa Cruz to engage in dialogue and technically explain their proposal. On October 20, the government reiterated this call.
On October 21, a round table was installed to discuss the proposal and seek consensus on the date of the census, however the representatives of the Inter-institutional Committee of Santa Cruz broke up the dialogue table and called for an indefinite strike in the department.
On October 22, Minister of the Presidency María Nela Prada reported that during the first part of the talks, the representative agreed based on technical considerations to set a date for the census in 2024, but following the recess they abandoned that position and insisted without any technical basis that the census be brought forward to 2023 and its results published in 180 days.
On October 23, the government reiterated its willingness to dialogue.
On October 25, amid escalation of tensions in the department, the government presented a new proposal to carry out the census. It proposed to delegate the mission of establishing the definitive date of the census to experts of the country’s public universities and international organizations.
Vice Minister of Communication Gabriela Alcón said the objective of this proposal was “to guarantee a responsible census process, with quality, with technical rigor, adjusted to international standards,” and that allows “the entire population to be taken into account.”
The same day, President Arce called on all sectors of the plurinational state to discuss the issue of the census in a national forum to find a consensual solution to the closure of the civic strike in Santa Cruz.
“Reaffirming our democratic vocation in search of solutions, we summon Governors, Mayors, Authorities of Native Indigenous Peasant Autonomies, Autonomous Region of Chaco and Rectors of the public system, to the Plurinational Meeting for a census with consensus. The meeting will be this Friday, October 28 in Cochabamba, collecting the proposal of the unions, social organizations, economic and productive sectors, native Indigenous nations, professionals, university students and people with disabilities, gathered in SantaCruz,” he wrote in a thread on twitter.
Plurinational Meeting for the Census
On October 28, the Plurinational Meeting for the Census began in Cochabamba. It was joined by President Arce, his ministers, representatives of Indigenous autonomies, nine mayors and eight of the nine governors, except Camacho. Only rector Vicente Cuellar attended the meeting on behalf of the Inter-institutional Committee.
During the meeting, it was unanimously decided that the census be strictly technical, inclusive and widely participatory, where the date will be determined on a technical basis.
Following the meeting, Minister Prada reported that the date for the consultation will be decided by a technical commission within 30 days. She added that the representatives of the Santa Cruz region would respond within 24 hours if they agree to participate in the commission.
President Arce celebrated the “democratic conviction” of the people of Bolivia and their commitment “to dialogue to decide the future of the Census and continue advancing in the economic reconstruction of the country.” He reported that “we put forward two proposals for the Census to the Inter-institutional Committee and we are awaiting their response to resolve the conflict.”
On October 29, the Santa Cruz governor rejected both proposals and decided to maintain the strike. Over the weekend, Camacho gave an interview to local newspaper El Deber and said that federalism is the only solution to the “fissure that comes from the founding of the Republic.”
However, as per reports, he has been losing support every day. Vicente Cuellar and Rómulo Calvo have also publicly agreed to discuss the date of the census at a technical table.
On Wednesday, November 3, President Arce ordered the creation of a technical commission to define the definitive date for carrying out the population census. He reported that this commission will include international representatives and will begin work this week.
The head of state called on the opposition “to put down any pressure measure that threatens the reconstruction of Santa Cruz,” adding that “the invitation for dialogue remains open, because we trust that it is the best mechanism for conflict resolution. It’s time to give peace to the people of Santa Cruz.”
The last Population and Housing Census in Bolivia was carried out in 2012, when more than 11 million inhabitants were counted in the country. It is an important process that allows redistributing national resources and planning public policies according to population growth.
Earlier this year, on August 25, over one million Bolivians mobilized in support of President Arce’s government in the face of previous attempts by far-right opposition sectors in Santa Cruz to destabilize the national government using the Population and Housing Census as pretext.