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Bolivia’s Sigh of Relief: The 2008 Conflict and What Emerged on the Other Side

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky
Date Published: 
January 1, 2009

Throughout the month of August, news broadcasts from eastern Bolivia seemed to be stuck on horrifying repeat. Night after night, TV’s glared with images of groups of youths armed with bats beating indigenous women on the street, police officers curled into the fetal position to ward off sharp kicks from angry crowds, and of state institutions—airports, tax offices, and headquarters of a recently nationalized telecommunications company—being ransacked and burned. Opposition to the left-wing Evo Morales government had reached a new height and until late September, it seemed as if South America’s poorest country was plunging towards civil war. 

But Bolivia managed, once again, to avoid a bloodbath. Concessions by both sides’ political leaders, along with an acceptance by the country’s social movements that stability is, for the moment, preferable to war have brought relative calm. And as the dust now settles, the post-conflict terrain is coming into view.

Descent into chaos

The recent Bolivian conflict often gets pinned to one word:  “autonomy.” It’s a demand from the eastern lowlands for decentralization of the current La Paz-based government structure and greater regional political, economic, and social control. Earlier this year, the departments (states) of Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz, and Tarija voted overwhelmingly to enact autonomy statutes that give departmental governments wide-reaching powers. Though the votes were not legal—they were not carried out via the National Electoral Court as Bolivian law stipulates—their easy passage cannot be ignored.

However, the movement’s leaders are large land and business owners who, critics say, use the clamor for decentralization to undermine the central government for their own profit.

“These autonomy statutes are not simply a plan for federalization,” says Mexican sociologist Raquel Gutiérrez. “What’s being proposed is that an entire set of central government responsibilities be passed to the departments, which would leave virtually nothing in the hands of the central government—not the decision over land ownership, nor property size, nor the use of—or benefit from—natural resources.”

And that’s just it:  Bolivia has one of the most inequitable distributions of land ownership in the world—two-thirds of its territory is owned by just less than one percent of the population—along with vast natural gas reserves almost exclusively located in the eastern region. Leaving these under the control of a local elite, say government officials, allows for inordinate power. Thus, as the Morales government refused to honor autonomy statutes, opposition violence in these regions increased. The brutal TV images became constant, along with stories of widespread persecution of poor and indigenous people throughout the eastern regions.

Then, on September 11, a campesino march in the department of Pando was ambushed. Eighteen people were killed, including women and children, and dozens were wounded by snipers. The incident brought the situation to a boiling point. Within days, both sides went to the negotiating table, opposition leaders called off attacks, the government declared martial law in Pando and arrested the region’s Prefect, Leopóldo Fernández, accusing him of having orchestrated the ambush. Weeks of dialogue, along with some congressional maneuvering, produced extended calm. A vote was scheduled on the constitutional text, pleasing social movements who see the document as an important step forward, and quieting opposition forces who were granted key concessions.

The US Role

In the middle of the political deterioration, the Bolivian government announced the expulsion of US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, accusing the diplomat of fomenting the separatist conflict. (It was only the seventh time in history and the first time in over 150 years that a US ambassador had been officially expelled). Though the Morales government has still to offer evidence to support the allegations against Goldberg, the move came on the heels of several investigations that give weight to the claims of US interference in the Andean region.

In early February, ABC News reported that the US embassy in La Paz asked at least one Fulbright scholar and a group of Peace Corps trainees to report on the whereabouts and activities of Venezuelans and Cubans living in Bolivia.

Also, serious concern has been raised about USAID’s activities in Bolivia, based on declassified documents secured by journalists such as Jeremy Bigwood. According to the now public information, in 2002, USAID prioritized funding groups that would “serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors.” In 2004, funding was given via the National Endowment for Democracy, to a group that considered MAS “anti-democratic, radical opposition.” Over the last year, Ambassador Goldberg was part of a string of emails in which embassy officials expressed a desire to support indigenous groups who would “take a stand against the MAS.”

Despite all this, Bolivia continues to be one of USAID’s largest recipient countries, receiving $90million annually .

The ousters have continued. On November 1, the government expelled the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), once again unveiling a laundry list of charges, including accusations that the DEA had aided in drug trafficking, financed the autonomy movement, and planned assassinations against government leaders.

Morales has seemed cautiously hopeful about the incoming Obama administration, saying he plans to exchange new ambassadors after January. Less clear, however, is the US President-elect’s stance towards Bolivia and Latin America.  

“Obama’s campaign rhetoric doesn’t lead you to expect any important changes,” says Forrest Hylton, co-author of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics. He notes that some of Obama’s policy advisors advocate a radically different approach to the region, but that doesn’t mean Obama will adopt that view. “We will certainly see a more respectable tone and probably, a more pragmatic approach. Beyond that, we just don’t know.”

The MAS and its Lambs

On the surface, the MAS seemed to have emerged from the crisis as strong as ever. Nationally, 67 percent supported MAS in the August referendum (up from 54 percent in 2005) and significant inroads have been made in opposition strongholds—100 percent more votes in Beni, 200 percent more in Pando. There’s a new constitution on the horizon, which has been hailed as visionary for its extensive language on human rights, its ban on privatization of water and other natural resources, and its respect for traditional indigenous forms of government and justice systems. Moreover, the right-wing seems to be in retreat. Opposition coalitions are disbanding and several business and political leaders have been indicted or arrested on charges of corruption or sedition. And for the first time in a long time, the country is relatively stable.

But there’s frustration with sacrifices the MAS made in order to achieve such solid political footing.

“Without a doubt, the indigenous struggle of the people in Bolivia remains powerful,” says sociologist Pablo Mamani, “but at the same time we have a government that has again ceded to the right-wing.” Echoing others, Mamani is angered by eleventh hour concessions. For instance the constitution’s cap on land ownership will only affect newly acquired land, meaning that existing haciendas will not be disbanded. Similarly, notes Mamani, the text “protects and encourages private companies, the fundamental neoliberal principle.” Others are angered by social aspects: the new constitution not only denies homosexuals equal rights, but establishes marriage between man and woman as the basis for all family-related rights, including adoption and inheritance.

Beyond the grievance of compromise, there’s another cry being repeated throughout eastern Bolivia.

“Why didn’t they protect us?” asks Narda Baqueros, a union leader in Riberalta, Beni and whose niece Belki, was beaten to death in Pando on September 12. “Why weren’t there more police on the streets when the attacks began in August? Why wasn’t the military called out? The government was sitting pretty in La Paz, while we were getting slaughtered on the ground.”

Morales was applauded internationally for refusing to send out the military as violence escalated in August and September, because he was able to avoid a bloodbath that many say the opposition was seeking. But the price of that restraint became the lives and livelihoods of campesinos and indigenous throughout the lowlands, whose constant cries for protection fell on deaf ears.

 “The fact is it’s better for the MAS to have deaths on our side, than on the other side,” commented Eugenio Rojas, mayor of the city of Achacachi in the midst of the September descent into chaos.

But regardless of these sacrificial lambs and the disillusionment it has caused, the Bolivian people—specifically the social movements—have accepted the government’s path of negotiation and restraint.

In late September,  unions, indigenous organizations, and campesino federations began to fight back, blockading eastern cities and defending themselves against the ongoing racist assaults. But these organizations heeded the government’s call to stand down when the negotiations began and have not returned to confrontation since, regardless of their complaints against the President and his administration.

Thus, the country feels as if it has taken a collective sigh of relief. In many areas, there are still whispers, “our deaths will not be in vain.” For now, however, justice for these deaths may indeed be a long way off.