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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Latin America & Caribbean > Andes > Bolivia > Bolivia's Reforms: The Danger of New Conflicts

Bolivia's Reforms: The Danger of New Conflicts

Latin America Briefing N°13 8 Jan 2007

OVERVIEW

Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, will complete a year in office on 22 January amid rising civil unrest. His government and its opponents are locked in confrontation over institutional reforms that would rewrite the constitution, end an inequitable land tenure system and return economic power to the state. Extremists are coming to the fore in both camps in a crisis that differs from previous ones because the stakes involve a proposal for a very different national model that the traditional elites see as a fundamental threat to their survival. Unless menacing rhetoric ends and dialogue, mediation and compromise begin immediately, widespread violence may result in 2007.

Following a surprisingly calm honeymoon, which saw nationalisation of the hydrocarbon sector by presidential decree on 1 May 2006, tensions have continuously increased. Morales is under pressure from militants of his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), social movements, and labour unions to make good on the full range of his campaign’s social and economic promises. Three issues have come to a head – land reform, the constituent assembly (CA), and regional autonomy – with nationalisation of the mines, coca cultivation and unsettled aspects of oil and gas refining and distribution looming in the background. The current disputes are all closely linked to the rivalry between the central government and the economically dynamic eastern lowlands where oil and gas, agro-business and large landholdings are dominant.

The political opposition and economic elites equate each proposed reform with a threat to their way of life and seek to use every means available to defeat rather than moderate it. The Morales administration and the MAS have pushed ahead without searching for compromises. The degree of polarisation is nearing that which led to the premature ouster of Morales’s three immediate predecessors in five years, and it potentially threatens national unity. Perceptions are worlds apart. The government argues that the opposition shows disdain for electoral results, and the majority’s will must be respected. The opposition and the eastern civic groups charge that Morales and the MAS seek to impose a vindictive, radically ethnic model that is unrepresentative of the country as a whole.

The government used its strong majority in the lower house of Congress to pass a land reform bill on 28 November 2006 providing for acquisition and redistribution of unproductive land. The opposition, arguing that the bill would seriously jeopardise the export-oriented agro-businesses that, along with natural gas exports, are the eastern region’s economic engine, tried to use its greater strength in the Senate to block the bill there, at least by denying a quorum. Morales called for a mass protest to pressure that body, then defeated the quorum tactic with the help – allegedly obtained improperly – of a few rebel opposition senators. The result renewed large landholders’ fear that the government’s ultimate goal is to seize all their holdings for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of western highland peasants. They responded by organising strikes throughout the east, closing roads and expanding their private security forces.

The dispute over voting procedures in the CA ended after a three-month standoff on 17 November with the MAS steamrolling adoption of a majority rule for most issues (though the final, full text of the draft constitution will require a two-thirds majority in the CA and acceptance by popular referendum). Arguing that the law requires all votes at the CA be based on a two-thirds majority, delegates of the Unidad Nacional (UN) party went on a hunger strike that has been joined by more than 2,000 across the country.

Two distinct visions are at odds here. Morales and the indigenous movements insist that the CA has plenipotentiary powers to fundamentally overhaul the constitutional framework and “refound” Bolivia. The opposition believes the core of the current document must be retained. The uncompromising MAS attitude on procedures imperils the prospect that reforms will be accepted by the entire country. The urban middle classes in Sucre, where the CA meets, Cochabamba, La Paz and Santa Cruz have been holding peaceful mass protests for more than a month.

The third issue involves the autonomy of Bolivia’s regions (also called departments), which elected their prefects for the first time in December 2005. The 2 July 2006 referendum on regional autonomy failed nation-wide but was approved in four of the nine regions (Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz, and Tarija), all in the east. The government campaigned for a “no” vote and has been rather dismissive of the issue. The eastern regions now fear it will use the CA to replace them with a decentralisation scheme that would subdivide the country into some 40 regions.

Most worrying has been end-of-year violence in La Paz and Santa Cruz during which journalists, television stations, government buildings, civic associations and NGOs working for landless peasants and indigenous groups have been attacked. On 8 December, the civic groups of Beni, Pando, Tarija and Santa Cruz issued an ultimatum that they would declare the de facto autonomy of their provinces a week later at massive town meetings (cabildos) if the government did not react to their demands. Hard-core Morales supporters announced they would march on Santa Cruz if national unity was endangered. President Morales’s call to the armed forces on 11 December to defend that unity was interpreted in the east as threatening armed repression.

The government subsequently stepped back, expressing willingness to talk with the opposition about CA voting and regional autonomy, and the opposition also made conciliatory sounds. But the situation remains fragile, and all concerned need to start the search for compromises. Specifically:

  • Both sides should publicly condemn violence. The government should cease using attacks on Santa Cruz elites to rally its indigenous support; the eastern region civic groups should cease separatist threats.
  • A mediator, international if possible, should be sought to help unblock the standoff at the CA through a formula providing for majority votes on routine issues and two-thirds votes on important ones, starting with regional autonomy, and to be available for facilitating talks whenever needed.
  • Bridge-building is required for land reform issues. The government institute in charge of land reform (INRA) needs more institutional capacity and trained personnel in conflict resolution to prevent and manage disputes about what is non-productive land. The international community should provide the Morales government with that expertise.

Without such steps, a likely next round of violent socio-political conflict could be a harbinger of Bolivia’s disintegration.

Bogotá/Brussels, 8 January 2007

 
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