Saturday, May 31, 2008

Autonomy in Bolivia:  Are Morales & the MAS Admitting Defeat?


The Bolivian Constituent Assembly
Source:  El Deber

There is interesting news out of Bolivia.  Evo Morales and his MAS Party (Movimiento al Socialismo) may be blinking for the first time and signaling that they are willing to negotiate a settlement with the four Bolivian Departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija; the so-called Media Luna (Half Moon) departments who constitute the more developed and prosperous eastern one-third of the country and who are in the midst of completing a process of autonomous separation from the remainder of the country.  Earlier this month voters in the Department of Santa Cruz, the most populous and prosperous of the four, approved an autonomy referendum by an overwhelming 86% - 14% margin and the other three departments have scheduled their individual referenda votes over the next three weeks.  Morales and the MAS Party have been persistent in their denials of the legitimacy of the autonomic process, referring to the movements as "separatist" and "secessionist," but the Media Luna departments; who may eventually be joined by the Departments of Chuquisaca and Morales's own Cochabamba, both of whom are considering more limited autonomy proposals, have proceeded in spite of threats, intimidation, and occasionally violent clashes with MAS supporters.

At the heart of the autonomy movement in the Media Luna is a cultural conflict of long duration drawn between the largely European and Mestizo population of the eastern half of Bolivia and the so-called Originarios; the native Andean peoples of the mountainous western portion of the country, particularly the Aymara, the largest of these ethnic groups occupying the high plateaus of the Bolivian Altiplano.  The Aymara and other related native Andeans have supported Morales and his MAS Party in overwhelming numbers, enabling MAS's success against a divided opposition that otherwise would constitute a little less than half of total population in Bolivia.

Though the east-west or European-Originario conflict has been one of long duration, it has only recently boiled over following the attempt of Morales and MAS to impose a new constitution while only possessing a simple majority in the Bolivian Constituent Assembly, rather than the two-thirds required to amend or rewrite under the current constitution.  Morales and his supporters have sought to overcome this impediment by first moving the assembly to a private military base near the city of Sucre, which provoked an opposition boycott of the proceedings, and later holding the final vote for its approval for submission to a national referendum in a session in which MAS demonstrators violently prevented opposition delegates to the assembly from voting in order to secure the super-majority needed to guarantee its passage.  What has followed this overt attempt to circumvent existing Bolivian constitutional law is the strengthening of an already-existing autonomy movement in the eastern departments, where resentment against Morales and distrust of the government he heads has resulted in a full-fledged challenge to the authority of the national government.  The desire of the Media Luna to achieve autonomy had been a minority viewpoint before the Constitutent Assembly; Morales's rough treatment of his opposition transformed it into a popular cause that is sweeping all before it.

The political meltdown that has been underway in Bolivia since then has been a near total disaster.  Bolivia's national electoral court declared both the proposed new constitution and the autonomy statute referenda illegal, but Morales and the Media Luna Departments ignored the rulings, since the body had been rendered practically meaningless over the course of the Constituent Assembly's deliberations, when several of its decisions were ignored, especially by the MAS delegates.  Morales had demanded a halt to the holding of the Santa Cruz referendum on May 4 and insisted that the eastern departments enter into direct negotiations with his government, an option they unanimously refused.  A group of South American sister nations led by Brazil and Argentina, but which included Colombia and Chile, offered to act as mediators.  But the Media Luna stated their distrust of Brazil and Argentina openly for the close ties the leaders of the two neighboring countries have to Hugo Chavez, whose support of Morales and MAS has been quite open, and which killed that proposal.  Morales asked the Catholic Church to act as a mediator, a role the Church refused to play overtly, though they did make two separate attempts to bring the two sides together that failed because the Media Luna departments rejected the insistence of Morales and his government that the autonomy referenda be postponed while talks proceeded.  The Organization of American States also launched its own attempt to negotiate a settlement, and after Morales finally decided to pull back from holding the national referendum on the new constitution, but that effort came too late.  The first autonomy vote went ahead as scheduled in Santa Cruz on May 4 and the process continues.

Today, June 1, both the departments of Beni and Pando are holding their own votes on their individual autonomy statutes.  Both measures are almost certain to pass, in spite of the fact that Morales and his government continue to declare the votes illegal and are calling for an official boycott of the polling places.  In recent weeks government officials loyal to Morales who were present in Beni and Pando have literally been run out of town by local authorities.  MAS activists who have attempted to threaten and intimidate residents of some of the municipalities in the western edge of the departments of Beni and Pando have been met with determined resistance from locals and even though some violence has occurred, a full-scale conflict has been avoided.  And what is more, the CONALDE, a semi-official association of mostly opposition departmental and local government officials, including some outside of the Media Luna departments, has called upon Morales to begin talks designed to bring the eastern departments back into the constitutional process by offering to include their autonomy statutes within the new constitution.  Everything has gone against Morales and MAS in recent weeks.

Speaking Friday in Santa Cruz, Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera made a shocking public statement directed to the members of the still-not-dismissed Constituent Assembly.  Linera called upon the delegates to prepare to incorporate the autonomy statutes within the new constitution.  He asked delegates of both MAS and the Podemos opposition to attend a meeting scheduled on the 9th of this month "with the end of searching for agreements that permit making the constitutional project compatible with the autonomy statues in the Congress."  His remarks were a surprise to everyone, perhaps especially so to MAS delegate and floor leader in the assembly Roman Loayza, who called the idea "a joke."  But there may be more going on here than meets the eye.

The following are the main points arising out of the report on Linera's speech and reactions to it:

  • Part of the dialog between the Morales government and the departments pursuing autonomy should include the incorporation of the autonomy statutes into the new constitution.

  • After an agreement on their inclusion, the Constituent Assembly should be called back into session to include the changes into the text of the new constitution.

  • Reaction from MAS delegates was mixed.  Constituent Assembly floor leader Roman Loayza said the idea was "a joke," and that the document "should have been approved May 4," while another MAS leader, Carlos Romero, differed in saying "we have the mission of finding alternatives to get out of the political crisis in which the country is immersed."

  • Podemos leader Jose Antonio Aruquipa questioned the legality of any changes to the document after the session in late February when MAS protestors prevented Podemos delegates from voting -- known as the "circle" session -- and he also pointed to the conflicting signals emanating from MAS in the distinct positions of Linera and Loayza.  He stated that ultimately Morales would have to become involved to give the proposal credibility.

  • The article also mentioned that this past Wednesday representatives from CONALDE had brought a letter to Morales asking him to resolve contradictions in the statements of his spokesmen and added further that they [CONALDE] are awaiting the conclusion of the final referendum in Tarija on the 22nd of this month to comment further on what must be done to end the political crisis.

    So What is Going On Here?

    I can only make a couple of brief comments, because the truth is that it is difficult to tell from this distance exactly what is happening in Bolivia, given that the situation is quite chaotic.  The first thing that leaps out at me is that what is significant about Linera's statement is that high officials in the Morales government are now looking at the autonomy movements in the Media Luna as constituting a political power they must confront with means other than brute force.  That is something worth noting, but it does not get us very far.  Obviously there are disagreements among MAS party members about what to do here, and it appears that many of them are not willing to accept autonomy for the eastern departments in any form.  That hard line attitude may be more threatening to Morales than his followers recognize right now, given that the vital resources that provide the Bolivian national government its income largely originate in the Media Luna departments.

    My own best guess is that Linera has floated a "trial balloon" in his speech.  Since Morales has not spoken much on the issue, he is personally protected while he awaits the reaction from his followers.  But we may have reached a turning point in which the Media Luna's drive for autonomy has now become a legitimate fact of Bolivian political life and the players are now beginning to adjust. 


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