Monday, August 18, 2008

The Autonomy Crisis Deepens in Bolivia:  Violence in Santa Cruz


Bolivian Army Soldier in Office of National Institute of Agrarian Reform in Santa Cruz
Source:  El Deber

It appears that in the wake of last Sunday's referendum vote in Bolivia, in which Evo Morales secured a ratification of the continuance of his presidential mandate, that tensions are increasing between his central government and the pro-autonomy movement in Santa Cruz.  Following a demonstration that degenerated into a riot that left over 25 people injured; the local commandant of the National Police in Santa Cruz has resigned, Santa Cruz Prefect Ruben Costas has refused to recognize the appointment of a replacement and demanded that future authority over the police body be transferred to his department, the Bolivian Army has occupied local instances of national government offices, and disaffected cities in the Department of Santa Cruz who disavow the autonomy goals of the majority have initiated their own blockades and stoppages of all activity, spreading the conflict throughout the region.

Though complete details are still lacking at the moment, apparently a demonstration organized in the city of Santa Cruz on behalf of handicapped Bolivians who are seeking increased government benefits resulted in a rough physical clash that worsened after the Union Juvenil Cruceñista -- who can perhaps best be described as a youthful pro-autonomy group who function as a militia in every way except armament -- joined the demonstrators and turned the occasion into a full-scale riot whose results are still unfolding and which may portend for calamity.  In the aftermath, the sitting commandant of the National Police in the city resigned, quitting after sustaining injuries in the conflict that continued into Friday evening, though evidently he recognized the excesses of those police under his control as he offered a public apology for their rough handling of the handicapped protestors.  Prefect Ruben Costas has declared that he will not recognize the reappointment of a replacement and that the agency must be transferred to local control.  The central government in La Paz has responded with alarm and even a local newspaper in Santa Cruz has stated that the department has "rebelled."  The Morales government has treated the matter seriously, especially since one of the key elements involved is the conflict over the distribution of government-collected oil and gas revenues, which has resulted in La Paz ordering the Bolivian Army to seize offices of national government agencies in Santa Cruz and comparing the threat level to that of a 1971 coup.

Bloodied Youth Faces Police Holding Teargas in Santa Cruz; Friday, August 15
Source:  El Mundo

Finally; complicating matters even further, two local municipalities in the Department of Santa Cruz whose residents are largely opposed to the autonomy movement have decided to organize their own counter-blockades and stoppages in protest over the actions Costas and the Santa Cruz Civic Committee are leading in the department's capital.  The cities of San Julian and Yapacani have each ordered stoppages for Monday and are threatening additional action.

My Comments

At this distance it is difficult to sift through the posturing and threats, since it seems that so much of the public discourse is typified by an intense rhetoric that can only be described as "over the top," which seems to be the norm these days in Bolivia.  I do feel that a couple of things deserve mention however.

Ruben Costas and the Cruceño autonomy movement need to take action to reign in the Union Juvenil Cruceñista.  Even though a number of reports state that the National Police in Santa Cruz overreacted in their handling of handicapped demonstrators, there was an apology offered by the resigning police commandant after all, there is also widespread agreement that the Union Juvenil intensified the violent nature of the confrontation after their arrival and most assuredly transformed the situation into a more threatening one than circumstances required.  By leaning on the Union Juvenil, whose actions bring nothing but discredit and disrepute upon all who associate with them, the supporters of autonomy are wasting some of the moral capital they have earned in standing up to the overt disregard for constitutional law Morales has shown.

I believe that the issue of the local distribution of the oil and gas revenues probably looms larger than has been reported thus far.  I revealed in my last blog entry that Costas announced the coming formation of a taxing authority to pool revenues for a fund to be shared with the other departments seeking autonomy and I believe this action is viewed in La Paz as particularly threatening.

It also appears evident that a meeting earlier this week among several department prefects with Evo Morales did nothing to further the cause of dialog.  This is still the big issue.  So long as Morales continues to leave the draft of his proposed constitution on the table, a document that only passed with two-thirds approval by virtue of the violent action of his supporters to forcibly prevent opposition delegates from entering the assembly hall to cast their votes against it, the current situation will only worsen.  I do not see any other immediate remedy available and I fear the clock is ticking on the chance to avoid a dreadful outcome.



Martha Colmenares said...

Hola Jacobo, estás en los feevy del lateral izquierdo de mi blog para conocer tus actualizaciones.
Un abrazo, Martha

StJacques said...

Gracias Martha.

Un gran abrazo,