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Bolivian Political Showdown this Weekend

Andrew Lyubarsky Aug 8, 2008

This Sunday, Bolivia will experience an improbable voting process – a recall referendum which essentially plays out as a vote of confidence in every relevant political official in the country – from left-wing indigenous president Evo Morales and his vice president Alvaro García Linera and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) allies at the regional level to the right-wing opposition entrenched at the departmental (state/provincial) level in Bolivia’s more economically prosperous eastern regions.

This move is the product of a bizarre political alliance between Morales’s government and the national parliamentary team of the right-wing PODEMOS opposition party, which dominates the country’s Senate. Confident after the successive victories of autonomist forces in a series of referendums on the issue in the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija as well as the ascent of Savina Cuellar, an anti-Morales indigenous governor in Chuquisaca, the opposition likely believed it could deliver a knockout punch to the national government. Thus, the nightmare that they had been facing – the total loss of control over the national level by traditional power elites and the threats of a genuine social transformation led by historically marginalized indigenous forces – would end abruptly, with the Evo the “indio” relegated to the dustbin of history.

It’s likely that the autonomists are now regretting their hubris, and perhaps reading too many city newspapers with anti-MAS biases. As any intelligent analyst of Bolivia will tell you, however, that it is extremely unlikely that Evo will be recalled, both because of his strong rural power base in the country and because the recall law states that he would have to be recalled with a greater percentage of the vote than he was elected by, which was roughly 54 percent. Knowing this, Morales called the right-wing’s bluff, and not only signing the referendum into law, became its chief proponent.

In doing so, the MAS government may be exploiting a moment of nearly inexplicable stupidity by the right-wing opposition, but at the same time it is playing into the political game which is dividing Bolivia and preventing the application of the national program. As unlikely as it is that Morales will be recalled, it is equally unlikely that the main pro-autonomist figures in Bolivia – the prefect of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas and the prefect of Tarija, Mario Cossío – will bite the dust. What is more likely is that marginal figures like right-wing prefect José Luis Paredes of La Paz will be recalled, but this will not fundamentally change the balance of power in the country.

It is likely that MAS is using the referendum in the hopes that a sizable victory will allow Morales to aggressively push forward the stalled and controversial constitutional project, which would grant substantial autonomy to indigenous groups in the country and reassert national control over natural resources in the country. This, in my judgment, is also a grave miscalculation.

The results of the recall referendum are likely to confirm existing trends. Evo will win overall, as he does maintain majority support amongst Bolivians, but will lose heavily in the eastern regions where the autonomist movement is strongest and in major cities outside of La Paz. This will confirm that the struggle in Bolivia is not one of classes, nor of a society attempting to reinvent itself, but a struggle of regions and cultures, which is precisely the right-wing autonomist discourse which seeks to hide the internal social, racial and class divisions within Santa Cruz under the umbrella of an all-embracing “cruceño” identity. Ultimately, even if Evo is able to not only win this referendum but push through the constitution, the rhetoric will be that of the “Andean dictatorship” pushing “its constitution” on the rebellious eastern departments. While this is a transparent ploy to protect the interest of landowners and political elites in those departments, there is reason to believe that it will work, as it has worked regarding the autonomy referendum. The result will be a constitution that is actively resisted in the eastern departments, a solution that is hardly tenable in the long run and will have to either be settled with a political withdrawal on MAS’s goals or a violent conflict.

The region to watch in the upcoming days will be Cochabamba and the potential recall of its governor affiliated with the right-wing, Manfred Reyes Villa. It is the only department which is substantially divided between supporters and opponents of the national government, containing both the city of Cochabamba in which the middle classes benefited from Reyes Villa’s relatively successful stint as mayor and have significantly soured on Evo’s government and the Chapare region, which is governed by unions of militant coca growers led by… none of than Evo Morales himself.

There is tremendous potential for conflict in the city of Cochabamba. After Reyes Villa declared in favor of a second autonomy referendum (autonomy had lost in a 2006 vote), MAS supporters from the countryside gathered in the city to demand his resignation in January 2007. Reyes Villa organized his supporters into street fighting squads, and the ensuing violence resulted in three deaths and many wounded. Currently, Reyes Villa is claiming that the referendum is unconstitutional and that he will not abide by its results, creating an explosive situation if he, in fact, loses at the polls. Meanwhile, pro-Evo forces held the largest demonstration in the history of the city of Cochabamba to support the unity of the country against the Santa Cruz autonomist movement in May, and are extraordinarily well-organized. Although the governors of the east are submitting themselves to the vote, confident of their victory, they will be sure to back up their Cochabambino ally if he were to find himself on the losing side.

No one can predict what will happen this Sunday, although one can hope that large-scale violence is staved off. While social conflict is inevitable in a society that seeks to reinvent itself, regional polarization does not help the political project of Evo Morales to decolonize and reinvent Bolivia.

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