Bolivia: Polarisation Reaches Boiling Point

Comite Civico

LA PAZ, Aug 29 (IPS) – A 24-hour business strike called by opponents of leftist President Evo Morales in six of Bolivia’s nine departments or states was the latest demonstration of the polarisation dividing the country.

Tuesday’s strike led to disturbances that left three people injured and, according to the government, 28 million dollars in economic losses.

Conservative opposition parties organised the strike in "defence of democracy and freedom" in response to a call from civic leaders, the business community and local authorities in the eastern department of Santa Cruz, to which similar groups adhered in the departments of Beni, Chuquisaca, Cochabamba, Pando and Tarija.

The origins of the strike lay in the profound political differences between its organisers and the Morales administration, which have been brought to a boiling point by three issues.

The first involves charges brought by Morales against four members of the Constitutional Court, who he accused of obstruction of justice and overstepping their authority after they dismissed from the Supreme Court four interim magistrates who the president had appointed in late 2006.

The second was the decision by the governing party majority in the constituent assembly, which is rewriting the constitution, not to consider the opposition’s demand for the relocation of the seats of the executive and legislative branches from La Paz to the much smaller Sucre, where the country’s courts are located.

And the third was the right-wing opposition’s call for regional autonomy for eastern provinces.

Bolivia, a country of 9.2 million people, is basically divided between the western highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority, and the relatively wealthy eastern departments, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry and gross domestic product. Much of the population of eastern Bolivia is made up of people of largely European (primarily Spanish) descent.

The departments that were not affected by the strike were La Paz, Oruro and Potosí in the west.

Two people were injured in the central city of Santa Cruz, one of whom was hit by a vehicle driven by members of the opposition Unión Juvenil Cruceñista party.

The two injured people were attacked in the Mercado del Abasto, a popular market that did not take part in the strike and thus drew the rage of the opposition. Youths opposed to Morales, armed with sticks, shattered shop windows and destroyed furniture and other objects belonging to the vendors, most of whom are poor indigenous people.

The police intervened to prevent clashes between the organisers of the work stoppage and people from poor neighbourhoods who support Morales.

The tension was an illustration of the social and regional divisions that constantly simmer below the surface in Santa Cruz.

In the central city of Cochabamba, government supporters cleared streets blocked by pro-business civic committees, and a member of the anti-riot police was injured in incidents that broke out.

Interior Minister Alfredo Rada complained that the strike was violent.

"The economic elites are afraid of losing their privileged access to political power and the advantages offered by control of the state, as a result of the changes being wrought, like the nationalisation of the energy resources," John Vargas, a former deputy minister of planning and the main architect of the government’s national development plan, told IPS.

Vargas said the country’s development model is undergoing a transformation, promoted by the administration of Morales, Bolivia’s first-ever indigenous president. The government, he said, is breaking with the old model based on commodity exports "and a state apparatus under colonial domination, directed by elites who had a tight grip on power in a formally democratic system."

The new economic model, which is focused on the diversification of production and on expanding the participation and influence of other segments of society, especially the country’s long-marginalised indigenous people, has reduced the power of the regional elites, said Vargas.

He said Tuesday’s strike was aimed at defending the elite’s privileged access to the country’s natural gas and other resources, and to government loans.

Political analyst María Teresa Zegada told IPS that the current protests and unrest are the result of an unresolved struggle for power by the two sides, neither of which has clearly won out.

Although the government and its supporters have attempted to push through changes peacefully by means of reforms adopted by the constituent assembly, it failed to reach solutions to key unresolved issues, and now the political and social forces are taking to the streets, said Zegada, who described the situation as "disturbing."

After the constituent assembly, where the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party and its allies hold a majority of seats, decided not to debate the relocation of the executive and legislative branches to Sucre, work on the new constitution came to a halt.

Protest marches by opposition demonstrators in Sucre have kept the assembly members from working, and many have left the building for fear of attacks.

"The questions of the transfer to Sucre, regional autonomy, and a multinational state" that would recognise different ethnic groups, as demanded by indigenous communities, "should have been resolved by the constituent assembly," said Zegada.

"The leaders should find a solution to the collapse of the assembly. There is still time to avoid a scenario of outright confrontation, and to stand by and strengthen our institutions," she said.

The Morales administration is trying to engage civic leaders in Sucre in talks, and has offered to relocate some legislative committees to the city.

The government is prepared to negotiate a solution to the crisis triggered by the demand to transfer the capital to Sucre, and wants to salvage the constituent assembly, which failed to produce a draft constitution by the deadline this month. One of the numerous issues that the assembly is to discuss is Morales’ interest in making it possible for a president to be re-elected to a second consecutive term.

But the attempts at dialogue contrast with Vice President Álvaro García Linera’s call for a march by government supporters in Sucre on Sept. 10, to make sure the constituent assembly is allowed to continue working.

Vargas said the strategy of confrontation that the business communities and civic committees of Santa Cruz have followed over the last few months is losing steam.

He also added that the government is being strengthened by the support of a broad range of social movements and sectors that, above and beyond their specific interests, share common aims and "are engaged in a struggle for power with the privileged sectors."