(IPS) – A beef producers’ boycott declared by agribusiness interests in eastern Bolivia is the latest attempt by the pro-autonomy opposition movement to undermine the government of Bolivian President Evo Morales.
The measure forms part of a new strategy by the provinces seeking autonomy, aimed at weakening Morales, who won 67 percent support in the Aug. 10 recall referendum, in which four of the rightwing provincial governors opposed to him were also confirmed in office.
Beef shortages have begun to be felt as a result of the decision by associations of large landowners in the eastern province of Santa Cruz and the northeastern Beni, who joined the strategy of the opposition governors that make up the National Democratic Council, which also includes the provincial authorities of Pando in the north and Tarija in the southeast.
The boycott drew an immediate response from the leaders of trade unions and social movements that back Morales, which announced that they would simply do without beef in their diets, to see how long the beef industry, which normally sells 100,000 kgs a day, could hold out.
The boycott could mean 200,000 dollars a day in losses for producers in the province of Beni alone, while the losses will be even larger in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s wealthiest province.
Last week, around 1,000 opposition protesters called off a 20-day hunger strike they were holding in the main squares of the four capitals of the pro-autonomy provinces, without achieving their objective.
The hunger strikers were demanding the restitution to the provinces of a portion of the natural gas tax that the Morales administration has diverted to the payment of a universal pension for people over 60.
Earlier this month, the rightwing opposition also capitalised on protests by disabled people demanding the creation of a "solidarity fund" that will provide them with a monthly income and support productive projects for people with disabilities. Before the fund was approved by Congress on Tuesday, associations of disabled people held a month-long strike marked by demonstrations in several different cities.
In an Aug. 15 protest in the city of Santa Cruz, disabled protesters and members of the radical rightwing Santa Cruz Youth Union attempted to storm the provincial police headquarters. In response, the police used tear gas. Both police officers and protesters were injured in the clashes.
Among the injured were the national police chief, Miguel Gemio, and provincial police chief Wilge Obleas. They were both beaten up by members of the Santa Cruz Youth Union, which is supported by the provincial Governor Rubén Costas. Obleas ended up in the hospital when he tripped and fell while desperately fleeing his attackers.
Costas proclaimed himself provincial police chief, and referred to Morales as "excelentísimo killer president," as part of his campaign to discredit the leftist leader, Bolivia’s first indigenous president.
The polarisation today in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is basically between the western highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority, and the much wealthier eastern provinces, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry, agribusiness and gross domestic product. The population of eastern Bolivia tends to be of more European (Spanish) than indigenous descent.
Costas’ stance is coherent with his rejection of Morales’ calls for dialogue. On Aug. 13, the president invited the opposition governors to engage in talks aimed at coming up with solutions to the eastern provinces’ demands for autonomy and explore the possibility of making the newly rewritten constitution — which is pending approval in a referendum — compatible with the autonomy statutes approved by voters in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija
Analysts say that underlying the autonomy statutes in the eastern lowlands provinces is the question of control and use of resources like natural gas, farmland, iron ore, water and forests.
Costas, accompanied by the president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, powerful landowner and industrialist Branko Marinkovic, has adopted a strategy that involves refusal to recognise the national government. The movement started with a 24-hour strike on Aug.
While Morales continues to call for talks, the opposition is determined to generate a climate of instability, demonstrate the central government’s lack of authority by taking over public buildings, and promote civil disobedience by inciting confrontations between radical rightwing youth groups and the police.
"This is a move in the direction of a separatist tendency, that is very obvious," Roberto Aguilar, the vice president of the constituent assembly that rewrote the constitution, told IPS.
The government says the simultaneous protest actions in different provinces are aimed at triggering outbreaks of violence that could end in tragedy, in order to disparage the Morales administration and create a climate of instability.
Before the Aug. 10 recall referendum, Morales’ chief of staff, Juan Ramón Quintana, warned of efforts to derail democracy in Bolivia.
But the results of the referendum worried the leaders of the pro-autonomy opposition movement, Costas and Marinkovic.
For their part, the governors of Beni, Chuquisaca, Pando and Tarija have taken a slightly more cautious stance, after realising that a growing number of impoverished, rural voters in their provinces quietly support Morales’ social measures.
"We will not tolerate infringements of the law. The police are with the people," said police chief Gemio, just a few days before he was personally attacked by members of the Santa Cruz Youth Union.
The armed forces have fulfilled their constitutional duty of defending the government, and during the recent days of tension provided back-up to the police as they guarded public offices.
The storming of public institutions amounts to a "civil coup," said Morales, who promised to ensure that the members of the security forces are respected.
The president believes the protests against the government’s attempt to redistribute the natural gas tax by diverting funds from the provinces into a universal pension fund is a pretext to divide the country. He defends the decision to use part of the profits from natural gas exports to pay a small monthly income to people over 60, the vast majority of whom live in poverty.
Morales reported early this month that since he took office in January 2006, Bolivia’s 327 municipal governments have received 4.67 billion dollars in budget transfers from the central government’s fiscal resources, compared to the 4.25 billion dollars transferred over the 12 years prior to the start of his administration.
A government source told IPS that officials are studying ways to bring those responsible for the recent violence to justice, but said the judiciary and prosecutors’ office "do not share the collective desire for penalties against those guilty of committing excesses."