Bolivia: Back to the Trenches

  (IPS) – After failing to reach an agreement in talks with the rightwing opposition governors, Bolivian President Evo Morales is redoubling his efforts to secure a call for a referendum on the new constitution, which would introduce far-reaching social and economic changes to empower indigenous people and would make it possible for presidents to run for a second consecutive term.

The smiles beaming out from a photo of Morales, Vice President Álvaro García Linera and eight provincial governors merely showed that the talks ended Sunday on a friendly note. But it was clear to analysts that the plan was to renew the battle rather than continue to seek a peacefully negotiated solution to the severe political polarisation that led to violent rightwing protests and even bloodshed in September.

The leftist president’s grassroots support base — civil society organisations, coca growers (who Morales used to lead) and other small farmers, trade unionists, shantytown dwellers and a small group of leftwing intellectuals — are planning a 200-km march along the road from Oruro to La Paz, in Bolivia’s impoverished western highlands.

The march, which will begin Monday, Oct. 13, will end in front of Congress in La Paz, to pressure the legislature to approve the call for a referendum on the constitution, which was rewritten by an elected constituent assembly in which the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party held a majority of seats.

The pro-government social movements will focus their lobbying on the Senate, where the opposition is in the majority.

The future does not look promising, after the failure of the talks, said Carlos Laruta, head of the Centre for Research and Advancement of Peasant Farmers (CIPCA), based in the sprawling working-class city of El Alto, next to La Paz.

Over the last two years, both the MAS support base and the opposition, which is based in the relatively prosperous eastern provinces, have been accumulating strength, the sociologist told IPS.

He mentioned the "hasty" approval of the draft constitution in a December 2007 emergency session in Oruro that was boycotted by the opposition, and the adoption of illegal autonomy statutes by four eastern lowlands provinces governed by the opposition.

Based on these precedents, he forecast "long years of disputes and deaths" in a struggle that is now focusing on Congress and will later continue in the streets before moving back to the negotiating table, in an endless circle, he said.

The polarisation today in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is basically between the western highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority, and the eastern provinces, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry, agribusiness and gross domestic product, and where the population is more ethnically mixed.

Many observers point to the start of a period in which each side believes it is strong enough to set out on a new stage in the struggle for political power.

Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, earned 67 percent support in an Aug. 10 recall referendum, which was interpreted as broad backing for the social policies that the government has been implementing since taking office in January 2006, and as a signal for forging ahead towards approval of the new constitution, which would grant greater participation, recognition and expanded land rights to indigenous people, who have suffered from centuries of discrimination.

The new constitution would also make it possible for presidents to stand for a second consecutive five-year term.

But according to the interpretation by the government, new elections would be held under the new constitution in June 2009, a date announced by Morales on Saturday, and if the president is elected it would count as the start of his first term, and the years he has already been in office would not be taken into consideration.

That possibility, along with the government’s efforts at land reform, aimed at eliminating vast, unproductive land holdings, and reviewing and updating property rights over all land, are the aspects of greatest concern to the opposition.

Although Morales agreed to concessions on some of the opposition’s autonomy demands, according to Agriculture Minister Carlos Romero, he refused to negotiate the reelection and land reform provisions in the 410-article draft constitution.

Besides Morales’s landslide victory in the recall referendum, another sign of strength on the part of the government was the arrest of powerful rightwing leader Leopoldo Fernández, former governor of the northern province of Pando, who is facing charges of instigating a violent Sept. 11 clash in that remote province in which at least 17 people were killed.

In the incident, indigenous people on their way to a pro-Morales meeting in the town of Porvenir were stopped at a roadblock set up by opposition supporters. According to injured survivors and video footage, the opposition opened fire on the crowd, and people threw themselves into a nearby river in an attempt to escape. The victims were almost all MAS supporters, and some 100 people are still unaccounted for.

In addition, opposition activist José Vaca and university student Jimmy Benítez were arrested last week on charges of blowing up a gas pipeline in the southern province of Tarija. Benítez was released on bail, although Vaca is in prison.

Investigations have also been launched of the violent occupation and sacking of central government offices by radical rightwing youth groups during the September unrest, and of sabotage of the pipeline that carries natural gas to Argentina.

It was reported that the probes could reach as far as the president of the powerful Santa Cruz Civic Committee, wealthy landowner Branko Marinkovic, one of the most prominent leaders of the pro-autonomy movement,

But against the backdrop of uncertainty with regard to Bolivia’s political future, there are more optimistic voices.

Mario Galindo, an expert on decentralisation issues, told IPS that the MAS and the rightwing Podemos party were likely to reach an agreement that would include changes in the new constitution involving concessions towards provincial autonomy in Santa Cruz in the east, Beni and Pando in the north, and Tarija in the south — the provinces that make up the so-called "eastern crescent".

Galindo said that in exchange for openness on the part of the governing party towards modifying certain articles of the constitution, Podemos could provide the extra 26 votes in Congress needed by the MAS to approve the call for a referendum on the new constitution.

The analyst said the opposition has been unable to build a common front based on shared objectives and a sense of unity, which could enable it to mount a successful campaign against the draft constitution.

On one hand, he said, is Podemos, which emerged from the ashes of the Nationalist Democratic Action (ADN) party created by the late Hugo Banzer, who headed a dictatorship from 1971 to 1978 and served as democratically elected president from 1997 to 2001. Galindo said the main defining feature of the party is its anti-leftist stance.

On the other hand, he added, are the governors (known as "prefects" in Bolivia) who want autonomy in order to strengthen provincial control over natural gas — of which Bolivia has the second-largest reserves in South America after Venezuela — fertile farmland and other abundant riches in the country’s eastern lowlands.