Bolivia in Dialogue: Between Hope and Civil War

"If 85% of Bolivia is owned by 15% of the country, that means that 85% of us are sharing the 15% that’s left," Eleodoro explains to me, his words hissing through the gaps left by his missing teeth. Eleodoro is a campesino I’ve just met, and in many ways, his analysis sums up the current reality of Bolivia.


MAS Supporters March in La Paz

"If 85% of Bolivia is owned by 15% of the country, that means that 85% of us are sharing the 15% that’s left," Eleodoro explains to me, his words hissing through the gaps left by his missing teeth. Eleodoro is a campesino I’ve just met, and his analysis sums up the current reality of Bolivia. (1)

We’re attending the Third Latin American Meeting on Ecological Agriculture at Casa Campestre, a relatively elegant wood resort in Cochabamba, the exact location of a dialogue between the Bolivian government and the opposition. While campesinos, researchers, NGO and social movement activists laugh or chat in the lobby, just beyond the four or five military guards hovering around the doorway (one snoozing in a chair, one text messaging and the other three on full alert) is the large meeting hall where Bolivia’s fate is being decided. No one knows which way it will go. Inside that large meeting hall the government and the opposition are trying to hash out an agreement to keep the country from civil war.

Since taking office in January 2006, President Evo Morales and the Movement to Socialism (MAS) have set about to bring greater political and economic equality to Bolivia’s indigenous majority. Their project has stirred violent opposition and calls for autonomy from the richer, whiter "Media Luna" region that arcs through the eastern part of Bolivia, north to south. At the time of this writing, the nation is enjoying a truce, but it still teeters precariously between peaceful change and civil war.

Most of the country is full of hope for peace, as the Morales government negotiates with a clearly weakened opposition. The dialogue between the Morales government and the opposition is being observed by members of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), the UN, the European Union, the Catholic church and representatives of other institutions. They say "progress is being made" toward a peace settlement but no one knows how long the truce will hold or what it will bring.

Libertad is sceptical. She’s a young teacher from Cochabamba I met a few days before as she was finishing her cup of coca tea in the market near Plaza San Franciso in La Paz. She shook her head and admitted that she was still convinced that civil war is inevitable. As a member of the Anti-Fascist Youth of Bolivia, and one who has studied her opponent well, Libertad feels she has every reason to believe that the fascists who work for the Media Luna prefects (governors of the departments in opposition) haven’t yet slaked their thirst for blood.

On the other hand, the eighty-five percent, or a sizeable representation of them, have held massive demonstrations in La Paz since the September 11 massacres of their comrades in the department of Pando where a still-unknown number of campesinos, unarmed or armed with sticks, were slaughtered by paramilitaries trained and commanded by the prefect, Leopoldo Fernandez.

"We’re on our way to burn down the U.S. Embassy because it has betrayed us," Ismael, a union leader from El Alto, told me at a September 15th march which cut off a lane of traffic on the main avenue through La Paz for the better part of the busy Monday morning. For better or for worse, Ismael never fulfilled his objective, but his statement alone demonstrated the rage he and hundreds of thousands of Bolivians feel toward the U.S. government, which they blame for having supported the autonomist movement, and therefore partly responsible for the Sept. 11 massacre.

ImageThis atrocity was the culmination of a wave of opposition attacks that included the May 24 assaults on, and humiliation of, indigenous MASistas in the department of Sucre; destruction of government offices; the sacking of the public market Santa Cruz and blockades of the nation’s highways. Most of these attacks have had a specifically racist and classist character, like the May 24 attack of indigenous campesinos in Sucre and the attacks on the market in Santa Cruz, since the public markets are traditionally the places in Latin America where primarily working class people attempt to eke out a living.

The violence has ended in most areas of the Media Luna, but there is still, at the time of this writing, ongoing violence in Pando, including the rape of children as young as 11 and the stalking of MAS members and survivors of the massacre.

In response to the violence perpetrated by the opposition, many leftist social movements staged a relatively peaceful seige of Santa Cruz for nearly two weeks. They made it clear to the area’s residents, known as Cruceños, that they would lift the blockade when government offices were turned back over to the proper authorities.

As is common with Bolivia’s regular road blockades, this siege of Santa Cruz cost South America’s poorest country dearly. Corn and soy crops rotted, awaiting shipment out of Santa Cruz or on the roads awaiting the lifting of the blockades. Chickens, in turn, starved to death, and the price of poultry skyrocketed, almost doubling in a little more than a week. The economic impact on Expocruz, the big fair where Cruceños annually exhibit their goods, has yet to be reckoned.

After the meeting of Unasur in Santiago, Chile, which backed the Morales government and the capture and detention of Leopoldo Fernandez, the Media Luna was forced to negotiate. Nevertheless, negotiations in Cochabamba between the government and opposition are hobbled by what many consider to be the unreasonable demands of the Media Luna. The main sticking points continue to be the issue of autonomy, the proposal for a Direct Hydrocarbon Tax to fund a modest sort of Social Security program, and the proposed reforms to the Constitution. 

Israel Quispe, who works in the central government’s Office of Social Movements, says of the Media Luna’s idea of autonomy that, "they want their own army, their own police force and if they get the kind of autonomy they want, we indigenous people will have to get passports and visas to go to Santa Cruz. What they’re really asking for is a separate country, to divide Bolivia — and that’s impossible!"

Writer and long-time observer residing in La Paz, Keith Richards, doesn’t think the Media Luna has much chance acheiving its goals. "Sure, they can declare themselves independent, but the world has already let them know they won’t be recognized.  It’s sort of a meaningless act to declare independence when only the U.S. appears to be willing to recognize them, isn’t it?"

It’s commonly held among Morales supporters that the autonomists, in whose regions are found the greatest reserves of natural gas, are fighting the Direct Hydrocarbon Tax because they’re selfish and don’t want any money to go to La Paz. While that may be true, the tax also reflects the autonomist’s sense that they are being "taxed without being represented," leading them to the conclusion that the Morales government is a tyranny, and they, an oppressed group akin to the fathers of the American Revolution.

ImageNevertheless, the Media Luna prefects are anything but a ragtag group of colonists fending off a formidable empire: quite the contary, the issue is that the wealthy Media Luna "cambas" (as the easterners are known) don’t want to share with the poorer, altiplano "collas." And as for not being represented, many would say they have no one to blame but themselves, given their intransigence, their use of boycotts and walk-outs and their unwillingness to negotiate with MASistas who are in the majority. Finally, the violence of the past months have been anything but a tea party.

Nowhere have the counterproductive political strategies of the opposition been more in evidence than in the writing of the Constitution. In September of 2007 the opposition decided to withdraw and boycott the Constituent Assembly (where they were a minor third of the whole) rather than work with the majority (MASistas) to moderate aspects they found contrary to their interests. In addition to further recognizing the indigenous peoples, the constitution would put limits on the amount of land the "latifundistas" (large landholders) could keep and ensure that some of that 80% of the land return to the 70% of the people.

The opposition found these, and other modest reforms, unbearable and so launched protests, which led to riots, ultimately leaving three dead. As a result, the constituent assembly found it necessary to move from Sucre to Oruro in December, 2007 to finish writing what would ultimately become known as the "MASista Constitution." The opposition withdrew, taking their toys with them, then complained loudly that they hadn’t been included in the game.

It was then that the struggle of the Media Luna for autonomy began again in earnest, culminating in their defeat in the August, 2008 referendum on Morales’ (and the prefects’) rule and their violent response to his victory which resulted in the blockades and, finally the massacre in Pando.

The social movements responded: the miners, workers from an array of unions (and now including the recently reintegrated Bolivian Worker’s Central (COB) a relatively powerful Trotskyist union which returned to the MAS fold on September 17th), women’s organizations, squatters, indigenous and campesino organizations marched on Santa Cruz, the heart of the Media Luna and as many as 20,000 laid seige to the town, demanding that the prefects turn back over government offices and allow the Constitution to come up for a vote. Some organizations say that if the opposition doesn’t allow the vote on the Constitution, they will again lay seige to Santa Cruz.

This would be a real danger, especially since a seige of Santa Cruz and marches into the city by MASistas could spark more and greater violence, such as more attacks by the Union of Cruceña Youth (UJC), a racist organization that grew out of the Bolivian Black Shirts, organized by Croatian Nazis in the 1960s.

Libertad says a member of her organization infiltrated the UJC and reported that the organization is in possession of machine guns, grenades and other arms. The MASista protesters, when armed, are often armed only with sticks and, in some cases, shotguns and rifles.

In a worst case scenario, a violent confrontation between the social movements aligned with MAS and the UJC could bring in the Santa Cruz police on the side of the UJC. This would be ironic, but not impossible, given that the Santa Cruz police took a beating at the hands of the UJC and the "civic movement" of the autonomous opposition forces two weeks ago. Nevertheless, Daniel, a youth from Santa Cruz and now living in La Paz, thinks this is likely. "The police may not like the UJC but after it’s all over, they’re going to have to live in that community. And I think they’re also very frightened of the MASistas," he told me.

Such a confrontation could lead to another state of emergency in Santa Cruz, similar to the one declared in Pando just after the September 11 massacre, and that would involve the Bolivian Armed Forces. Residents of nearby Plan Three Thousand, an enormous city next to Santa Cruz composed mostly of former residents of Cochabamba and La Paz and referred to by some as the "MAS bubble in Santa Cruz," would also likely get involved in the confrontation. Eighteen truckloads of armed UJC recently entered the municipality and were driven back by the mostly unarmed residents. Since then there have been sporadic battles between the UJC and MASistas, who continue to conduct armed community watch in the city.

To add to the overall confusion, this massive city beside Santa Cruz has just declared autonomy from the autonomist Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz can take that as a message that the residents of the neighboring city of Plan Three Thousand are either opposed to the Media Luna or, at the very least, want to be left out of the dispute with the national government.

ImageBolivians I have spoken with, with very few exceptions, hope none of this plays out. They’re banking on the dialogue, but tempers on all sides are still running hot, and any spark of violence could potentially bring that dialogue to an end.

This is probably the reason social movement leaders hoped to turn their movements’ attention from a seige of Santa Cruz to a blockade of the Congress in La Paz. That possibility was to be discussed in a meeting on Saturday, September 27, by the National Coordinator for Change (Conalcam) in Cochabamba. Leading up to the meeting,  President Morales was reported to have said in the daily, La Razon, "…if the prefects don’t guarantee an agreement there will again be movilizations until the prefects understand this loud demand of the Bolivian people for the refounding of Bolivia with a new constitution." Julio Salazar, leader of the cocaleros, said, "Personally, I think that it would be better to pressure Congress so as to avoid confrontations between Bolivians with a seige on Santa Cruz."

On September 27, the day of the meeting, Conalcam had good news for the peace-loving people of Bolivia. After a day-long meeting with President Morales and Vice President Alvaro García Linera, Conalcam issued a statement that it would beseige the congress "until obtaining approval of a law to convoke a referendum for the approval of the new CPE (Political Constitution of the State)."

This is good news for several reasons. First, the seige of the national legislature minimizes confrontations between MASistas of the social movements on one hand, and the Media Luna paramilitaries, fascist UJC and the "civic unionists" on the other. Secondly, it would more clearly direct the power of the social movements toward the political struggle in the congress where the old neoliberal parties and sectors in support of the oligarchy and the Media Luna are putting their focus. Finally, it would bring the MASista social movements back to where they have their greatest support from the community of La Paz and from the legitimate government of President Morales. From that vantage point they could launch a struggle that might help settle the current conflict — and without a civil war.


Four of the five opposition prefects and political parties of the opposition suspended talks with the government on October 1st as a result of the detention of Jose Vaca, an opposition activist accused of blowing up a natural gas viaduct that provided gas to Brazil. MASistas are planning to lay siege to the Congress in two weeks and well-known campesino leader and MASista, Isaac Avalos, promised more protests against the opposition prefects, although it isn’t yet clear what that might imply.

Clifton Ross is the translator and co-editor with Ben Clarke of "Voice of Fire: Communiques and Interviews from the Zapatista National Liberation Army." He has also written, edited or translated a half dozen other books of poetry, fiction, interviews and translations from Latin America. Most recently, Ross wrote, directed and produced "Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out," a feature-length documentary released May 20 of this year and available from PM Press ( He can be reached at


1. According to the National Security Encyclopedia, approximately 30% of the population in Bolivia controls 80% of the wealth.