Bolivia: Escalating Tensions and Increased Violence Demonstrate Widening Rifts

Source: Andean Information Network

Morales rejects U.S. Ambassador


It appears that the sustained international attention given to the lowland prefects, and especially from the U.S., has emboldened them in their attempts to block Morales, regardless of the official message they receive from these diplomats.  Bolivian law only gives these prefects a mandate to carry out public works, welfare programs, and other budget initiatives.  They have far out-stepped these bounds.  By meeting with Santa Cruz prefect Ruben Costas during an escalation of the current conflict, Ambassador Goldberg gave the impression to all sides in Bolivia that Costas enjoyed U.S. support.  That day, Costas capitalized on this impression by refusing to swear in the new Departmental Police commander, appointed by the Morales administration, after protestors in Santa Cruz beat up his predecessor.  Yesterday’s declaration of Ambassador Goldberg as “persona non grata” is, in part a response to this impression after a long history of bilateral friction.

Background on the crisis

At the end of last week, President Morales made slight concessions to soften the Supreme Decree that he put forth on August 28. He delivered bills to the Bolivian Congress in an effort to comply with the Electoral Court’s assertion that the Executive Power did not have the legal rights to convoke a constitutional reform referendum. In addition, he proposed a Regional Development Fund that would be paid for by Direct Hydrocarbons Tax (IDH) revenues, to partially return some of the resources taken from the prefectures to pay for the old age “Dignity Pension.” Although these appear to be concessions made in an attempt to open a dialogue between the central Government and the Media Luna region, tensions and conflicts have rapidly escalated in the past several days.

It is probable that the crisis will continue to escalate before some last minute, temporary agreement.  The Cruceñista Youth Union and others, including some civic leaders and prefectural employees, are attacking central government institutions in Santa Cruz and in other lowland regions. One of the most controversial incidents was the sacking and burning of the land tenure office (fueling the flames in more ways than one).  Protestors are trying to shut off gas pipelines, and there was an explosion on one section of the pipeline in the Tarija Department; it is unclear whether that was accidental or provoked.  Protestors beat up soldiers guarding a plant in Villamontes and stole their guns, and the security forces have held off, but are literally taking a beating throughout the Media Luna.

During the crisis, lowland civic leaders and prefectural officials have sent no public message to the rank and file to retreat.  The situation parallels the January 2007 clash in Cochabamba in that respect, although, so far, there are no significant groups of pro-Morales protestors involved yet.

It is ironic that lowland autonomy proponents vociferously criticized social movements supporting MAS for aggressive actions while they claimed to advocate "progress and free enterprise," and now they are vandalizing their own city.  In spite of the stated goal of the protests to recover of departmental gas and oil royalties, the blockades and protests have provoked major fuel shortages within their own departments.  If protestors succeed in blocking natural gas transport to Argentina and Brazil, there won’t be any significant royalties this month to fight over. It is hard to envision how the “autonomous” government of Santa Cruz could continue to hope to sign international agreements independently with these two countries.

Chronology of current conflict  

Sunday, September 7

  • The Cruceñista Youth Union fought with taxi drivers and residents of a Santa Cruz barrio mostly populated with Andean indigenous migrants. These residents had blocked a main highway through their neighborhood as a sign of solidarity with the central Government’s recent actions. The Bolivian press cited 16 injuries in this conflict.
  • Amidst rising tensions and violence in the Media Luna region, President Morales gave a press conference in which he again accused the U.S. Embassy of being involved and encouraging autonomist movements.
  • Minister of Hydrocarbons, Carlos Villegas, announced that the Media Luna regions would be experiencing fuel shortages in the coming weeks due to the fact that the main highways that transport these resources have been blockaded.

Monday, September 8

  • Four MAS-supporting radio stations based in the Pando region were forced to suspend their broadcasts on Monday after several radio reporters suffered violent attacks and threats over the weekend.
  • Vice-minister of Justice and Human Rights, Wilfredo Chavez, called for an open and honest dialogue between the Media Luna prefects and the central Government, stating that the discussion should focus on how to manage the IDH revenues by balancing autonomy and transparency.
  • President Morales replaced five cabinet members late Monday evening, although the shifts were largely symbolic and do not seem to have represented significant changes.

Tuesday, September 9


  • In Santa Cruz, dozens of members of the Cruceñista Youth Union and university students clashed with police and military forces at mid-morning as they tried to take over the local office of the National Tax Service (SIN) and the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA). Although their efforts were blocked the first time, another huge group attacked the INRA at noon. They were again stopped from entering, but the violence moved toward the streets surrounding the main plaza.  Later, the mob tried to ram a jeep through the gates, but was unable to take over the building. However, they damaged windows and vandalized the structure.
  • In Tarija, employees of the Prefecture overtook the office of the Hydrocarbons Superintendent. This group of about 30 announced that it will stay in the office until the government responds to the opposition’s demands. According to one local official, the group then went on to take over other national offices in Tarija, and blockaded the main roads.


  • Santa Cruz protesters and rioters were finally able to overtake the offices of SIN, INRA, Immigration, the National Telecommunications Company (Entel), Bolivian Television Channel 7, a national radio station, and the MAS-sympathetic Center of Legal Studies and Social Investigation (CEJIS). In taking over these offices they beat many resisters, including some members of the military whose weapons they robbed. Other public officials escaped from these offices by the roof, and hid in an adjacent hotel to avoid violent assault. Upon taking control of the Entel office, the mob stole electronic equipment and vandalized the property, totaling an estimated 20 million bolivianos (approximately $2,857,143 U.S.).
  • Outside of Santa Cruz, pro-autonomy protestors took over the Beni airport and the natural gas distribution plant in Villamontes by beating soldiers on guard and stealing their weapons
  • In response to the day’s violence, Santa Cruz Prefect Ruben Costas claimed that these outbursts reflected the 86% of people in his prefect who voted for departmental autonomy.
  • Minister of Government Alfredo Rada commended the armed forces and police who did their part to defend different government buildings in Santa Cruz without firing one shot.

Wednesday, September 10

  • At the time that this report was released on Wednesday evening, preliminary information indicates that President Morales has made the decision to declare the U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Phillip Goldberg, a persona non-grata. This means that, if the decree is made official, Ambassador Goldberg will be required to leave the country. President Morales has repeatedly stated his opinion that he believes Goldberg to be interfering in the Media Luna autonomy movement.  He stated concern with the Ambassador’s record in Kosovo and justified his expulsion as part of Bolivia’s “historic” fight against neo-liberalism.

Quotes that highlight the high level of polarization:

“Santa Cruz will never surrender.”1  – Carlos Dabdoub, director of Santa Cruz Prefectural Autonomy.

“The [lowland] civilians have confused an ideological battle with violence.”2 – Rafael Puente, Cochabamba Interim Prefect.

“Branko Marinkovic and Ruben Costas are responsible for any personal or material injury that is realized in the scalding violence brought about by the Youth Union.”3  -Ruben Gamarra, the Vice-minister of Government, in La Paz.

Anything happen in the future of this conflict “is solely the responsibility of the President.”4  – Ruben Costas, Santa Cruz Prefect.

“They have begun a civic and prefectural coup d’état against the unity of the country and the democracy.”5   – Minister of Government Alfredo Rada.

“This is not a coup d’état, nor a civic-prefectural coup,” but rather a response “to the violence and repression of a fascist Government.”6  [. . .] “What happened today in Santa Cruz is the consequence of the terrorism of the State that the Government exercises, of the blindness that impedes them from recognizing the peoples’ right, the free determination and sovereignty of the departmental autonomy.”7  -Ruben Costas, Santa Cruz Prefect.



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