Bolivia: Referendums of Reaction

JUNE 2, 2008 – To understand the recent “autonomy” referendums in Bolivia, don’t count the ballots – travel to the south-central city of Sucre. Saturday, May 24 a horrific scene of racism and violence played out that exposed the reactionary nature of the forces fighting for “autonomy.”

That day, Bolivian president Evo Morales was scheduled to appear in the town to announce the delivery of some new ambulances and some government funding for local projects.

“But in the early hours of Saturday morning, organized groups opposed to Morales began to surround the stadium where he was to appear a few hours later. Confronting the police and soldiers with sticks, stones and dynamite, they managed to occupy the stadium.”[1]

It was a racist occupation. Morales cancelled his visit, but the mob wasn’t satisfied. They surrounded several dozen Morales supporters – many of them Quechua Indians – robbed them, forced them to walk several kilometres, and then “to kneel, shirtless, and apologize for coming to Sucre.”[2]

Morales is an Aymara Indian, the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s history. Bolivia’s population is two-thirds indigenous, mainly Quechua and Aymara. The people of the western highlands, who are in the main indigenous, were the key to the surprise election victory of his party, Movement to Socialism (MAS), in 2004. The racist mob which attacked his supporters in Sucre, are part of a movement rooted in the European minority of Bolivia, resentful of Morales’ attempt to redistribute wealth in the country.

Central to that redistribution is a new constitution that will allow greater access to the land for the indigenous majority. This majority has been fighting for equality for centuries. It took a revolution in 1952 to abolish a system called “pongaje” that was a kind of feudalism, in which the indigenous people had few rights, and were virtually slaves to European landowners.

This is the necessary background to the “autonomy” referendums taking place in Bolivia. May 4, the voters in Santa Cruz were said to have voted “with a majority of no less than 85 per cent” to have greater autonomy. June 1, the departments of Beni and Pando also voted for autonomy, “with a majority of nearly half a million.”[3]

But these claims are quite dubious. First, these referendums do not have legal status, and Morales’ instructions to his supporters were to refuse to participate. The “high rate of abstention in various provinces in Santa Cruz such as Camiri (42%), Puerto Suárez (31%), Montero (62%), Portachuelo (19%), San Ignacio de Velasco (17.8%), Charagua (40%) and Saipina (60%), indicate an overall abstention rate of between 40-45%, according to the Bolivian Information Agency.”[4] And as British-based Latin American expert Mike Gonzalez has pointed out, those who did vote, often did so out of fear, voting “under the watchful eye of the thugs of the UJC – the neo-fascist youth organization of Santa Cruz.”[5]

The referendums all are couched in demands for “autonomy.” These demands are accepted uncritically in most of the western media. More balanced coverage is available from Al Jazeera.

“Statutes passed in Santa Cruz and on the ballot in Beni and Pando would protect huge cattle ranches and soya plantations from expropriation under Morales’ ambitious land reform. Santa Cruz also voted to withhold a bigger share of its natural gas reserves, which Morales needs to finance his reforms, although the state has yet to enforce the rule.”[6]

The threat of withholding the natural gas reserves is now a central issue. The next referendum will take place June 21 in natural gas rich Tarija – centre of most of Bolivia’s gas reserves.

It is critically important that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has rejected the results of these “autonomy” referendums. That country’s representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), Jorge Valero, said he was certain that a majority of Bolivians rejected the results in Santa Cruz, “despite the media terrorism which aimed to persuade them of the suicidal policy of dividing their country.”[7]

The support of Venezuela will be crucial in the coming months. These referendums are not just a cover for the European elite in Bolivia – they are seen by US imperialism as a vehicle for undermining the new sovereignty movements that are challenging its hegemony everywhere in Latin America.

Respected analyst Eva Golinger has convincingly documented that two agencies notorious for undermining popular movements in Latin America – USAID and the so-called “National Endowment for Democracy” – are deeply involved in supporting the “autonomy” movement.

“In Bolivia,” she wrote last year, USAID “is openly supporting the autonomy of certain regions, such as Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, and therefore promoting separatism and the destabilization of the country and the government of Evo Morales. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), another one of Washington’s financial organs, which promotes subversion and intervention in more than 70 countries across the world, including Venezuela, is also funding groups in regions such as Santa Cruz, which fight for separatism.”[8]

We all have a stake in the desperate struggle underway in this, the poorest country in South America. It was in Bolivia in 1999, that the poor rose up and delivered a central blow against neoliberalism, when a mass movement in Cochabamba stopped the privatization of water. If the forces of neoliberalism and imperialism succeed in reversing this movement, all the people of the Americas will suffer, not just the poor and the oppressed in Bolivia.

What you can do
• In Toronto, June 11, 7pm, Toronto Bolivia Solidarity will be holding a meeting at OISE (St. George and Bloor) to discuss the attack on democracy in Bolivia. For more information,
• For more information, see and

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

Publishing History

This article was published as Bolivia: Referendums of Reaction,” GreenLeft Weekly, 8 June; “Bolivia: Referendums of Reaction”, Bolivia Rising, 3 June.

[1] Franz Chávez, “Bolivia: Local Indigenous Leaders Beaten and Publicly Humiliated,” Inter Press Service News Agency, May 27, 2008,
[2] Chávez, “Bolivia: Local Indigenous Leaders Beaten and Publicly Humiliated
[3] Cees Zoon, “Bolivia: mutiny in the provinces,” Radio Netherlands Worldwide, June 2, 2008
[4] Kiraz Janicke, “Venezuela Rejects Bolivian Province’s Autonomy Vote,” May 5, 2008,
[5] Mike Gonzalez, “Fight for Bolivia’s future lies behind referendum,” Socialist Worker (U.K.), May 10, 2008,
[6] “Bolivian states vote for autonomy,” All Jazeera English, June 2, 2008,
[7] Janicke, “Venezuela Rejects Bolivian Province’s Autonomy Vote
[8] Eva Golinger, “USAID in Bolivia and Venezuela: The Silent Subversion,” September 12, 2007,

Democracy spells trouble for U.S. in Pakistan

When John Negroponte travels abroad, he expects to be listened to. The current U.S. deputy Secretary of State, formerly Director of National Intelligence (appointed in 2005), made a name for himself in the 1980s, as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. He was intimately involved in the brutal war against Nicaragua conducted by the “contras” as a proxy for Negroponte’s boss, Ronald Reagan.[1] But when Negroponte and assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher landed in Pakistan March 24, they were given the cold shoulder.

The visit came just after the spectacular election defeat for dictator (and U.S. ally) Pervez Musharraf, whose party received just 20 per cent of the vote.[2] Two anti-Musharraf parties – one led by Asif Ali Zardari (widower of Benazir Bhutto) the other by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif – are in the process of forming a coalition government.[3] But Negroponte and entourage arrived “before the new government had a chance to form itself” with key positions like foreign minister and interior minister still vacant. The Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was only sworn in March 26. A U.S. visit coming in this context fuelled “paranoia in the country about being ruled from Washington.”[4]

“ ‘To my mind, it seems ham-handed insensitivity that brought Negroponte and Boucher to Pakistan. Because certainly no one has welcomed their visit here,’ said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of physics at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University and one of the country’s leading political commentators. ‘It’s a sign of panic, anxiety, of things slipping through their hand.’”[5]

The Pakistani press was full of outright hostility to the U.S. delegation. A March 26 editorial in The News, one of the most widely read English dailies, was titled “Hands Off Uncle Sam.” It was a reflection of what was going on behind the scenes. “Nawaz Sharif was unable to give him [Negroponte] ‘a commitment’ on the war on terror, stating it was unacceptable that Pakistan had become a ‘killing field.’” Husain Haqqani, a Pakistani government adviser who attended the meeting with Negroponte described their content this way: “If I can use an American expression, there is a new sheriff in town.”[6]

The new anti-Musharraf coalition government is forcing Negroponte to scramble to reposition the U.S. attitude. As recently as November 7, 2007, Negroponte described the dictator Musharraf as an “indispensable” ally in what the U.S. administration calls their “war on terror.”[7] But when he left Pakistan March 27, he said, “Any debate or any disposition as regards his (Musharraf’s) status will have to be addressed by the internal Pakistani political process.”[8] That’s diplomats’ talk for “we’re throwing him overboard.”

The U.S. is in trouble. Its intervention in Iraq has been a disaster for the Middle East, and its intervention in Afghanistan has been a disaster for Central Asia. Now it no longer has in Pakistan, a pliable dictator with which to do business. The U.S., of course, is not above tying to undermine a democratically elected government that they do not like. With Canada’s backing, they very successfully isolated and undermined the democratically elected Hamas government in Palestine.

But Pakistan is not Palestine. Palestine has a small population, and is economically isolated, suffering under a long and brutal Israeli occupation. But Pakistan is a large and important Asian country that has been fully sovereign for 60 years. Tactics which might have worked in Palestine will be very much more problematic in Pakistan.

Bush and Negroponte will try, of course, to buy and pressure their way into the new government’s confidence. They will try to keep onside an indispensable ally in the region. But the hostile reception received by Negroponte shows that the terrain has now become much more difficult. That may be bad news for Negroponte and Bush (and their allies Harper and Dion), but it is good news for all who want to see an end to imperialist meddling in the Middle East and Central Asia.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Michael Dobbs, “Papers Illustrate Negroponte’s Contra Role,” Washington Post, April 12, 2005, p. A04,
[2] Editorial, “Pakistan’s democracy outbreak,” Middle East Times, April 3, 2008,
[3] Associated Press, “Anti-Musharraf parties form Pakistan coalition,” msnbc, March 9, 2008,
[4] Saeed Shah, “U.S. visit to Pakistan shows ‘panic,’ expert says,” The Globe and Mail, March 28, 2008, p. A17
[5] Cited in Shah, “U.S. visit to Pakistan shows ‘panic’”
[6] Jane Perlez, “New Pakistani Leaders Tell Americans There’s ‘a New Sheriff in Town,’” The New York Times, March 26, 2008,
[7] Associated Press, “U.S. official: Pakistan’s Musharraf ‘indispensable’ ally,”, November 7, ,2007,
[8] Cited in Mumtaz Iqbal, “Is Musharraf toast?The Daily Star, April 5, 2008,

No campaign for poor men (or women)

Democracy – a word we derive from the Greek: demos (the common people); kratos (rule) – hence democracy: rule of the common people.[1] Except there is nothing very common at all about the obscene wealth being used to try and “democratically” elect the most powerful man (or woman) in the world. The average cost to date in the race to become the Republican candidate for U.S. president is $32,283,430. This isn’t surprising, as the Republicans are the “right-wing” pro-corporate party. But their union-backed “alternative”? Average cost per candidate to date is $44,847,149 for the Democratic Party.[2] Let’s be clear – this is no campaign for poor men (or women).

Here’s the breakdown. The Republican candidates have to date raised $258,267,439 to spend on their various campaigns, led by the rich (but hapless) Mitt Romney ($90,076,402) and followed by the rich (and vacuous) Rudy Giuliani ($61,645,421). Both these rich white men have dropped out, put in their place by John McCain whose campaign has so far raised $42,094,077.

But these guys have nothing on the Democrats. Hillary Clinton leads the way with receipts of $118,301,659 followed by Barack Obama at $103,802,537. Total receipts for the Democrats so far – $313,930,041. Now, when you total up the money raised for both parties and throw in the $140-million raised by the Democratic and Republican National Committees, then the total cost to date to select a candidate for these two parties is – $712,634,261. Let’s say that in words – seven hundred twelve million, six hundred thirty-four thousand, two hundred sixty-one dollars.

Now remember – we’re just getting started. These campaigns are not over, and once they are – the real campaign begins, the actual contest for president. The final tally for both parties will be well over $1-billion. It will be even higher next time around, because if you look back at previous campaigns, it is clear that the cost of being president is going through the roof. In 1996, total cost for both parties for primaries, conventions and election campaigns was $478-million, in 2000 it was $649.5-million, in 2004 it was $1,016.5-million.[3]

Time to introduce another couple of Greek words: arkein (rule) and oligos (few)– hence oligarchy: rule of the few. Given how few of us travel in the world of seven, eight and nine-figure fund-raising, it might be a better fit.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] All derivations from the Greek taken from William Little, The Oxford International Dictionary (Toronto: Leland Publishing Company Ltd., 1957).
[2] All figures for the 2008 campaign derived from CNN, “ElectionCenter2008 Primaries and Caucuses: Money
[3] Federal Election Commission, “Presidential Pre-Nomination Campaign Receipts Through December 31, 2004