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.”
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.”
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.”
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.” 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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, firstname.lastname@example.org
• For more information, see boliviarising.blogspot.com and http://grupoapoyo.org/basn/
© 2008 Paul Kellogg
This article was published as “Bolivia: Referendums of Reaction,” GreenLeft Weekly, 8 June; “Bolivia: Referendums of Reaction”, Bolivia Rising, 3 June.
 Franz Chávez, “Bolivia: Local Indigenous Leaders Beaten and Publicly Humiliated,” Inter Press Service News Agency, May 27, 2008, www.ipsnews.net
 Chávez, “Bolivia: Local Indigenous Leaders Beaten and Publicly Humiliated”
 Cees Zoon, “Bolivia: mutiny in the provinces,” Radio Netherlands Worldwide, June 2, 2008
 Kiraz Janicke, “Venezuela Rejects Bolivian Province’s Autonomy Vote,” May 5, 2008, venezuelaanalysis.com
 Mike Gonzalez, “Fight for Bolivia’s future lies behind referendum,” Socialist Worker (U.K.), May 10, 2008, www.socialistworker.co.uk
 “Bolivian states vote for autonomy,” All Jazeera English, June 2, 2008, http://english.aljazeera.net
 Janicke, “Venezuela Rejects Bolivian Province’s Autonomy Vote”
 Eva Golinger, “USAID in Bolivia and Venezuela: The Silent Subversion,” September 12, 2007, venezuelaanalysis.com