Bolivia nears the precipice

About the author
Justin Vogler works as a freelance journalist based in Chile, teaches political science in the socioeconomics department of Valparaiso University.

When both Evo Morales and his adversaries cried victory in the "recall referendum" on 10 August 2008, it was widely predicted that an already critical situation in Bolivia would get worse. Two months later, with the eastern half of the country in chaos and dozens dead, there is real fear in South American capitals that Bolivia could be on the verge of territorial disintegration and civil war.
Justin Vogler works as a freelance journalist based in Chile, teaches political science in the socio-economics department of Valparaiso University and is studying for a PhD at the department of peace studies at Bradford University, England. He has spent twelve years travelling and working on development projects in southeast Asia and Latin America and is a regular contributor to the English-language daily, the Santiago Times

Among Justin Vogler's articles in openDemocracy:

"Michelle Bachelet's triumph" (January 2006)

"Latin America: woman's hour" (17 March 2006)

"Mapuche: the other Chile" (20 June 2006)

"South America: towards union or disintegration" (20 July 2006)

"Augusto Pinochet: chronicle of a death foretold" (9 December 2006)

"Bienvenido, Señor Bush" (8 March 2007)

"Argentina and Britain: the lessons of war" (3 April 2007)

"Chile: Pinochet's ghost, Bachelet's swamp" (8 October 2007)

"King Juan Carlos vs President Hugo" (13 November 2007)

The Bolivian president's winning margin in the recall vote - he received 67.4%  - encouraged him quickly to announce a further referendum for 7 December to push though Bolivia's new constitution, the product of intense and divisive debate in a special assembly in the city of Sucre in 2006-07. This would allow immediate second-term presidential re-election, extend state control over the economy (particularly the oil-and-gas sector), and legally empower the country's indigenous majority. However, the prefects from the resource-rich eastern departments of Tarija, Beni, Santa Cruz and Pando - the media luna that constitutes a territorial block of opposition to the Morales government in La Paz - also had their mandates ratified in the recall vote and came out fighting.

The opposition has three basic demands:

* modifications to the draft constitution, which they say is excessively statist and slanted towards Bolivia's indigenous majority

* effective regional autonomy from La Paz, above all with regard to natural-resource management

* the derogation of an energy tax, which the central government levies on gas exports to pay a yearly pension to all Bolivia's senior citizens.

It is clear then that the 10 August vote, far from resolving Bolivia's crisis, set the two camps on a collision-course. By the second week of September, there were running street-battles between government supporters and opponents in cities throughout the east of the country. Much of Santa Cruz was cut off by roadblocks, regional government buildings and shops were ransacked, and columns of smoke curled over urban skylines.

In Pando it is reported that somewhere between sixteen and thirty government-aligned farmers have been killed, prompting Morales to declare a state of emergency and send the army in to retake the regional capital, Cobija. The government says the prefect, Leopoldo Fernandez, hired Peruvian and Brazilian hitmen to carry out the murders. Fernandez's arrest on 16 September annoyed other opposition prefects and threatened to derail tentative talks aimed at bringing the immediate crisis to a peaceable conclusion; though by the morning of 17 September tempers had cooled sufficiently for agreement to hold talks to be confirmed.

The international arena


What marks the latest phase of Bolivia's ongoing political troubles is its international dimension. This became apparent on the potent date of 11 September, when Evo Morales accused the United States ambassador in La Paz, Philip Goldberg, of funnelling USAID recourses to the opposition and declared him persona non grata.

This outcome had been signalled in August, when Bolivian officials had publicly chided Goldberg for meeting with the Santa Cruz prefect and opposition leader Rubén Costa. At the time, the diplomat dismissed calls for him not to liaise with government opponents, saying that he would continue "visiting different parts of the country because that is part of my job". He left Bolivia on 14 September, saying that the charge that he had meddled in the country's internal affairs was "completely false" and that La Paz's actions would have "grave consequences".  By 16 September, Bolivia had joined Venezuela on a US blacklist of countries not cooperating with counter-narcotics efforts; a decision Morales scorned as "blackmail".

Yet Washington scarcely had time to "regret" Goldberg's expulsion and tell the Bolivian ambassador in Washington to pack, before Hugo Chávez jumped on the bandwagon and gave the US's man in Caracas, Patrick Duddy, seventy-two hours to get out and "go to hell 100 times". After railing against the "empire, the CIA, and the bourgeoisie Creole", the Venezuelan president - resplendent in full dress uniform - called on the head of the Bolivian army, General Luis Trigo, to stand by the legitimate president of Bolivia; because if "they defeat or kill Evo, I am not going to stand by with folded arms".

A more diplomatically worded statement from Itamaraty, the Brazilian foreign ministry, amounted to the same thing: "We will not tolerate a breakdown of the institutional order in Bolivia". However, Brasilia has to perform a balancing-act when dealing with La Paz - for Morales is wary of his giant neighbour's intentions and Itamaraty diplomats are regarded more as imperialists than comrades. Morales apparently rejected an offer of Brazilian mediation, a move which is said to have angered his Brazilian counterpart, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. Much of Sao Paulo's industry is fuelled by gas pumped from Tarija and Santa Cruz, and Brasilia has an interest in safeguarding supplies. There have been tensions between the two governments since 2006 when Morales announced the nationalisation of Bolivia's gasfields and expropriated installations, some of which were owned by the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras.Also in openDemocracy on Bolivian politics and social struggles:

Nick Buxton, "Bolivia in revolt" (8 June 2005)

Nick Buxton, "Revolutionary times in Bolivia?" (16 December 2005)

Andreas A Tsolakis, "Evo Morales's project: the limits of nationalism" (14 June 2006)

Isabel Moreno & Mariano Aguirre, "Bolivia: the challenges to state reform" (15 September 2006)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia: the battle for two-thirds" (18 September 2006)

Ivan Briscoe, "Evo Morales: the unauthorised version" (16 January 2007)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia: a tale of two (or rather three) cities" (18 September 2007)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia's controversial constitution" (10 December 2007)

John Crabtree, "Santa Cruz's referendum, Bolivia's choice" (30 April 2008)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia's democratic tides" (1 July 2008)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia's political ferment: revolution and recall" (13 August 2008)


Once Brazil's mediation failed, Chile's President Michelle Bachelet - acting as leader pro tempore of the fledgling Union of South American Nations (Unasur) - proposed an emergency summit in Santiago on 15 September. Morales welcomed the initiative; Lula is said to have agreed while expressing reservations; while Chávez annoyed Santiago by broadcasting and taking credit for the proposal before Bachelet's official announcement.

From the start, Chilean diplomats worked nervously to ensure that the Venezuelan did not turn the event into a rally against "The Empire" or repeat his performance at the Ibero-American summit in November 2007 when he eclipsed the hostess Bachelet and was eventually told to "shut up" by King Carlos of Spain (see "King Juan Carlos vs President Hugo", 13 November 2007). With the exception of the leaders of Surinam and Guyana, the only South American head not to reschedule and fly into Santiago for the event was Peru's Alan García.

The regional test

The Bolivian crisis is the first test for Unasur, which was formally launched in Brasilia in 2007 and is due to open its secretariat in Quito shortly. Since the first South American presidential summit in 2000, Brasilia has been piecing together the elements of this new bloc, which fuses the existing Community of Andean Nations with Mercosur/Mercosul.

Unasur's initial emphasis is on cross-border infrastructure and the consolidation of a series of "bi-oceanic corridors". The first paved road to link Pacific to Atlantic - running from the Brazilian port of Santos, through the Bolivian heartland and down to the Chilean ports of Arica and Iquique - should be finished by the end of 2008. The project highlights the importance Brasilia attaches both to improving its access to the Pacific and incorporating Bolivia into its hinterland. A second initiative launched by Brazil is the South American Defence Council, which aims to foment security cooperation in areas of common concern, particularly the Amazon basin; and to coordinate regional peacekeeping efforts like the ongoing Minustah mission in Haiti.

But what, if anything, can Unasur actually achieve in Bolivia? Three criticisms were voiced as the summiteers gathered: that a meeting that excluded the country's opposition leaders evades the problem and is little more than a presidential talking-shop; that Unasur simply duplicates existing forums, principally the Organisation of American States (OAS); and that it provides Chávez with a regional platform from which to harangue Washington.

In the event, the 15 September meeting did serve to express full regional support for Morales. The first article of the summit declaration expressed "full and decided backing for the constitutional president Evo Morales, whose mandate was ratified by an ample majority in a recent referendum". There was also call for all sides to negotiate peacefully and to compromise. Nevertheless, the written and verbal declarations spelled out to the opposition that regional leaders would not tolerate a coup, secession, or other violations of La Paz's sovereignty or the rule of law.

The shadow combat

Two points of consensus underpin the Santiago declarations, one region-wide and one specific to Bolivia:

* that the breakdown of constitutional democracy anywhere in South America cannot be permitted

* that Evo Morales - whatever his radicalism, diplomatic shortcomings and taste for confrontation - is probably the only person who can stabilise Bolivia and guarantee its territorial integrity over the long term; a judgment reinforced by memories of the disastrous governments of Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa that preceded him.

On a practical level a Unasur commission is to investigate the precise circumstances of the deadly incident in the department of Pando. This is the kind of thing South American statespersons - well schooled in national reconciliation and the investigation of human-rights abuses - thrive on. But beyond such fact-finding missions, accompanied by heavy moral persuasion and some limited economic incentives, it is not clear what else Unasur can do. After all, a refusal to "tolerate" constitutional rupture and secession relies ultimately on a willingness to send troops to Bolivia. For South America's republics such a measure would be fraught with ideological, economic and political problems; and it would be unthinkable without a clear United Nations mandate.  

As for Hugo Chávez, despite his best efforts he was unable this time steal the summit limelight or cast the proceedings as a struggle against Yankee imperialism. Indeed, the most stinging rebuke to Washington actually came from the fact that (Chávez himself excepted), no one in Santiago bothered to mention the ambassadorial expulsions. Moreover, since this was a Unasur rather than an OAS convocation, the United States was not even represented. It is, perhaps, a sign of the times that even in what it has long regarded as its own "backyard" Washington appears to be losing the respect or fear awarded a hegemonic power and is instead being politely ignored.

Beyond this large strategic consideration, it is not yet clear whether the Unasur effort can produce anything beyond a diplomatic whirlwind. The coming days will be crucial. Will Evo Morales offer concessions on the constitutional package? Are the opposition leaders willing or able to keep the mob off the streets? Will the army stay loyal to the government? Will Bolivia at last start to heal; or will it teeter over the edge into chaos?