Bolivia: a tale of two (or rather three) cities

About the author
John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University's Centre for Latin American Studies.

The year-long process of drafting a new constitution for Bolivia has been brought to a standstill over an issue that was never expected to be central to the deliberations: the location of the country's capital. There have been widespread protests in Sucre, where the asamblea constituyente (constituent assembly) tasked with producing the constitution, in favour of the city regaining from La Paz its status as Bolivia's undisputed capital.

John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University's Centre for Latin American Studies.

He is the author of Peru under Garcia: Opportunity Lost (Macmillan, 1992), Fujimori's Peru (ILAS, 1998), and Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia (Latin America Bureau, 2005).

He is the editor of Making Institutions Work in Peru: Democracy, Development and Inequality since 1980Brookings Institution, 2006
The arcane dispute is being skilfully exploited by opponents of Bolivia's president, Evo Morales. It is part of a wider polarisation which led the assembly's president, Silvia Lazarte, to announce a month-long suspension of the assembly on 7 September 2007. As a result, agreement on the terms of the new constitution seems as far away as ever.

When the constituent assembly began its work on 6 August 2006, few thought that the issue of the capital city - referred to as the capitalía - would become a major sticking-point. There were so many apparently weightier (and potentially more divisive) issues to resolve: they seemed likely to include indigenous rights; the relationship between the executive, legislature and judiciary; the regime for exploiting non-renewable natural resources; and the balance between central government and regional administrations.

However, the work of the assembly has now been interrupted after constant threats from regionalist pressure groups in Sucre. They want the city to be reinstated as Bolivia's full capital, or capitalía plena. This is opposed by representatives of La Paz. A possibility of breaking the impasse has been presented by the suggestion of holding a referendum on the capitalía issue once the draft constitution has been agreed. This would remove the question from debate within the assembly.

The charming colonial town of Sucre had indeed been the seat of Bolivia's executive, legislature and judiciary for 74 years, from the country's independence in 1825 until a brief but bloody civil war in 1899. Following its victory in that war, La Paz became the seat of the executive and of congress, leaving Sucre with the consolation prize of housing the supreme court. The outcome of the war reflected the growing economic superiority of La Paz, brought about by the construction of railways linking it with the Pacific coast. These facilitated the development of mining, first silver, then tin. Sucre became the economic backwater that it still is today.

Also by John Crabtree on openDemocracy:

"Peru: the next Andean domino?" (24 June 2005)

"Bolivia on the brink"(4 October 2005)

"Evo Morales's challenge"(25 January 2006)

"Peruvians prepare to bite back"(4 April 2006)

"Peru's chessboard"(18 April 2006)

"Bolivia stakes its claim" (4 May 2006)

"Peru: the institutional deficit" (23 May 2006)

"The return of Alan García" (6 June 2006)

"Evo Morales: the force is with him"(4 July 2006)

"Alan García's second coming" (28 July 2006)

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

"Peru: outing the NGOs"(22 November 2006)

"Latin American democracy: time to experiment"(30 April 2007)
Although the outcome of the 1899 war rankled with Sucre, the split in functions between the two cities has never been seriously questioned - until now. The decision to hold the constituent assembly in the city gave it an unaccustomed political significance. The opportunity was not lost on the local elite of this the capital of Chuquisaca department; they saw the chance to play a significant role in national politics.

The Santa Cruz factor

The main opposition to the government of Evo Morales has come from the eastern lowland department of Santa Cruz. Since he took office in January 2006, the elite of Santa Cruz has made no secret of its hostility to Morales and his leftward-leaning administration. The growing economic importance of Santa Cruz - based mainly on agribusiness and the exploitation of oil and gas - has eclipsed that of La Paz in the last forty years, rather like La Paz eclipsed that of Sucre in the late 19th century.

The wealthy cruceño elite - represented politically by the Comité Pro Santa Cruz, but also involving powerful economic interest groups - has long campaigned for greater autonomy from La Paz. In particular, it has pushed to retain a substantial proportion of the wealth derived from production of oil and gas. The cruceño elite, much of it descended from European migrants, likes to distinguish itself culturally and racially from the highland departments with their more indigenous populations.

Morales's landslide election victory in December 2005 (when he won 54% of the vote in an eight-candidate race) represented a challenge to the established interests of Santa Cruz. Not only was the new government proudly pro-indigenous in orientation (and to a degree in composition), but it talked of dividing up the large landed estates of the Bolivian lowlands to the benefit of indigenous peasants who lack sufficient land or possess none at all. Indeed, migrant peasants from the highlands formed the bulk of those who had voted for Morales's party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), in Santa Cruz. The election result in the department - roughly repeated seven months later in the elections to the constituent assembly - represented a serious rebuff to the power and influence traditionally wielded by the cruceño elite.

However, the opposition to Morales - represented in congress and the assembly by members of the right-of-centre Podemos coalition - has played its hand well in holding back the government and its agenda. It earlier helped detain discussion in the assembly for months by arguing that all decisions should be made on the basis of two-thirds majorities; although it holds more than half the seats, the MAS and its allies lack the two-thirds majority to impose its will outright (see "Bolivia: the battle for two-thirds", 18 September 2006)

A delay in beginning voting on the substantive issues meant that the life of the assembly - which had been due to finish its work on 6 August 2007 - has had to be extended to December. Now, owing to the suspension of the sittings resulting from threats by civic groups in Sucre, there is some doubt as to whether even the December 2007 deadline is realistic.

Media luna vs altiplano

For Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo, the importance of the constituent assembly lies in the need to "refound" the republic on new lines. In particular, this means granting to the country's indigenous majority, long largely excluded from spheres of deliberation and decision-making, mechanisms of political participation. It also involves the extension of indigenous rights in areas such as landholding, control over natural resource exploitation, and respect for their cultural and legal traditions. In addition, it means standing up for perceived national interests as opposed to foreign ones. Many in the MAS consider that Bolivia's political leaders have failed to do this adequately in the past, and that the country's poverty and backwardness is a direct result of foreign exploitation.

For the opposition, the key issue in the assembly is to extend and protect regional autonomy. To this end, the Comité Pro Santa Cruz has entered into an alliance with civic committees in other parts of lowland Bolivia where the opposition is strongest. This link-up has become known in Bolivia as the media luna (half moon), reflecting the shape of the relevant area on a map of Bolivia: it includes Santa Cruz, Tarija (to its south), and Beni and Pando (to the north).

In July 2006, these were the departments that voted "yes" in a referendum on autonomías, whereas nationally (reflecting the position adopted by the MAS) the majority of Bolivians voted "no". The political clout of the departments generally was increased by a decision in 2004 to turn departmental prefects into elected positions; previously they had been executive appointments.  

In recent months, the civic committees of the media luna have tried to find common cause with those of other departments, particularly Cochabamba and Chuquisaca. In Cochabamba, supporters of Manfred Reyes, a former presidential candidate, organised violent protests against the government in January 2007. In the case of Chuquisaca, the issue of the capitalía plena has proved to be a way to weaken and divide the MAS in a department where the ruling party won strong majorities in both the presidential and constituent assembly elections and where the "no" vote prevailed in the referendum on autonomías. With the support of six (out of nine) departments, as opposed to just the four of the media luna, opposition groups seek to claim to represent a "majority" view.  The government hopes that the referendum offer will cut off discussion of the capitalía issue and help it win back the support of people in Chuquisaca.

The meaning of autonomy

It is still unclear exactly what autonomías would consist of. At the very least they would involve increased levels of self-government and greater autonomy in the use of rents from exploiting natural resources. This is particularly important for Santa Cruz and Tarija, which (between them) account for nearly all the natural gas that Bolivia exports to neighbouring Argentina and Brazil.  Although there have long been voices in Santa Cruz that support complete regional independence and even secession from Bolivia, this is by no means the majority view. Moreover, the support that Evo Morales enjoys within the governments of Argentina and Brazil means that these two countries are not interested in encouraging any sort of secession. 

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)

Ivan Briscoe, "Evo Morales: the unauthorised version" (16 January 2007)
For its part, the Morales government has advocated granting autonomías to indigenous groups within the departments of the media luna, a suggestion that finds little favour among the civic committees. Again, it is not certain what this would mean in practice, but the implication would be that indigenous groupings - whose members are a minority in departments like Santa Cruz - would gain inalienable rights both to landholding but also to the resources on (and more importantly under) their territorial habitat. There has also been a suggestion that a tenth department might be created in the Chaco, autonomous of both Santa Cruz and Tarija. This is where most of Bolivia's gas reserves are located.

The battlelines widen

Much therefore hinges on what the constituent assembly finally agrees upon - indeed, on whether an agreement is reachable at all. There is growing restiveness among both government and opposition, and relations between them show little sign of improvement. The government now believes that the opposition has no serious commitment to the production of a new constitution, and that its purposes are simply to frustrate and ultimately destabilise a democratically elected regime. The opposition, for its part, tends to see Morales as riding roughshod over individual rights and private property, interested more in perpetuating himself in power indefinitely (taking his cue from his recent guest, Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez) than in respecting liberal-democratic norms.

In this light, the whole issue of the capitalía seems to be a smokescreen for a trial of strength on rather more substantial divisions.