Bolivian showdown

People & Power investigates the growing polarisation between the two ‘Bolivias’.

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Bolivia is on edge, caught in the middle of a power struggle between President Evo Morales and leaders of Santa Cruz and three other departments in the East of the country that together are known as the Media Luna.

An ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales has pursued a revolutionary agenda of oil and gas nationalisation, land reform, and a new constitution since taking office in 2006.
The lowland Media Luna departments are rich in agricultural land as well as gas and oil reserves, and produce the lion’s share of the country’s wealth. Opposition from the Media Luna has intensified since pro-Morales delegates to a constituent assembly approved a new constitution in December without opposition delegates present.

The Morales government is pushing for a referendum on the new constitution and land reform. The Media Luna leaders, in turn, have resisted Morales policies and approved autonomy statutes of their own. Now they have scheduled referendum votes to give them force. Santa Cruz, the centre of the opposition, is first up – on Sunday, May 4.  The vote has the potential to fuel violence and split the country.

Land issue

A key issue in the fight is land reform. The Morales government wants to limit the size of estates and break them up to provide land for the indigenous and poor.

The new constitution would provide autonomy
to Bolivia’s 36 indigenous groups

A focal point of the conflict over land is in eastern Santa Cruz, home to the Guarayo indigenous people. The Guarayo are fighting to get back land that they say has been taken from them illegally, and the Morales government is helping them. It has filed a lawsuit against Branco Marinkovic, one of the leaders of the autonomy effort, claiming that he appropriated 14,000 hectares illegally. Marinkovic, who says the lawsuit is politically motivated, is one of the wealthiest men in Santa Cruz, and head of the pro-autonomy Santa Cruz Civic Committee.

The Santa Cruz Youth Union is closely aligned with the Civic Committee, and is accused by the Guarayo and the government of being the muscle for the autonomy effort. The Union is busy recruiting new members to supervise the vote on the 4th.

The Morales government says that members of the Youth Union are paramilitaries who intimidate and assault pro-Morales supporters on behalf of wealthy interests in Santa Cruz. The Youth Union’s leaders, who are interviewed in the programme, admit to contact with the Phalange, a right-wing party with a fascist history in Spain, but claim they are fighting for democracy in Bolivia.

On the other side are pro-Morales social movements willing to go to battle for the new constitution. The Ponchos Rojos, an organisation representing Amarya Indians on the Western Altiplano, or high plateau, are among Morales most fervent supporters. Others who see a rising potential for violence as a result of the autonomy effort can be found in El Alto, the fastest growing city in South America just above La Paz. Social organisations in El Alto led an uprising in 2003 that brought down the Bolivian government and set the stage for Evo Morales’s election as president.

Battles over the new constitution and autonomy have increased polarisation between two different ‘Bolivias’: the poorer, more indigenous departments of the West and the richer, whiter and more economically vibrant departments in the Eastern lowlands.

People & Power’s Bob Abeshouse travelled to both regions to explore the potential for accommodation, and investigate forces that can lead to violence and even civil war.

This episode of People & Power aired from April 30, 2008.

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