Violent protests against Bolivian President Evo Morales have shaken the Andean nation and cut it in half, with rebel provinces blocking government attempts to regain control and tensions running dangerously high between the country’s Indian majority and inhabitants of the richer and whiter eastern provinces.
Militia groups armed with clubs and shields took to the streets last week to impose a strike that paralyzed much of the eastern lowlands and deepened a political crisis. Youths opposed to Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, beat up senior police commanders in front of TV cameras, underlining the brazen challenge to central government authority.
Five eastern provinces, where the people are paler and richer than in the indigenous western highlands, have vowed to resist the president’s attempt to “refound” Bolivia as a socialist state which champions the long-neglected Indian majority. Protesters have halted beef supplies to the west, blockaded highways and made moves to create a new police force to assert their push for autonomy from the capital, La Paz.
Morales, flush with victory in a recall vote which renewed his mandate, has ordered the police to be on alert and hinted he would soon call a referendum on a new constitution to entrench his reforms. Some of his supporters threatened violent retaliation against what they termed “oligarchs” and “fascists.” Peasants blocked roads leading to the city of Sucre to isolate the opposition stronghold.
Analysts said that South America’s poorest and most turbulent country was edging closer to being a failed state. Security concerns have rendered almost half the country a no-go zone for the president. No one knows whether Bolivia will retreat from the abyss, as it has managed in previous crises.
“This division is not new, but it is more radical than before. As well as the east-west division, we have an increasing city-countryside division,” said Carlos Toranzo, a political analyst at the Latin American Institute of Social Research.
Radicals on both sides had seized the agenda in the hope of crushing the other, he said.
“This constant violence will not cease. We are hearing confrontational language from the president and the [opposition]. It seems they are all pushing for more violence,” he said.
The landlocked nation has been turned upside down since Morales, a former coca farmer and llama herder, swept to office in 2006 on the promise of empowering the indigenous majority and reversing 500 years of colonial injustice. A member of the so-called “pink tide” of left-wing leaders spearheaded by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Morales has extended state control over the economy, including lucrative natural gas reserves, and thumbed his nose at the US.
His popularity was reaffirmed when he won 67 percent support in a recall referendum earlier this month, a thunderous endorsement from the impoverished western indigenous highlands, including La Paz and its satellite city, El Alto. The margin of victory emboldened supporters to demand a referendum on a new constitution to cement what they term a “cultural revolution.”
“There are two Bolivias now,” said Damian Caguara, a pro-Morales member of a popular assembly. “The Bolivia of the traditional, conservative, right-wing governments and the peasant one, the poor one, the indigenous one that has been in a state of submission for years. The latter is the one that is now running the political scene and this is provoking a harsh reaction from the bosses that cannot stand their servants, the Indians, to be ruling. For them, this is simply humiliating.”
The eastern lowlands however, which have the richest gas reserves and farmland and a freewheeling capitalist spirit, see Morales as a power-hungry autocrat with ruinous economic policies. They are especially enraged by an attempt to redistribute land and to funnel gas revenues away from the provinces and into a state pension fund for those aged over 60, seen as a populist ruse to weaken the provinces.
“If there is inflation, it is because the elderly poor are now having money to eat chicken,” one man grumbled on TV.
The recall referendum, which applied to provincial governors as well as the president, bounced two opposition leaders from office, but the governors in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, flying an autonomy banner, emerged stronger. A rare meeting to try to bridge the gap between the two sides flopped. Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas called Morales an “assassin” and gave the green light to ramp up the province’s rebellion.
Youths waving green and white Santa Cruz flags have added insignias to the shields they use to fight riot police. Many belong to the Union Juvenil Crucenista, a pseudo-militia. To date, the rebels have not dared seize the gasfields, which would seriously escalate the conflict.
But Carlos Pablo Klinsky, an outspoken opposition leader in Santa Cruz, said events could turn bloody if Morales pushed for a referendum on the Constitution.
“People here are very angry and it would not surprise me if soon they started seizing state institutions. If the president keeps pushing his reforms, violence will get harsh, very harsh,” he said.
Bolivia is South America’s poorest country, with 60 percent of the 9 million population living below the poverty line and 38 percent in extreme poverty.
A survey by the Catholic Church found that 50,000 families own almost 90 percent of the country’s productive land.
Indigenous Bolivians earn less than half the money of their non-indigenous counterparts and receive 40 percent less schooling.
The four eastern lowland provinces produce 82 percent of Bolivia’s natural gas. Their population is the least indigenous, ranging from 16 percent in Pando to 38 percent in Santa Cruz, compared with 66 percent to 84 percent in the other states.
The eastern states have a per capita income about 40 percent higher than the other five states.
The reassertion of state control over natural gas resources has brought in an extra US$1.5 billion of revenue to the Treasury.
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