Bolivia: Right-wing push to stop
by Federico Fuentes, Bolivia Rising
La Paz -- After three months of intense
class struggle, there can be no doubt that the US-backed right-wing
opposition to the government of President Evo Morales has suffered
three important defeats.
The right's offensive to topple Morales, which climaxed with the
September 11-12 "civic coup" attempt, has been decisively
rolled back by the combined action of the government and social
The government secured a historic vote in its favour with more
than 67% endorsing Morales' mandate in a referendum in August,
that also revoked the mandate of two opposition prefects. Another
opposition prefect was arrested for his role in the coup, and
has secured a referendum for the new draft constitution to "refound
Bolivia" on the basis of justice for the indigenous majority
(see article in this page).
More importantly, a strengthen Morales government now counts on
an unprecedented alliance of indigenous, peasant and workers'
organisations determined to defend their government and the Morales-led
"democratic and cultural revolution".
Third wave of struggle
With the turn of the century, Bolivia's social movements - united
behind Bolivia's powerful indigenous peasant movement - began
to rise up in opposition to neoliberalism and indigenous oppression,
overthrowing two presidents and paving the way for the victory
of the Morales-led Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) in early general
elections in 2005.
On assuming the presidency, Morales moved to nationalise Bolivia's
gas reserves and convoke a constituent assembly to draft a new
constitution - the two central demands of the mass movement.
A concerted campaign lead by reactionary forces grouped around
the prefects of the "half moon" - the eastern departments
of Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija - to wear down government
support in order to pave the way for Morales downfall, succeeded
in stopping the advance of this process for most of 2007.
Mistakes by the government and a relative demobilisation of the
movements also contributed.
Able to mobilise an important social base against the government
in the east around defense of "regional autonomy" and
stalling the constituent assembly around the demand for a two-thirds
majority vote on the new constitution, these forces spread their
support outside of the half moon to central departments of Cochabamba,
where violent clashes occurred in January 2007, and then Chuquisaca.
Racist attacks against indigenous people and the assembly delegates
in Chiquisaca's capital Sucre forced the assembly to reconvene
first in a military barrack and afterwards in a different state
- without the opposition - to approve the final text.
Bolivia appeared to be approaching the abyss, as regional and
ethnic tensions deeply divided the country.
Victory at the ballot box
Believing that the time was right to move to get rid of Morales,
the right-wing Podemos party (which controls the Senate) approved
a law for recall referendums on Morales and the prefects.
This was also partly an attempt by Podemos to seize the initiative
within the opposition from the half moon prefects.
The opposition prefects, now grouped together in the National
Democratic Coalition (CONALDE), initially opposed the referendums.
However, following a series of meetings with US ambassador Phillip
Goldberg, they agreed to accept the challenge.
A June by-election resulted in an anti-MAS prefect replacing the
MAS predecessor in Chuquisaca, further lifting the right's hopes.
Instead, the results of the August 10 vote demonstrated a totally
different reality. Morales' mandate was endorsed with an historic
67.4% of the vote.
Morales also won in Pando, tied in Tarija and got over 40% in
Beni and Santa Cruz, with the opposition's support base isolated
to the main cities, encircled by MAS-aligned rural areas.
In the majority of rural electorates, Morales scored over 90%,
while in poor urban areas like El Alto in the west and Plan 3000
in Santa Cruz, his support was above 80%.
Opposition prefects were also recalled in Cochabamba and La Paz.
Together with social programs that had begun to change the lives
of millions, the deep connection felt with a president "just
that exists among the indigenous and poor urban sectors, helps
explain this result.
A coup by any other name
Fearing the government would use this victory to push ahead with
a referendum on the draft constitution, the right-wing went to
After a series of meetings between the US ambassador, US congresspeople
and the half moon prefects, it was agreed to enact a plan to destabilise
the east, stirring up violence to the point where either the military
would be forced to react, causing deaths and Morales' resignation,
or creating the justification for some kind of United Nations
intervention to "restore stability".
Small groups of balaclava-wearing thugs took over airports to
create an image of a president that could not set foot in half
the country, as the prefects openly talked about regional independence.
With violent attacks on indigenous people escalating, fascist
youths began to target police officers and soldiers. The aim was
to stir up discontent within these institutions.
The plan was ratcheted up as paramilitaries began to openly appear
together with armed youths and began to take over and loot state
institutions, stating that they would now come under the juristriction
of the prefectures.
Uncertain as to the potential reaction from the population and
soldiers, the government was unsure whether to send in troops.
At the same time, the right began to seek out support among high-ranking
military officials. On September 5, a meeting was held between
US embassy representatives and military figures, including Santa
Cruz-based commander of the army's eighth division, General Marcos
Bracamonte agreed to not act against the coup plot.
The government finally decided to order the top commander of the
Armed Forces Luis Trigo, known to have links with the Santa Cruz
oligarchy, to move into Pando to take control off the situation.
He responded that he would do nothing until a presidential decree
had been signed to ensure that full responsibility for any blood
spilt lay with Morales.
Once in Pando, he ordered troops to remain in their barracks and
turned off his phone. According to sources in the government,
Morales could not communicate with Trigo for four days. Others
in the military high command did the same.
An emergency meeting of social movements was held in Cochabamba
on September 10 where they resolved to march onto Santa Cruz and
crush the coup-plotting offensive.
In order to distract the attention of the social movements focused
on Santa Cruz, the coup plotters agreed to create a crisis in
Paramilitaries ambushed and fired upon unarmed peasants travelling
to a meeting of their departmental union federation. At least
20 men, women and children were massacred, with more than 60 still
A wave of revulsion spread throughout society, including among
middle-class sectors in the east that the opposition had hoped
The social movements stepped up plans to encircle Santa Cruz.
Peasants in the rural areas of Santa Cruz cut off all access to
With generalised revulsion against the actions of the right and
the social movements on the march, Morales - and the entire ministerial
cabinet according to one source - signed the decree to implement
marshal law in Pando.
Desire for action also swept through the military, as soldiers
demanded to be allowed to go and defend their indigenous brothers.
Under direct orders from Morales, new troops were sent to Pando.
After fighting off armed paramilitaries in the airport, they moved
in to restore order in the capital Cobija.
Three days later, at an emergency summit of the Union of South
American Nations (Unasur), nine countries in the region came out
strongly in defence of the Morales government and against any
attempt to break up Bolivia.
Lacking international support, and with their plan unravelling,
the prefects quickly called for a return to dialogue. The right-wing
gangs began to lift their roadblocks and the government regained
control of public buildings.
Although many of the social movement marchers wanted to continue
until they reached the central plaza of Santa Cruz, on September
23 a decision was taken to end the protest and avoid a potential
confrontation and bloodbath, as there were no guarantees for the
security of protesters and rumours of snipers present.
The government stated that the dialogue would focus on two controversial
issues: regional autonomy and the level of funding to the departments
from the Direct Tax on Hydrocarbons.
Meanwhile, the government stepped up its campaign to hunt down
those responsible for the Pando massacre and the destruction of
state property. Pando prefect Leopoldo Fernandez, accused of ordering
the massacre and who had gone into hiding, was arrested.
Numerous opposition "civic leaders" find themselves
in the same situation.
With no overall agreement reached, dialogue shifted to Congress.
Even with the votes of the two other opposition parties, MAS did
not have the numbers without support from at least some Podemos
deputies to achieve the required two-thirds vote of approval for
a referendum on the constitution.
The National Coalition for Change (CONCALCAM), which unites more
than 30 peasant, indigenous, worker and social organisations,
together with the Bolivian Workers Central in a historic unity
pact, decided to organise a march on Congress to ensure the approval
of the law.
As a result of negotiations, the mobilisation of the social movements
and the overwhelming public support for the laws approval, Congress
voted on October 20 to hold a referendum in January.
As well as agreeing to minor modifications to around 100 of the
411 articles in the draft, the government agreed to take Morales'
current presidential term into account under the new constitution.
This means Morales will not be able to stand for reelection in
2014 if he wins the proposed December 2009 presidential elections.
The new constitution will limit presidents to a maximum of two
terms in ofcie.
A separate referendum will be held to determine whether large
landholdings will be limited to 5000 or 10000 hectares.
The land reform proposed in the constitution will not be retroactive,
but continued ownership of land will depend on landowners using
the land productively.
The CONALCAM supported the decisions, arguing it demonstrated
the willingness of the government to negotiate and have announced
that it will immediately begin to campaign for a "Yes"
On the other hand, while the parliamentary right have stated they
will also campaign in favour of the new constitution that until
recently they described as approved by a "constituent assembly
stained in blood", the opposition prefects have announced
they will campaign for a "No" vote.
An important political space has opened up in the east, where
broad parts of society that until now have not felt part of MAS's
project, now openly reject the right-wing prefects who hoped to
drag them into a civil war.
How MAS can reach out to these sections and consolidate its national
hegemony is a crucial question in the next period. MAS is attempting
to use the issue of regional autonomy, previously used by the
right, to win these sections over to an autonomy based on solidarity
and national unity.
Importantly, the Morales government now also counts on the revitalised
social movements, that, together with their government, successfully
neutralised the fascist coup attempt.