Coup against democracy?

Casa de democracia

“These leaders who want to change our way of life and don’t thank the cruceño people… they should go, what are they doing here.” Vice President of Santa Cruz civic committee angrily denouncing a peaceful march by Cruceño people against a “business-led autonomy” in Santa Cruz. The next day a molotov cocktail, most likely by one of the groups tied to the civic committee, was thrown at the house of one of the march organisers.

"It was impossible to get in. I was shouted at, insulted. Miners hit me with their hats, but I wasn’t intimidated.” Congresswoman Ninoska Lazarte denouncing her experience of trying to get through the blockade of Congress where the referendums for the new constitution were controversially agreed.

Ok, can you spot the difference? Well it is fairly easy to see the parallels. In both there was an apparent intolerance for the exercise of democratic rights. In one case a march against autonomy statutes drawn up by a small group of elites in Santa Cruz was responded to by violence by their “thugs.” In the other case, the creation of a threatening atmosphere by social movements surrounding Congress made it difficult for opposition senators to attend and vote.

The big difference though will be that only one of these quotes and accounts will get any coverage in the mainstream Bolivian and international press.

On 28 February Congress passed a law that will allow two referendums in May – one on how large landholdings can be and the second on whether people approve the new constitution. The vote was approved amidst loud protests and pressure from social movements outside that prevented the opposition from exercising their traditional veto that they hold in the Senate. Evo Morales after the vote said "There is freedom of expression but the most democratic way is that people decide rather than politicians… There is no need to fear the people.”

Opposition leader, Jorge Tuto Quiroga, however, denounced the vote as a “state coup” and the “darkest and fateful day in bolivian democracy since García Meza [a brutal dictador in 1980/81] left the Government.” He also announced that that he would attempt to convince European governments to change their diplomatic relationships with the Government. The opposition prefects meanwhile called for civil resistance and refused to allow the referendums to take place, tactics of the “street” which are of course remarkably similar to the social movements who blockaded Congress.

Despite the hyperbole from the Right, the fact is that Bolivia’s flawed representative democracy is still in existence and far from any state of dictatorship. The separation of powers still exists, the media controlled almost entirely by business interests continues its virulent propaganda campaign against the government, and the government continues to spend more time pushing for dialogue than confrontation. The constitution which they are putting to popular vote, moreover, maintains all the traditional institutions of representative democracy. If enacted it would even deepen democracy with its increased decentralisation of power to regional and indigenous autonomies and its emphasis on social control and participation.

Yet it is also true that both the Government and the opposition are prepared to bypass the representative democratic system when it suits them whilst constantly appealing to the discourse of democracy.  The government faced by a constant veto in Senate has on several occasions used a mixture of threats and questionable tactics to get votes through, in particular on issues such as land reform and the constitution.

But the Right also effectively blocked the exercise of democracy with threats of violence against the Constitutional Assembly that resulted eventually in three tragic deaths in Sucre. They have consistently vetoed popular policies in Congress that created the frustration causing the blockade of Congress. The opposition prefects have also created “grupos de choque” (thugs) to enforce strikes and repress dissent, producing lists of “traitors” reminiscent of fascist dicatorships. I have seen this with my own eyes in Cochabamba against human rights activists and have heard testimonies from Santa Cruz, Tarija and Beni of social movement leaders who have faced constant harassment. Their repression of dissident views in their own prefectures far outweighs any actions by the central Government, as a recent letter by the International Federation of Human Rights to the President of the Santa Cruz civic committee made clear. Yet this part of the story is never heard.

However I would say that none of this should come as any surprise. For what underlies the fight isn’t one about definitions of representative democracy, but the threats of moves towards democratisation of resources. At the heart of the Right’s resistance to the Government (and consequently the Government’s clumsy attempts to bypass Congress) is their resistance to economic democracy represented by changes in the proposed new Constitution. Whilst the document is relatively moderate and should only be seen as an important step in a “process of change,” it does as I have stated before herald real threats to powerful interests in particular in its proposals on land redistribution, banning transgenics, prohibition of privatising natural resources and services, and its proposal to extend indigenous autonomy.

Almost to underline this, the first thing the opposition Prefects did was to reject the referendum on land saying it should instead be focused on the location of the capital of Bolivia.   Branco Marinkovic, one of the key opposition figures is known to have around 15,000 hectares of land (two-thirds of which could be confiscated if people vote for a 5000 hectare limit). Another key family in the opposition, the Antelos has an estimated 116,000 hectares – an amount that makes my campesino neighbour stare in disbelief. The owner of the leading right-wing TV channel UNITEL owns more than 36,000 hectares. Wouldn’t you be fighting bitterly if up to 90% of your land looked likely to be confiscated?

The question, however, over who is likely to win in this struggle for economic as well as political power is much less clear – both in the short-term and the long-term.  For the Right’s control of media and propaganda means that the government’s attempts to bypass some representative democratic channels will hurt them much more than the obscured and hidden actions of the Right in repressing dissent in Santa Cruz. It is also true that the Right has a much greater potential to mobilise fears of change and constant crisis, regional sentiments, constant propaganda about Venezuelan interference, as well as real popular concerns about food inflation to at least create sufficient doubt to prevent a majority yes vote.

Even if the government were to win a referendum, they will still face a divided polarised country and a lack of national consensus that could make turning the constitution into a reality very difficult. 

Evo Morales speaking about the popular pressure that allowed the referendum to be approved said: "It is only with the people mobilised that we can ensure deep transformation." He is right. From a historical perspective, radical change and social justice – from the end of apartheid in South Africa to the 1952 revolution in Bolivia – only happened as a result of mass mobilisation. Those changes would never have happened if it had depended on a polite parliamentary debate dominated by elites resistant to change. Democracy, in particular in Bolivia, has to be much more profound than limited representation in a liberal system designed by European elites – and include participation, mobilisation, redistribution of resources and community forms of power and decision-making.

Yet it is also true that change is defined by the processes in which it is born.  Moreover there needs to be more caution when mass mobilisation is exercised by a government in power. There is a danger that intolerance for dissent, even if it is led by a small elite determined to defend its unjust privileges, will become a broader intolerance of dissent and debate vital for effective long-term structural change. Bypassing representative democratic processes, even in response to constant attack and obstruction against deepening that process, sets uneasy precedents for what could follow it. 

Amidst crisis caused by the Right, it is easy to lose sight of the democratic values driving change, and be defined instead by the crisis. It seems this has happened in Venezuela where attacks by the Right have turned some Chavistas to repress dissent and the radical democracy that first defined the revolution.

Perhaps the only answer, as the Government seems to be suggesting, is to turn to the people and hope they give sufficient support that can allow the process of change to continue. But even if this tactic is to succeed, it will be crucial that the population and social movements take note of the costs that have been incurred in the journey, and push the government to an ever deeper accountability and commitment to radical transformation. To turn democracy from a discourse exercised to defend power to a reality that is embedded in Bolivia’s economy and society.



  1. John March 14, 2008 at 5:55 pm - Reply

    Demands for autonomy from the Gran Chaco province of Tarija–autonomy from the department government. Gran Chaco is the source of much of the gas.
    Gran Chaco presentará propuesta para estatuto, from El Pais (Tarija)14mar2008.
    (but only available until Saturday El Pais is posted)
    ” Respeto al 45 por ciento de las regalías departamentales, la creación de la autonomía provincial y la asamblea provincial del Chaco, son los principales planteamientos de la propuesta que presentará este viernes la delegación del Gran Chaco ante la asamblea provisional autonómica, los chaqueños no vieron con buenos ojos la aprobación en grande del estatuto y esperan que a partir de esta jornada recién se dé inicio al debate para su aprobación en detalle.”
    ” La creación de una asamblea provincial es precisamente para evitar la pesada burocracia que existe en el centralismo departamental . . . ”
    I wonder if any other gas producing areas, like the Yapacani area of Santa Cruz, behave similarly.

  2. John March 14, 2008 at 5:59 pm - Reply

    Also, the Chaco representatives could not travel to Tarija this week to participate in debate on the Tarija autonomy legislation, which was passed. The reason was innocent enough–there was severe flooding. But the department could have waited.

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