Deadly politics of division

For an outsider, Bolivia’s politics can be confusing, and at first sight easily misleading. The tragic happenings of Sucre where three people died in protests is a point in case.  Here was a popular demonstration fighting to stop a Constitutional Assembly, an initiative fought for by many Bolivians as the way to refound the State based on inclusion, plurality and social justice. Some people with indigenous roots involved in insulting not elites, but other indigenous groups as “kollas de mierda” (Indian shits). Supposedly right-wing groups dedicated to the preservation of order spent a day attacking and burning down police stations and effectively releasing thousands of prisoners from a Sucre jail. A former vice-president to a Dictator was darkly warning of “democracy on the abyss” and blaming it all not on the protestors but the Government.

Against this morass of apparent contradictions, I have always used two tools to personally understand what is happening. The first is looking at who are the real players behind the scenes, what are their motivations, what do they have to win and lose from a given situation. In other words, follow the dynamics of power, in particular economic power. Secondly I look into the historical situation and roots of the crisis, and not just the official history written by elites but the popular history of resistance of those excluded from power. In other words unravelling dynamics of power over time and talking to those whose views are never heard in the media.

On the surface what happened is that Sucre’s population, who has been pushing for moving the capital to their city to be included within Constituent Assembly discussions, rose up in frustration at the systematic exclusion of the issue from the Assembly. For months, threats of violence had stopped the Constituent Assembly from even being able to meet. Various compromise offers of locating new State bodies in the city of Sucre and offering regional development had been rejected by the Sucre Inter-Institutional Committee set up to fight for the relocation of the capital.

Eventually MAS governing party constituent delegates, frustrated at not being able to advance for months and under pressure from social movements, decides to relocate in the military college just outside the city and approves a constitutional framework. Protests against the assembly gather force and the confrontations lead to tragic deaths, including of a MAS militant.

I was in Sucre the week the issue of “capitalia” was first put on the agenda. It was put on the table not by a Sucrense (Sucre resident) but Ruben Dario Cuellar, a right-wing delegate from Beni, part of the so-called “media luna” of provincial authorities opposed to Evo Morales’ government. It came at a time when the social movements in the “Pacto de Unidad” were successfully getting their agenda to dominate in all the different commissions. The right still had the trump card of knowing that the Constitution had to be approved by two-thirds giving them an effective veto, yet there was a sense that they were on the defensive.

It was no coincidence that it was exactly at this point in time that the issue of relocating the capital was put on the table. It was classic division tactics. It created splits in MAS putting delegates from Chuquisaca (the department of Sucre) against fellow delegates from La Paz and El Alto. It had the potential to win over Chuquisaca, which voted in the majority for MAS in both general and constitutional elections. It posed an intractable problem for the Government forced to mediate between two regions with neither prepared to give ground. It pulled the wind out of MAS’s sails and brought the assembly to a halt.

And who were the actors behind the scenes? In Sucre, it was the key leaders of the Inter-Institutional Committee including the Rector Jaime Barron of the University, one of the key loci of power in the colonial university town, Fidel Herrera from the municipality and close ally of the leading right-wing national leader Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, and Jhon Cava, former militant for dictator Banzer’s party. The latter two are both known to have close links with the Right in the east of the country and they were instrumental in stopping acceptance of government compromise offers. The Committee managed to broaden support to some social movements too, but the power was clearly in the hands of the leading elites in Sucre known as the “Rosca.”

The key figure in Santa Cruz supporting the committee in Sucre was Branko Marinkovich of Croat descent, head of the civic committee, a millionaire and a major landowner who is facing legal actions for illegal expropriation of land. He was an obvious figurehead for a Santa Cruz elite who felt threatened by a Constituent Assembly that could entrench land redistribution and weaken departmental autonomy with indigenous autonomy.

Since Evo’s election, the Santa Cruz Civic Committee has led resistance to the MAS government with support from the other regions in the East where the Right won elections and where elites still dominated power: Beni, Pando, Tarija. Soon they also won over Manfred Reyes, Prefect of Cochabamba, an ex-graduate of the infamous US School of Americas renowned for training soldiers in torture and destabilisation. Reyes Villa was responsible for the unpopular water privatisation in Cochabamba and showed his true colours when he gave strong support to former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada at the time of the government-led massacres in El Alto in October 2003.

The regional resistance to the MAS government firstly focused on pushing for all decisions in the assembly to be made by two-thirds, then on the issue of departmental autonomy and opposition to indigenous autonomy. Putting the capitalia [issue of where the capital should be] on the agenda created the possibility of splitting off Sucre to join the Right camp.

According to Jaime Cruz, a Sucre resident, journalist and political analyst, Santa Cruz money was crucial for funding a big propaganda campaign including concerts, cultural events, even free beer for festivals. Santa Cruz right-wing activists started to rent rooms in Sucre. Marinkovich visited Sucre and met with Fidel Herrera and Jhon Dava. Through financial offers or other pressures, local media started a huge propaganda campaign for the capitalia which would come to head during the recent confrontations. The Sucre Committee also funded shock groups, who were involved in violent incidents against constituent delegates which prevented the Assembly from meeting and helped enforce the Committee’s views. “It became dangerous to speak out openly with dissident views in public spaces,” said Jaime.

Although there is no direct evidence of US embassy support for the two Committees in Sucre and Santa Cruz, it is highly likely that the US was also behind the scenes. A friend who interviewed a functionary at the embassy earlier this year was told explicitly that the US strategy was to support regional power to confront “state centralism.” An analysis of US aid programmes as recent as 2005 reveals a history of funding for parallel movements and initiatives to confront MAS and more radical social movements.

Yet it is clear that this agenda wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t so successfully tapped into historical and regional sentiments in Sucre.  Focusing only on a class analysis of the elites can obscure the historical memory of resentment and pain in Sucre that lies latent like an open sore. Alicia, also from Sucre who works with alternative media explained that in Chuquisaca schools, all children are taught that the capital was stolen from Sucreños by people of La Paz and El Alto in civil war in 1899. This has been reinforced constantly by civic campaigns, including commemoration of massacres. “This is as much a consigna [banner] for Sucre as recovering the sea is for Bolivian people,” notes Alicia. Although it has a particular resonance in Sucre given the civil war, regional pride and resentment against the centralisation of power in La Paz is present across the whole of Bolivia. In this light, the huge demonstration by La Paz in August against moving the capital just increased anger and resentment of Sucrenos, even those who had supported MAS.

This manipulation of regional resentment at central government was not counterbalanced by a historical process of revalorisation of Bolivia’s indigenous roots that has taken place in other parts of Bolivia. Sucre was noticeably at the periphery of demonstrations against neo-liberalism. In October 2003, when the rest of the country was wracked by anti-government and pro-nationalisation protests, Sucre was relatively untouched. Votes for MAS in 2005 and 2006 did not arise out of struggle, but probably more likely an unclear desire for change. Meanwhile the city remained dominated by a largely conservative racist mindset. This became clear early on in the establishment of the Constituent Assembly when many indigenous assembly delegates found themselves excluded from hotels, refused lifts in taxis and on occasions hit on the streets.

To understand this, it is important to go back even further than the civil war to the formation of Sucre as a city founded by owners of mines in Potosi which became the capital of a Republic led by a largely white, mestizo elite. The city today still ties itself to a republican and colonial identity. “These values are replicated in key families of the city who have retained power. It is a very static society. Holding the assembly here was a confrontation with the reality of a diverse society with different visions,” comments Alicia. The mixture of conservatism, racism and regional resentment was a potent mix for mobilising against the Assembly.

MAS also fell into this trap seeing only the clearly divisive elements of the Right’s involvement and not the regional sentiment that the Right was milking. When MAS illegally excluded the issue of capitalia from the assembly, this created resentment and provided ample ammunition to the Right to step up the campaign. “People felt betrayed, especially those who had voted for MAS,” noted Jaime Cruz.

On the back of a concerted highly organised campaign across all media and even in schools, the demand for capitalia gradually started to be taken aboard by more popular sectors and not just the middle classes and elites.  “You would meet working women in the market who said the fight for capitalia was about giving more opportunities to their children,” said Alicia. Against a rising tide of pro-capitalia propaganda, strong political support of Santa Cruz elite and a radicalisation of the Committee’s stand MAS’s compromise offers came too late.

By the time, MAS had decided to plough ahead and hold the Constituent Assembly, the scene was set for the violence. The added ingredient was a high level of media incitation which has a frightening resonance with the fascist Hutu-radios before and during the Rwanda genocide (a country I visited some years ago). Carla Guevara, who is helping set up a much-needed Observatory on Racism, was visiting Sucre during the confrontations and saw what she describes as the “construction of the internal enemy.” “Right from the beginning, the news channels were saying that the Police are ‘massacring our people” when the only thing being fired was teargas. Then they said that 50 students were being held prisoner and being tortured when that wasn’t true. They were not verifying facts as media should do, but turning any rumours into reality.” It was disinformation but it was highly effective. A protest which started by middle-class and student support suddenly had the backing of the whole population.

The result was the death of three people in fierce confrontations against the police. Carla says there was no doubt that the police responded determinedly and “hard” against demonstrators, but that the students and others fighting against them were even more ferocious in their attacks launching a barrage of dynamite, racist insults and molotovs against the police. The confrontations also sparked a series of racist attacks against many people who had nothing to do with the protests or the Assembly. Elsa Vasquez from El Alto present in Sucre for a women’s conference told me about a terrifying experience of being chased along with other women by young drunk men, pleading for help from police too afraid to assist them, and having to hide in a forest for several hours hearing shouts of “Those Indian shits are definitely here. We need to kill them.” She eventually managed to get help by pretending to be from Potosi rather than La Paz.

Several days on, the outlook is worrying. It is possible that a compromise will be reached but it appears instead that both sides are digging in for the endgame. The Government has sworn that it will fight to push through a constitution and will be under strong pressure from social movements not to dilute the constitution to a meaningless document that changes nothing. The Right fearful of structural change that affects their interests and surging on a tide of fear and relentless propaganda against the government has promised to fight tooth and nail against the existing Constitutional framework. 

In this fight to the finish, it is clear that the Right which was so comprehensively defeated in elections in December 2005 has milked regional sentiments and politics of division to build a very effective opposition to the Government. In so doing, they have laid bare an ugly racism that exists below the surface in Bolivia. The Government made a huge mistake not just in Sucre, but other regions to tackle this effectively and intelligently. The disfunction of Bolivia is not just a result of an oligarchic State but also a centralised State that has created resentments that the Right have used to devastating effect. Yet it is clear that it is ultimately the belligerence of the Right and their refusal to accept even moderate change that is likely to lead to further loss of human life. And just as in Sucre, it is unlikely to be either politicians or elites who will lose lives but ordinary people manipulated to take to the streets believing their actions will offer a better future for their children.


One Comment

  1. J December 4, 2007 at 7:52 pm - Reply

    And this is good review also, on distribution of IDH (gas) revenue and new Renta Dignidad.
    Political Conflict over Gas and Oil Tax Distribution
    Written by Tina Hodges
    Tuesday, 04 December 2007
    “The Morales administration faces the political challenge of reforming the illogical and inequitable distribution system it inherited. Unfortunately, the IDH redistribution instituted by the Morales administration to fund the Renta Dignidad further complicated revenue distribution without addressing fundamental inequities. In order to stem resistance and clarify IDH distribution, the administration must educate the population about the problems with the current distribution. A strong, equitable proposal that interlocks with a clear development plan could help the nation realize its vision of gas revenues spurring development. Finally, the distribution of IDH should be defined under law and approved by congress in order to avoid conflict and ensure more budget certainty for departmental and municipal governments.”

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