May 4th referendum

By Published On: May 6, 2008Categories: Politics2 Comments on May 4th referendum

Cruceño Youth Union guard Prefect

Just imagine if Cornwall decided that it had had enough of Gordon Brown, decided to write its own constitution declaring it had right to control exports and negotiate international treaties related to the region, control land distribution and agricultural policies, and run its own police force and that it would hold a referendum to pass it. Then when that was declared illegal by the national courts decided it would go ahead anyway. Well that is the picture in Bolivia – although obviously with a very different history and context – as the eastern region of Santa Cruz pushed through a referendum that won more than 80% approval for its autonomy statutes.

The victory has been hailed as the start of a new era for the jubilant Right across the country who understandably see the Evo Morales chances of delivering “radical change” running into serious difficulties, whilst the government has pointed to the large abstention rates (40% which is very high when voting is compulsory) which combined together with No and Null votes meant the majority was more like 50%. It is a clear victory but unlikely to be what the Santa Cruz elites hoped for given the amount of resources they put into the campaign in the region where they have the most support.

The reality is that the referendum probably doesn’t change very much. The fight which has reached an apparent stalemate between the rightwing prefects and the government which has been going on for more than a year looks likely to continue. The government is opposed by a majority in Santa Cruz and right across the east of the country and there are doubts as to whether the government can even effectively exercise state power in these regions without risking violence – most incredibly the Vice-Minister of land was recently kicked out of Camiri by landowners with guns as he tried to hand out land titles to indigenous Guaranis. Yet the huge march I witnessed here in Cochabamba of hundreds of thousands of mainly campesinos and indigenous people on Sunday against the votes shows that Evo Morales still has strong support and his powerful and mobilised bases behind him. Internationally, the autonomy vote has received no recognition shown in the complete lack of international observers (bar a few rightwing thinktanks). Neighbouring governments and the Organisation of American States have clearly backed Evo Morales which means that independent attempts to control hydrocarbons resources or exports in the province are unlikely to flourish.

There is an enormous amount being written on blogs and websites about the statutes, of which I would particularly recommend Upside Down World. I have just spent more than a week in both the city and the countryside of Santa Cruz, so thought I would share my observations based on four stories.

1. I am marching on definitely the first right-wing led march in my
life, surrounded by green and white flags proclaiming autonomy. The
people I talk to though don’t have a right-wing agenda, their concerns
seem merely practical: “I am here because I want to process my tramités
(papers) in Santa Cruz not La Paz,.” “I hope it will mean more
resources stay here.” Just beyond them, I make out the white faces of
the leaders of the autonomy movement, Ruben Costas a neoliberal
politician and Branco Marinkovich a rich landowner and food company
director, waving from behind cohorts of young men all in Crucenista
Youth Union T-shirts (renowned for using violence against opponents).

The image fits the autonomy movement, which has recruited people of all
classes with resentment at a centralised bureaucracy, some of whom have
a strong historical memory of central government repression of previous
autonomy movements, others who want to be more included in government
policies.  Autonomy after all is something that no-one can really
oppose as theoretically it means more control over our lives.

Yet this autonomy movement is clearly also led by an elite with strong
economic interests, many of whom are related to each other in a
tightly-knit network of families. (A historical footnote to show that
autonomy doesn’t need to be right-wing agenda, Andres Ibanez who led
the call for federalism in the late 19th century was ignored by the
elites for talking too much about equality.) The movement in its recent
form however was pushed by Cruceño elite (people from Santa Cruz) with the clear rise and
strength of popular movements in Bolivia since 2000. It is no
coincidence that on the same day as President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada
fled the country and Bolivia mourned the deaths of more than 60 people
killed by his regime, that the Cruceño elite declared their demands for
an autonomy referendum. They knew neoliberalism was under threat, and
with MAS’s election the opposition and demands for autonomy stepped up
a notch to both do the utmost to derail the constitutional assembly and
now pass statutes that would entrench the neoliberal model at a
regional level.

2. In San Ignacio, we meet a Paceño (someone from La Paz), Miguel, who
has lived in the city for 15 years and is involved in restoration work
of the mission churches. He talks about prejudice and racism
experienced regularly against him because he comes from the capital
city. He blames it on “ignorance and manipulation.”  He also recounts
that the city councillors and friends recently carved up state lands
that haven’t been processed and handed them out to their friends
“before the collas” come (term used in a racist way to describe people
from the Bolivian highlands)

He says that the movement has gained a strong hegemony in his region
with almost no opposition. His story is confirmed by my trip around the
Chiquitania (countryside east of Santa Cruz) where the central government is
completely absent, where the State has effectively disappeared.
Everywhere I go, even in the smallest pueblos, there is an
extraordinary amount of pro-autonomy literature, cars circulating
playing an autonomy song that drove me mad from repetition, relentless
news stories (or I should say blatant propaganda) on TV of autonomy
parks being opened, interviews with selected people expressing their
joy at the impending freedom that autonomy will bring.

The only sign of dissent that people to dare to express seems to be
graffiti scribbled at night on some streets condemning the autonomia
de logias
(Masonic autonomy referring to the secret clubs in Santa
Cruz where the elites meet). Back in Santa Cruz, I talk to academics
who have been too afraid to publish critiques of the elites, activists
who have been beaten up by the Cruceño Youth Union (who amazingly were commissioned to oversee the running of
the election), and constituent assembly representatives who can no
longer hold public meetings after having them disrupted constantly.

The stories attest to a campaign that has been run very effectively
combining huge amounts of money and propaganda (backed without
hesitation by the privately owned TV channels run by the same elite),
promises of improvements (like improved salaries and keeping more Santa
Cruz resources within the province), a strong undercurrent of racism
against immigrants from the highlands, and with the constant threat and
occasional use of violence against anyone who speaks out against

3.  We descend from the forested regions of the Chiquitania and
approach Santa Cruz. The trees thin out and then disappear and are
replaced by huge tracts of farmed land stretching into the distance. On
the roadside billboards advertise seeds D354, Hybrid D565, and various
scary-sounding crop pesticides along with the array of logos of global
TNCs: Cargill, Dow, ADM.

As one academic in Santa Cruz told me, the elites’s leadership of the
struggle for autonomy is essentially about three things: Land, Business
freedom, and the Cheque (ie financial resources for the region).  Santa
Cruz is the region with the highest concentration of land ownership.
According to the UNDP, hundred families control 25 million hectares of
land, five times more land than held by 2 million campesinos. These
families are not surprisingly opposed to government policies that have
redistributed more land in two years than in the previous ten, and
which with the new constitution would reduce the maximum landholding to
between 5,000 and 10,000 hectares. Branco Marinkovich, the head of the
civic committee leading the autonomy campaign himself owns tens of
thousands of acres and is facing a legal action for illegal
appropriations of lands. The Monasterios family who own the main
opposition TV channel, UNITEL, own almost 100,000 hectares. Not
surprisingly then the autonomy statutes take the issue of land
ownership and redistribution back into Santa Cruz hands.

But the land issue is also tied closely to the interests of
agro-industry and the supportive industries that accompany an economy
based on agricultural exports. In particular, the Santa Cruz elites are
highly opposed to a proposed constitution which bans Genetically
Modified Organisms, opposes the production of agrofuels, and
prioritises small campesinos over agro-industry, all seen as key to the
future of the region. The autonomy statues, again not surprisingly put
all the decisions for developing agro-industry into the hands of Santa
Cruz elites. Seeing the endless logos coming into Santa Cruz of
agro-industrial multinational companies who make and could make vast
profits from this or be severely threatened by change, made me think
that too often the Left is looking to blame petrol companies for
funding the Right. They forget that agriculture earns more money than
hydrocarbons in Bolivia, and it is far more likely that the autonomy
movement is funded by Dow and Cargill rather than Shell.

The other key issue is the question of the cheque ie how much money the
Prefecture has to buy clientalist support, to fund projects and to
retain power. Here several key resources come into play: the taxes
collected in the region and paid in customs for exports, and the
resources from the large hydrocarbons in the region. The central
government potentially has exclusive power over the last two given the
support they have from external governments that buy gas and Bolivian
products; potentially the department has more power over taxes
internally. I haven’t been able to collect yet the data to show what
the figures are to show who will have more power as negotiations
between the department and the government inevitably take place.
Ironically, the autonomy campaign has been partly financed by the
central government whose “nationalisation”  programme doubled the
amount of resources available to the Prefecture from hydrocarbons –
used shamelessly in adverts by the Prefect that autonomy is already
delivering more resources to the provinces.

4. Ricardo, his hair slicked back, is talking passionately into the
radio mike. His T-shirt proudly proclaims “Viva Santa Cruz” (Long live Santa Cruz) but he is
attacking the Cruceño Youth Union for violence against his friends.
Ricardo was born in Santa Cruz but has parents from Oruro and runs a
programme on a community radio station in Plan 3000, a vast
neighbourhood in Santa Cruz populated mainly by immigrants and their
children from the western highlands.

Although this community is also divided between support and opposition
to autonomy, it has been the base together with some indigenous
communities in the countryside for support for the central government.
It is very noticeable as you head out from the centre of Santa Cruz
where the graffiti is all in favour of autonomy and against Evo (“Evo
you will die. Indian shit”) that the graffiti changes as you move out
to the poorer neighbourhoods (“Costas (the prefect) you will die.
Oligarchic shit”). It shouldn’t be forgot that MAS in the constituent
assembly elections emerged as the first party in the region with about
30% of the votes. Yet of course none of these opposition groups were
involved in any consultations about the autonomy statutes and see
little advantage for them in an autonomy controlled by an exclusive
elite. They point clearly to the resistance that autonomy and the
Cruceño elite will face even within their own region to their plans.

The future

Predicting the future in a country like Bolivia is a dangerous sport,
given that the country at times appears close to the brink and then
suddenly overnight retreats. It is clear that Bolivia is very divided
and that the Right is in the ascendancy. But it is also clear that
their power is still more regional than national. There is not yet a
plan for national power as any rightwing politicians knows it won’t
last more than a few days against mobilised social movements. Yet the
Right have been sufficiently successful to effectively stall progress
towards structural change, in particular on critical issues like land.

The main question in the air is whether we are seeing moves towards
separatism. I don’t believe we are – the conditions aren’t right for
that to prosper. But I do think we set for more violence and conflict
and the dangers of an increasing “Colombianisation” of Bolivian
politics as large landowners start to arm themselves to prevent any
land redistribution, and social movements prepare to take them on. One
thing to watch with the Santa Cruz elite is for possible splits as
negotiations start to take place with the government between those
business elites more interested in stability and landowning elites who
are prepared to fight tooth and nail for their vast territories.

Meanwhile back in Cochabamba, as I watched the vast march of campesinos
and indigenous people marching past, I couldn’t help noticing the
difference with the march in Santa Cruz for autonomy. In Santa Cruz it
was a march dominated by the middle class and the wealthy, their faces
smiling and happy reflecting perhaps the fun of being on marches
(something new to the right here) but also the spirit the autonomy
campaign has carefully cultivated that the demands are about freedom
and the happiness and true spirit of the Cruceño people. In Cochabamba,
I saw faces etched not with happiness but with defiance and struggle,
feet in abarcas (the sandles made out of old tyres) engrained with the soil of hard
work. It made me realise that despite having their own indigenous
President for two years that they are still fighting, still struggling
against an elite that won’t accept justice that impinges on their
interests. The struggle has been going on for centuries and it is not
over yet.



  1. Miguel Centellas May 6, 2008 at 7:55 pm - Reply

    Good overall. But rather than Cornwall, I’d make the analogy to Scotland in the 1990s. That would hit closer to the mark, I think.

  2. Nick May 11, 2008 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    You are right,Miguel. Scotland is a better analogy.

Leave A Comment