Bolivia: Morales faces down ruling class subversion

As 10 August approaches – the date for the referendum to determine whether President Evo Morales and eight departmental governors should continue in office – the ruling class has been trying its best to subvert the whole process, realising that Morales will survive the recall vote.

Initially the ruling class had supported the recall referendum, using its majority in the Senate to ensure that the necessary legislation was passed on 8 May this year. It followed the illegal autonomy vote in the department of Santa Cruz on 4 May, which the rich landowners and their imperialist backers had used to mobilise opposition to Morales. With 80% of those voting supporting autonomy, the ruling class thought it had Morales on the run. In June, three further autonomy referenda, equally illegal, were held in Beni, Pando and Tarija departments. Together with Santa Cruz these departments form the so-called ‘Crescent’ in the east of Bolivia, where almost all Bolivia’s hydrocarbon resources are located, and where there are huge landowner and agribusiness interests. All three votes showed large majorities in favour of autonomy, but were also characterised by high rates of abstention (35-40%) as the poor heeded Morales’ call not to participate.

However, things have not gone the way of the ruling class. Firstly, the Organisation of American States (OAS) has made it clear it will oppose any break-up of Bolivia, as have the Bolivian armed forces. This has created differences between, on the one hand, the openly fascist Santa Cruz landowner interests, led by Governor Ruben Costas and head of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee Branko Marinkovic, and, on the other, those around the neo-liberal party PODEMOS, led by former President Tutu Quiroga. Costas and Marinkovic are aiming for outright secession by the ‘Crescent’ departments; Quiroga realises that this is not a viable strategy.

Secondly, Morales has not backed down. With record state income from gas exports, he has been able to offer some significant improvements to the lives of the Bolivian poor. $1.8 billion will be contributed to the development of 21 drinking water projects in Santa Cruz. He has announced the nationalisation of two of the biggest private pension funds – one administered by Swiss Zurich Financial Services, the other by Spanish Banco Bilbao – which together manage the savings of 10% of the Bolivian population. He has supported the stand by Chapare coca growers in evicting USAID agents from their region. Declaring that the debate ‘is not over people, it is over economic models: return to neo-liberalism or deepen the changes’, he says: ‘I believe this process of change has no going back. That is why they [the opposition] reject the recall referendum. Their request to bring forward elections, when there is a president elected with 54% of the vote, is a coup against democracy.’ Cuba is building dozens of hospitals in the country, and Brazilian President Lula has said his nation would continue to support the expansion of Bolivia’s gas industry; 73% of Bolivian gas now goes to Brazil. Venezuelan President Chavez recently announced his government will give $883 million in aid to improve and expand the output of Bolivia’s oil and gas industry. Lula and Chavez recently pledged to collectively contribute $530 million to help with the development of highways linking La Paz, Beni and Pando.

Thirdly, the rules for the referendum which the opposition agreed to mean that the more likely losers will be Morales’ enemies, with two opposition governors facing defeat. This is because Morales or the prefects must stand down if they receive a vote of no confidence greater than the percentage with which they won in the 2005 election. Morales received 53.74% support in 2005; if there are 53.74% plus one against him in the referendum, he will have to stand down and call fresh elections. The same rules apply for the governors.

Realising that this meant they were very unlikely to defeat Morales, the opposition governors first said they would not participate, and then decided they would, but that they wanted the rules changed so that it would require 50% plus one of the votes to go against them before they had to stand down to protect those who were most at risk. Then, in early July, they demanded a referendum on whether Sucre should be restored as Bolivia’s capital city, a position it lost to La Paz in 1899, and at the end of the month threatened to organise hunger-strikes in support of this call, starting on 4 August. In May, Sucre was the scene of a racist attack by middle class students on indigenous representatives who were scheduled to meet Morales.

The 10 August referendum will be a vital test for those fighting for progress in Bolivia; a victory for Morales will help isolate neo-liberal opposition within the country and offer a chance to break opposition to the land reform programme, a vital step in consolidating the changes. It will also have a significant impact on the whole anti-imperialist process underway throughout Latin America. Socialists should have no doubt as to which side they are on.

Robert Clough


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