Bolivia: showdown approaches

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On 15 November, Bolivia’s House of Representatives approved President Morales’s land reform bill and sent it to the Senate, where opposition party members hold a majority.

The proposal would distribute some 77,000 square miles of underused state and privately-owned property to the landless. Two days later, the Constituent Assembly resolved an issue which had prevented any progress for three months since its establishment in August: whether every decision it made required a two-thirds majority, or if this was required only for the vote on the final constitution. The reactionary parties favoured the former, Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) the latter. On 17 November, Bolivia’s Constitutional Court rejected opposition complaints, allowing the 137 MAS Assembly delegates – a majority – to vote for progress.

These events have ratcheted up tension in Bolivia. Earlier in November, Morales had proposed limiting the powers of regional governors, placing them under executive review and even subject to presidential dismissal. By 20 November, six of nine state governors from the most affluent regions had broken off communications with central government. Morales warned against any rejection of the land reform by the Senate where the MAS and its allies are in a minority: ‘The people will rise up to modify those norms by force, in benefit of the majority’, he said. Prior to the vote, 1,000 landless peasants marched 1,000 kilometres to demonstrate the mass support for the proposal. 12 million acres of Bolivian lands are shared between two million families, but fewer than 100 families own 60 million acres more, mostly acquired during illegal handouts in the 1970s and 1980s.

Progress has been made in negotiating new production contracts with foreign energy firms following the 1 May decree nationalising oil and gas reserves. Companies will have to pay the Bolivian government 50% royalties and tax on output. It is estimated that this will yield an annual income of $1.3bn for the Bolivian government in 2007, an increase of 10% in GNP, compared with the $100m it secured from the previous corrupt contracts.

It is land reform that is the focus of opposition from the rich. On 22 November, leaders of the two main opposition parties, Podemos and National Unity, threatened to boycott the Senate. Holding 14 out of 27 seats they would make it inquorate and paralyse the government. A process of destabilising Bolivia is under way as the ruling class tries to undermine even the modest reforms that the Morales government proposes.

Robert Clough

FRFI 194 December 2006 / January 2007