Ever since Evo Morales was elected to the presidency of Bolivia in late 2005, the country has lived through permanent tensions. It was only to be expected.
Morales was carried to power by a movement that, in the six previous years, had got rid of three presidents in the battle to control Bolivia’s natural resources.
The existence of vast gas and oil reserves could have transformed the lives of the two thirds of the population who are still living in poverty – a poverty intensified by the previous decade of neoliberalism.
Morales was elected to bring that potential wealth back under national control and to build a new kind of state – one in which the indigenous population, such as the Aymara and Quechua speaking communities, would be represented for the first time.
Soon after his inauguration, Morales set up a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution to guarantee those rights and give the government control over the country’s natural wealth.
One and a half years later, the assembly had made not a single decision. Instead it had become a battleground.
The strategy of the Bolivian ruling class was to paralyse the assembly, in which government supporters had just short of the two-thirds majority necessary to carry through new legislation.
Delegates from the wealthy eastern provinces walked out in late 2006, after unsuccessfully insisting that every individual article of the new constitution be approved by a two thirds majority.
They have continued to disrupt the process from outside, with demands for greater regional autonomy. They pushed for the country’s capital be moved to the city of Sucre, which is in an area controlled by the right.
Then in the state of Santa Cruz – the richest of Bolivia’s eastern provinces – the violence increased. Gangs of young thugs roamed the streets and supporters of Morales were attacked.
Having refused to take part in the assembly, the eastern provinces now demanded autonomy – effectively self-government.
In recent days the real meaning of the autonomy demand has become very clear.
On 14 December, 165 supporters of Morales met in the assembly and approved a new constitution which acknowledged indigenous rights and legislated for state control over oil and gas.
Meanwhile Santa Cruz and two other eastern states (with one more to join them soon) – the areas where gas, oil, precious woods and soya plantations are located – published their own version of the constitution.
It announced their control over local resources, declared their right to deal with national and international capital, and denied the rights of indigenous peoples.
It is no accident that the current US ambassador to Bolivia had previously overseen the break up of Yugoslavia.
The autonomy demand is a strategy to undermine the Bolivian state and place control of the nation’s wealth in the hands of the capitalist groupings who are, for the most part, already linked to multinational capital.
The attack is veiled by an explicit racism that is cynically exploited to divide even working class organisations, as well as the middle class with its high proportion of recent immigrants.
Morales has said that he will send in the army and police – which are still controlled from the capital La Paz. Santa Cruz has responded by announcing, in its autonomy statute, that it claims the right to raise its own police force. It is possible that there will soon be serious confrontation in the country.
The history of mass struggles of recent years teaches a very clear lesson – it is mass action that will carry through the changes that were hoped for when Evo Morales was elected.
Attempts by Morales in recent months to negotiate with the groups led by Santa Cruz have only encouraged them to attack his government.
It is only when the economic and political power of the capitalists are challenged directly that the new Bolivia can be built.