Bolivia is at a crossroads once again. A referendum last weekend on increased autonomy for the country’s largest state had one clear purpose – to undermine the democratically elected government of Evo Morales.
The referendum has no legal status and the result – a victory for those promoting autonomy – was a foregone conclusion.
Many from organisations of the left have abstained. Those who voted did so under the watchful eye of the thugs of the UJC – the neo-fascist youth organization of Santa Cruz province. One man is reported dead and more than 30 injured in clashes on election day.
The eastern half of Bolivia, known as the “half moon”, is the source of most of the country’s wealth. The richest of the four eastern provinces, Santa Cruz, contains much of its oil and gas as well as huge soya plantations.
Since the election of Evo Morales in 2005, the elite of the eastern provinces have worked to block every attempt at left wing reform.
They have blocked the Constitutional Assembly and diverted the argument about democracy and social justice towards a campaign for regional autonomy.
But this is no simple bid for devolution – their demand is for a level of self-government that would remove state control and allow the east to run its own foreign policy, build a local army, and administer a separate system of justice.
The referendum was organised to defend the interests of the wealthy landowners and businessmen of the area.
Poor farmers and indigenous Indian communities know that they can expect little in the way of social or economic justice if the elite of the state seizes control of Santa Cruz.
This elite represents the forces that have held power in Bolivia for two centuries.
The Morales government was elected with the promise of challenging these powerful forces in order to redistribute wealth towards those who for centuries had been the victims of the exploitation of the country’s resources.
Morales emerged from the mass movements from below that have shaken Bolivia since the end of the 1990s.
In 1999 a mass movement in Cochabamba fought successfully against the privatisation of water – dramatically winning it back into public ownership.
From then on, the struggles of communities and mass organisations turned the tide – fighting in particular for control over gas and oil.
The nationalisation of both industries was at the heart of Morales’ strategy.
Morales is the first Bolivian president from the country’s oppressed indigenous population.
Some 65 percent of Bolivia’s population come from indigenous cultures – mainly Quechua and Aymara speaking. Yet the rulers of Bolivia – as well as its landowners, businessmen and military commanders – have always come from the white or “criollo” minority.
The white elite’s wealth was created by the indigenous miners clawing silver and tin out of the ground at high altitudes for starvation wages.
When the tin mines began to close down in the 1970s, many of these miners, including Evo Morales, moved down into the valleys of Cochabamba to grow coca and some sought work in Santa Cruz and the east.
There they faced the same exploitation and harsh conditions. When that began to change – with the resistance in Cochabamba – global capital began to prepare its fightback.
The autonomy referendum is part of that fightback by the rich and powerful.
The referendum is intended to ensure that the Morales government, based in La Paz in the Andean highlands, will lose control over the country’s wealth and resources.
These will then be placed in the hands of the multinational interests to which the rich and powerful of Santa Cruz are directly connected.
They have justified the campaign with unconcealed racist rhetoric – but behind that are the interests of global capital.
The mass struggles and radical governments of Bolivia and Venezuela have come to represent the cornerstone of an alternative kind of power, based on active communities and mass resistance. It is that alternative that is now at risk.
The argument that this referendum is an open electoral process is a sham. The resistance of many indigenous and peasant organisations outside the main cities has been fierce, with ballot boxes burned and barricades thrown up.
The stakes are very high. It is not just about the survival of a government, but about the direction of the movement.
For nearly two years powerful capitalist interests have blocked attempts to institute a new radical constitution or full agrarian reforms.
The elite’s attacks can only be beaten by Bolivia’s mass movements.
They must continue their struggle and they deserve our support.
Mike Gonzalez is author of Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848.
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