Bolivia’s lose-lose options

Bolivia is a failed state. There is nothing the US, Hugo Chavez, Brazil or even the Bolivians themselves can do to change this terrible truth.

President Evo Morales and the country’s majority indigenous population (over 60% of Bolivians are indigenous peoples) won last Sunday’s popular referendum on a proposed new indigenous, socialist and secular constitution.

But the referendum also confirmed an unbridgeable divide between poor indigenous highland Bolivians, and middle class/wealthy lowland Bolivians who are descended from European immigrants.

The yes vote won massively in the country’s indigenous highland departments including Potosi (76.3%), La Paz (74%), Cochabamba and Oruro. The no vote prevailed in the lowland departments of Tarija (65.2%), Beni (65.1%) and Santa Cruz (63.8%). The yes-no vote split almost evenly in Chuquisaca. Final tallies are not in yet, and these percentages may change in coming days.

Morales sold his constitution as a constitution for all Bolivians. However, in a country of 9 million inhabitants and 3.8 million registered voters, only 60% approximately voted to approve the new constitution while about 40% rejected the new constitution. A 60-40 split is not a stable platform on which to create a new state.

Bolivia is divided every way one can slice a country into different parts – socially and politically; in terms of class, economic activity, ethnicity and religion; even geographically.

The two sides are at an impasse, with mutually incompatible visions of how Bolivia should be organized and governed. Morales cannot expand his 60% base after three years in power, but the opposition cannot expand its 40% support either.

This electoral split is basically ethnic, with indigenous Bolivians supporting Morales while Bolivians of European descent oppose the president’s plans to create a new indigenous socialist state.

Bolivia’s options are poor as it lurches into the future: more of the same instability, balkanization, ethno-civil war, a military coup; pick a scenario.

The least likely, let’s say impossible, scenario is a Pollyanna outcome in which the parties in conflict agree peacefully to set aside their differences and demands, and join forces to create a modern nation-state where the rule of law, free enterprise, equality of opportunity and an all-inclusive social safety net are guaranteed by a pluralist democratic government.

In fact, the Chavez regime’s permanent interference in Bolivia’s sovereign internal affairs during the past decade diminishes further any possibility, however scant, that the Bolivians someday might resolve their differences peacefully and by themselves.

Chavez has been intruding in Bolivia’s internal politics since at least 2002, influenced by Fidel Castro’s geopolitical counsel. Before he came to power in Havana in 1959, Castro already viewed Venezuela and Bolivia as key strategic hubs for spreading Marxist revolution throughout the Andes and South America.

Chavez officially gave Castro the keys to Venezuela in 2000, but Bolivia has proven a much tougher challenge. President Morales just won his new revolutionary constitution, and is supported by six out of ten Bolivian voters, reflecting the demographic reality of an ethnic indigenous majority.

But lowland Bolivians, while in the minority, stubbornly reject Morales’ ambitions to create a socialist indigenous nation.

Chavez has given the Morales regime between $2 billion and $3 billion since the end of 2005.

Chavez also sent Bolivarian attorneys to La Paz to draft Morales’ energy nationalization decree (which badly hurt Brazil’s strategic interests in Bolivia), and has given Morales millions of dollars in cash which Bolivia’s president has dispensed liberally to civilian socialist politicians and senior military officers in the Bolivian armed forces.

Are these payments bribes by Morales with Venezuelan oil dollars, to buy the political loyalties of the beneficiaries? Yes, of course.

Sunday’s constitutional referendum also confirmed that most (if not all) of Bolivia’s traditional political establishment, now mainly in the opposition camp, is essentially irrelevant. The 40% of Bolivians voting against Morales’ socialist constitution did so mainly because they oppose that ideological model, and not because they are followers of any opposition leader in particular.

The Bolivian opposition has the same problems as Venezuela’s opposition. Too many leaders with deep roots in a discredited past, too many internal differences within the various groups that make up the opposition, and no coherent message which appeals to a majority of Bolivians.

Morales now will try to implement the new Constitution, starting with the creation of a Constitutional Court which certainly will decide any legal challenges in favor of the new revolutionary state. But lowland Bolivians will not stand down. Instead, the risks of social and political conflict in Bolivia will increase over the coming months.

Chavez will continue to poke Bolivia, hoping to stir up a beehive. The greater the conflict, the more justification Morales will have to deploy military forces to restore order. However, the agenda Chavez (Castro) is pursuing in Bolivia is contrary to Brazil’s regional strategic interests.

Brazil wants a stable Bolivia, and permanent access to Bolivian natural resources – gas, mineral commodities, etc. Argentina and Chile are also competing for Bolivia’s gas resources, but until Morales’ election the Brazilians had a competitive edge on everyone else in Bolivia including the Gringos. However, Chavez’s support for Morales tripped up Brazil’s geopolitical strategy in Bolivia.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva may be a close Marxist comrade of President Chavez and the Castro brothers, but Brazil will not countenance an outcome for Bolivia marked by social and political instability. Chaos in Bolivia could spill over into southwestern Brazil, affecting Brazilian national security.

As a result, Brazil likely will strive to be a reliable economic friend of Bolivia, and a moderating influence between Morales and the lowland Bolivians, some of whom think it would not be such a bad idea for departments like Santa Cruz and Tarija to secede from Bolivia and join Brazil.

Bolivia also is a country of strategic interest to the United States, particularly now that Morales and Chavez are beating anti-American war drums in the region. When Lula meets President Barack Obama next month at the White House, Bolivia’s future likely will be one of the items on the discussion agenda.

Key elements of Bolivia’s new constitution:

RE-ELECTION – Morales can run for a five-year term in 2009, but is prohibited from running again in 2014. That was a setback for MAS, which insisted that Morales be allowed to run for two additional terms. New elections will be held in December 2009.

NATIONALIZATIONS – The new constitution calls for the state to exercise control over key economic sectors and declares state sovereignty over Bolivia’s vast natural gas deposits.

JUDICIARY – Members of the Supreme Court will be elected in a national vote instead of by lawmakers. The new constitution also calls for Indigenous groups to have representatives in the Constitutional Court, and allows indigenous communities to judge suspects and mete out punishment according to their customs.

INDIGENOUS REPRESENTATION – The new constitution keeps a bicameral Congress but changes its name to “Multicultural Assembly” with a larger Senate, and bigger representation of Indigenous groups.

LAND – The new constitution caps private land holdings at 12,355 acres (5,000 hectares) or 24,710 acres (10,000 hectares). But in a concession to big ranchers in the country’s eastern lowlands, the new measures will not be retroactive and will only apply to future sales, meaning that large farms will not be broken up.

AUTONOMY – The new constitution gives more autonomy to Bolivia’s nine regions, allowing governors to set up regional legislative assemblies. It gives governors more power within their regions, but says that only the central government can set foreign, fiscal, energy and security policies.

RELIGION – The new constitution guarantees freedom of religion in a country where much of the Indian population follows traditional beliefs, whereas the old constitution “recognizes and supports” the Roman Catholic religion.


About Caracas Gringo

Representing less than 0.00000000001515152% of the world population as of 31 December 2011.
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