Balkanization of Bolivia

Four weeks after Bolivia’s Santa Cruz province voted for autonomy in a referendum, the lowland provinces of Beni and Pando will vote in similar referendums with another planned in Tarija at a later date. There are many factors involved; gas, race and political control are all issues plaguing the Bolivian government and President Evo Morales, the first fully indigenous head of state.  He has labeled the referendums as “unconstitutional” and “illegal”.   

BBC news 


A primary cause of the current situation, whether direct or indirect, is the class-segregation present in many South American countries, leaving the indigenous population as second-class citizens and those of European ancestry privileged. The indigenous Indians make up about 60% of the population, with most living in the Andean mountains. Despite Morales’ Amerindian descent, the segregation has had a radicalizing effect on the indigenous population, making Bolivia, as well as Peru, Ecuador and other South American nations, vulnerable to demands for autonomy or devolutionary statutes.

Morales created controversy when he nationalized the gas industry, following the lead of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Tarija, one of the regions set to vote for autonomy, contains 85% of the nations gas and petroleum reserves. The four provinces account for more than 80% of GDP. Santa Cruz, an economic powerhouse, contains more than 10% of the reserves and provides much of the nation’s food. Obviously, these regions have a high amount of leverage over the government in La Paz.

The main issue surrounding the push for autonomy is the new constitution. Bolivia has traditionally been one of the more centralized governments in all of South America. While the new constitution makes strides towards redistributing wealth and land, many feel that too much power remains with the federal government in La Paz. The objectives of La Paz authorities include creating greater local power over finances and security, which would be in direct contradiction of the newly proposed constitution.

No forces have been moved into the region so far, although supporters of Morales did initiate attacks in the Santa Cruz elections, injuring dozens. With Morales denouncing the votes as illegal and unconsitutional, it remains to be seen what steps will be taken if the referendums do pass. There is a strong possibility that some ideas proposed in the referendums will be worked in to the new constitution. Ultimately, Morales would like the fate of the country to reside with the people through nationwide referendum.

“If we politicians can’t find a way to agree, let the people decide with their vote,” he said.

Argentina is an important stakeholder in the events in Bolivia. Struggling with opposition to export tariffs on soya and sunflower, Argentina also imports a significant amount of natural gas in order to supply its northern regions. In 2006, Bolivia signed an agreement to export natural gas to Argentina for 20 more years, with a new pipeline planned for construction starting this year. Any disruption in supply could put further stress on President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Whether there will be a reaction from the United States is unknown. Morales has repeatedly denied any possibility of a free trade agreement with the United States, more specifically the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). While President Bush would more than welcome any opposition to Evo Morales’ socialist agenda, a region in conflict is beneficial to no one.

Needless to say, it would be in everyone’s interest to resolve these differences in peaceful and diplomatic ways. We are lucky that President Morales also recognizes this and will look to compromise rather than use force needlessly.

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