05 May 2008

Wither Bolivia?

Bolivia's Santa Cruz department (roughly equivalent to a U.S. state) has voted for greater autonomy from Bolivia in a referendum.

According to the BBC (linked above):

Ruben Costas, the now self-declared governor of Santa Cruz, claimed that the victory meant, "initiating the path towards a new republic".

Three more departments are considering autonomy votes. They are the Departments of Beni, Pando and Tarija, which joined Santa Cruz in a declaration of autonomy from Bolivia's central government on December 15, 2007. The four departments (of nine in the country) have most of Bolivia's oil and gas wealth.

The autonomy votes comes on the heels of other recent autonomy initiatives described by Wikipedia as follows:

Bolivia's nine departments received greater autonomy under the Administrative Decentralization law of 1995. Departmental autonomy further increased with the first popular elections for departmental governors (prefectos) on 18 December 2005, after long protests by pro-autonomy-leader department of Santa Cruz. Bolivian cities and towns are governed by directly elected mayors and councils. Municipal elections were held on 5 December 2004, with councils elected to five-year terms. The Popular Participation Law of April 1994, which distributes a significant portion of national revenues to municipalities for discretionary use, has enabled previously neglected communities to make striking improvements in their facilities and services.

It was a defeat for Evo Morales, who was elected President of Boliva on December 18, 2005 and its first indigenous Bolivian leader, who wants reforms, including a draft constitution "giving a greater share of the land and resources to the country's indigenous majority."

Last years path to a draft constitution was controversial. Per Wikipedia:

Morales opened on August 6, 2006 the Bolivian Constituent Assembly to begin writing a new constitution aimed at giving more power to the indigenous majority. Problems immediately arose when, unable to garner the two-thirds votes needed to include controversial provisions in the constitutional draft, Morales' party announced that only a simple majority (50%+) would be needed to draft individual articles while two-thirds needed to pass the document in full. Violent protests arose in December 2006 in parts of the country for both two-thirds and departmental autonomy; mostly in the eastern third of the country, where much of the hydrocarbon wealth is located. Conservative sectors in this region threaten to secede from the nation if their demands are not met. MAS and its supports believed two-thirds voting rules would give an effective veto for all constitutional changes to the conservative minority. Later in August 2007, more conflicts arose in Sucre, as the city demanded the discussion of the seat of government inside the assembly, hoping the executive and legislative branch could return to the city, but the city faced denial from the assembly and the government who pointed out that the demand was overwhelmingly impractical and politically undesirable. With the conflict turning into violence, the assembly was moved to a military area in Oruro. Although the main opposition party boycotted the session, a constitutional draft was approved on November 24. Subsequent riots, whipped up by opposition mercenary groups, left three dead.

In January 2007 a clash between middle class city dwellers and poorer rural campesinos left two dead and over 130 injured in the central city of Cochabamba. The campesinos had paralyzed the city by blockading the highways, bridges, and main roads, and days earlier had set fire to the departmental seat of government, trying to force the resignation of the elected Prefect of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes Villa after he demanded a re-vote on departmental autonomy having been previously defeated by popular vote. The city dwellers clashed with the campesinos, breaking the blockade and routing the protesters, while the police did little to interfere on either side. Further attempts by the campesinos to reinstate the blockade and threaten the government were unsuccessful, but the underlying tensions have not been resolved.

Notably, Morales nationalized the country's oil and natural gas reserves when he took power in 2006. After a May 1 declaration "Troops were also sent to the two Petrobras-owned refineries in Bolivia, which provide over 90% of Bolivia's refining-capacity. A deadline of 180 days was announced, by which all foreign energy-firms were required to sign new contracts giving Bolivia majority ownership and as much as 82% of revenues (the latter for the largest natural-gas-fields). That deadline has since passed, and all such firms have signed contracts."

Morales has called the autonomy vote illegal. There were irregularities and some violence, including one person killed, accompanying the vote, although it was unclear if this had an impact on the result.

Bolivia's wealthiest region passed a statute of autonomy that would grant the department more local decision-making and more control over land, taxes and gas and oil revenues. For some analysts, the autonomy movement was instigated by the region's wealthy elite, with a good deal of economic self-interest and racism as fuel.

According to the BBC, Bolivia is South America's poorest country, with an elite of European descend politically opposite a class of poor peasants and indgeneous people. About 15% of Bolivians are white Europeans, about 30% are Mestizos and about 55% are Amerindians.

While none of the regions has yet declared independence, the threat of civil war or military intervention is real. As Wikipedia notes:

Bolivia has had a total of 193 coups d'etat from independence until 1981, thereby averaging a change of government once every ten months. Credit for the past quarter century of relative political stability is largely attributed to President VĂ­ctor Paz Estenssoro, who ceded power peacefully after cutting hyperinflation which reached as high as 14,000 percent.

The Bolivian Army of about 31,500 soldiers, mostly serving one year tours of duty. It is estimated that 20% of the Bolivian army is between the ages 14 and 16 while another 20% is from 16 to 18 (despite an official ban on voluntary enlistment prior to age eighteen). In addition landlocked Bolivia has a 3,800 sailor Navy which operates on the nation's rivers in small boats, including 2,000 marines, and a small aircraft which mostly operates transports, utility aircraft and utility helicopters, but does have twenty fixed wing ground attack aircraft. The military budget is a modest 1.8% of GNP in an already poor country, despite its historically important role in the country's politics.

English language press reports have not come up to the plate to explain who is actually right on the law (although I suspect, given the way the constitutions are usually phrased that Morales is right that the referrendums and declarations are illegal), or what the draft constitution says. The English language reports are also vague on whether the autonomy laws actually seize economic rights to the oil (I suspect that they do) or merely control over the oil drilling process. And, it is hard to tell if the fear of economic collapse which seems to be one part of the autonomy, in addition to being a simple oil grab is justified. It is also possible that the success of autonomy and decentralization in previous waves has helped make the idea popular.

1 comment:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

A good coverage of the prevailing attitude towards legality is found here.

Much more depth and local color is found here.

Noting low voter turnout is a blog here and here.

Noting new nationalizations including the telephone company is a blog here.

This blog has translations from local blogs including a notable comment on the strong centralization of status quo Bolivia.