Bolivia Threatened by the Fury Destabilizing the Opposition

Article by Rafael Garcia, SJ *

The electoral victory of Evo Morales marked the beginning of a new epoch in the history of Bolivia. It was the first time that the country had a democratically elected indigenous president, with support close to 54% that was the biggest vote hit by a president in the last twenty years of democracy. Before assuming the presidency, the president-elect toured several countries in the new and old world, collecting samples of sympathy and support everywhere.

These facts rekindled hope in the people, especially indigenous people. Everything seemed to indicate that Bolivia had begun a period of change and prosperity, ending once and for all the exclusion that had caused indigenous peoples, from colonial times, to live as strangers in their own land.

Evo Morales began his administration with great momentum, fulfilling two of his main election promises 1 in the first six months of government. The opposition, led by the group of families who for many years had used the government for its own purposes, was baffled and could not articulate its demands. But those who thought the battle had been won were sadly naive.

For the first eight months of Morales' administration, the government convened a Constituent Assembly in Sucre, which highlighted the presence of thirty-six indigenous groups living in the Bolivian territory as well as representatives from all other sectors of Bolivian society.

A new constitution was a fundamental requirement for the new president to complete, within a democratic framework, in order to carry out reforms in the country. But the importance to this process was also recognized by the opposition, which by then was beginning to articulate its own demands. That is why the Constituent Assembly since the beginning became a battlefield, where officers and opponents struggled to achieve their different purposes. At first the opposition was playing to sabotage, resorting to all sorts of legal trivialities to halt the progress of the Assembly. But, as the work of the commissions progressed, opponents became more violent, even physically assaulting the indigenous constituents, who were identified with the ruling party.

The latest barrage of opposition to curb the New Constitution was organized after eleven months of the Constituent Assembly and on this occasion used as a strategy to enflame the feelings of the people of Sucre, opening a historic wound. This was turning the discussion to focus on the return of Sucre as the government capitol, which had been transferred to La Paz after the Federal War of 1899. That historic battle culminated in the defeat of the unit where 27 university students, belonging to the elite of Sucre, 2 were killed in a skirmish at the hands of the army Aymara (indigenous group) who supported the federalists.

The Government of Evo Morales did not recognize the power of this issue and acted with little political wisdom, which sparked further opposition. For 3 months opposition blocked access to the compound where the Assembly usually met. They also arranged with the police and army, to prevent the constituent meeting in an alternate site compound temporarily enabled within a military school near Sucre. The clashes killed three citizens, a fact not yet clarified; however, the opposition was responsible for convincing the population that the repression had been ordered by the Evo Morales, thus turning the public against him.

The constituent officially continued with its program and in two marathon sessions that got a majority of delegates approved the text of the new Constitution. This approval, according to some, was forced by the official sector and lacked, therefore, of any legitimacy.

But it is important to question: "Why was the opposition opposed from the start to the new Constitution?" In reality the opposition rejected, as some central themes directly affecting their interests: the recognition of indigenous cultures and nationalities and the defense of collective rights; recovery and state administration of strategic resources; the elimination of large estates and equitable distribution of land.

To solve the problem, on several occasions the president called for dialogue with the opposition, both during the drafting of the new constitution and at the end of it. But the opposition withdrew and opted to follow their own agenda, based on the proposed autonomy, which had been submitted to referendum and, as agreed upon, should apply in departments where the population was defined the new constitution, once it was adopted.

The government of Morales' party, the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS), never saw favorably the issue of departmental autonomy, because the proposal had a clear intent to turn "autonomy" into a mechanism to return power to those who had lost power at the state level. Some believe that the president was mistaken from the beginning to politicize an issue that was responding to a desire held by much of the population.

As a result of this dual strategy the country is currently facing conflict between the opposition bloc, which advocates autonomy, and those who are confident that the new constitution will be adopted someday.

The opposition has spared no effort or resources in pursuing its autonomy proposal. As a first step they used the media widely, practicing a media war without compunction. At the same time they placed their confidence men in front of some civic institutions 3 that, for lack of democratic and participatory structure, can be easily manipulated.

The continuous bombardment of certain messages, the manipulation of information, and the ability to blame the government for everything bad that happens in the country have had great success. With the expert application of these and other methods, opponents succeeded, in a short time, in gaining enough followers to make it appear they had the support of the population. This enabled them to later commit all sorts of irregularities in voter registration, to the adoption by referendum of some autonomous status, which was intended to counter perceived threats [to their interests] contained in the new Constitution.

Such was the desire to adopt the autonomous status, which in less than three months, between May and July 2008, were drawn up and approved the statutes of four apartments, which are controlled by the opposition, which manages a speech very persistent in terms to defend the legality and democracy, so that, apparently, its components are law-abiding and its main criticism is the Government because it violates the law. However, it must be noted that the adoption of the statute was riddled with irregularities. First was convened to a referendum in four departments without the approval of Parliament, a necessary requirement for conducting a referendum. The National Electoral Court did not participate in processes and there were no observers to ensure the transparency of the process. But if this were not enough, it turns out that the autonomy has no legal framework, it is a structure that is not provided in the current Constitution.

Interim these developments, the opposition, increasingly cornered, developed other measures of intimidation of the population, such as public attacks, which were responsible for suppressing any person or institution that refused to repeat the slogans issued by the steering committee in each region. Moreover, the president lost no opportunity to publicly denounce the maneuvers of the opposition, which, in such extreme tension, declared open war on the government, falling into flagrant acts of rebellion, such as the call for the government's public resignation.

Faced with this request, the president responded with a measure of the referendum for revocation of mandate, exercising a form of democracy under the proposed new Constitution as the standard way to remove the mandate from an elected authority when their performance does not satisfy the voters. Morales suggested that this measure be applied to himself as president, the vice president and prefects or governors of the nine departments.

The opposition refused at first to accept the proposal, however, in a moment of euphoria after assuming success in the referendum autonomy, decided to adopt the law on revocation of mandate in parliament, which was immediately promulgated by Evo Morales and set date for its completion.

It seems that the opposition group had not accurately measured the consequences of this decision because, according to opinion polls, the President would continue to support equal to or even greater than it took the Government Palace, while some governors of the opposition lose in the referendum. This uncomfortable situation much it was and even frictions between its components, which finally took as a common strategy to oppose, by the way it was, to this referendum, whose performance was set for August 10.

The most conservative sector, represented by CONALDE, strongly opposed the holding of the referendum, arguing that it would only serve to further divide the country. Through the media, which they controlled, they spread all kinds of lies, trying to convince citizens that the referendum was illegal and as they so often had done, presenting themselves as defenders of legality and democracy.

In spite of these difficulties, on polling day the wisdom and democratic awareness of Bolivians was once again apparent. The voters attended the election with the greatest calm and cast their vote consciously, giving politicians obvious signs of what they wanted 4.

Leaders of two prefects (La Paz and Cochabamba) were revoked, which did not represent a significant loss for the opposition because they had no leadership in the group. The rest of the prefects were ratified and including four of the autonomous departments (Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija), known as the "crescent", received greater support to which they had succeeded when they were elected.

But the most striking was the support received by the President (67.8%), which surpassed all expectations. Even in the three departments which he failed to reach 50% of votes (Santa Cruz, Beni and Tarija), his support was much higher than he achieved in the 2005 presidential elections. Furthermore, in these departments, the majority of votes against Morales were concentrated in a few municipalities, which almost always is the capital of the department, where the civic committees and the prefectures of the opposition can best exercise their influence through the media communication that they control.

Surprising the entire world, a president with two and a half years of government, who has faced an opposition that has done everything possible to wear out or even overthrow him, came out of this referendum strengthened, with a much greater support (67.8% ) than he received when he was elected president (54%). It is clear that the citizens continue to gamble on change and do not accept the dirty war of the opposition. He now has enough support to carry forward the proposed changes, punishing, if necessary, with the full rigor of the law, those groups or actions, usually nothing democratic, designed to destabilize country. The opposition must understand that the only way is to resort to dialogue, so often called by the President in Parliament and raise alternative proposals conducive to the whole country.

The results showed clearly that Bolivia, beyond the polarization and confrontation presented by the media, is looking for genuine and profound changes in the country. The worst defeated have been biased media, which only managed to confuse the population, especially among cities, making them believe that the President had lost support and it would be revoked. These same media are now spreading the news that the referendum was a huge fraud, but we are asked to believe that, while President and Prefect were listed on the same ballot, the alleged fraud affected only the votes that favored the President, and not those ratifying the opposition Prefects. This would be highly unlikely. The lies fabricated by the opposition are increasingly difficult to believe and just express their gradual loss of legitimacy.

Despite the criticism often heard, there is no doubt that the outcomes of Evo Morales' economic management have been positive, even the reserves at the Central Bank during this time rose from 2,600 to 7,300 million, mainly because revenue from oil and the increase in the contribution of oil companies since the enactment of the law on nationalization and the signing of new contracts with companies. But it also had its effect improvements in tax collection, especially by expanding the tax base.

As for the labor system, there was an increase of 28.64% in the national minimum wage, which had been frozen since 2003, while the open unemployment rate fell in 48 percentage points within two years of government, a result which is strongly linked with increasing national public investment, which at this time exceeds two billion dollars.

Along with these results there are other measures of social Evo Morales who have been fairly criticized by the opposition, as bonds "Juancito paint" and "dignity". The first, aimed at reducing dropout, is a bond of two hundred Bolivian 5 delivered to basic public school students who met attendance standards throughout the year, while the second is aimed at people older than 60 years without pension. The opposition believes that these are populist measures which are directed only to increase their flow of votes. However, in the first year of implementation of voucher school dropout rates fell by half.

Another hotly debated topic is the delivery of checks from Venezuelan aid, which the president distributes directly when visiting the municipalities. It is true that a measure is highly questionable, with the President himself saying that it was justified because it is a quick way to get the investment to the field.

There is no doubt that the sector that has proved most favored is the indigenous peasant, who, moreover, was the most impoverished. This explains the decline in the poverty rate in the country from 62 to 58% in the period of government. However, the main criticism that can be made is that there is by now the industrial transformation that had been announced and that would make sustainable in the medium and long term the country's economy.

The Government of Evo Morales has been maintained so far within the capitalist system, the change in any case is at a greater role in state control of the strategic resources and better distribution of wealth, favoring the poorest. For its part, the opposition does not have a proposal for the country's economic development but its claim is to return to neo-liberal drying system, in addition to lack of leaders with national prominence.

The popular support for Evo Morales, especially among peasants and indigenous people, and the progress towards a popular economy and the Latin American context are favorable elements that should be exploited to advance the process of change and not continue with the game wear of the opposition, who lack productive proposals, and only seeks to destabilize the government.

One of the major successes of the government, perceived mainly in the working classes, is increasing people's self-esteem and dignity and the respect that Bolivia receives as a country at the international level.

However, if anyone thought for a moment that was simple to make democracy a change like that Evo Morales intends, will see how wrong it was.

*Google Translation with edits by Laurel Dutcher
1. The Nationalization of hydrocarbons and the Constituent Assembly.
2. Inhabitants of the city of Sucre, where the Constituent Assembly functioned.
3. For example chambers of employers, professional associations, civic committees and so on.
4. Attendance at this vote (83%) was the largest observed in recent years
5. 200 Bs. equivalent to 30 U.S. dollars at current exchange of the currency.