Like Allende, Morales faces a powerful economic and political elite aligned with the
The self-proclaimed Civic Committees in Media Luna (Half Moon)–
Morales’ efforts to transform the institutions of the country have focused on the popularly elected Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. The assembly was convened in mid 2006 with representatives from Morales’ political party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) holding 54 percent of the seats. In the drafting of the new constitution, the right wing political parties, led by Podemos (We Can), insisted that a two-thirds vote was needed even for the working committees to approve the different sections of the constitution. When they were overruled and a new constitution was close to being approved in November, 2007, members of the assembly, including its indigenous president, Silvia Lazarte, were assaulted in the streets of
Using words that evoked Allende’s last stand in the Chilean presidential palace, Evo Morales declared "dead or alive, I will have a new constitution for the country." He quartered the assembly in an old castle under military protection where it adopted a constitution that has to be approved in a national referendum. Labeling Morales a "dictator," the civic committees and the departmental prefects (governors) of Media Luna were able to stall the vote on the referendum, and instead organized departmental referendums for autonomy in May of this year that were ruled unconstitutional by the National Electoral Council.
Taking recourse in democracy rather than force, and searching for a national consensus, Morales then held up the vote on the new constitution, and instead put his presidency on the line in a recall referendum in which his mandate as well as that of the prefects of the departments could be revoked. On August 10, voters went to the polls and Morales won a resounding 67 percent of the vote, receiving a majority of the ballots in 95 of the country’s 112 districts with even the Media Luna department of Pando voting in his favor.
However, the insurgent prefects also had their mandates renewed. Based on the illegal, departmental plebiscites held in May, they moved to take control of
Simultaneously, the right wing–led by the Santa Cru zCivic Committee–began sewing economic instability, seeking to destabilize the Morales government much like the CIA-backed opposition did in
The social movements allied with the government have mobilized against this right wing offensive. In the Media Luna, a union coalition of indigenous peoples and peasants campaigned against voting in the autonomy referendums, and have taken on the bands of the UJC as they try to intimidate and terrorize people. In the Andean highlands, the social movements descended on the capital
This past week the Civic Committees stepped up their efforts to take control of the Media Luna departments. In Santa Cruz on September 8, crowds of youth lead by the UJC seized government offices, including the land reform office, the tax office, state TV studios, the nationalized telephone company Entel, and set fire to the offices of a non-governmental human rights organization that promotes indigenous rights and provides legal advice. The military police, who had been dispatched to protect many of these offices, were forced to retreat, at times experiencing bloody blows that they were forbidden from responding to due to standing orders from La Paz not to use their weapons. The commanding general of the military police, while angrily denouncing the violent demonstrators, said that the military could take no action unless Evo Morales signed a degree authorizing the use of firearms.
What was in effect occurring was a struggle between Morales and the military over who would assume ultimate responsibility for the fighting and deaths that would ensue with a military intervention in Media Luna. The armed forces do not support the autonomous rebellion because it threatens the geographic integrity of the Bolivian nation. Yet they are reluctant to intervene because under past governments, when they fired on and killed demonstrators in the streets of
On September 10, as violence intensified throughout Media Luna, Evo Morales expelled
September 11, the 35th anniversary of the coup against Allende, was the bloodiest day in the escalating conflict. In the Media Luna department of Pando, a para-military band with machine guns attacked the Indian community of El Porvenir, near the departmental capital of El Cobija, resulting in the death of at least 28 people. In a separate action, three policemen were kidnapped. The Red Ponchos, an official militia reserve unit of Indians loyal to Evo Morales, mobilized its forces to help the indigenous communities organize their self defense.
The next day Morales declared a state of siege in Pando and dispatched the army to move on Cobija and to retake its airport that had been occupied by right wing forces. Army units are also being sent to guard the natural gas oleoducts, one of which had been seized by the UJC, cutting the flow of gas to neighboring
After sustained fighting with at least three dead, the army took control of the airport and moved on the city. An order for the arrest of the prefect of Pando was issued for refusing to recognize the state of siege and for being responsible for the massacre in El Porvenir. In
Evo Morales refuses to back down, declaring in a meeting with supportive union leaders, "we will launch a campaign to approve the new constitution." He did, however, indicate he may modify the draft to accommodate some of the demands for autonomy by the prefects. Like Allende, Morales continues to search for a democratic solution to the crisis in his country. For the moment, he has the backing of the Bolivian armed forces along with overwhelming popular support, thereby avoiding the ultimate fate of the Chilean president.
Roger Burbach is Director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) based in Berkeley, CA. He has written extensively on