The illegal referendum held on Sunday to declare autonomy in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s richest province, is backed by the Bush administration in an attempt to halt the leftward drift of South America. While the US embassy in La Paz blandly declares its support for “unity and democracy” in Bolivia, the government’s Interior Minister Alfredo Raba states what is widely known, that the United States “has an agenda more political than diplomatic in Bolivia, and this agenda is linked to opponents of the current government.” Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of the country, bluntly declares: “The imperialist project is to try to carve up Bolivia, and with that to carve up South America because it is the epicenter of great changes that are advancing on a world scale.”
Morales has aligned Bolivia with the nemesis of the United States, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Along with President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who is closing down the largest US military base on the continent, the three presidents constitute what can be called a radical axis in South America.
All three countries have convened constituent assemblies to draft new constitutions and to “refound” their nations. It is Bolivia’s new constitution that is to be voted on in a national referendum that has sparked the separatist opposition of the wealthy oligarchs in Santa Cruz. It grants autonomous rights to Bolivia’s majority indigenous population, places the country’s abundant mineral, gas and petroleum resources under greater national control, and sets limits on the size of the large landed estates that are heavily concentrated in Santa Cruz.
The Podemos (We Are Able) Party, which is strongest in Santa Cruz, first tried to use its control of just over one third of the votes in the constituent assembly to block its actions by insisting that a majority vote was not sufficient to approve statutes to the new constitution. When that failed, it resorted to helping stir up violence against assembly members, targeting its indigenous members and its woman president, Silvia Lazarte Flores. At the turn of the year, Evo Morales, backed by popular mobilizations in the streets of La Paz, compelled the existent Congress to approve the call for a national referendum to vote on the new constitution. It was then that the Santa Cruz elite launched its referendum for autonomy, which the country’s National Electoral Court has declared unconstitutional. The referendum voted for on Sunday grants the provincial government the power to tax and collect revenues, to set up its own police force and to block any efforts by the national gover! nment to carry out agrarian reform.
The US ambassador, Philip Goldberg, who was appointed by the Bush administration in September 2006, has maneuvered behind the scenes to support the political forces opposed to Morales and his governing party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). It is notable that Goldberg came to Bolivia from Pristina, Kosovo, where as the US Chief of Mission, he played a central role in orchestrating Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, which it had been a province of for centuries.
Last year Goldberg was photographed in Santa Cruz with a leading right-wing business magnate and a well-known Colombian narco-trafficker who had been detained by the local police. Then in late January of this year, the Embassy was caught giving aid to a special intelligence unit of the Bolivian police force. The embassy rationalized its aid by saying “the US government has a long history of helping the National Police of Bolivia in diverse programs.” US-Bolivian relations were next roiled in February when it was revealed that Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar had been pressured by an Embassy official to keep tabs on “Venezuelans and Cubans” in the country. Since Morales took office over two years ago, more than $4 million has been provided by the US Agency for International Development to the political opposition.
Bolivia’s neighbors are strongly opposed to the separatist movement and its destabilizing impact on the region. Brazil and Argentina are both dependent on natural gas from Bolivia and fear that an internal conflict would interrupt their supplies. Argentinean David Caputo came to Bolivia as head of a mission of the Organization of American States to try set up a dialogue between the government and the opposition. He found the government willing to engage in discussions, but the opposition vehemently opposed. The United States has provided no support to these regional diplomatic efforts to avoid civil strife in Bolivia.
Roger Burbach is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas, CENSA, based in Berkeley, California. He has written extensively on Latin America and US relations, and is the co-author with Jim Tarbell of “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire.”