Bolivian Crisis in a New South America

On September 15, Bolivian President Evo Morales arrived in Santiago, Chile for an emergency meeting of Latin American leader convened to seek a resolution to the recent conflict in Bolivia. Morales said, "I have come here to explain to the presidents of South America the civic coup d’etat by governors in some Bolivian states in recent days. This is a coup by the leaders of some provinces, with the takeover of some institutions, the sacking and robbery of some government institutions, and attempts to assault the national police and the armed forces."

As Morales spoke, the smoke was still rising from a week of violent right-wing government opposition that left the nation paralyzed, at least 30 people dead, and businesses, government, and human rights buildings destroyed. During the same week, Morales declared the U.S. Ambassador in Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, a "persona non grata" for "conspiring against democracy" and for his ties to the Bolivian opposition.

Massacre in Pando

On September 11, in the tropical Bolivian department of Pando, which borders Brazil and Peru, 1,000 pro-Morales men, women and children were heading toward Cobija, the department’s capital, to protest rightwing governor Leopoldo Fernández and his thugs’ takeover of the city and airport.


Anti-Morales youth in Santa Cruzphoto from

According to press reports and eyewitness accounts, when the protesters arrived at a bridge seven kilometers outside the town of Porvenir, they were ambushed. Shirley Segovia, a Porvenir resident, told Bolpress, "We were killed like pigs with machine guns, with rifles. The campesinos had only brought their teeth, clubs, and sling shots, they didn’t bring rifles. After the first shots, some fled to the river Tahuamanu, but they were followed and shot at." Days later the death toll rose to 30, with dozens wounded and over 100 still missing.

Fernández denies orchestrating this violence. However, in 2006 he was denounced by then government Minister Alicia Muñoz, who said the governor was training at least 100 paramilitaries as a "citizen’s protection" force. These paramilitaries are believed to have participated in the massacre. Fernández is one of the opposition governors that form part of the National Democratic Council (CONALDE), an organization that includes governors from Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija, and Chuquisaca who are organizing for departmental autonomy against the Morales government and his Administration’s redistribution of land and natural gas wealth and other socialistic policies.

After the massacre, Morales declared a state of siege in Pando, sent in the military, and by September 15 a tense peace had reportedly returned to the region. Fernandez was arrested and taken to the Bolivian capital.

The massacre took place just weeks after an August 10 national recall vote in which Morales won 67 percent support nationwide. In Pando, Morales won 53 percent of the vote, an increase of 32 percent from the 21 percent he received from Pando residents during the presidential election in 2005.

A few key political developments led to this recent increase in regional tension. On August 28, Morales announced a presidential decree establishing a constitutional referendum on December 7. This vote would apply to the constitution which was re-written and passed in a constituent assembly in December 2007. On September 2, 2008 the electoral court said it opposed the referendum because it had to first be passed by Congress. As the opposition controlled the Senate, the debate revived existing conflicts and opposition leaders began to block major roads and seized an airport in Cobija on September 5.

Congress ratified yet another draft of the Bolivian constitution on October 21. A national referendum of whether or not to make the document official is scheduled for January 25, 2009. If the constitution is approved in the January referendum, a new general election will take place in December 2009.

In the days leading up to September 11, anti-government protesters ransacked businesses and attacked human rights organizations across the country. On September 10, an explosion reportedly set off by opposition groups disrupted the flow of gas lines to Brazil from Tarija, Bolivia.

U.S. Ambassadors Expelled

Following these tumultuous events, Morales demanded that U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg leave the country. Morales said, "The ambassador of the United States is conspiring against democracy and wants Bolivia to break apart."

The announcement came after a private meeting between Goldberg and the right-wing governor of Santa Cruz on August 25 and a later visit to the opposition governor of Chuquisaca. Throughout Goldberg’s time as ambassador, which began in 2006, the Morales government had accused him of orchestrating U.S. funding and support to opposition groups in the eastern part of the country. Before coming to Bolivia, Goldberg worked as an ambassador in Kosovo from 2004-2006 and a consular in Colombia. At a final press conference in La Paz, Goldberg said: "I want to say that all the accusations made against me, against my embassy…against my country and against my people are entirely false and unjustified."

Following the U.S. ambassador’s expulsion from Bolivia, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez announced that the U.S. ambassador in his country had to leave. The U.S. responded by asking the ambassadors of Venezuela and Bolivia to leave the U.S. This all took place during a tense few months in U.S.-Latin American relations in which the U.S. Navy reinstated its Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean after decades of inactivity, Chavez announced joint exercises with Russia in the Caribbean, and Bolivia strengthened its ties with Iran.

On November 1, weeks after the meeting in Santiago, Morales accused the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of spying and supporting the anti-government groups that were involved in the September violence. He suspended the DEA’s activity in the country, stating that the Bolivian government would continue anti-drug trafficking efforts without the DEA’s involvement.

Anti-fascist youth march in Cochabambazphoto from Indymedia Bolivia

Bolivian Military Alliances

Though the threat of a "civic coup d’etat" still looms, the Bolivian military is unlikely to back the opposition. Kathryn Ledebur, a human rights specialist and director of the Andean Information Network (AIN) in Cochabamba, said, "CONALDE is trying to set Morales up, drive a wedge between him and the military. But in spite of their frustrations, they [the military] have received more materially and in terms of a positive discourse from the Morales government than any other civilian one and that makes a huge difference.

"CONALDE has intentionally created a messy catch 22 for the Morales administration, a tense, provocative violent situation, in some cases targeting the security forces," Ledebur explained. "If Morales orders repression or there are clear cut violent acts by the security forces, his legitimacy as a socially conscious president erodes. But if the security forces don’t [act], as they didn’t for a long time, the vandalism escalates, and the military and police get humiliated and attacked, which in the long term erodes what, at least for the armed forces, had been a mutually beneficial marriage of convenience, with friction along the way."

This past June the AIN released a report analyzing the Bolivian Armed Forces’ growing mission in the country under Morales. According to this report, part of the military’s support stems from the fact that Morales has given the military popular and lucrative jobs such as "enforcing customs regulations and confiscating contraband at the borders, including authorization to arrest offenders." The AIN report explains that "traditionally military officers look forward to border postings as ‘the most profitable part’ of their careers." In addition, "under the Morales government, the armed forces are in charge of baking subsidized bread (the regular price has gone up 270 percent in the past year), as well as passing out bonuses to schoolchildren and senior citizens." Improved wages among some officials and better equipment have also kept the military on Morales’s side.

The AIN report stated that the Bolivian military "will continue to categorically reject aggressive regional autonomy initiatives or threats of secession as risks to both national sovereignty and the budget they receive from the national government." As one high ranking officer explained to AIN, "The only way the military would even remotely consider a coup, is if they took away most of our budget; at the core, we’re really a bunch of bureaucrats."

The current crisis in Bolivia and the ongoing diplomatic drama between the U.S. and Latin America says a lot about the future of the region and its cooperative handling of economic and political questions. In an interview via email, Raúl Zibechi, an Uruguayan journalist, professor, and political analyst who writes regularly for the Americas Program, said he believes the expulsion of U.S. ambassadors and the regional leaders’ response to the conflict in Bolivia "is the manifestation of the fact that the USA can no longer impose its will on Latin America, and very concretely in South America." He says there are two reasons for this change: "The birth of a regional power that seeks to be a global player, such as Brazil, a capitalist power, but with different interests from the USA, and the existence of governments born of the heat of the resistance of social movements in countries that are large producers of hydrocarbons, as in Venezuela, Bolivia, and perhaps Ecuador."

Zibechi emphasized Bolivia’s importance as the leading supplier of gas to Argentina and Brazil, and how this contributes to the support Morales receives from these nations. "Brazil has big stakes in much of Bolivia and it already announced that it would not permit a destabilization of the country," Zibechi explained. "The key alliance in the region is between Brazil and Argentina. They have problems, but in this topic they are very united."

Regional leaders at UNASUR meeting on Bolivia in Santiagophoto from ABI

On September 15 in Santiago, Chile, the nine presidents within the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), including Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Chile, met to come to a resolution on the Bolivian crisis. This organization is one of the newest in a series of regional networks that are making increasingly collaborative political and economic decisions throughout South America. After six hours of talks, the UNASUR group issued a statement which expressed "their full and firm support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales, whose mandate was ratified by a big majority." In the statement, the leaders "warn that our respective governments energetically reject and will not recognize any situation that attempts a civil coup and the rupture of institutional order and which could compromise the territorial integrity of the Republic of Bolivia." They also decided to send a commission to Bolivia to investigate the killings in Pando.

Though attempts to overthrow leftist governments are unfortunately nothing new in South America, region-wide cooperation between left-leaning governments is new. As Morales and other regional leaders forge ahead with progressive policies, the geopolitical map of the hemisphere is being redrawn, in large part by the new alliances between South American nations and the region’s increased resistance to Washington’s political and economic interference.


Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press), and is the editor of and