Civil Society, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean | Analysis

BOLIVIA: Divisions Emerge in Opposition Strategy

Analysis by Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Sep 4 2008 (IPS) - Major discrepancies emerged among the rightwing authorities and landowning and business interests opposed to Bolivia’s leftist President Evo Morales in a 10-hour meeting held to coordinate a strategy aimed at the economic suffocation of the government.

The only thing the opposition managed to agree on was to attempt to block Morales’ decree for a Dec. 7 referendum on the newly rewritten constitution.

The meeting of the National Democratic Council (CONALDE), the opposition bloc made up of five provincial governors, business associations, conservative civic groups, and legislators of the rightwing Podemos party led by former president Jorge Quiroga (2001-2002), was held in the central Bolivian city of Santa Cruz.

After Morales’ victory in the Aug. 10 recall referendum, in which he took 67 percent of the vote, the opposition attempted to weaken his government by creating food shortages through boycotts and roadblocks, but these measures petered out due to the losses suffered by producers and exporters.

The opposition complains that it was illegal for Morales to issue a decree to hold a referendum on the draft constitution instead of having it approved by parliament, as stipulated by the constitution.

This week, the National Electoral Court ruled that Morales’ late August decree to hold a referendum was illegal.

The national electoral authority had also invalidated the referendums held in Bolivia’s opposition-controlled eastern provinces in May and June, in which voters came out in favour of provincial autonomy statutes.

The new constitution was approved by the pro-government majority in the constituent assembly in a December 2007 session that was boycotted by the opposition.

For the past 10 days, pro-autonomy demonstrators opposed to Morales have been blocking the roads that connect Bolivia with Argentina to the south, and fuel shortages have begun to be felt in the southern province of Tarija.

On Wednesday, CONALDE announced the resolutions that emerged from the Santa Cruz meeting that began late Tuesday.

The opposition bloc announced further traffic blockades in five opposition-governed provinces to force the government to agree to the restitution to the provinces of a portion of the natural gas tax – 49 million dollars – that the Morales administration has diverted to the payment of a universal pension of 26 dollars a month to people over 60.

The governors (known as prefects in Bolivia) of the lowlands provinces (departments) of Santa Cruz in the east, Beni in the northeast, Pando in the north, and Tarija and Chuquisaca to the south have made this one of the key demands in their opposition to Morales.

In response, the government argues that the funds diverted from the provinces for the universal pension are insignificant compared to the more than two billion dollars that will be transferred to the provincial governments this year, a sum that is double the 952 million dollars transferred in 2005.

According to Podemos Senator Luis Vásquez, the CONALDE measures will not lead to a solution to the conflict, because Morales’ violation of the constitution cannot be combated with another measure that also undermines the constitution.

That view reflects the differences arising in the opposition movement and its parliamentary bloc, made up of 56 Podemos lawmakers, several of whom were kicked out of the CONALDE meeting in the wee hours of Wednesday morning because of their opposition to the violent methods used by radical rightwing groups.

Late into the night on Tuesday, radical youth groups supported by the pro-business Civic Committee of the province of Beni attacked the central government’s tax and agrarian reform offices in Trinidad, the provincial capital, and clashed with the army troops guarding the public offices.

Leaders of trade unions and social movements have said they have had to go into hiding because of threats from the radical youth groups supported by the Beni Civic Committee, and have expressed fear for their lives and those of their families.

Prior to the Aug. 10 recall referendum in which Morales and several governors were confirmed in office, more than 1,000 opposition demonstrators held a hunger strike which lost credibility because the participants did not strictly observe their fast, as shown by TV cameras.

The president of Bolivia’s Private Business Confederation, Gabriel Dabdoub, maintains that a lack of government policies to foment private sector activity and attract investment has kept away 400 million dollars a year in private investment.

However, exporters are counting on a new record in sales of industrialised products and commodities, which according to the government will amount to more than six billion dollars this year, compared to 4.78 billion dollars in 2007.

A climate favourable to trade, with heavy foreign demand for commodities like natural gas – of which Bolivia has South America’s second-largest reserves, after Venezuela – oil, minerals and agribusiness products accompanied by high international prices, has led to an increase in foreign exchange earnings in a country whose gross domestic product (GDP) stands at 14.7 billion dollars.

Gas revenues soared from 188 million dollars in late 2001 to 1.57 billion dollars in 2007, after the Morales administration, which took office in January 2006, forced foreign oil companies to renegotiate the terms of their contracts, thus increasing the royalties and taxes paid by the companies.

The leaders of the opposition, concentrated in the civic committees and governments of the eastern lowlands provinces, have failed to gain the full support of the business sector and ordinary people, who have preferred a democratic solution to the current polarisation.

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is basically divided between the western highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority that forms Morales’ main support base, and the much wealthier eastern provinces, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry, agribusiness and GDP. The population of eastern Bolivia tends to be of more European (Spanish) and mixed-race descent.

In the wake of the recall referendum, many analysts rushed to the conclusion that the five provinces (of a total of nine) governed by the pro-autonomy elite are uniformly opposed to the leftist government.

But in the eastern provinces governed by the rightwing opposition, largely indigenous poor rural inhabitants and urban shantytown dwellers form a much less visible and less militant but significant pro-government minority.

After a number of violent incidents involving radical rightwing youth groups, indigenous people in the lowlands provinces have called on the government to take steps to restore public order. But another current among the pro-Morales sectors of society prefers to avoid calling in the riot police or troops, in order to prevent clashes that could lead to bloodshed, which would strengthen the opposition.

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