Bolivia is set to hold a national referendum to determine whether to recall the national and departmental authorities. The announcement of the referendum came days after an unconstitutional and divisive vote for greater autonomy was held in the department of Santa Cruz.
The secessionist movement is spearheaded by the wealthiest and most reactionary elements of Bolivian society, in league with US imperialism, which is ever keen to employ divide-and-rule tactics in its attempts to gain control of Bolivia’s natural resources (many of which are currently being nationalised by the progressive Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government).
The recall referendum, moved through the opposition-controlled senate with great haste, has been accepted by president Evo Morales and is due to take place on 10 August. According to Bolivian law, the president or the prefects of the nine departments can only be removed if they receive more ‘no confidence’ votes than they received positive votes in the original election. In Morales’s case, more than 53.7 percent must vote against him.
The referendum was originally submitted by Morales in December 2007 to strengthen the introduction of the new draft constitution, but was rejected by the opposition, as the polls suggested 70 percent support for the MAS government.
Vote for autonomy for Santa Cruz
The suddenly-renewed interest in a recall referendum has come off the back of the referendum for greater autonomy held in the richest department of Bolivia – Santa Cruz – on 4 May, which the secessionists hail as a victory. With an apparent 80 percent of the vote in favour of secession, the reactionaries are claiming that the level of popular support for Morales’s government is waning fast.
However, the referendum results are not as clear cut as certain commentators would have us believe. The result accounts for only those who took part in the election. The opposition to the referendum called for a complete boycott of the vote. Their campaign saw mass demonstrations for national unity and symbolic burning of ballot boxes. In two provinces, not a single vote was cast!
Morales, after the announcement of the result, congratulated those who had protested against the vote stating: “I want to express my respect for the people of Santa Cruz for their resistance against this separatist referendum. The people are wise to defend legality, constitutionality and the struggle for equality between Bolivians.” (‘Santa Cruz votes for autonomy’, Turkish Daily News, 6 May 2008)
Taking into consideration the boycott, those who voted ‘no’ and spoilt ballots, the reported ‘landside’ victory of 80 percent falls to less than 50 percent.
Nevertheless. the opposition seems keen to use the result to weaken the advances that are being made by the MAS government.
Rubens Costas, Prefect of Santa Cruz, remarked: “MASismo has failed. We have set out on a road towards a new republic and modern state that will be forged in the four autonomous provinces, until this becomes the most decentralised country in Latin America.” (‘Boliva: Referendum gives major boost to autonomy movement’, IPS News, 5 May 2008)
MASismo may have failed for Rubens Costas and his fellow wealthy landowners, but it does not seem to be failing for the rest of the population, who are slowly being pulled out of poverty. Such trivial concerns as poverty alleviation are of no concern to Costas and his peers, however, A further three secessionist referenda have been called in the departments of Tarija, Beni and Pando, and are due to be held in June.
Success of MASismo
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America, with 63 percent of its population living below the poverty line.
Since the election of Morales, the first indigenous president, numerous measures have been introduced to address the stark imbalance between the wealthy east lowlands of the country and the poor, majority indigenous, highlands in the west. These have included a literacy drive and a programme, supported by the fraternal governments of Cuba and Venezuela, to provide health care to the poor.
Nationalisation of gas and oil
One of the main actions that has inflamed the opposition is the nationalisation of gas and oil, through which process all contracts with foreign companies have been renegotiated, with the result that the state’s annual revenues have increased from $180m to $2bn. (See ‘Bolivia: Morales bets all or nothing in recall referendum’, Upside Down World, 13 May 2008)
The increased revenues have been used by MAS to launch two initiatives to benefit all Bolivians – one providing an annual subsidy to families that send their children to primary school, and the other providing ‘la renta dignidad’, a pension of 2,400 bolivianos ($315) per month to all people over the age of 60.
These initiatives are designed to help in the ongoing effort to reduce poverty and to build an educated nation with the tools to defend its freedom.
Such measures obviously benefit vast numbers of Bolivians, including the workers and peasants of Santa Cruz. Redistribution of wealth, however, is not usually a cause for celebration for those who have been happily living off the sweat and blood of others.
Santa Cruz, where many of Bolivia’s ample natural resources are concentrated, generates 30 percent of the country’s GDP and is home to the biggest domestic companies and local branches of the major multinational gas and oil companies (not to mention drug cartels). It is not particularly surprising, then, that the superrich Santa Cruz oligarchy should be up in arms at the thought of what they consider their own private gravy train suddenly being used to feed vast numbers of their less well-positioned compatriots!
The other issue the wealthy elite have with the MAS government is the latter’s programme of land reforms, which is already underway. According to the government’s plan, there will soon be a limit on the size of land holdings – currently, 100 families own 25m hectares of land, while 2 million campesino (farmer/peasant) families have barely 5m hectares. (See ‘A negotiated land revolution’, IPSNews.net, 30 May 2006)
The land reforms will limit the size of individual holdings to 10,000 hectares and redistribute the remaining land. In the rich lowlands, which were not affected by a similar agrarian reform in 1953 that redistributed land throughout the highlands, the majority of individual landholdings are in excess of 50,000 hectares and are therefore instantly affected.
In the run-up to the recall referendum, we will undoubtedly see further attempts to undermine the support Morales has gained as a result of MAS’s progressive and popular policies.
Morales and his government are challenging not only the interests of the wealthy landowners of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando, but also those of various foreign imperialist countries, most importantly the US, and the US is not known for its reticence when it comes to dealing with those who dare to oppose it.
Meanwhile, Morales is bravely taking up the challenge, demanding the opposition try to win their case in open elections. Stating that it is the right of the people to determine the future of Bolivia, Morales says: “Democracy is to be defined at the ballot box, not through violence. How many times have we said yes to the ballot box, no to the arms?” (Quoted in ‘Bolivian president agrees to vote of confidence’, CNN.com, 8 May 2008)
These words are honest and trustworthy. However, history gives us ample examples of the imperialist bourgeoisie totally ignoring the democratic will of the people. As Lenin famously wrote, imperialism seeks domination, not freedom.
Reactionaries will not think twice about resorting to the most undemocratic, dirty, overt and covert tricks and violence in order to defend their ability to exploit. Therefore, one must always be ready to defend popular gains – by any and all means necessary!
Morales has achieved considerable advances for the people of Bolivia, and we very much hope that the people of Bolivia give him a resounding vote of confidence on 10 August. We also hope that the Bolivian people and state will remain vigilant in the case of any violent attacks by US imperialism or its local proxies.