Bolivia: Fraudulent autonomy referendum in Santa Cruz

Right wing opposition and the rich attempt to divide country

The least you can say about the autonomy referendum, held in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, earlier this week, is that it was unique. The referendum was controlled by a pro-autonomy electoral college, administered by a private company contracted by the “autonomists”, supervised by electoral observers who where equally pro-autonomy and covered by a pro-autonomy media. You do not have to be a very shrewd observer to realise that this amounts to fraud.

But most incredible is that after the whole pro-autonomy media campaign, the intimidation, the violent threats from groups like the “Unión Juventud Cruceñista” – (a group with fascist characteristics) – the “democrats” of Santa Cruz did not succeed in their objective. More than 50% of people voted against autonomy in the referendum or abstained.

Nevertheless, the pro-autonomy forces declared that 85% of the people had voted in favour of their proposition. Even Pinochet, the former right wing dictator of Chile, who appears to be of some inspiration to the pro-autonomy forces in Bolivia, would not have had the nerve to come out with these conclusions after a referendum.

This referendum on autonomy is the first step in a reactionary plan. In the next month, other referenda on autonomy will take place in the departments of Tarija, Beni and Pando. The idea behind this is to stop the Morales government and impede the changes the government is proposing.

Santa Cruz and the other three departments represent two thirds of the Bolivian territory, a third of its population and more than 50% of Bolivia’s GDP. This conspiracy plan is also considered by two other departments – Chuquisaca and Cochabamba – who would like to follow in the footsteps of the separatists.

Racism and divisiveness go hand in hand

Even when they do their best to hide it for now, the “divide and rule” attitude and the racism of the promoters of autonomy for Santa Cruz are apparent in the declarations of its most important leaders. The public spokespeople for the “autonomists” can hardly hide their hatred and contempt for Evo Morales (for being indigenous), as they accuse him of being a centralist, an authoritarian, a radical and a fundamentalist. Their main slogan should be: “For a Bolivia without indigenous people”.

The cynicism of these leaders knows no limits. The prefect of the department of Santa Cruz, for example, Rubén Costas, says the referendum on autonomy is an answer to the centralism of the government. What is clear is that the objective of the “autonomists” is to create such tension and controversy until it comes to an open confrontation, something which inevitably will have consequences in the other countries of the region.

Even with the control of the “reactionary autonomists” over the economy and the media, they have not been able to convince the majority of the population in Santa Cruz of their dividing and racist plans.

In whose interest is the autonomy of Santa Cruz?

Several investigators agree that the original promoters of the idea of autonomy come from a few hundred families who control more than 25 million of hectares of land and who also control agricultural industry, domestic trade, the banks and the big media outlets. These clans, together with the politicians who where part of the governments of the ex-presidents like Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, Jorge Quiroga or Jaime Paz Zamora, have become powerful opponents of the Morales government. These people own five times more land than two million peasants and indigenous people.

The National Institute of Land Reform (Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agragia – INRA) reports that only five families hold half a million hectares of arable land. Furthermore, they have the advantage of being close to the market and have less to spend on transport than the peasants in the West.

With the arrival to power of Evo Morales, and faced with the possibility that his government would carry out reforms to redistribute land in favour of the indigenous people and the peasants, these families have used their power to generate a political and social movement aimed at dividing the country to make sure that it is not possible to implement the new constitution drawn up by the Morales’ government.

Contradictions in the Morales government

Unfortunately, Morales and others around him, express many of the big contradictions amongst the governing group. The government needs to be clearer, explaining and taking concrete measures to implement land reform. The land needs to belong to those who work it and needs to guarantee the right of self-determination to the indigenous people, without ambiguity or negotiations with the landlords who are occupying the territory.

The run up to this referendum on autonomy should have been the moment for the government to pass onto the offensive and to take the first steps in towards land reform and to explain to the indigenous and poor peasants the aims of the government. It should not have been the signal to start negotiations with the landlords.

The political situation in Bolivia is too complicated to allow for ambiguity. It is not sufficient for the government to say that the referendum was illegal when the reactionary opposition could not care less for legality, democracy or the constitution when none of these can be used to defend their interests. Dialogue will not stop the conspiracy of the oligarchy. The conspiracy being hatched in Santa Cruz needs to be broken now and before the right wing opposition is given time to get stronger.

It is clear that the majority of Bolivians, in the cities and in the countryside, are against the attempts at division by the reactionary conservative sections of society. The majority of the population cannot be held imprisoned by a small minority of oligarchs.

We have to put an end to centralism and democratise the country

The unity of workers and indigenous people is fundamental to defend the Bolivian process. We cannot accept that the land is concentrated in the hands of a small number of families. We cannot accept that the majority of factories are controlled by a small number of employers. We cannot accept that the media outlets are concentrated in the hands of a few. All of this is unjust and totally undemocratic.

The land needs to belong to those who work it. The factories belong to their workers who produce. The media needs to be at the service of the whole of the population and not at the service of a minority of oligarchs.

It is impossible to advance without marching towards socialism. The workers need a workers’ democracy – a socialist society.

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May 2008