Protests bring Bolivia's reforms to a standstill
August 27, 2008 - Finiancial Times (

By Andres Schipani in La Paz

Under a blue tarpaulin at her creaky street stall, Rosita, an indigenous Aymara butcher, is complaining. "There's not enough beef now," she says. "These conservative racists from the east want us, the Indians, to starve so [that] we yield and get back under their thumb. But no, we won't let them. We will fight for Evo and this process of change."

That process seems to have arrived at a violent standstill over the past week. Though Bolivia's first indigenous president Evo Morales emerged as the clear winner of a national vote earlier this month in which he faced removal from office, the eastern, whiter and wealthier half of the country is not willing to concede defeat. Neither is it happy with a rule that many in the east describe as totalitarian.

On Monday so-called civic groups in Chuquisaca, Tarija and Santa Cruz provinces blocked national highways and the highways to Argentina and Paraguay and threatened to seize government-run gas fields in their regions.

The groups are demanding the government raise the price of gas exported to Argentina and Brazil to $18 per British thermal unit from the current $5 btu.

Protesters in the eastern lowlands halted beef supplies to the west last week and set up roadblocks, although supplies have since been normalised.

Violent clashes have also broken out between pro- and anti-Morales supporters and police officers in several eastern provinces after radical pro-autonomy youth groups armed with clubs and shields, attacked police officers in Santa Cruz last week.

Some of Mr Morales's indigenous supporters have in turn been blocking access to the country's constitutional and judicial capital, Sucre, an opposition stronghold, while indigenous groups in the poorest areas of Santa Cruz say they are ready to counter-attack.

Bolivia's deputy president Álvaro García Linera described the actions as "an aggression to Bolivia and a criminal act", while Mr Morales pledged that the government would protect gas installations.

Bolivia, geographically divided between the prosperous eastern tropical lowlands and the impoverished western highlands, is more polarised after the referendum than before. The opposition governors of the eastern regions of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando also won new mandates in the poll and demonstrated growing popularity, while talks between Mr Morales and the eastern governors have failed to resolve the crisis.

"We are facing an escalation of radicalised positions that is deepening the already existing polarisation," explains Guido Riveros Franck, chair of the Bolivian Foundation for Multi-party Democracy, "and we are now at the mercy of radical and violent groups coming from both sides . . . The dialogue is every time further and further away."

Mr Morales is pushing ahead with plans to hold a further national referendum to approve a new constitution for the country. But the five eastern provinces that oppose the constitution say it would unfairly privilege indigenous groups, centralise control, and channel gas revenues away from the provinces that produce most of Bolivia's gas.

They are pressing for a more federal system with greater regional autonomy.

"The government calls federalism divisionism, separatism. But that is what they centralists want to show, as they have fears of losing their grip," says Carlos Dabdoud, an opposition leader from Santa Cruz. "As long as the president takes his latest victory with arrogance, trying to impose his measures, the conflict will go on."

Mr Morales has indicated he may be willing to consider a middle way that would grant more autonomy within the context of the new constitution. But his supporters are pessimistic.

"What the opposition wants, with violence, is Bolivia to return to the previous selfish, neoliberal, status quo," says Sabino Mendoza, a pro-Morales member of the Constituent Assembly that wrote the draft of the new constitution. "We cannot let that happen."