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Total Recall in Bolivia: Divided Nation Faces Historic Vote

Wednesday, July 23rd 2008

Benjamin Dangl

In early July in Sicaya, Cochabamba, Bolivian President Evo Morales announced that if he wins the August 10 recall vote on his presidency, "I'll have two and half years left." But if he loses the vote, "I’ll have to go back to the Chapare" to farm coca again. Though the recall vote is likely to favor Morales, it’s unclear if it will resolve many of the divided nation’s conflicts.

This upcoming recall vote on the president, vice president and eight of nine departmental governors is to take place at a time of historic change for the country. Half way through a five year term in office, Morales is applying social programs aimed at fighting poverty and inequality, and developing positive relationships with Latin America’s leftist leaders. At the same time, a series of regional disputes in Bolivia over departmental autonomy, the new constitution and wealth from the partially-nationalized gas industry continue to put the country’s stability at risk.

Since May 4, autonomy referendums have been approved by voters in the departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, Pando and Chuquisaca. These votes were organized by the country’s right wing politicians and business elite to perpetuate neoliberal policies, resist the redistribution of land and natural gas wealth, and weaken the Morales government. Though the right points to these victories at the ballot box as proof of their mandate, the referendums are not legally recognized by the Bolivian Electoral Court, the Organization of American States, the European Union, President Morales or other major leaders throughout the region.

In addition, all of the referendums were marked by high levels of voter intimidation and abstention – Morales urged his supporters to abstain from voting. In Pando, for example, the combined number of "no" votes and abstentions was 16,303, while the "yes" votes totaled only 12,671. In other departments, Morales supporters were kidnapped, tortured and beaten by right wing thugs in an attempt to suppress the anti-autonomy vote.

In spite of the questionable legitimacy of these referendums, the votes illustrate the growing polarization in the country. In another setback to the Morales administration, opposition prefect Savina Cuéllar, was elected in Chuquisaca on June 29. She was running against MAS candidate Walter Valda in a vote that took place in tandem with a successful autonomy referendum. However, the opposition’s apparent momentum is likely to be put in check by the August 10 recall vote.

In an attempt to break up a political impasse in December 2007, and in response to demands from the opposition, Morales proposed the recall bill which was passed on May 8, 2008 by the opposition-controlled Senate. The recall bill states that if the president, vice president and governors do not receive both a higher percentage of votes, and actual number of votes, in the recall referendum than what they received in the 2005 election, they will lose their position. Therefore, it’s possible to win the necessary percentage of votes, but lose the necessary number of votes, thus losing the recall vote. If Morales and vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera lose, they have to hold new elections within 90-120 days, in which they themselves are likely to be strong candidates. If the governors lose, they are to be replaced by an interim governor of Morales’ choosing until the next election. The recall vote on the governors will take place in eight out of the nine provinces; Chuquisaca won’t participate as Cuéllar was just recently elected governor there.

The results of the recall vote could vary widely. Polls indicate that Morales and Linera will win; they will likely be bolstered by new voters in rural areas voting for the first time after a massive voter registration drive led by the government. Morales is also likely to benefit from the fact that many voters and social organizations, in spite of any criticisms they have of his administration, will likely back him in a vote in which the alternative is essentially the right wing. As an analysis article on the Bolivian news publication BolPress explained, "[V]arious popular organizations have initiated a campaign to ratify Morales and kick out the oppositional governors, not because they consider that the actual leader [Morales] is managing the government well, it’s because the oligarchy’s return to power would imply an end to the possibility of transformation within the socio-economic structures of the country."

Though the recall vote may invigorate Morales’ mandate, and perhaps weaken the right, it’s unlikely to resolve many of the disputes tearing the political landscape apart. The question of whether the executive and legislative powers will be based in Sucre or La Paz remains a regional controversy. The new draft of the constitution, passed in December 2007 by an assembly boycotted by opposition parties, still awaits approval in a national referendum which the opposition-controlled Senate is blocking.

Some opposition governors and their supporters will likely not respect the results of the recall vote, or even participate in it at all. Vice president Linera recently told reporters that "They will probably boycott some regions, those where they know will lose. I believe they are laying the grounds for some sort of boycott on August 10 to create conflicts." It is also not entirely clear if the recall vote will proceed at all. Magistrate Silvia Salame, the only judge on Bolivia’s Constitutional Tribunal Court, has called on the National Electoral Court to postpone the recall vote until challenges to the vote’s legality are considered. Government officials in the Morales administration said they would ignore her decision because the Tribunal requires three votes, not one, to make a decision. Salame is on the only judge serving on the court at this time. In response, Bolivian Electoral Court President José Luis Exeni stated the recall vote would proceed as planned.

While debates over the recall vote go on, controversy continues to surround how to best use Bolivia’s gas and oil wealth. Right wing governors and civic leaders in Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando are demanding more funding from the profits of the oil and gas industry, which was partially nationalized by the Morales administration on May 1, 2006. Opposition leaders denounce that the Morales government redirected $166 million dollars from oil and gas tax revenue into a new pension plan that currently gives $315 dollars per year to Bolivians over 60 years old. Right wing governors have threatened to go on a hunger strike on August 4 in protest of the policy. Yet what the opposition doesn’t acknowledge in their pleas is that their departments now receive many times more funding from the gas industry this year than they did in 2005 thanks to the Morales administration’s nationalization policies and renegotiations with private and foreign gas companies.

Meanwhile, Washington’s influence in the coca-producing Chapare region of Bolivia is waning, and Morales’ is strengthening his own relations with other Latin American leaders as he presses forward with progressive economic and development policies.

On June 24, Coca growers in Bolivia’s Chapare region decided to expel the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In the Chapare USAID has, among other activities, historically tried to weaken the impact and political power of coca unions. The Morales administration has also accused USAID of working to undermine the current government and strengthen the right wing opposition. (For more information on Washington’s work in Bolivia, see the article "Undermining Bolivia.") On July 14, Morales, a former coca farmer himself, said, "USAID is managing a lot of money that’s being used to confuse the population, they want to divide and create problems..."

At the same time, regional support for the Morales administration’s policies is on the rise. Venezuela and Cuba have sent doctors and teachers to rural areas in Bolivia. Cuba is building dozens of hospitals in the country, and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said his nation would continue to support the expansion of Bolivia’s gas industry: 73% of Bolivian gas now goes to Brazil. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently announced his government will give $883 million dollars in aid to improve and expand the output of Bolivia’s oil and gas industry. Thanks in part to increased revenue from the gas industry, Morales said that $1.8 million dollars would be contributed to the development of 21 potable water projects in Santa Cruz.

Lula and Chavez recently pledged to collectively contribute $530 million dollars to help with the development of highways linking La Paz, Beni and Pando. The collaboration supports Morales in his efforts against pro-autonomy governors. Chavez said of the highway plan, "We're against those who want to tear Bolivia apart."

Back in Sicaya, where Morales said he would return to coca farming if he lost the recall vote, the president stated that now, "the vote serves not only to name authorities, but also to revoke their mandate. We are talking about expanding democracy." Yet recent history shows that democracy in Bolivia can manifest itself in unpredictable ways.

***

Benjamin Dangl is the author of "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia," (AK Press, 2007). He is the recipient of two Project Censored Awards for his reporting from Latin America. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com

 

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