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Bolivia: A Country Divided

Tension over Evo Morales' sweeping land reforms turns bloody

BY Joe RubinOctober 9, 2008


Joe Rubin is curator and presenter of FRONTLINE/World's iWitness, an ongoing series of interviews with reporters and newsmakers in flashpoint regions across the world.

Portrait of a Bolivian Conflict
by Jean Friedman-Rudovsky

In mid-September, just outside the remote Amazonian town of Filadelfia in Bolivia, a small boy emerged from hiding. He had fled into the jungle a week earlier when a march of rural workers was ambushed, leaving at least 15 people dead and dozens injured. The boy recalled seeing his father taken away by gunmen and he has not seen him since. The man accused of spearheading the attack is the area's top elected official, the governor of Pando, Leopoldo Fernandez. A leading opponent of President Evo Morales, Fernandez is now under arrest in the capital La Paz and his region has been put under a state of siege.

Though international organizations such as the United Nations are loathe to use the phrase "civil war," it is being whispered throughout South America's poorest country.

During the last month, at least 30 indigenous Bolivians have been killed by right-wing factions in direct opposition to Morales, the country's first indigenous president, and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).

The eastern province of Santa Cruz has been at the center of recent violence.

Bolivia is no stranger to political upheaval -- between 2003 and 2006, the country cycled through four presidents -- but last month's attacks on indigenous people seemed to speak to a different kind of conflict -- one of deep ethnic and social division.

At the center of the political turmoil and the violence it has sparked are demands by the wealthy eastern states of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando for greater autonomy. Independence from the faraway centralized government in La Paz has become a widely popular cause among many eastern residents, who accuse Morales of being on a totalitarian power grab.

"If I want to change a light bulb in the prefect's office, I have to send away to La Paz to do it," explained a spokesman for the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee.

Meanwhile, Morales supporters claim that the autonomy movement, predominantly led by large land and business owners, is part of a violent campaign to keep control of Bolivia's vast natural gas reserves, which are largely located in the east. Currently, Bolivia divides oil and gas revenues in the following fashion: 25 percent to the national government, 25 percent to the state gas company, and the remaining 50 percent to regional and local governments. But autonomy advocates want more.

"In a country that already distributes its hydrocarbon revenues more than any [other] in the world to provincial and local governments, [the opposition block] want even more [revenues] to go to the provincial governments," wrote Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in a July 2008 report on Bolivia. "This would make it more difficult for the government to pursue an overall economic development strategy," said Weisbrot, adding that poverty in Bolivia's countryside was as high as 76 percent.

Bolivian protesters opposing President Evo Morales assault a government worker in Sucre. Photo: EPA

Land ownership is also fueling the crisis. The country has one of the least equitable distributions of land ownership in the world -- two-thirds of its territory is owned by less than 1 percent of the population.

The Morales government has yet to expropriate a single acre, but enacting the president's new constitution, which will restrict private ownership and greatly empower indigenous groups, leaves landowners in the wealthy eastern states with much to lose. For their part, these breakaway states not only want to establish their own legislatures and police forces, they also want to opt out of any plans by the central government to regulate land ownership.

As it stands in early October, negotiations aimed at finding some constitutional middle ground between the central government and the eastern states have stopped the violence for now. But any progress is haunted by a common refrain among Bolivia's indigenous people, who have borne the brunt of the violence: "Our deaths shall not be in vain." Several indigenous organizations have already rejected negotiations, saying they will protest should any part of the new constitution be rewritten.

In the absence of a political compromise, the government says its strategy will be to go back to the people.

"I prefer that the new constitution be rejected by vote and not with violence, as some would want," Morales said during his recent visit to the U.N. General Assembly in New York. "Everyone has the right to approve or reject it, but with their vote."


Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is a correspondent for Time magazine based in La Paz. Read her recent report on the conflict, "A Brewing Civil War in Bolivia?"

Video footage by Tupac Mauricio Saavedra

share your reactions

Santa Cruz, Bolivia
Sir: Really you are very very wrong."Innocent" rural workers from Filadelfia and other zones, all are paid by the government, and killed first two citizens from Porvenir, a city near Filadelfia, which did provoke the reactions of the people. Also it is not correct the distribution of gas and oil revenues that you say. It's only 25 percent to regional and local government, 10 percent to the company and 65 percent to the state. More yet, this 25 percent [to regional and local governments] has been reduced by [central] government for the payment of a gift to people over 60 years. May be you are informed by government information agents that lie. Do you like Cuba? Because this is the objective of Evo Morales and his mentor Hugo Chavez. And you must know that the complete name of Cuba is "Democratic" Republic of Cuba. This hypocrisy is the same that we are suffering now.

Cibeles Duran - Miami, FL
This article is false. Evo's supporters (only about one-quarter of the population) are the ones causing the violence instigated by Evo and his government officials.
2. Leopoldo Fernandez and what you call "right-wing" faction had nothing to do with the deaths in Pando. The armed mob invaded Pando, militarized it, and took Fernandez prisoner as an easy "catch" to smear him as the guilty one.
3. Why don't you mention how a mob of 5,000 encircled Santa Cruz and threatened with massacre while Evo used the violence as blackmail to pass his unacceptable constitution. Evo only halted the mob when he received pressure from neighboring countries.
4. Why don't you show that the false evidence published by the media -- the video showing "right-wing" opposition shooting Evo supporters in the river as they tried to swim away -- has already been uncovered as rigged?This article is a complete distortion of the real situation in Bolivia. Frontline and the Time correspondent in La Paz appear completely partial and misinformed.