The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, October 31, 2003

Wild talk on Bolivian carve-up

Much as the exception proves the rule, the extremities of political discourse in a country give some confidence in locating its centre of gravity. (Suddenly a bell curve pops up in my mind's eye for some reason!)

An op-ed piece by one Andrés Soliz Rada canvasses the possibility that Bolivia may cease to exist.

Soliz [1] sounds the alarm with a patriotic blast from the past:
Bolivia enfrentó el mayor riesgo de desintegración nacional en la parte final de la guerra del Chaco. Si sus tropas no detenían al ejército paraguayo en la batalla de Villamontes, nada hubiera impedido que este ocupara Santa Cruz de la Sierra. La situación ya había abierto el apetito territorial de las oligarquías de Chile sobre Potosí y Oruro, de Brasil sobre Beni y Pando, de Argentina sobre Chuquisaca y Tarija y de Perú sobre La Paz. A modo de broma, suele decirse que los países vecinos no han podido descuartizar a Bolivia porque no saben cual de ellos se quedará con Cochabamba, el único departamento sin fronteras internacionales

Not that he's suggesting that Bolivia's 2003 neighbours will attempt a partition à la polonaise on the country. The threat is rather an internal one:
Hoy, en día, sin necesidad de una contienda bélica, Bolivia se halla, otra vez, en riesgo de perder su existencia, ya que, desde algunos puntos del país, se levantan voces destempladas que reclaman la "república aymara" o la "nación camba" [2]. Lo anterior no es lo mismo que plantear mayor descentralización o autonomías racionales, en un marco unitario, que deben debatirse en profundidad, a fin de neutralizar el dominio de oligarquías racistas y de una anquilosada partidocracia, que, aliadas a la explotación foránea, han usufructuado del poder, salvo breves períodos, desde la Asamblea Constituyente de 1825.

I mentioned with some surprise (October 23) reports that leaders of the gas-rich Tarija department (and the agri-business-rich Santa Cruz department) were contemplating some form of secession. In fact, it seems to be turning out to be a key theme of the current politics in the country.

La Patria of Oruro, Bolivia has a short piece (apparently from Stratfor) on the conflict, actual and potential, between the kollas and the cambas [2]: Racially,
Los Kollas tienden a ser en su mayoría de ancestro indígena, los cambas en cambio descienden de emigrantes europeos.
Race is not everything, though:
Aunque las diferencias entre ambos están enraizadas en valores de raza o étnicos, también existen divisiones ideológicas y filosóficas profundas. Los kollas tienden a creer en el centralismo gubernamental - control estatal de activos de exportación y la intervención gubernamental en la actividad económica.

En contraste, los cambas creen más en la empresa privada y la iniciativa empresarial y soslayan al centralismo.

An AP piece (October 31) takes up the theme, quoting an ADN (right-wing) deputy Paulo Bravo, representing a poor district:
No pueden pretender una mayor autonomía sólo porque tienen un boom económico los departamentos de Santa Cruz y Tarija. ¿Y qué del resto?

Talk, needless to say, is cheap. As Wag the Dog action, the threat of secession (or some dilution of it) works for all sides: as a bogey for President Carlos Mesa, the parties in Congress, the La Paz establishment [3]; as a Holy Grail for peasant groups not able to provide more immediate benefits; as a distraction for the tarijeños whose lifeblood is currently clogged (thanks to the peasants) and can only flow in future at the discretion of said peasants - since any pipeline to the Pacific must pass through 'their' territory.

The politics required to achieve some sort of loosening of ties is far from clear to me right now. Who, for instance, are the tarijeños' representatives in Congress? Is there a Tarija Caucus, for instance? Who can they ally with to get some movement on - let's call it, further autonomy? What is Mesa's view on the point?

Is it an issue which is susceptible to solution by normal legislative means? Is it a matter for the Asamblea Constituyente which Mesa has agreed to hold [4]?

Mesa himself, it seems, is stoking the fires: he's reportedly said today that
Si este gobierno no tiene éxito, el mecanismo que nos ha cobijado durante 21 años, corre serio riesgo.

He's referring to the period of unbroken civilian rule. And, by implication, to the possibility of that period being broken by a return to military dictatorship.

However, according to another Stratfor-based piece in La Patria, the Bolivian military is as split as is civil society, and
ningún jefe militar parece tener la suficiente convocatoria dentro y fuera de las Fuerzas Armadas como para tomar y ejercer el poder político.

The temptation to treat the whole matter as a black box - strong for an outside observer as puzzled as I am right now! - is one I reject. Clearly, it's not politics as we know it in Gringo-land (which is in any case scarcely a paragon!); but neither is it a sort of voodoo comprehensible only to the initiated. There are no noble savages in Bolivia: Margaret Mead made some sense of the societies of the New Guinea head-hunters - this can't be that difficult, surely? Can it?

  1. I'm assuming that he's the former Señorita Rada's little boy.

  2. The cambas are - LOC glossary - Bolivians from the (lowland) east; the kollas from the altiplano.

  3. I'm hazy right now as to exactly who that might be. After all, the 1952 revolution accounted for the hacendados and the tin barons. And now the conspicuous wealth (ie, natural gas) is elsewhere in the country. There will be a bureacracy and professional class (bankers, lawyers and so on) - clientalism along Belgian lines is apparently the order of the day. But who actually holds the reins?

  4. The text of his speech to Congress on October 23. I've just read the bit about the Constituent Assembly, but - can you say wading through molasses?


An interesting-looking piece getting down to the detail of the Asamblea Constituyente. Needless to say, getting the procedural stuff and the drafting right will be critical to the result: more research needed, I fear, to be in a position to make proper use of the piece.

And, in the Washington Times of all places, a well-meaning piece (October 31) from an MIT Ph D student outlining exactly why USG's coca-mania (beside which the Dutch Tulipmania seems positively sane!) is thoroughly counter-productive to the war on terror.

It's as compelling as the case against affirmative action. And has about as much political traction.

As an illustration of Bolivian politics as usual, an Indymedia piece from August 24 on the travails of the coalition supporting then President Sánchez de Lozada. The alphabet soup is a blur right now - and I suspect that the contents are ancient history. But the piece is useful in giving a flavour of the nuts and bolts of parliamentary politics in action. If the same stuff had been going on in a European country, you wouldn't be at all surprised.

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