Eruption of violence in Bolivia threatens US diplomatic relations

Throngs of right-wing rebels and government supporters clashed last week in Bolivia, setting fires and doing battle “with rocks, machetes, clubs, any weapon at our disposal,” said pro-government Eduardo Rodríguez Puma, according to the New York Times. This class-based violence threatened to put the Andean nation on the verge of civil war. More than 30 people have died in the brutal conflict between the European descendant upper class and the indigenous peasantry. The worst violence occurred in the northern province of Pando, where 16 pro-government farmers were gunned down on Sept.11.

President Evo Morales responded with the arrest of the area’s governor, Leopoldo Fernández, on Sept. 15, on charges of conspiracy and genocide. He additionally declared martial law in Pando, resulting in a moderate decrease in violence.

President Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, accused the opposition governor of hiring assassins to slaughter defenseless peasants. Fernández attributed the killings to conflict between rival groups.

The conflict stemmed from upper-class opposition to constitutional referendum proposed by the leftist President Morales. The new constitution would allow for the indefinite re-election of Morales and empower the poor indigenous majority of Bolivia through the redistribution of petroleum royalties.

Governors of the four lowland opposition provinces demanded greater autonomy and revenue from their energy exports.

“(Morales) refuses to respect the democratic vote in this region for greater autonomy,” said Carlos Dabdoub, an opposition leader, to BBC News.

These natural gas-rich states vehemently opposed Morales’ new constitution, which would divert revenues to social programs.

Bitter insurrection followed as anti-government rioters flocked to the streets of Cobija and Santa Cruz, seizing control of over 30 public buildings, blocking highways, and even sabotaging a natural gas pipeline.

Fortunately, negotiations between opposition leaders and the central government began on Sept.18, facilitated by the fledgling Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR. The talks will allow for a negotiation of the terms of the Morales’ new constitution, though an immediate resolution to these tensions is unlikely.

“UNASUR is a toothless institution,” said Alvis Dunn, assistant professor of history. Despite its impotence, “the very fact that this organization, that really can’t force you to listen them, is being listened to means that nobody wants to fight.”

Bolivia is a historically poor nation, and has largely been dominated by the wealthy ruling class. The 2005 election of Morales was a victory for indigenous groups and a major departure from Bolivia’s domination by international financial institutions such as the World Bank.

In the midst of the conflict, Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador, Philip Goldberg.

“We do not want people here who conspire against democracy,” Morales said, according to The New York Times.

His accusation was based on Goldberg’s meeting with Ruben Costas, governor of Bolivia’s richest province, Santa Cruz. Morales viewed the meeting as a conspiracy for a coup by the U.S. government, an exploitation of the secessionist bent of Santa Cruz.

Goldberg called these accusations, “completely false and unjustified,” to reporters in La Paz. The United States has expelled Bolivian diplomats in turn, threatening further disintegration of U.S.-Bolivia diplomacy.

In light of the United States’ response, the conflict seems to have fostered solidarity in South American nations through the organizing efforts of UNASUR.

Morales’ expulsion of the American ambassador may signify greater economic self-determination for South America. In the wake of the conflict, Bolivia and South America as a whole may garner greater autonomy, at the risk of their diplomatic relationship with the United States.