Bolivia's Dilemma: Democracy v. Authoritarianism

Changes to Latin America’s political landscape sometime appear to be a zero-sum game.  When democracy succeeds in one place, it is often offset by increased dictatorial power in another.  Fidel Castro’s regime — facing the end of Castro’s life — is battling to prevent a resurgent democracy when he dies.  In Venezuela an attempt by Hugo Chavez to reform the constitution to become president for life and structure a socialist regime was defeated. And Bolivian president Evo Morales is tightening his grip on power, running roughshod over opponents to establish himself as the de facto president for life.

Even before Chavez’s defeat at the polls, Morales had decided to force a political confrontation with his opposition. Influenced by his mentors Castro and Chavez, Morales is aiming at installing in Bolivia a socialist, authoritarian regime, modeled after the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes.Facing imminent defeat at the hands of the Bolivian Constituent Assembly — which failed to agree on a new constitution — Morales decided to convoke, unilaterally, a meeting of the Constituent Assembly, without the opposition being present. Meeting in a military barracks in the city of Sucre, a Morales stronghold, the Assembly approved his project of constitution in record time. The new constitution would greatly increase his presidential powers, give the indigenous population a politically privileged status and reduce the share of hydrocarbon revenues being allotted to the provinces.

That move by Morales triggered a strong reaction from four of the richest Bolivian provinces, the so-called “Media Luna” or Half Moon provinces (Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija), located in the Amazon lowlands. The “Media Luna” provinces contain most of the hydrocarbons resources of the country and generate most of Bolivia’s GDP. Leaders of these provinces claim that Morales is becoming a dictator and that the constitution approved by Morales followers, without discussion or participation by the people, is invalid. Their four Governors recently produced a manifest calling for considerable more independence from the central government and for a greater share of the income from oil and gas production.

Although the provinces have made it clear that they do no want to secede from Bolivia, popular sentiment in those provinces is running very strongly against the central government. Two other provinces, Chuquisaca and Cocahabamba, clearly seem to be leaning in favor of the dissidents. The new constitution will have to be validated by a popular referendum and Morales has already said that, if he loses the referendum, he will abandon the presidency. Recent polls indicate that he would lose and such an outcome would mean a massive transfer of political power to the dissident provinces.

However, Morales has the army on his side, the top brass being mostly bought with Chavez’s money. He also has the loyalty of much of the Andean indigenous population but not of the Indian groups of the lowlands.

Chavez has said repeatedly that he will use military force to anchor Morales in power. He is already abusing Venezuela’s financial power to do this. However, military intervention  isunlikely, not only for geographical/logistical reasons but also because such a move should generate an immediate reaction from neighboring Latin American countries.

Hugo Chavez’s political power has weakened considerably in the last months. After losing the referendum for a constitutional reform that would have converted him into a tropical monarch, he is facing significant challenges to his leadership from the Venezuelan army, from among his own followers and from a rejuvenated opposition, led by a disciplined and creative student movement. His efforts to export the revolution have led him to pay excessive attention to political issues beyond Venezuela. This has greatly eroded his ability to respond to the needs of his own people that remain poor, unemployed and suffering from significant food shortages and the highest crime rate in the region.

There are two other main actors in the Bolivian drama: Argentina and Brazil. They both have much at stake, being greatly dependent on Bolivian gas. Almost 50% percent of Brazilian natural gas consumption comes from Bolivia.  Argentina is moving closer to a major energy crisis due to its faulty energy policies and needs Bolivian gas in ever increasing quantities. Of the two countries Brazil can probably afford to wait and see since it has other energy alternatives. Argentina will be forced to conduct a difficult political juggling act, as it cannot afford to fall in disgrace with either the central Bolivian government or the “Media Luna” provinces.

In early January, Morales and the leaders of the dissident provinces will meet in a last ditch effort to find a solution to the crisis. But positions on both sides have become passionate and rigid. There seems to be no middle ground in Bolivia. It will either be democracy or authoritarianism. Faced with a politically and physically dying Castro and a much-weakened Chavez, Morales might have to consider shelving his dreams of a socialist, indigenous state.