<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Eastern Autonomy in Contemporary Bolivia

An Exercise in Darwinian-Balkan Logic

By José Mirtenbaum
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

July 8, 2005

Bolivia is going through the most critical period of its republican history. Events of popular insurrection began to intensify beginning in the year 2000 and until May and June of 2005, forcing the State and the Bolivian political class into a position of checkmate. An obvious example of this is the process of constitutional succession that has carried the president of the Supreme Court into the office of the Presidency of the Republic, meaning that the republic is hanging on by its last constitutional thread, with the resulting danger of putting the country’s territorial unity at risk if the “east” and the “west” reach a political compromise. However, Bolivian Congress’ desperate solution to the circumstances, decided on July 4, 2005, in a surreal, Fellini-esque legislative session, has been to enter into a political arrangement that opens the doors for general and local elections for December of this year, and postpones the Constituent Assembly, as well as the referendum on regional autonomy, until July 2006.

In an exercise in retrospective analysis, as a consequence of the growth of cognitive duality recently created by Bolivian business interests in the eastern department (equivalent to a state or prefecture) of Santa Cruz, and which traces its history back to the discourse launched by then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Santa Cruz business leader Zvonko Matkovic together in September 2003, during the Santa Cruz International Fair and Exhibition, the Bolivian “west” was labeled as the zone of the “blockaders,” the “labor movement dictatorship,” and finally, in their typical bigoted subtlety, the Bolivia of the “Indians.”

In a perverse game of contrasts, Sánchez de Lozada and Matkovic, aside from following a Manichean, Balkan, and imperial logic in order to recreate “el pensamiento único,” [1] looked toward Santa Cruz as the zone of “work,” “investment,” and “modernity.” Nevertheless, this duality between “east” and “west” contains buried within its multiple logic a subtle separatist program, which is quite difficult to hide when one revises their project’s regulatory models, in terms of a referendum on autonomy “self-organized” for August 12 of this year, a completely unconstitutional façade that has been postponed by these recent developments until July 2006.

In this scenario, full of altoperuano [2] maneuvers, the calls for departmental “autonomy” have become a confrontational restraint on the calls for the Constituent Assembly as a reorganizing process for the totality of republican Bolivia. Thus, to the duality of “west” and “east” one must now add the rubrics of the “constituent” and “autonomist” regions of the country.

A worrying element, added to this cognitive fragmentation, is the irresponsible role that the Santa Cruz media have played. Since June 2004, they have been hammering the collective consciousness with the idea that “autonomy” is the salvation from the falsely perceived threat of the end of the “eastern” lifestyle if a sector of the “western” indigenous were to take power. At least, that is what the ideological thesis of the “Camba Nation” movement points to, and the media, intent on confusing the people of Santa Cruz, have been fomenting this thesis in the grand style of Milosevic and Goebbels. In sum, this exercise in completely irresponsible journalism, journalism sold out to the interests of the traditional MNR (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, in its Spanish initials) and of local business leader Ivo Kuljis, has employed provocative, hostile, and excessive language against all those who would take a critical look at the idea of “autonomy” and who might suggest the rationality of first entering into a Constituent Assembly in order to create a new political structure for Bolivia.

Specifically, last Saturday, July 3, 2005, the following question, from the referendum on autonomy that only the population of Santa Cruz will be allowed to answer, was presented publicly:

Do you agree that the next Political Constitution of the State should include the system of departmental autonomy, with effective transfer of jurisdiction and authority, which will have as their aim in their territorial sphere of influence making available their resources, electing their authorities and giving themselves their own administration? Yes or No?

At first glance, this question is direct as possible, as well as “innocent” in the best sense of the word. It is even more legitimate if one takes into account that, after a citizen consultation, this referendum enjoys the formal support of more than 300,000 signatures in the department of Santa Cruz, (though not throughout the Bolivian nation). It is a small but great detail in terms of what is happening today in Bolivian politics. At its heart, this question points toward the expropriation of the State’s natural resources for the benefit of Santa Cruz and Bolivian business groups, as it tries to sneak in an exclusionary and separatist attitude.

Upon consulting a few recently published texts by the legal advisors to the Santa Cruz Civic Committee (the corporate entity that is directing this autonomy process) more closely, the citizen reader finds that “the department of Santa Cruz has exclusive territorial jurisdiction over the following materials,” [3] followed by a list that includes nearly the entire range of productive material in all of the natural resources including underground water supplies and hydrocarbons:

  1. Agriculture and livestock
  2. Social work
  3. Cooperatives
  4. Culture
  5. Promotion of native languages
  6. Departmental taxes
  7. Administrative procedural norms
  8. Public works
  9. Laws regarding land, housing, and city planning
  10. Laws regarding institutions of self-government and the legal system
  11. Territorial planning
  12. Population and internal migration
  13. Police
  14. Press, radio, and television

I will only dedicate my commentary to three of these, which are the most peculiar and which in essence demonstrate a sort of tendency, considering that the city of Santa Cruz is the most important receptor of Andean and provincial immigrants from the surrounding department and the rest of Bolivia.

Promotion of Native Languages: This exclusive authority is explained in the following manner: “Legal jurisdiction and the exclusive execution in all things relevant to the promotion of native languages.” How should the exclusive execution of all things relevant to the “promotion” of native languages be understood? Do they hope to control the expansion or use of native languages? One must consider that in Santa Cruz, Aymara, Quechua, and Guaraní are native tongues and make Santa Cruz one of the most important provinces with respect to the use these native languages. Linguistic censorship?

Population and internal migration: This exclusive authority is explained in the following manner: “Exclusive departmental jurisdiction in all things with respect to massive intradepartmental and interdepartmental movement when it affects that department’s territory.” This power is already becoming the undoing of constitutional articles that give full freedom of movement to all Bolivian citizens within national territory. Do the “autonomist” ideologues have in mind building barriers of social exclusion? Ethnic exclusion? Why stop at controlling intra and interdepartmental movement?

Press, radio, and television: This exclusive authority is explained like this: “Exclusive jurisdiction to create, regulate, and administrate [the department’s] own media.” This is a true jewel with regards to universal law and the principal of “free expression,” as all will understand. Is this authority really about creating an ideological structure to form the basis for attempts at open censorship?

The problem, therefore, is not a simple question of different worldviews, with regional autonomy understood as a factor in the construction of the unity of the Bolivian State, via a political-administrative process based in the principle of State social support, within a Constituent Assembly. The department of Santa Cruz’ autonomy project, lamentably, –behind its own region and population’s (and the rest of Bolivia’s) backs – demonstrates the most xenophobic and social-Darwinistic fears, despite the dramatic social experiences of Bosnia, Rwanda, South Africa, Guatemala, the southern United States, and other regions of the world, where sociopolitical intolerance and irrationality were driven with tools of social communication as capitalist “instruments of development and modernization.” The Santa Cruz elite have developed and will continue to develop along this line of thought. And so, Bolivia still faces a long path of struggle and democratic debate. Nevertheless, I must remind you all that “liberal” democracy has its dark side: fascism.

[1] Editor’s note: “Unitary thought,” a Spanish term for the enforced, monolithic, technocratic mindset of neoliberalism.

[2] Editor’s note: “High Peruvian” – the term by which Bolivians were known before independence.

[3] See Separando la paja del trigo: Bases para constituir las autonomías departamentales, Editorial El País, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, 2005, pp. 148-52.

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