Just a year after the election of the leftist government in Bolivia, the nation’s most resource-rich regions have moved towards secession from the central government. The move sets up a conflict on several levels between Evo Morales and the wealthy producers he has attempted to nationalize, and that conflict appears headed for violence:
Tensions were rising in Bolivia on Saturday as members of the country’s four highest natural gas-producing regions declared autonomy from the central government.
Thousands waved the Santa Cruz region’s green-and-white flags in the streets as council members of the Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando districts made the public announcement.
The officials displayed a green-bound document containing a set of statutes paving the way to a permanent separation from the Bolivian government.
Council representatives vowed to legitimize the so-called autonomy statutes through a referendum that would legally separate the natural-gas rich districts from President Evo Morales’ government.
The move also aims to separate the states from Bolivia’s new constitution, which calls for, among other things, a heavier taxation on the four regions to help finance more social programs.
Morales faces a huge crisis, and he may well get outplayed. He made headlines with his election last year, part of a leftward drift in Latin America led by Hugo Chavez. Unlike Chavez, however, Morales failed to build a personality cult before imposing Chavez-like socialism on Bolivia, and his opponents in the resource-rich districts have enough strength to stand up to the president.
Morales has attempted to play racial politics as well as class warfare in his administration. He has painted the wealthy as European-descended exploiters of the Indian poor, and demanded nationalization of the gas industry to remedy historic complaints. Morales has said that his government will investigate the fortunes of the wealthy to determine their legality. That has made him some powerful enemies, who have decided that they cannot allow Morales’ writ to run in their districts.
If these districts can secure themselves against the central government, this could get very, very ugly. Natural gas is their chief export and their resource for hard currency. If the breakaway districts can keep it for themselves and safely export it (mainly to Brazil), they can build a significant war chest while leaving Morales to feed the rest of Bolivia’s poor in the west. That will prompt Morales to march on the east, perhaps assisted by Chavez in Venezuela, and a civil war will almost certainly erupt — and sooner rather than later.