By Misión Verdad – Nov 22, 2022
A new cycle of regime change is returning to the streets of Bolivia at the hands of the same coup perpetrators as in 2019, when the right wing carried out similar attacks, but this time under different conditions.
Since October 22, opposition leaders in the eastern region of Santa Cruz de la Sierra declared an “indefinite civic strike” (regional strike) in reaction to the Supreme Decree 4760, which the president enacted on July 13 of this year. This is a modification of a previous decree, Decree 4546 of July 21, 2021, whose enactment allowed the government to postpone the Population and Housing Census to May or June 2024; the census was originally scheduled to begin on November 16 of this year.
The decision to postpone the census was made by a consensus in the National Council of Autonomies among the governors of eight of the nine regions of Bolivia, with the exception of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, whose governor did not attend the meeting. In response, the right wing has been carrying out acts of destabilization, blocking circulation in the capital city and in other areas and significantly affecting the local economy and daily life.
The strikers are demanding that the census be carried out in 2023, which they’ve used as an excuse for the latest coup attempt. Violent disputes have occurred since the beginning of the strike, causing deaths, injuries, and damage to public property both in the capital and in other areas of the region. On November 1 in the municipality of La Guardia, shootings broke out that injured several people; additionally, six police patrols were vandalized, the police command was looted, and nine activists of the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC) were arrested after social movements encircled the city in an attempt to end the siege.
In an August 2021 report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) named the Cochala Youth Resistance (RJC) and the UJC as responsible for many of the disturbances that occurred during the 2019 coup d’état against Evo Morales. The UJC is a right-wing terrorist organization, characterized by white supremacist and ultra-religious ideology and financed by the bourgeoisie that controls the Santa Cruz government.
Why the focus on the census?
Bolivia has not conducted either a census or a map of housing distribution since 2012. Such censuses would help the authorities determine new parameters and indicators that would facilitate development plans, regional budgets, and the expansion of seats for political representation at the national, regional, and municipal levels.
The government decided to reschedule this year’s upcoming census mainly due to technical and financial reasons in order to allow the government to gather more resources to conduct a census next year that can be used as “a true tool for national, departmental, and municipal planning,” in the words of President Luis Arce. However, the decision-making process in the middle of the year was fraught with animosity between the government and right-wing extremists. The process allowed the government to first affirm the formalization of the census for 2022, then to deliver results in 2023 (Supreme Decree 4645); however, after review, they ended up proposing a new date set for 2024.
Although the government has emphasized that the reasons for the rescheduling are strictly technical, this first instance of conflict has enabled the formation of strikes geared towards destabilization, the first occurring in July for 24 hours, and the second being held indefinitely since the end of October.
The main promoters of the current strike have not put forward any consistent political agenda and instead have carried out acts of destabilization and political violence using the postponement of the census as an excuse.
Faces and organizations of the indefinite strike
The main events have been focused in the region of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, with the same protagonists as those of the 2019 coup: the current governor Luis Fernando Camacho; Rómulo Calvo, president of the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee; and Vicente Cuellar, rector of the Gabriel René Moreno Autonomous University, who also presides over the Interinstitutonal Committee for the Promotion of the Census, the entity that allegedly has been promoting and deciding the actions of the strike.
The Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC) is again in the center of the action, as in 2008 and 2019. In tow, and with his cowardice, former president, former presidential candidate, and leader of the Comunidad Ciudadana alliance, Carlos Mesa, expressed his “solidarity with the inhabitants of La Guardia and with the journalists attacked by the shock groups of the MAS,” blaming Evo Morales for setting up a “fratricidal plan” and urging President Arce to “abstain” from Evo’s alleged “plan,” since Morales has called for a “sincere dialogue” between the parties on multiple occasions.
Mi solidaridad con los habitantes de La Guardia y con los periodistas agredidos brutalmente por grupos de choque masista con la complicidad de la Policía. Arce debe dejar de obedecer el plan fratricida de Morales contra Santa Cruz y atender, dialogando, la demanda de Censo 2023.
— Carlos D. Mesa Gisbert (@carlosdmesag) November 2, 2022
Mesa’s statements add to the usual coup system and target politically active figures in the Arce government. Such outbursts accentuate passive-aggressive attempts to fabricate the narrative of a despotic government.
The scene of the conflict
Eight of the nine right-wing civic committees of the country (the committee of Cochabamba said to be in consultation) announced a day before the start of the indefinite national strike their intention: firstly, to lift the “siege” of the city of Santa Cruz that is being maintained by numerous social movements as a measure of popular pressure; secondly, the launch of a dialogue; and finally, the “pacification of the country.”
On the other hand, the government, represented by the presidential spokesperson and the minister of planning, announced a technical discussion to decide on a definitive date for the census, establishing as starting points for the negotiation: 1) that the determination of the date itself would remain open, 2) that it would be determined within the framework of the discussions, and 3) that the technical commission would be created.
The presidential spokesperson, Jorge Richter, emphasized that it was possible to “move forward” with these points, and affirmed that leaders from Santa Cruz were present—particularly from the Interinstitutional Committee for the Promotion of the Census—and added that, as a result of the conversation, a fourth point for the technical dialogue would be the ending of the strike, which was discussed with delegates from Santa Cruz.
While the opposition excluded itself from the dialogue spaces with contradictory declarations that showed cracks in its apparent “homogeneous” unity around the 2023 census demand, the government also highlighted its own contradictions after disavowing its own minister, who a day before had declared that it was technically impossible to carry out the census in 2023. The Vice Ministry of Communications expressed that this was the minister’s personal position and not representative of the views of the government as a whole.
Such a misstep could be costly for the government, keeping in mind the usual patterns followed by color revolutions throughout history. The Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee also added a new circumstantial demand for negotiations: the liberation of the detainees for the violence in La Guardia on November 1.
The minister of Development Planning, Gabriela Mendoza, had announced earlier that the census could begin on November 16. Apparently, she had rushed without having all the points of the case a priori, with the pandemic having caused delays in preparatory procedures for the census. Outside of Bolivia, 14 other countries around the world also decided to postpone their censuses for two years.
On November 11, President Arce announced in a message to the nation that the census would start on March 23, 2024, and the consequent distribution of resources would be made in September of the same year. He made a chronology of the milestones that marked this conflict since initially, the government had set the start date for November 16, 2022. On July 12, the National Council of Autonomies that brings together all levels of the state had convened, during which representatives of regions such as Beni and Pando raised their concerns about this start date due to the demands of the harvest season and climate concerns; the only absentee at this convening was Camacho of Santa Cruz.
The National Council of Autonomies subsequently decided to carry out the census between May and July 2024 to ensure an inclusive process that reaches all Bolivian homes. President Arce participated in the dialogue and dissemination of the census process with various representatives from July 12 to November 2, 2022, touring the nine departments, until the call for the Plurinational Summit for a Census with Consensus was held in Cochabamba, where representatives from the Interinstitutional Committee of Santa Cruz excluded themselves from the dialogue.
Finally, a technical commission was formed with 41 representatives from active governors, mayors, representatives of indigenous autonomous regions, universities, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the Latin American and Caribbean Demographic Center (CELADE) to analyze and define the date of the census. Some technical teams from Santa Cruz, Tarija, and La Paz left these dialogues, but the remaining teams worked for more than 50 hours during four days, analyzing and listening to the different proposals.
(Hilo) Aprobamos el DS4824 que garantiza que el Censo se realizará el 23/03/24 y la distribución de recursos se hará en septiembre del mismo año, cumpliendo el pedido de más de 300 autoridades electas del país y las recomendaciones de la Comisión Técnica que trabajó en Trinidad.
— Luis Alberto Arce Catacora (Lucho Arce) (@LuchoXBolivia) November 13, 2022
After months of tension, President Arce announced that the decision on the date of the census could no longer be delayed and highlighted its importance for the development of public policies. “As a State and society, as national and regional governments, we must know, without speculation, what our demographic is, and the social, economic, and cultural reality of the Bolivians who inhabit this territory. Based on this information, we must work on public policies oriented toward a comprehensive development that benefits all Bolivians,” said the president.
The next day, on November 12, the president issued Supreme Decree 4824 that guarantees the above.
Déjà vu from 2019?
Once again, the driving force behind the indefinite strike and the challenge to the government comes from Santa Cruz, both from its formal institutions (governor’s office) and its para-state structures (Civic Committee, Inter-Institutional Committee), the latter being where the real power in the region operates almost unrestrictedly. President Arce himself stated on November 1 that “they put in motion a strategy to rehash the coup d’état of 2019;” however, perhaps as a provisional mitigating factor, an exact replica of the last stage of 2019’s coup is not on the horizon.
Mayors of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, both opponents of the government, either support the decision to postpone the census or condemn the strike and its political and economic effects.
The ecclesiastical hierarchy has also adopted a similar position. The Archbishop of Santa Cruz has opposed the indefinite strike, while the Bolivian Episcopal Conference (CEB) has been promoting dialogue since the beginning of the escalation of the conflict, which can be traced to the open meeting held in the Santa Cruz capital on October 11, calling for dialogue and the ending of the strike. This position has also been taken by the National Chamber of Industries (CNI), which has since been joined by the merchants and transport unions of the city of Santa Cruz itself, who are demanding the lifting of the indefinite strike.
On the military front, President Arce emphasized the military’s constitutional role and support for the people. He also changed the military high command on November 1, although the lack of details surrounding this could produce an ambiguous signal. The essential incentives, being the same as in 2019 under the same methodology, support this possibility, notwithstanding the fact that some groups (church, industrial, and economic sectors) are not acting under the same conditions as during the coup three years ago.
This characterizes the main distinction between the two coups, also keeping in mind the critical disparity in the their objective conditions, considering new opportunities for the right wing to take advantage of fragmentation within the government itself and within some social movements.
More recently, the Bolivian Central Workers’ Union and the Confederation of Women Farmers have demanded that the Arce government and the Attorney General’s Office form a “National Commission of Prosecutors” to investigate the very grave racist violence in Santa Cruz, naming these acts of violence as crimes of terrorism and armed uprising against the Bolivian State.
Fine-tuning the destabilization
There have been some visible mitigating factors of the conflict such as the lack of an absolutely homogeneous and unified opposition, which could otherwise have tipped the coup attempt toward the desired direction. However, it is possible that positive economic indicators in Bolivia have forced several unions not to join a strike that would be detrimental for the economy in the post-pandemic period.
The social forces that the opposition tried to mobilize in other parts of the country together with their political allies (the former minister of the de facto government of Jeanine Áñez and mayor of La Paz, Iván Arias, or the mayor of Tarija, Johnny Torres) never came together. In La Paz, the right-wing activists organized by Arias were neutralized in the streets by the mobilization of self-organized social sectors under the banner of the defense of the process of change led by the MAS government.
In Cochabamba (Bolivia’s third most populous city, located in the center of the country), Camacho’s capacity to call a strike was very low. In Tarija, situated in southern Bolivia, the skirmishes between some civic groups and right-wing university students and groups of Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) members and supporters showed that the civic leadership was in no condition to guarantee a departmental strike.
In the city of Santa Cruz (Bolivia’s most populous city, with the greatest economic activity), business owners are beginning to disassociate themselves from the regional strike, which is no longer “an investment” as it was in the 2019 coup against the MAS, and is now just bringing economic damages.
The call for a national strike along with other similar pressure tactics called by the Civic Committees of the rest of the country have had no effect, and 30 days after the beginning of the indefinite strike, the unionists of Santa Cruz are already asking for the suspension of the pressure measures in order to take advantage of the high economic demand generated at the end of the year during the holiday season.
At the same time, the Legislative Assembly of Bolivia will start discussing the census law this week, which will include the assignment of seats before 2025, which is a condition to resolve the conflict. The MAS in the Chamber of Deputies will arrive divided to this session: the “radical” bloc (supported by Evo Morales) warned that they will vote against the census bill, while the “renovators” (loyal to Arce and Vice President Choquehuanca) will try to ensure its approval. The opposition is united in its demand that the census be carried out in 2023.
A latent danger is represented by this divide within the ranks of the government and the MAS, the contradictory agendas of the social movements, and the lack of a unifying synthesis within all these political channels capable of establishing a more effective containment against the coup attempt.
The latest act of delegitimization committed by the rest of the government against its own minister in charge of the Interior Ministry (a not so silent fight that has been going on for some time) is, by itself, the most pernicious sign of the risks that may expedite a substantial split or crack on the side of the forces that restored democracy within political, social, and electoral mobilizations in 2020. However, it is not the only contradiction within this movement.
Another precarious position within the social movements that were fundamental in quelling the 2019 resistance actions are attributed to dangerous internal disagreements with other social and political fronts, whose main plan of action could be the calling of a march of the Red Ponchos, who will flood the city of La Paz to advocate for their list of pending demands with the government.
Although neither the government nor the social movements are in the state of sluggishness that characterized their actions during the coup process of 2019, their current state does not necessarily prevent a rupture in the unstable balance between their forces, originating from internal conflicts. This gives weight to the possibility that sooner rather than later, the Arce government’s line of defense will break, and the coup violence will advance if more concrete measures are not taken in defense of the governability of the state. It is imperative for the government to know how, when, and in what topics to make concessions with the right wing, and even more importantly, when not to make them.
Evo Morales has declared more than once that there is no danger of a coup d’état, contrary to Arce’s warnings. He debated some political differences through the press media (not in the institutional spheres), such as the designation of the president of the Chamber of Deputies in the Legislative Assembly. He did the same with the date chosen to carry out the census and ended up indirectly accusing Arce and Choquehuanca of being “traitors” who are operating against the unity of the MAS, actions that accelerate the splitting of the bloc that supports the government.
At this time, few political sectors in Bolivia have emerged unscathed from the ongoing conflict. In all probability there will be some defining moments this week.
Translation: Orinoco Tribune
Misión Verdad is a Venezuelan investigative journalism website with a socialist perspective in defense of the Bolivarian Revolution
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