December 16, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Separatism spreads in Bolivia

The city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia was the scene of a virtual "million man march" on Friday, as protests against the plans of President Evo Morales to centralize government authority in La Paz are gaining momentum. Santa Cruz is the center of oil and gas production in Bolivia, and people living there don't want to have all their wealth sucked out, to be redistributed by politicians in a distant capital city. Morales, who is a former union boss who is used to getting his way, is having difficulty imposing his will on the general population. See The push for autonomy is now spreading from the eastern province to other regions such as Beni and Pando in the north and Tarija in the south. See (in Spanish). It all adds up to a titanic nationwide showdown, as Chavez either succeeds in forcing his rule upon a divided nation, or else backs down. There is also a third scenario: neither side gives up, and the confrontation escalates toward civil war. The violence associated with the downfall of two recent presidents (October 2003 and June 2005) shows what a strong possibility that is.

This wave of opposition has been gathering steam for the past few weeks, ever since Morales started to manipulate the proceedings of the constitutent assembly to pave the way for easier ratification of his revised state charter. He wants to allow changes to specific articles to be approved by a simple majority vote, rather than by the customary supermajority; ratifying the whole charter would still require approval by two-thirds of the 255 members of the constituent assembly. (The assembly convened in August, and protests began within a few weeks; see Sept. 11.) Ostensibly, the proposed constitutional changes are aimed at giving more power to the Indian population of Bolivia, but in essence they would serve to undermine constitutional limits on government power. Bolivia would be transformed into a unitary state, a "winner-take-all" system with a heavily populist flavor. Such an unchecked majoritarian democracy, as Immanuel Kant once wrote, is tantamount to despotism.