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September 18, 2008 [LINK / comment]

Secessionism in Bolivia

Tensions in Bolivia have risen sharply once again over the past week, as several departmental (provinicial) governments have resisted central government authority, provoking a harsh crackdown by President Evo Morales. The army was sent in to take over in the northern department of Pando, after a state of emergency was declared there. Morales ordered the prefect (governor) Leopoldo Fernandez to be arrested, accusing him of having about 30 pro-government farm workers killed. In Santa Cruz province, the heart of the secessionist movement, opposition leader Branko Marinkovic ordered roadblocks to be taken down as a gesture of goodwill. The crisis assumed international proportions when Morales ordered U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg to leave the country, accusing him of fomenting the rebellion. Several South American leaders, including Brazil's "Lula" da Silva, Peru's Alan Garcia, and Chile's Michelle Bachelet, voiced support for the Bolivian government. (Bachelet "said she hoped the Union of South American Nations could help promote a democratic solution," which is wishful thinking.) See BBC. Those relatively moderate leftist leaders do not necessarily support Morales himself, but rather, support Bolivian national integrity. Secessionary movements are a latent threat in Peru and other countries in the region, and no one wants a large-scale civil war in South America.

In response to the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador, the U.S. government declared Bolivia to be among the countries that have failed to cooperate in fighting international narcotics smuggling. The opposition leaders, which have organized themselves as the "National Democratic Council" (CONALDE), agreed to formal negotiations, which have begun in the central city of Cochabamba. Tensions seem to have abated slightly in the past day, and United Nations official Yoriko Yasukawa has offered his organization's assistance, for whatever that's worth. The relatively new "Union of South American Nations" is playing a major international role for the first time, and this will be a test of whether continental multilateral diplomacy can succeed without U.S. involvement. See Washington Post and El Diario (Spanish).

Such a violent clash was probably inevitable after the popular referendum last month failed to yield a consensus on which direction the country should take. President Morales hopes to carry out another referendum on his planned constitutional changes later this year, and one of the opposition's main goals is to prevent that from taking place. It would codify a stronger, more centralized and more authoritarian government, with a clear socialist agenda, in the mold of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 18 Sep 2008, 11: 20 AM

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