US backs eastern secession in Bolivia
Minority landholders vote for independence
Friday May 9th, 2008
Bolivia's landowning eastern elite voted on Sunday for autonomy from President Evo Morales' central government. According to author Forrest Hylton the US government has spent up to $125 million dollars supporting the secession movement, a movement which has been disregarded by a large percentage of the Bolivian population as well as governments from Bolivia's neighboring countries.
Forrest Hylton is the the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and with Sinclair Thomson, co-author of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007). He is a regular contributor to New Left Review and NACLA Report on the Americas.
PEPE ESCOBAR, ANALYST, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: Bolivia is at a crossroads. To better understand what's happening in the gas-rich South American country, we're joined by Forrest Hylton, the author of Evil Hour in Colombia and Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics. Forrest is also a frequent contributor to The New Left Review. Forrest Hylton, welcome to The Real News.
FORREST HYLTON, AUTHOR, "REVOLUTIONARY HORIZONS": Thanks very much for having me, Pepe.
ESCOBAR: What is the white oligarchy in Bolivia up to, considering this last referendum in Santa Cruz, which they won by a margin of 84 to 85 percent? What does that mean for Bolivia?
HYLTON: Well, it's not entirely clear what it means yet, and you can't be sure that it means what the international media would have us believe that it means. So far it appears that abstention rates were fairly high—around one-third of people did not actually vote in this referendum that was not sanctioned by the National Electoral Court or the Bolivian Congress. There were no outside international observers there, so there's absolutely no way that this process could be called transparent in any way, shape, or form. It's really an attempt on the part of the small minority of large landholders in Bolivia, who happen to live in the place where close to 97 percent of all the gas reserves are located. So what they want to do is hold on to their large landed estates and use the revenues from gas exploitation in order to maintain the status quo in their regions, rather than in order to redistribute the wealth to the western highlands, which has historically provided Bolivia with mining taxes that were never plowed back into the departments from which they came. So there's a sort of historical injustice that's been done to the western highlands, and the secessionists in the eastern lowlands really don't want to deal with that at all. What they want to do is keep the wealth for themselves—and the land.
ESCOBAR: Forrest, can you tell us about the involvement of the US embassy in La Paz in this whole process?
HYLTON: Well, Ambassador Philip Goldberg comes to Bolivia from Kosovo. And he is clearly a supporter of the secessionist agenda of the eastern lowlands, which is known as the Half Moon because it forms a half-moon arc running from north to south in the eastern lowlands. The figures that I've read in terms of US Agency for International Development, as well as the National Endowment for Democracy, the figures I've read suggest that the United States has invested some $125 million to back this secessionist autonomy movement. But what's interesting, Pepe, is that unlike earlier periods, this right-wing secessionist agenda in Bolivia today does not count on any support from any of the major regional powers, such as Brazil, such as Argentina, such as Chile, who all back the Evo Morales government. And this is the same with the Bolivian armed forces, which is another major difference between now and the past, when right-wing reactionaries in the eastern lowlands were able to count on the support of both military dictatorships in neighboring countries as well as coup plotters within the Bolivian armed forces. This is not the case today, and therefore we can say that Evo Morales as the president of Bolivia is unlikely to be overthrown or even challenged by such a maneuver.
ESCOBAR: So it's under this framework that we should understand the--in fact, no reaction of Brazil and Argentina. They totally downplayed the results of the referendum this past weekend, and also all the Mercosur countries for that matter, right?
HYLTON: This is correct, and this is the thing to keep in mind, that in contrast to English-language media, the press in neighboring countries really doesn't see this autonomy referendum as a significant development within the region. So in that sense it is very much about the fight to control internally the revenues from the exploitation of Bolivian-petroleum resources. And Santa Cruz, as a department where this referendum was held, Santa Cruz is home to 11 percent of estimated gas reserves, and it has, ever since the 1930s, benefited from central government largess in the form of sharing of petroleum revenues with the department of Santa Cruz. Now, in the mining regions where tin and silver was exploited, the departments that had tin and silver never received any percentage of those royalties, which stayed with the national treasury. So Santa Cruz in fact has been a beneficiary of a welfare state for a very small landed class in the eastern region ever since the 1930s, and particularly after the national revolution of 1952. All through the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, the region of Santa Cruz received something like 60 percent of all credits that were dispersed through the Banco Agricola in the entire country. So every move that the Santa Cruz elite has ever made has been subsidized and supported by the federal government. Now that they have lost control of the federal government, they want to secede from it.