Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Historical Reality and 'Autonomies' in Bolivia

There is just too much babble, and too little substance about Santa Cruz' 'autonomy' movement. Since the 'Civic Committee' is run by businessmen, some see it merely as a push by the'oligarchy' to get around the popular movement for nationalization of gas. There is some truth to that, but the reality is much more complicated.

First of all, there is a 'super-consensus' in the Andean region (namely La Paz and El Alto), for changing the way the State has done business with the Oil and Gas Companies the last ten years or so. The 'newer' law was actually drafted by a committe of mainstream politicians from the Center Right to the Center Left, and was passed through inaction of both Mesa and the radicals. It specifically tags on an extra 32% to current royalties, but does not constitute the flat-out nationalization of oil and gas fields and expulsion of multi-nationals that the miners, Aymara nationalists, and some urban residents want. It can actually be viewed as a compromise bill by the centrist parties.

The bottom line is that it is political suicide to defend the 'old' tax structure and contracts with multi-nationals, since it is intimately tied to ex-President Goni. Good number of Bolivian politicians of all stripes, are falling all over eachother, clamoring loudly against Goni and hailing the new 'soveirgnity over 'strategic resources'. President Mesa wanted to publically come out and oppose the new law, but politically he could not do so, or risk the wrath of La Paz' population, and whatever narrow base he has. Essentially, no one stepped up to the plate and made the case for the current contracts from a sensible point of view.

A lot of folks in Santa Cruz do not want this law, including private sector gas and oil workers. They feel it was imposed on them by the Altiplano. There is historical precedent for this too. When popular discontent and elite opinion in La Paz caused General Ovando to nationalize Gulf Oil's holdings some 36 years ago, many Santa Cruz residents were outraged, since many residents off all classes were directly affected by Gulf's pullout, in what was a much smaller city back then.

The 'Civico's' represent this long-held discontent, which has boiled over now that Santa Cruz residents feel -with some justification- that they are the economic capital of the country. The Altiplano - the traditional parties, the urban middle classes, and the new protest movements- in their view dominates the political life, and wields too much power over their economic destiny.
They are also frightened by the 'nationalization' talk and the potential rise of either MAS and/or the Aymara nationalists. Thats why it has not been hard to enlist the other departments, including gas-rich Tarija in their game. They feel that threatening to secede is their only card in the game. To some extent they are right, Evo who in the end is no more than another shrewd Bolivian caudillo will cut a deal if his back is against the wall. They are probably counting on the Aymara nationalization drive - to die out - or in the worst case go on a rampage in La Paz and then settle down as five centuries of Aymara revolts show. But the wild-card as always is in the military, but I would not be surprised if the 'Civicos' throw some major bucks to the Generals to keep them in control.