‘Capital Wars’ in Bolivia Reflect Morales Battle Plans and His Skills as a TacticianBy: COHA Research Associate Cassidy Rush
- Historical backdrop for the country’s current conflict
- Either La Paz or Sucre, if successful, will win more than the presidential inauguration
- Will the elites ward off the indigenous?
A capital city symbolizes a nation and offers unique political and economic allures over anything one would find in other urban settlements. Though the benefits today might not be as pronounced as in the past, in most world capitals the nation’s best minds and deepest pockets come to work for and around government; business and the high-end service-sector positions are there to serve the elites’ needs. Tourists flock to see the often elaborate statues and edifices by which the rich and powerful have chosen to memorialize themselves. Indeed, for those elites and the masses alike, not to make a fuss to obtain a capital would be to neglect their patriotic souls.
A capital city is the star on world maps, literally and figuratively. It is the heart and mind of a nation without which its body would be debilitated. No matter where it lies geographically, a capital is always at the center of a nation. An ancient Roman proverb says, all roads lead to Rome—but they also lead to Washington, Tokyo or Madrid.
La Paz or Sucre
Or La Paz. Or is it Sucre? Since 1899, these two cities have shared an uneasy stardom—La Paz hosts the executive and legislative branches, Sucre the judiciary. “Which country has two capital cities?” quickly became a classic piece of geography trivia.
Now, the issue has been drawn, thanks to controversial measures adopted by Bolivia’s tormented Constituent Assembly convened in Sucre to rewrite the nation’s constitution and “refound” the country. These turbulent days in Bolivia’s duel capitals were unofficially launched on July 20th, when around one million protesters—located in the poor, mostly indigenous western highlands where Bolivian President Evo Morales enjoys his strongest support—flooded the streets of La Paz. They came there to protest a proposal to transfer the capital in its entirety back to Sucre, a relatively small and usually tranquil city of famed colonial architecture, an anti-Morales bastion situated in the more prosperous and European-styled eastern lowlands. After the Constituent Assembly, narrowly dominated by Morales, ruled in August not to consider the proposed capital transfer, counter-protests rocked Sucre. These events make it apparent that residents of both cities were prepared to fight tooth and nail in order to call the capital their own.
It’s hyperbolic, however, to call what Bolivia is now experiencing a war: there has been little bloodshed or destruction of property, though the word does accurately convey just how irreconcilable the two sides of the standoff seem. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a social conflict, with the two opposing interests expressing their demands through the democratic channels of protest and legal maneuvering.
That’s not how it was back in 1899, when the country lived through the civil war which brought the lion’s share of the capital’s prerogatives to La Paz. The present protracted confrontation roiling Bolivia threatens the fragile balance of power achieved at that time which keeps a fractious country cohesive. A look at the dynamics of the “Federal War” may help one understand the perspectives of two important players: the indigenous majority, mostly on the La Paz side of the country, and those members of the country’s non-indigenous, largely white and Spanish-speaking minority, who support Sucre’s claim.
The Federal War and its Indigenous Warriors
At the beginning of the Federal War in December of 1898, La Paz and its defender, Liberal Party leader Manuel Pando, were in trouble: the well-equipped national army, headed up by Conservative President Severo Fernández Alonso, was marching towards the city with plans to conquer it and stop the upstart rebels in their tracks. The problem was, however, that Pando and his forces would be quashed without the armaments they had just ordered from Peru.
The solution: mobilize the area’s massive peasant population to shield the city and buy time for the weaponry to arrive. The western peasantry came out en masse—an estimated 30 to 40 thousand surrounded the city—to defend its home turf from the Conservatives. They represented the peasants’ most despised enemy: the despotic large-scale land holders.
On his approach to the city, Alonso, seeing only defeat in the sea of defiant peasants, was deterred from attacking and had to retreat. The peasants had saved the day, and would continue to press the Liberal forces as they went on the offensive. However, they would no longer fight just to protect their homeland from an historical enemy; under the leadership of the ethnic Aymara Pablo Zárate, their participation in the war became a grand rebellion against elite oppression, manifested by the land expropriations of the last 20 years. It’s even possible that Zárate had an agreement with Pando through which land grievances would be resolved in exchange for the peasants’ fighting capabilities.
In the end though, all hopes for establishing a more dignified and just regime for Bolivia’s mostly indigenous peasant population would be dashed. Pando, responding to powerful land-holding interests within the Liberal party, eventually saw the agitations as endangering their increasingly tenuous control over the peasants’ land and labor. He betrayed his former allies and had Zárate and his fellow commanders imprisoned or shot. Without its leaders and confronted with a resurgence of government repression, the movement fizzled and died.
As a result, the Liberal victory had two important consequences: it ended 20 years of Conservative rule, ushering in a new era of Liberal dominance; and more importantly, it made La Paz, the party’s stronghold, the country’s de facto capital, even though Sucre has remained the de jure capital according to Bolivia’s constitution.
Conserving past gains, ensuring future ones
Factoring this history into today’s conundrum, indigenous peoples in La Paz and its surrounding provinces, many of them descendents of those who fought in the Federal War, have more to lose from a transfer of the capital than most La Pazians. Indeed, it would demean them to see the descendents of their enemy spoil so decisively the fruit of their ancestors’ sacrifices, especially when the immediate benefactors of these sacrifices offered only treachery in lieu of honorable deportment.
Asked by the Bolivian newspaper La Razón why the capital should remain in La Paz, some protesters on July 20th gave answers reflecting the above sentiment: “Because many people here have fought and died so that La Paz would be the capital,” reasoned one, “and other departments haven’t done anything.” Said another: “Our grandparents underwent a bloody struggle and we, the grandchildren, aren’t going to let anyone take away the seat of government.”
Losing the capital would also be a severe blow, in terms of prestige, against Morales and the indigenous movement his election has reenergized. The Constituent Assembly, which is Morales’ engine of change to award the indigenous community much more recognition and a larger share of the nation’s wealth, must achieve victory in order to end the indigenous marginalization in Bolivia. Their dream would be shattered if the Constituent Assembly were to move the nation’s center of power away from the indigenous, which would cast doubt on Morales’ ability to put a stop to what has long been perceived as endless oligarchic rule by the country’s non-indigenous minority.
Even worse, such a sign of impotence could further alienate Amerindians from the democratic system, seeing that even one of their own can’t properly defend their interests. As a result, they may conclude that only undemocratic, possibly violent, action is their only recourse, as was the case in the days of the Federal War.
Rectifying old wrongs
Sucreists, on the other hand, see their loss of the capital after the Liberals defeated the Conservatives as an historical injustice, a temporary political measure at the time that slowly became permanent. “Bolivia has a debt to Sucre,” states Jhon Cava, President of Sucre’s Civic Committee, in a New York Times article, “and the time has come to collect.” That the city never lost its status as the constitutional capital bolsters Sucreists claim that their city is the legitimate capital and, as such, should be home to all the branches of government.
Bolivia’s former capital also has grand continental ambitions, even though they have been put on hold since the Federal War. In the same article, Jaime Barrón, rector of Sucre’s public university, says the Sucreists “simply want what was taken from Sucre 108 years ago, allowing us to develop into the geopolitical center of South America.” Along with nearby Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, these metropolitan areas could become a “magic triangle,” a South American center for trade, with Sucre as its crown jewel.
Yet even if the capital is not moved, the fervent protests that have consumed the city and its leaders’ bellicose rhetoric should be interpreted as a signal that the political opposition won’t take Morales’ attempts to redistribute power in favor of the indigenous lying down. They will demand redistributive measures of their own, which will force Morales to make politically difficult sacrifices.
A Festering Wound, Not Easily Healed
On September 24th, representatives of La Paz said they would look for alliances within the social sector to promote their interests, while those of Chuquisaca, the province in which Sucre is located, announced plans to take new legal action to force the Constituent Assembly to debate the capital’s location. Neither side appears willing to soften its stance.
Both sides, however, find their positions rooted to a great degree in past events, the Federal War being the most significant. Therefore, this ‘capital war’ will find no resolution unless both those defending the current distribution of political leverage centered on La Paz, and those who wish to transfer that authority to Sucre, understand each other’s historical perspective and the potential stakes at play.