A Closer Look at Recent Violence in Bolivia

Recent clashes between President Evo Morales’ constitutional government and the pro-autonomy opposition in Bolivia’s eastern provinces have left 15 people dead, 35 injured and 100 missing, according to official reports. The government has accused the prefect of Bolivia’s northern Pando province, Leopoldo Fernandez, of hiring professional assassins to “massacre” pro-Morales campesinos. Fernandez, now under arrest on charges of genocide, denies the accusations, claiming that the deaths resulted from an “armed clash between rival groups.” With accusations flying from both sides, it is natural to begin to ask: who is to blame? It is easy to assume, given the high level of tension in the country, that escalation of the violence could have been caused by either party. However, a close analysis indicates that this violence had precedents which are mostly one-sided. In the pro-autonomist regions of Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija, a cadre of right-wing groups have consistently employed tactics of violence and intimidation in order to suppress peasant mobilization and maintain their traditional social privilege.

Responding to accusations of orchestrating a massacre in his province, Fernandez argued that “the [Morales] government has a great ability to distort things, and its arguments are always the same – accusations without reason.” However, a number of related incidents in neighboring regions suggest that such plotting on the part of the autonomist leadership and related political organizations is not a novel occurrence. According to Inter Press Service, local trade union and pro-government leaders in the province of Beni went into hiding after receiving death threats from members of radical right-wing youth groups. Amnesty International reported a similar incident in December 2006, when the president of an NGO in the Santa Cruz region, Adalberto Rojas, received death threats from members of the Comité Cívico Pro Santa Cruz (Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee), an organization closely associated with extreme right-wing politicians and businesses in the region. Rojas was “forced to leave his home, fearing for his own safety and that of his family.”

At the forefront of the violence that shook Santa Cruz was an extremist youth group known as the Union Juvenil Cruceñista (Cruceñista Youth Union). On September 10th this gang led a raid on a number of the city’s institutions, including the state-run telecommunications company, television station, and tax agency, according to Voice of America News. Protesters kicked in the doors and smashed property after attacking a number of reporters at a left-leaning radio station. The UJC has perpetrated several other violent acts designed to terrorize pro-Morales groups, including those working for indigenous rights. In August, Indian Country Today reported that members of the UJC abducted, beat and threatened to kill a number of Cuban doctors who were providing medical assistance to low-income patients in the area.

According to Professor Bret Gustafson of Washington University, these brutal tactics were designed by right-wing activists to “prevent organizations and peasant unions who are sympathetic to [Morales] from free movement and political assembly.” In addition, the recent escalation of violence can be seen as an attempt on the part of the autonomists “to provoke a heavy-handed government response” meant to discredit the Morales government on the international scene. To a certain extent, this tactic seems to be working. Since the central government declared martial law in Pando, it is in even greater danger of being blamed for the increasing bloodshed. However, Morales recently gained the unanimous support of the Union of South American Nations, which called a special session in Santiago, Chile. Hope now exists that the conflict will be resolved in favor of the government and the indigenous cause, with adequate attention paid to the limited rights of the autonomy-minded departments.