Bolivia’s Regional Tensions: A History of Conflict

The long-standing power struggle between Bolivia’s central government and regions reflects the country’s persistent regional divisions. Even today Bolivia is considered one of the least integrated countries in Latin America (US State Department 2004) with a diverse population concentrated along the western Andean plateau, distinct from the population scattered throughout the eastern lowlands.

The original creation of Bolivia as a separate nation was a complex, flawed process that represented a compromise agreement between Peru and Argentina to form a buffer state between them. But it was also driven by the ambitions of Bolivian criollo elites who saw possible personal benefits.  These founders of the Bolivian republic, however, had little grasp or foresight of the geopolitical problems that affect a highly dispersed, weakly consolidated state. From these shaky beginnings, not unlike other countries patched together from former colonies, Bolivia has continually struggled to establish internal cohesion and a national identity in the face of considerable ethnic and geographic diversity.


Reliance on Exports Impedes Unity

Colonial and republican control after 1825 was always strongest close to valued natural resources and transportation corridors. At the margins, in regions virtually abandoned by the state, emerging elites were successful in avoiding most central government control.
Whenever the national economy declined, central rule weakened, leading to power struggles between the regions and the central government.

Repeatedly since Bolivia’s 1825 founding, local or regional elites have tried to decentralize state power and devolve public investment to either municipalities or departments (a political unit roughly equivalent to US states, Canadian provinces or English counties). Given western Bolivia’s mountainous terrain and the orientation of transportation towards export markets, interregional communication was poor, contributing to a stronger sense of regional over national identity among both isolated indigenous peoples and mestizo city dwellers.


The roots of the autonomy movements


Largely abandoned and isolated until the mid-nineteenth century, the department of Santa Cruz emerged as the locus of regional demands beginning in the late nineteenth century and, in 1876, declared itself a federalist state. Rebellions against central authority demanding federalism occurred again in Santa Cruz in 1891 and 1957, as well as in La Paz in 1899 and Potosí in 1928.

Regional disputes have historically ended in compromises. The 1899 revolution, for example, began with demands by liberals in La Paz to reconstitute the nation from a unitary state, centered in Sucre, to a federal system in order to recognize La Paz’s growing economic importance due to the rise of tin mining. The uprising ended with an agreement that moved the seat of government to La Paz, creating a second capital, but leaving the unitary governing structure intact.

Tensions between the regions and the central government within Bolivia arose again after the 1952 revolution, particularly among the business class in Santa Cruz, who strongly opposed the changes it brought. As a result, the 1953 Agrarian Reform was never implemented in the eastern lowlands, strengthening the local oligarchy. During the 1950s, local elites created a Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee to lobby for greater concessions and independence from the central government. Despite the gradual emergence of similar demands in other regions, after the 1952 revolution, Bolivia’s left primarily focused on national-level, workplace organizing and identified regional concerns with the right wing, and therefore paid little attention to them.


Civic Committees and Autonomy

Initially, the military dictatorships from 1964 to 1982 believed that the existing civic committees could serve as better mechanisms for exerting centralized control over the often unruly regions than political parties (US Department of State 2004). While newer committees formed in the early 1970s were inspired by the Santa Cruz model, the strength of local oligarchies in other regions paled in comparison with the elites that dominated Santa Cruz (Calderon and Laserna 1983). As a result, the political orientation, social base and demands of most civic committees slowly became far broader and in some cases, notably Potosi and Cochabamba, they supported progressive social movements, especially during the 1970s when other opposition groups were forced into hiding (Pittari 1991).

During the 1970s Banzer dictatorship, members of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee held prominent government positions, enabling them to turn around much of the petrodollar loans that Banzer directed to the eastern lowlands, ostensibly for agricultural development, and deposit them in their own Miami bank accounts (Malloy and Gamarra 1988). Santa Cruz elites benefited from the dictatorships in other ways as well. Some were awarded huge tracts of government land, particularly under the dictatorship of Garcia Meza (1980-81), including parcels in protected areas, national parks and reserves (La Prensa, 3 October 2001).

for greater regional autonomy accelerated after the 1985 structural adjustment program which heralded the shift to neoliberal policies. Civic committees have pushed for a greater share of regional resources, direct elections of prefects, and increased political autonomy. In Cochabamba and Potosí, the Civic Committees began to advocate for local jobs, gas nationalization, and rather belatedly, reversing water privatization.

Bolivia’s 1994 Law of Popular Participation (LPP), a World Bank promoted decentralization scheme, was designed to provide greater municipal autonomy.   In practice, the legislation reinforced the centralized political system, as the president still appointed departmental prefects (equivalent to a US governor or Canadian premier) (Laserna 1995). The business-controlled Santa Cruz Civic Committee argued that Popular Participation represented one more attempt to shackle the dynamic lowland economy to the central government. As these regional elites have expressed little interest in decentralization and increased democratic participation within their respective departments, Goudsmit and Blackburn (2001) argue that the LPP enabled the central state to dissipate separatist tendencies by forcing these elites to confront growing local demands.


The Santa Cruz regional movement before Morales

The Santa Cruz regional movement remains the strongest in the country and its discourse has become increasingly separatist. In January 2005, during what verged on an insurrection, civic committee leader and current departmental prefect Rubén Costas announced plans to form a provisional autonomous government. A government cut in diesel subsidies in December 2004, in response to IMF pressure to reduce the government deficit, sparked the Santa Cruz uprising.2   IMF demands provoked a visceral social response, as 250,000 people took over central Santa Cruz, calling for departmental autonomy – one that apparently was to ensure large local cotton, sugar, and soy producer’s access to cheap fuel. The unrest spread to the southern department of Tarija where protestors blockaded roads to push for the proposed refinanced state hydrocarbons company to be headquartered in their department, near the gas fields.  These protests demanded that the Mesa administration call for a nation-wide referendum on the autonomy issue.

The protests surged in part due to the loss of eastern elite influence in the central government. Since 1985, Santa Cruz business interests had controlled more than their fair share of government ministries and traditional ruling party leadership positions. When Carlos Mesa became president in 2003, many of those privileges disappeared. Unable to dominate the 2004 municipal elections, Santa Cruz elites shifted their focus to demanding more power for the departmental government, where they thought they could exert greater control.

Their success in mobilizing powerful popular regional demonstrations illustrates skill in convincing the urban working class and poor majority that unemployment, social problems, and discrimination are principally the fault of Bolivia’s centralist system.3   In contrast, highland social movements have successfully persuaded their members that current problems are due to neoliberalism. This difference mirrors a fundamental divide in the country: the economically dynamic eastern and southern region, with most of the oil and gas, are controlled by a powerful, conservative oligarchy, while the social movements that forced Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada from office in October 2003, are based in the highlands and valleys.


Democratic election of prefects deepen regional frictions

The 2005 elections were the first in Bolivian history to provide for direct election of prefects in the country’s nine departments.  Conservatives won these posts in Cochabamba  and La Paz, as well as in the eastern lowlands departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando, known as the media luna. In July 2006, an autonomy referendum took place with all four eastern departments voting overwhelming in favor of greater autonomy while the country’s western departments voted almost as strongly against.

The MAS government’s promises to extend land reform in the eastern lowlands faces challenges by political opposition from the conservative prefects, often representatives of now-defunct traditional political parties. It is likely that Morales hopes to diffuse the power of regional elites by pushing to expand autonomy within their departments to poorer outlying regions, in order to increase pressure on them from below. If he can accelerate the lowland land redistribution process, his grassroots political support will grow.

At the same time, the Morales administrations efforts to increase revenues from natural gas have increased the power of the regional governors as a percentage of royalties go directly to gas-producing regions.  With this increase in revenues, lowland departments have stepped up the autonomy campaign. 
These calls for autonomy are not a recent development, but are based in a long history of often legitimate regional demands for greater control over resources and policies. 

The Constitutional Assembly, a body elected eight months ago to write a new constitution, provides an opportunity to acknowledge this history and reach a compromise on the extent of regional and central government powers.  However, as both groups have been continually unwilling to compromise within the Assembly, addressing these issues will likely continue to be a complex and highly contentious process, as it has been throughout Bolivia’s history. 


1In eastern Bolivia, fewer than 100 families control over 25 million hectares (61 million acres) while some two million indigenous peasant families work five million hectares (12 million acres). Almost 250,000 indigenous farmers are landless. (PNUD 2005)

2In 2005, the subsidy for diesel was projected to exceed US $80 million. The primary beneficiaries were the agro-industrial producers of Santa Cruz and the transportation industry (La Prensa, 2005, 24 June, 4c).

3The much smaller rural population of Santa Cruz, however, formed groups opposing the calls for departmental autonomy, with some calling for a separate department encompassing Santa Cruz’s rural, gas-producing hinterland.



* Adapted from Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance, by Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing, London: Zed Books 2006.   Linda Farthing is a writer and educator who has published on Bolivia for over twenty years.



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Goudsmit, I. and J. Blackburn (2001) ‘Participatory Municipal Planning in Bolivia: An Ambiguous Experience’, Development in Practice, 11: 587–96.

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