Debunking Myths Part II: Bolivia’s Autonomy Initiatives

In September 2008 lowland elites led sustained protests against the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, demanding autonomy for their departments.  Yet, Morales’ MAS government never opposed grassroots autonomy initiatives. In fact, the administration held a 2006 referendum allowing lowland departments to opt for autonomy to be defined in the new Constitution. Ironically, opposition efforts to block the approval of the new constitution postponed efforts to legally implement autonomy. In retrospect, it became clear that this elite manipulation of the autonomy issue was more a tool for lowland elites to oppose Morales than a broad-based popular demand. The new Bolivian constitution, approved in January 2009 has since established different levels of autonomy.

The Rise and Fall of the Bolivia’s Right Wing Autonomy Movement

The people of Santa Cruz have been far from unified in their understanding of autonomy.  Some small groups such as the separatist organization, the Nación Camba, and the right wing youth militants of the Union Juvenil Cruceñista demand sovereignty for Santa Cruz, and engage in racist rhetoric against indigenous highlanders. However, many other erstwhile autonomy supporters have their roots in the highlands. This latter group is claiming their place within Santa Cruz and expressing support for the allocation of economic resources and decentralized decision-making in their home area. They are not rejecting Bolivian identity or expressing a lack of interest in the well-being or unity of the country as a whole.

The recent movement for Santa Cruz autonomy arose in the early 2000s in tandem with demands of indigenous people across Bolivia to convene a constitutional assembly. During the political crisis that peaked in 2003, the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee initially supported the shaky government of Sánchez de Lozada. The Committee was originally formed in 1950 to demand a greater share of state petroleum revenues for the producing departments, eventually winning 11 percent for the departmental government, an economic advantage over non-petroleum producing departments that Santa Cruz enjoys to this day.[i]

After Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation, the Committee began to generate a large-scale movement to support “departmental autonomy.”[ii] Progressively larger crowds turned out at rallies in support of this loosely defined concept, peaking with an impressive rally estimated at 500,000 in June 2006.

In retrospect, it has become clear that these crowds did not reject Santa Cruz remaining part of the Bolivian state, but rather were reacting to the political chaos of 2003-2005 and the perceived uncertainty in the early years of the Morales administration.

The most prominent Santa Cruz leaders, such as Prefect Ruben Costas, in general have been careful to publicly affirm openness to people from other backgrounds within “Cruceño” identity, yet they maintained close ties to groups engaged in racist rhetoric and violence.[iii] Chants at demonstrations, street graffiti and internet sites demonstrated no shortage of racist thinking and language among right wing activists in Santa Cruz.[iv] Rightwing leaders such as Costas and Branko Marinkovic of the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee miscalculated their level of support in 2008 when they moved toward violent rebellion against the democratically elected government of the MAS.

Autonomy Movement Leadership Engages in Self-Destructive Violence

In July 2008, Santa Cruz leaders ignored an electoral court injunction and held a departmental referendum to approve their draft of a departmental autonomy statute. According to the terms of a 2006 national referendum that provided for departmental autonomy, the terms and statutes could only be legally approved after the ratification of the new constitution.[v] In spite of this legal requirement, a non-elected group of autonomy movement leaders drafted a departmental statute behind closed doors. It outlined a radical form of autonomy or federalism, granting the Santa Cruz government legislative and administrative powers in most key areas of law. This included control over land distribution, hydrocarbons, and other natural resources. The statute claimed departmental authority over indigenous territories and the power to make international agreements with foreign governments and exercise other powers usually held by sovereign states.

There was very little public knowledge of the content and few opportunities to debate the ramifications of the proposed autonomy statute prior to the illegal referendum. About 60% of the voters in Santa Cruz went to the polls in spite of MAS’s call for a boycott, and the document received over 80% support. However, no country or international organization recognized the vote and the departmental government was unable to implement any significant aspects of their self-declared autonomy.

Bolivian Government Criticizes U.S. Ambassador

In September 2008, amidst growing regional tensions U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg made a grave political miscalculation when he met with publicly with Santa Cruz Prefect Ruben Costas just before Costas led a general strike. Mobs organized by the Union Juvenil Cruceñista sacked and burned government buildings that provided important social services, and similarly attacked indigenous rights organizations. This destruction undermined the claim that departmental authorities wanted to run state institutions autonomously, instead the attacks appeared to be an effort to undermine and destabilize the central government.

Many Bolivians interpreted the meeting between Costas and Goldberg as signal that the U.S. perceived the prefect as equal to President Morales and that the right-wing autonomy movement had the open support of the Embassy. In the preceding months the Morales administration accused U.S. of supporting departmental governments through USAID, as a means to strengthen lowland elite autonomy proponents.

President Morales decided to expel Ambassador Goldberg the day before allies of the right wing Prefect Leopoldo Fernandez massacred supporters of Evo Morales in the lowland department of Pando. According to Amnesty International there were a total of 19 deaths and at least 53 injuries in several acts of violence. Most of the victims were peasants affiliated with the MAS, although several prefectural supporters were also killed.[vi]

In April 2009 another violent incident tarnished already weakened Cruceño leaders. Police raided a Santa Cruz hotel and killed three foreign mercenaries and captured two others.[vii] While the violence of the raid and the mishandled investigation reflect poorly on the Bolivian justice system, the results were even more negative for departmental autonomy leaders, allegedly linked to the mercenaries. As evidence emerged that the mercenaries had been brought to Santa Cruz to organize a militia with a possibly separatist agenda, infighting among autonomy leaders increased, and popular support dissipated. The apparent failure over several months to organize any significant militia for the mercenaries to train is further evidence of the lack of interest in separatism in Santa Cruz.[viii]

In general, inability to implement the autonomy statute and subsequent violence and destruction backfired on the lowland leaders of the autonomy movement. Santa Cruz leaders had previously portrayed the grassroots movements affiliated with the MAS as being irrationally confrontational. Much of the popular support for the autonomy movement was premised on the belief that they offered a peaceful and orderly alternative for progress and development.

New Types of Autonomy

It has been clear since before the 2005 elections that the Santa Cruz Department, including supporters of the Morales administration, embraces the idea of autonomy through decentralization of some government functions. The international media has largely ignored that the MAS-promoted new constitution, approved by Bolivia-wide referendum in January 2009, codified several forms of autonomy.

The new types of autonomy differ significantly from the Santa Cruz elite’s vision of a centralized departmental government autonomous from the rest of Bolivia. In the new constitution the pluri-national Bolivian state controls natural resources, land distribution policies, and key legislative faculties, but many important administrative responsibilities and legislative powers are made available to the nine departments. These include the ability to manage a significant amount of central government revenues, to collect their own taxes, to carry out development planning, build infrastructure and pass laws that don’t contradict national legislation passed by the Pluri-national Assembly.

The new constitution mandates further decentralization by recognizing the autonomy of the previously existing municipal governments and adding, for the first time, powers that may be assumed by autonomous indigenous territories. These indigenous autonomies should work in coordination with and participate in departmental governments, but are not directly subordinate to the departmental governments. The constitution also provides for the formation by referenda of additional regional autonomies based on geographic divisions within the nine departments. These regions’ autonomies could receive powers delegated by the Plurnational state or departmental governments.

The new autonomies are being put into place. As part of the recent December 6 elections, the five Andean departments voted to join their lowland counterparts in the process of setting up departmental autonomy, although all nine departments still need to pass constitutional autonomy statutes. In addition, thirteen autonomous indigenous territories were formed, and three municipalities in the department of Tarija voted to form the autonomous region of Gran Chaco.

The forms of autonomy recognized in the new constitution largely meet the demands for greater decentralization of government supported by many who turned out at mass pro-autonomy rallies, but do not concentrate power in the departmental elite.  The retention of key powers by the Bolivian government provide for the possibility of progress toward greater social equality and sharing of resources throughout the country.

Signs of Shifting Political Terrain in Santa Cruz

With the vote for Evo Morales in Santa Cruz rising to 41% from the 30% he won in the last election, there are signs that the opposition to the MAS is softening.  An important factor is that the Morales government has managed to bring economic and political stability to the country and that much of the fear-mongering engaged in by the political opposition proved to be false. The Morales government’s “nationalization” of the petroleum contracts has brought an important new source of revenue to the country and has particularly benefited the poor everywhere through small stipends for all school age children, pregnant women, and senior citizens.

Support for the still intransigent Pro-Santa Cruz Committee is weakening. In recent months Evo Morales has held cordial meetings with the President of the Santa Cruz soybean growers’ association and with independent business leaders.  He has received endorsements from Santa Cruz soccer stars and leaders of soccer fan clubs. To the consternation of many allies he even received surprise support from two former leaders of the right wing Union Juvenil Cruceñista.  While many of these endorsements may have been opportunist recognitions that a second term for Morales became inevitable, it is part of a process of accommodation that could allow the MAS program of social justice to move forward in Santa Cruz.

Whereas just over a year ago, departmental autonomy activists burned government offices, and MAS allies were afraid to appear in the center of the city, the government has now opened a Ministry of Autonomy office only a few blocks from the central plaza of the city. Headed by Helena Argirakis, a Cruceña who formerly worked for the Santa Cruz departmental government, the Autonomy Ministry is working with indigenous groups and others in Santa Cruz implement the new forms of autonomy. On December 6, the majority Guaraní municipality of Charagua voted became the first autonomous indigenous territory in Santa Cruz.

The Road Ahead

It seems likely that more moderate leaders in Santa Cruz will work with MAS to elect a departmental assembly and rewrite their departmental autonomy statute to conform to the new constitution. There are still serious conflicts between the MAS government and the elite of Santa Cruz on the horizon, particularly surrounding rural social movements’ expectation that MAS will carry out significant land redistribution in Santa Cruz. The large, underproductive landholdings targeted for redistribution are held by urban elites who also oppose other aspects of the government’s economic development strategy. Further conflict with these elites may be inevitable, but the civil war that some predicted earlier is not a real possibility.

The errors of the Bush administration undermined relations with Bolivia. Although its representatives have frequently expressed the desire to improve relations, the Obama administration has thus far followed in the footsteps of Bush in its policy toward Bolivia.

However, it is still possible to normalize diplomatic relations with the government of Evo Morales. As part of this process, the United States government needs to respect the economic and political successes of the Morales administration within Bolivia’s democratic processes, as well as its good faith efforts at drug control. Most importantly, the United States needs to implement a low-profile, low-level, transparent aid relationship to help avoid future friction.


[i] Historian Rosana Barragan (In Crabtree and Whitehead 2009, Unresolved Tensions) has debunked a myth that the Santa Cruz department was ever neglected by the central government in terms of per capita spending.

[ii] Delegates from business associations and elite social fraternities control the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee. In recent years the Committee has included members representing university students, neighborhood organizations, and even labor and indigenous organizations, but the allotment of delegates ensures elite dominance.

The Pro-Santa Cruz Committee has a long history of advocating greater funding and attention from the Bolivian state and increasing economic integration with the rest of country. The committee opposed the central government only during brief periods of leftist government in the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s, when policies favored distributing land in Santa Cruz to poor indigenous people. Peña Claros, Claudia and Nelson Jordan, 2006 Ser Cruceño en Octubre. La Paz: PIEB.

[iii] The closest political ally of Costas has been the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee which has a long history of sharing office space with the violent militants of the Union Juvenil Cruceñista, who are also key members of the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee.

[iv] For example right wing demonstrators would frequently jump up and down during autonomy rallies, chanting “whoever doesn’t jump is a kolla.” The term kolla has its origins and history of usage as a racial slur, even though some highland indigenous people now use it as a positive self referent. Another right wing slogan was “Morales is Chavez’s chola” (a term for an urbanized indigenous woman), a clear misogynist and racial slur in this context.

[v] Part of the confusion about the meaning of autonomy is that in 2005 the Mesa government legislated that department autonomy referenda be held in 2006 before the new Constitutional Assembly would define the meaning of autonomy.

[vi] Amnesty International: http://thereport.amnesty.org/en/regions/americas/bolivia

[vii] Two of the mercenaries, Eduardo Rozsa Flores and Mario Tadic Astorga held triple and dual citizenship including Bolivia, but had been primarily residing in Hungary and Croatia prior to being recruited to come to Santa Cruz.

[viii] Mercenary leader Eduardo Rozsa Flores stated in a video interview that he was going to Bolivia at the behest of a group in Santa Cruz to organize a militia for the autonomy movement and possible independence. See: Gorondi, Pablo, Associated Press 4/22/09. “Hungarian killed in Bolivia went to form militia.” http://www.etaiwannews.com/etn/news_content.php?id=926769&lang=eng_news

Doug Hertzler is an anthropologist who serves on the board of the Andean Information Network. He has spent a total of over 6 years in Santa Cruz since 1988. His most recent research in Santa Cruz was during August 2009.