Bolivia's National Congress voted late Feb. 28 to hold a national referendum on the new constitution proposed by socialist President Evo Morales. The referendum threatens to cut Bolivia in half, with the indigenous majority cheering for Morales and the remaining one-third of the population in the lowlands likely to declare autonomy again. Since Morales has control of the military, the only hope remaining for the rebelling lowlanders is a Brazilian intercession on their behalf.
Bolivia's National Congress voted late Feb. 28 to hold a national referendum on President Evo Morales' proposed constitution. The constitution would grant greater political and economic power to the indigenous population of the country's western highlands by redistributing assets from the less populous but wealthier European-founded northern and eastern lowlands. Since the highlanders make up two-thirds of Bolivia's total population, the constitution has plenty of popular support. Because of this, the opposition movement — which refuses to recognize the draft constitution — has staunchly opposed a national referendum. But on Feb. 28, Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party held a hurried and irregular legislative session to push through the demand for a national referendum. Only a few opposition lawmakers were present — thousands of pro-Morales demonstrators outside the legislature prevented the others from arriving — so the vote passed in less than an hour. The referendum is scheduled for May 4. In other words, after years of bitter political struggle, Morales has decided to spark a serious confrontation with the opposition by cutting them out of the new constitution and holding a referendum that he is sure to win. The move makes strategic sense for Morales' camp because not only does the president have support from the indigenous majority, he also controls Bolivia's armed forces, which comprise 46,100 active personnel. Military assistance will be necessary to enforce the proposed constitution, which calls for expanding Morales' policy of redistributing lowland property deemed idle or illegal to the indigenous poor. The lowlanders will fiercely resist the seizure of their economically crucial natural gas fields and soybean farms. Moreover, only the military can prevent the lowland regions from seceding. The scheduled referendum will result in further calls for autonomy in Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando — Bolivia's four wealthiest regions, all in the lowlands. These regions declared autonomy in December 2007 when Morales initially pushed the constitution through parliament, but the situation calmed when Morales offered to review important sections of the draft. When Morales failed to follow through, the regional leadership of Santa Cruz pushed to hold a vote for autonomy, also scheduled for May 4. The other three secessionist departments were expected to follow Santa Cruz's lead. But the pro-Morales legislators who voted for the national referendum also passed a law rejecting any regional action towards autonomy, canceling whatever legal justification the lowlands might have had. After all, Morales knows that the highlands cannot survive economically without the lowlands. The lowlands in eastern Bolivia possess all the natural gas and agricultural resources; even though Bolivia's zinc, tin and iron ore mines are mostly located in the highlands, they are exported from the East, which has all of the country's external trade connections. Morales simply cannot afford to lose the lowlands, and with the military on the president's side, the East's attempts at independence will continue to be ineffectual. Even if the Bolivian army were not able to handle internal dissent, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez could send in regular troops or members of his well-established militia force to aid Morales in a time of need — a possibility that would set off regional alarm bells. The rebelling lowlanders have one remaining hope: that Brazil will interfere on their behalf. Brazil is deeply invested in Bolivia's lowland-based natural gas and agriculture sectors. The one thing Morales lacks is the cash to develop the sector himself, and Brazil knows this. In 2007, Brasilia prevented Morales from nationalizing the entire natural gas sector and has since won concessions from him in order to keep the natural gas sector free of state encroachment. Subsequently, Brazil has invested even more heavily in Bolivia's production capacity while weaning itself from Bolivian natural gas and diversifying its sources of energy (more for strategic than economic reasons). The result is that Brasilia has an enormous amount of leverage at the exact place where Morales is weakest and most needs Brazil. Yet Brazil is unlikely to intervene this time. It is too early for it to act decisively, and taking steps that would break up a neighbor would be a bridge too far for Brasilia. In a few years, an energy-independent Brazil may wish to call the shots for Morales. Until then, Bolivia's eastern lowlands can do little more than hope.