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Bolivia's autonomy referendums signal rightist backlash

On Sunday, the Amazonian states of Beni and Pando voted overwhelmingly in favor of more autonomy from the socialist government of Evo Morales.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2008

Rally: Riders celebrated Sunday in the state of Pando after a referendum on autonomy. Leftist leaders oppose the move.

Marian Bazo/Reuters

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Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Last month, Alejandro Peña Esclusa waded through a joyful throng here in Santa Cruz celebrating the victory in the first of four referendums on increased autonomy from the socialist government of Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales.

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He shook hands with voters, slapped them on the backs. "I identify with you, I'm on your side," he told them.

Never mind that he is not a Bolivian opposition leader, or even Bolivian. The Venezuelan, who unsuccessfully ran against that country's leftist President Hugo Chávez and is now one of his most vociferous foes, says that supporting the opposition across Latin America is crucial to democracy continent-wide.

As presidents from Venezuela to Ecuador and Bolivia vow that they, for the very first time, are governing for the poor, the oppressed, and the indigenous, Latin America is in the midst of a power struggle. Conservative leaders say it is their new responsibility to double up efforts to stem the tide of Mr. Chávez and his leftist coalition – which they claim is not addressing the welfare of those most in need, but attempting to consolidate power and undermine liberties across the region.

"We don't want this to end here," says Carlos Pablo Klinsky, the president of the caucus of legislators in Santa Cruz who helped usher in the autonomy referendum. On Sunday, Bolivians in the Amazonian states of Beni and Pando overwhelmingly voted for more autonomy. With three victories and a fourth vote planned for June 22, Bolivia is emerging as an epicenter of a growing pushback against Latin America's left.

"We want this to spread not just to the rest of the country but to Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua as well, to end with this centralism throughout Latin America," says Mr. Klinsky.

Opposition unites across states

In a twist, the region's traditional outsiders have suddenly become the insiders, says Michael Shifter, of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. Led and financed almost entirely by oil-rich Venezuela, they have formed an alliance in their pledge to create a new Latin America.

And now the longtime insiders have risen as Latin America's "opposition." In many countries, the opposition is a frayed bunch, and those who are united are often fixated against the ruling president or focused on domestic issues. But many say there is opportunity for symbiosis.

Yon Goicoechea, who led the student movement against Chávez's failed constitutional reform in December, has since traveled around the region speaking with student leaders. In January he was in Bolivia to share the methodologies of his campaign.

"They also have a constitutional reform restricting liberties, and actually threatening democracy," says Mr. Goicoechea, who resists being tied to Venezuela's traditional opposition and was recently awarded $500,000 from the Cato Institute in Washington. He wants to use the money to set up a foundation to form a network of young political aspirants across Latin America.

For now, however, these cross-national efforts are incipient, says Mr. Peña Esclusa, who was born in Washington and concedes that even some members of Venezuela's opposition call him radical. He says he is unapologetic for any ties he has formed with the US, which he considers a "friend."

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