By: Elliot Williams & Aldo Orellana
The year 2007 in Bolivia ended in an escalation of tension that seemed to bring Bolivia to the breaking point. Two years into the Morales presidency, and in the wake of bloody battles over the Constituent Assembly, the tensions culminated on December 15th when two competing political paths were presented to the nation – one in the east and one in the west – the new Constitution presented in La Paz by the national government and the autonomy statutes presented in Santa Cruz and announced in the departments of Beni, Pando, and Tarija.
During these final months of the year, leaders on both sides continued to provoke, pushing further polarization, and drawing the country closer to its limits. Only the arrival of the holiday season succeeded in interrupting the tension. Many here imagined that 2008 would open with tensions just as high, as the New Year did in 2007, when three men were left dead as a result of political conflicts in Cochabamba.
The announcement of a meeting for Monday, January 7th between the national government and the regional governors produced a new hope for peace for many Bolivians. The meeting set out to discuss three central points: the new Constitution approved by the MAS-dominated Constituent Assembly; the autonomy statutes proposed by the eastern regions; and the distribution of the Impuesto Directo a los Hidrocarburos (IDH), one of the key mechanisms through which revenues from foreign oil companies are allocated and spent here.
The climate of the meeting was very calm, despite various altercations occurring in the days leading up to it. The state television channel directly transmitted the dialogue to the nation, starting at 6pm and lasted for nearly eight hours. The President, Vice President, various cabinet members, and the nine Governors were all in attendance. Their discussions produced three important preliminary agreements: to review the conflict-ridden themes of the new Constitution; to move ahead with the autonomy processes; and to create a compensation fund for the departments. The work of following-up on those proposals was to be done by specific commissions with teams of people from both sides of the debate.
The first commission began meeting on January 9th in La Paz to discuss the IDH. The commission tackling the problems of the new Constitution and autonomous statutes would begin their work, when the Governors and the national government met again in La Paz on January 14th.
January 7th was critical in many ways. It marked one of the few times that President Morales met with all nine Governors together. The leaders, who had up until this point been pursuing rival courses that were driving the country apart, began a process to potentially bring the country together. The balloon of political tension that seemed ready to burst in December, began to deflate, if just some.
Signs of cooperation continued since then. Morales and Cochabamba’s Prefect, Manfred Reyes Villa, two of the bitterest political rivals in the country, met (this week) to discuss the distribution of the IDH. This was the first time the two had spoken since they cut off contact in early 2007. Morales also proposed to make some of the autonomy statutes of the media luna compatible with the new constitution. A large gap between the parties surely remains, but attempts to decrease this divide seem to be genuine.
While public opinion seems to support efforts at compromise, the issues on the table don’t have easy solutions. For example, the autonomy statutes planned by Santa Cruz call for departmental control of land and resources, but the new Constitution clearly put the national government in charge of these matters. Given the wide gaps involved, the question remains, how far can this discussion go? Do the discussions that began in La Paz on January 7th offer a lasting or temporary peace? How will the citizens of Bolivia respond to the calls of unity issued by the government? Have the divisions that have been fomented for so long created too large a gap to bridge?
Those who predicted that Bolivia would careen off the side of a cliff as 2008 began, had to put those predictions on hold. For a time, both sides of the east-west divide decided that dialog, rather than conflict and sharp rhetoric, are in their better interest, and the nation’s.