Friday, 14 November 2008

The Demise of Regional Division in Bolivia?

The rise of Santa Cruz as the political and economic hegemonic power has been evident the last many decades in Bolivia. Under President Evo Morales however, it has seen its ability to frame the shape of the country undermined. This has resulted in clashes, both in Congress, the constituent assembly and in the streets of Santa Cruz and other ‘media luna’ towns. The media in its typical simplistic terms depicting the struggle as one of poor, indigenous, ardent Morales supporters of the Western Highlands up against the rich, white, land-rich Eastern Provinces of Santa Cruz et al.

Where do these regional clashes leave Bolivia and what is the future of Santa Cruz’s political and economic power base? These were some of the questions the Bolivian academic, George Grey Molina, tried to answer in a brief talk he gave at the Institute for the Study of the Americas here in London this week. After weeks and months of bad news and confrontation coming out of Bolivia, George Molina’s hypotheses had a surprisingly upbeat tone about them.

He began his talk by going over recent events since the violent clashes that erupted across Bolivia, and most notably in Pando - the remote northern department. See "State of siege, more violence in Bolivian province Pando (Roundup)"

Essentially, the out-of-control violence that threatened to escalate across the nation forced Morales supporters and opponents to sit down and set out a timeline for an upcoming constitutional referendum. A constitution that now includes enough amendments to keep the majority of Morales’ opponents content for the time being. It has also given it the necessary nationwide legitimacy that makes it likely to pass when it’s put to a referendum early next year.

George Molina was at pains to point out that Morales had emerged from these agreements with his power consolidated , whilst the power of Santa Cruz had been severely constrained. Santa Cruz’s power has traditionally stemmed from its economic power ( i.e. it’s ownership of the wealthy soya- exporting lands of the East) and its ability to transfer this economic leverage into political power through an increased presence on the national political stage and in its move towards greater regional autonomy. However for a number of reasons these foundations seem to be slowly crumbling:

  1. National Politics: the national political stage has been transformed under Morales’ presidency with the old Santa Cruz elite having been usurped by a Morales elite that has consolidated itself after this summers’ national recall referendum.

  2. Santa Cruz Economy: The Cruceño economy is perhaps not as strong as it once was. Commodity prices, on which it heavily depends, haven fallen through the floor. Vast tracts of arable land are no longer the most country’s most important asset – there will a transfer of economic power to those actors in the economy who can process the country’s resources, i.e. those who can produce value-added goods.

  3. Demographics: Santa Cruz is no longer predominantly made up of the white European decedents, who in their day were able to create a unique Cruceño identity – migration to the region from across Bolivia has meant that it is taking on other characteristics that are…more Bolivian.

  4. Did Not Create a Viable National Politics: Whilst Santa Cruz was on the ascendency it showed little in its politics that it could become the vessel of change that Bolivia so badly needs. It did little to diversify its economy from primary resources and next to nothing in cooperating with neighboring countries. Instead it promoted a politics that retained the status quo and essentially the privilege of the few over the masses.

  5. Natural Gas Capital has moved to Tarija: Unlike Santa Cruz, Tarija has no history of separatist ambitions and looks unlikely to spear-head a new regional hegemony.

As far as George Molina is concerned the above arguments point towards a situation in Bolivia where regional politics no longer plays the same divisive role as it has done in the past and with so much intensity during Morales’ presidency until now.

Of course that is not to say that this will mark an end to all regional disputes. Indeed it is now up to Morales and his grand goals of moving the Bolivian economy beyond commodity-led growth; towards an economy that creates industrialists and deep linkages within the economy and between regions. Only if this is achieved will regionalist movements, like the ones in Santa Cruz, cease to have the influence that they have had for the last many decades.


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