Bolivia Spirals Toward Crisis

Bolivia is in crisis. During the last month the lowland provincial leaders and their followers carried out a series of marches, protests, and violent takeovers of government offices protesting the Morales government's position on the distribution of gas revenues (IDH) and the issue of previously agreed-upon departmental autonomies. So far there are 17 dead, one prefect has been arrested, a partial state of siege has been declared, and the lowland city of Santa Cruz was surrounded by 10,000 to 12,000 armed and angry MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) supporters.

Government officials, church leaders, representatives of social movements, and prefects are in a series of meetings trying to come to an agreement before Santa Cruz becomes the stage for another ugly confrontation. Evo Morales was in New York at the UN meeting lobbying for support for his government and rubbing shoulders with his allies, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Evo has said that if the opposition prefects do not sign a document agreeing to the proposed constitution, he will not take responsibility for what might happen in Bolivia. As we say in Bolivia, aquĆ­ estamos -- here we are.

The overriding issues are the distribution of gas revenues, the issue of departmental autonomy, and the new constitution proposed by MAS. Evo Morales' major accomplishment has been the nationalization of the natural gas sector. As Chavez before him, Evo wants to control the revenues of the newly nationalized companies. One of the problems that has ignited the recent crisis is the distribution of gas revenues. The original distributions were based on percentages agreed upon by consensus between the gas-producing regions, the prefects, and the central government.

During the crisis prior to the election of Evo Morales, one of the measures taken to ensure a more responsive local government was the election of regional prefects. During the same elections that brought Evo into power, six of the nine regions voted for prefects from opposition parties. Most of the gas-producing regions continue to have opposition prefects. Earlier this year, Evo Morales changed the distributions by decree. The government justified this change saying that it was needed for a new old-age pension -- Bono Dignidad. However, this departmental budget cut has left numerous projects in midstream. By doing this, the Morales government wanted the vote of the aging Bolivians and to make problems for the opposition prefects with their regional constituents.