Skip to content →

Bolivia: Referendums of Reaction

JUNE 2, 2008 – To understand the recent “autonomy” referendums in Bolivia, don’t count the ballots – travel to the south-central city of Sucre. Saturday, May 24 a horrific scene of racism and violence played out that exposed the reactionary nature of the forces fighting for “autonomy.”

That day, Bolivian president Evo Morales was scheduled to appear in the town to announce the delivery of some new ambulances and some government funding for local projects.

“But in the early hours of Saturday morning, organized groups opposed to Morales began to surround the stadium where he was to appear a few hours later. Confronting the police and soldiers with sticks, stones and dynamite, they managed to occupy the stadium.”[1]

It was a racist occupation. Morales cancelled his visit, but the mob wasn’t satisfied. They surrounded several dozen Morales supporters – many of them Quechua Indians – robbed them, forced them to walk several kilometres, and then “to kneel, shirtless, and apologize for coming to Sucre.”[2]

Morales is an Aymara Indian, the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s history. Bolivia’s population is two-thirds indigenous, mainly Quechua and Aymara. The people of the western highlands, who are in the main indigenous, were the key to the surprise election victory of his party, Movement to Socialism (MAS), in 2004. The racist mob which attacked his supporters in Sucre, are part of a movement rooted in the European minority of Bolivia, resentful of Morales’ attempt to redistribute wealth in the country.

Central to that redistribution is a new constitution that will allow greater access to the land for the indigenous majority. This majority has been fighting for equality for centuries. It took a revolution in 1952 to abolish a system called “pongaje” that was a kind of feudalism, in which the indigenous people had few rights, and were virtually slaves to European landowners.

This is the necessary background to the “autonomy” referendums taking place in Bolivia. May 4, the voters in Santa Cruz were said to have voted “with a majority of no less than 85 per cent” to have greater autonomy. June 1, the departments of Beni and Pando also voted for autonomy, “with a majority of nearly half a million.”[3]

But these claims are quite dubious. First, these referendums do not have legal status, and Morales’ instructions to his supporters were to refuse to participate. The “high rate of abstention in various provinces in Santa Cruz such as Camiri (42%), Puerto Suárez (31%), Montero (62%), Portachuelo (19%), San Ignacio de Velasco (17.8%), Charagua (40%) and Saipina (60%), indicate an overall abstention rate of between 40-45%, according to the Bolivian Information Agency.”[4] And as British-based Latin American expert Mike Gonzalez has pointed out, those who did vote, often did so out of fear, voting “under the watchful eye of the thugs of the UJC – the neo-fascist youth organization of Santa Cruz.”[5]

The referendums all are couched in demands for “autonomy.” These demands are accepted uncritically in most of the western media. More balanced coverage is available from Al Jazeera.

“Statutes passed in Santa Cruz and on the ballot in Beni and Pando would protect huge cattle ranches and soya plantations from expropriation under Morales’ ambitious land reform. Santa Cruz also voted to withhold a bigger share of its natural gas reserves, which Morales needs to finance his reforms, although the state has yet to enforce the rule.”[6]

The threat of withholding the natural gas reserves is now a central issue. The next referendum will take place June 21 in natural gas rich Tarija – centre of most of Bolivia’s gas reserves.

It is critically important that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has rejected the results of these “autonomy” referendums. That country’s representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), Jorge Valero, said he was certain that a majority of Bolivians rejected the results in Santa Cruz, “despite the media terrorism which aimed to persuade them of the suicidal policy of dividing their country.”[7]

The support of Venezuela will be crucial in the coming months. These referendums are not just a cover for the European elite in Bolivia – they are seen by US imperialism as a vehicle for undermining the new sovereignty movements that are challenging its hegemony everywhere in Latin America.

Respected analyst Eva Golinger has convincingly documented that two agencies notorious for undermining popular movements in Latin America – USAID and the so-called “National Endowment for Democracy” – are deeply involved in supporting the “autonomy” movement.

“In Bolivia,” she wrote last year, USAID “is openly supporting the autonomy of certain regions, such as Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, and therefore promoting separatism and the destabilization of the country and the government of Evo Morales. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), another one of Washington’s financial organs, which promotes subversion and intervention in more than 70 countries across the world, including Venezuela, is also funding groups in regions such as Santa Cruz, which fight for separatism.”[8]

We all have a stake in the desperate struggle underway in this, the poorest country in South America. It was in Bolivia in 1999, that the poor rose up and delivered a central blow against neoliberalism, when a mass movement in Cochabamba stopped the privatization of water. If the forces of neoliberalism and imperialism succeed in reversing this movement, all the people of the Americas will suffer, not just the poor and the oppressed in Bolivia.

What you can do
• In Toronto, June 11, 7pm, Toronto Bolivia Solidarity will be holding a meeting at OISE (St. George and Bloor) to discuss the attack on democracy in Bolivia. For more information,
• For more information, see and

© 2008 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.

Publishing History

This article was published as Bolivia: Referendums of Reaction,” GreenLeft Weekly, 8 June; “Bolivia: Referendums of Reaction”, Bolivia Rising, 3 June.

[1] Franz Chávez, “Bolivia: Local Indigenous Leaders Beaten and Publicly Humiliated,” Inter Press Service News Agency, May 27, 2008,
[2] Chávez, “Bolivia: Local Indigenous Leaders Beaten and Publicly Humiliated
[3] Cees Zoon, “Bolivia: mutiny in the provinces,” Radio Netherlands Worldwide, June 2, 2008
[4] Kiraz Janicke, “Venezuela Rejects Bolivian Province’s Autonomy Vote,” May 5, 2008,
[5] Mike Gonzalez, “Fight for Bolivia’s future lies behind referendum,” Socialist Worker (U.K.), May 10, 2008,
[6] “Bolivian states vote for autonomy,” All Jazeera English, June 2, 2008,
[7] Janicke, “Venezuela Rejects Bolivian Province’s Autonomy Vote
[8] Eva Golinger, “USAID in Bolivia and Venezuela: The Silent Subversion,” September 12, 2007,

Published in Blog


  1. Thanks felipe, for your comments. The Bolivian story is one of generations of heroism. It is important for people in the Global North to know that until the revolution of 1952, something like feudal serfdom dominated the lives of the indigenous people of Bolivia. This aspect of Bolivian events – the assertion of indigenous sovereignty – is extremely important.

    The big worry now is that while the right-wing opposition has no qualms about using extra-legal activities, Morales is far more "ethical" and is working within a legal, "parliamentary" framework. But that combination has led to catastrophe in the past (most notably in Chile). The big difference here is the existence of Venezuela.

    In any case — it makes it quite clear our responsibility in the Global North — to build solidarity and try to help create the space necessary for the assertion of sovereignty by the oppressed peoples of Bolivia.


  2. Hi Paul,

    This is a superb article. You manage to pack a lot of info, context, and analysis into a very readable piece.

    I have only one comment that could help to strengthen your core argument.

    I think we need to stress, as you do, the racist character of the referendum forces. They are Trojan Horses of US and European imperialism (and the reactionary sectors in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile).They feel confident that they have the support of those forces to re-impose white supremacy and apartheid. I don't think their real objective is to split Bolivia; it is to overturn the indigenous majority government. Of course if they cannot accomplish that, then creating an independent Media Luna would suit them just fine. The rest of Bolivia would then become their semi colony and a source of cheap labor for their plantations. and other gang-labor economic projects.

    But this point can be strengthened by recognizing the character of the struggle in Bolivia. It is not simply a struggle of the poor against the oligarchy and imperialism. It is a struggle to defend indigenous majority rule in a once apartheid state. The MAS victory represents the high watermark of continental indigenous struggles. It stood on the shoulders of other important battles such as the Zapatista struggle, but took the indigenous movement of Abya Yala (“the Americas”) to new heights. It is the fruit of a long and unfinished liberation struggle from the polar regions to Patagonia. Its influence is felt among indigenous activists here in Nicaragua, and I suspect it is far stronger in Peru, Chile, and Ecuador.

    So the point should be made that one of the prime aims of Washington is to kill this example of indigenous power before it sweeps forward in countries like Ecuador, Peru, and Guatemala.

    I would argue that the Bolivian revolution is a combined an uneven process involving the democratic thrust for indigenous majority rights and rule, the anti imperialist struggle of the Bolivian nation, and the logic of that – an anti capitalist movement rooted in the poor and oppressed classes, the indigenous movement, and of course the small but important organized sector of the working class.


    Phil Stuart C.

Comments are closed.