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Crisis in Bolivia

SEPTEMBER 15, 2008 – Thursday Sept. 11, at least 30 people – supporters of president Evo Morales – were killed in the northern department of Pando, victims of right-wing inspired violence. “We were unarmed” said one survivor of the 1,000-strong peasant march which was the target of the attack. “They stopped us some seven kilometers before Porvenir and afterwards they attacked us when we reached the bridge, where they ambushed us and began to shoot with automatic machine-guns.” The massacre was “executed by civilian groups who’d received weapons training by the government of Leopoldo Fernández.”[1]

Fernández is one of a group of provincial politicians opposed to the Morales’ government. They have been campaigning for “autonomy” in a thinly veiled campaign to push back the indigenous communities who support Morales, and to keep the landed estates, oil and especially natural gas in the hands of a rich elite.

The province of Pando did vote for “autonomy” in the recent referendum – but also, by a margin of 52.5% to 47.5%, voted approval of the Morales’ presidency.[2] Having failed to decisively defeat Morales at the polls, supporters of Fernández have turned to violence.

By Saturday, the Bolivian armed forces had pushed aside the separatist forces in Cobija, capital of Pando Department, and Fernández had fled apparently to Brazil. But the situation remains extremely tense.

September 14, US ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, was expelled from the country by Morales. Goldberg has long been suspected of aiding the separatist forces in the country[3] – given his previous role as envoy to the Balkans (he “came to Bolivia straight from Kosovo, which has fed speculation that the US has a secessionist agenda.”[4]). In solidarity, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez also expelled his country’s US ambassador, with the US expelling both its Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors.

September 15, Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile, convened an emergency meeting of UNASUL-UNASUR – the new confederation of South American nations – to see if a way could be found to defuse the situation. But at the heart of UNASUL-UNASUR is the emerging power of Brazil, whose president, Lula Inácio Lula da Silva “has faced some domestic political criticism for not immediately defending Bolivia’s territorial integrity more strongly.”[5] This shows again the contradictions of UNASUL-UNASUR. Like its more radical counterpart ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), it aspires to unite the countries of Latin America. Unlike ALBA, it is doing this not on the basis of solidarity first but of trade first. It remains to be seen whether this trade-centred body can act as an “honest broker” in the Bolivian crisis.

Morales remains determined to press ahead with his December 7 referendum on a new constitution – a constitution that has at its core, increasing the power of the government to enforce redistribution of the land from the rich landowners to impoverished peasants. But while Morales is playing by the electoral rules, it is increasingly clear that the rich and their foreign backers have no such scruples, and will stoop to any means to destabilize the country.

Now more than ever, it is the responsibility of those in the Global North, to build solidarity with the processes of change in Bolivia, and to expose and condemn the actions of the right-wing and their business allies.

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

Publishing History

This article was published as Crisis in Bolivia,” Bolivia Rising, 16 September.


[1] Luigino Bracci Roa, “Bolivia: the Massacre in Porvenir,” Tlaxcala – The Translator’s Network for Linguistic Diversity, Sept. 14, 2008,
[2] Corte Nacional Electoral, República de Bolivia, “Referendum Revocatorio 2008,”
[3] AFP, “Talks aim to end Bolivia unrest,” Sept. 15, 2008
[4] Conor Foley, “Will diplomacy work in Bolivia?”, Sept. 15, 2008
[5] Foley, “Will diplomacy work in Bolivia?”

Published in Blog