|Written by Alexander van Schaick and David Bluestone. Photographs by David Bluestone|
|Thursday, 08 May 2008|
On Sunday, May 4, 2008 Bolivia’s Department (state) of Santa Cruz held a referendum over a set of Autonomy Statutes that, if enforced, would increase power for the department’s Prefect (governor) at the expense of the central government. The months leading up to the vote were replete with controversy.
Ruben Costas, Santa Cruz’s Prefect (governor), Branco Marinkovic, President of the Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee (a powerful, right-wing business and civil association), and the Departmental Electoral Court continued with the Autonomy Referendum, despite the fact that the vote was declared illegal by Bolivia’s President Evo Morales and the National Electoral Court. For more detailed news coverage on the vote, click here.
In the city of Santa Cruz, early polling showed that the Autonomy Statutes enjoyed widespread support from most sectors of society, especially amongst the upper and middle classes. However, these numbers were skewed by the fact President Morales and other government officials of the leftist Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party urged their supporters, largely residents of the department and city’s poorer neighborhoods, to abstain from voting.
On the morning of the Fourth, while the vast majority of people in the capital city of Santa Cruz cast their votes peacefully, some areas in the department became battlegrounds between anti- and pro-referendum partisans as soon as the polls opened. Plan Tres Mil, often referred to simply as "the Plan," is one of the city’s most impoverished migrant neighborhoods and a center of support for Morales. On the day of the vote, it was also the scene of daylong confrontations that ultimately claimed the life of one protestor and left countless others injured.
The following interviews and observations aim to illustrate the great diversity of opinions across Santa Cruz city concerning the May 4 referendum on Departmental Autonomy. All interviews were conducted on May 4 in the streets and at polling stations in the neighborhoods of Plan Tres Mil, Pueblo Nuevo, Villa Rosario, Barrio Urbari, Alto San Pedro, and Villa Ortuño. These interviews do not aim to be statistically reflective of the support or lack of support for the Referendum but rather attempt to give voice to those social actors rarely heard from Santa Cruz.
7:30 am – The Rotunda, Plan Tres Mil
Early Sunday, large groups of anti-referendum MAS supporters convened at the Rotunda, a grassy knoll at the intersection of the Plan Tres Mil’s four main commercial streets. Days earlier, leaders of many of the Plan’s social organizations aligned with MAS announced that they would not allow voting to take place in their communities. By 7:30am, these MAS supporters had already begun to burn ballot boxes from polling stations where residents rejected the Referendum.
Isidro Orellana, a small shop owner we met selling his wares in the market facing the Rotunda, explained his and his compatriots’ apprehension and anger over the Referendum. Mr. Orellana drew a sharp distinction between the concept of Autonomy and the Autonomy Statutes:
Bolivian people’s Autonomy already exists in the Constituent Assembly and in the nation. But this Statute didn’t come from the Bolivian people. This statute was made by this handful of Kararankus (swindlers) that have taken advantage of the nation. Furthermore, none of the outlying provinces in Santa Cruz have participated. So, amongst themselves the swindlers constructed this statute for their own benefit.
For example, how is it possible that the prefect and these oligarchs defend [Ronald Larsen,] a foreigner who has 54,000 hectares of land and his farmhands don’t even have one square meter of terrain? So, they defend one and other, these loaded money-mongers, the rich, defend one and other.
When the protestors in the Rotunda exhausted their supply of ballot boxes, the group’s leaders declared that it was time that they make good on their proclamation to stop all voting throughout the Plan. A group of 50 protestors proceeded to march to a polling precinct located in nearby Claudina Teventh High School, the Plan’s largest high school.
As the group from the Rotunda arrived, they faced off with a smaller number of young men guarding the polling station. Those guarding the polling precinct retreated as both sides launched barrages of rocks at each other. The Rotunda protestors then approached the precinct and attempted to break down the door by using a battering ram symbolically draped with a Bolivian flag.
In the middle of their assault, the Rotunda protestors were suddenly ambushed by a larger, reinforced group of pro-autonomy supporters armed with sticks, machetes, and baseball bats, and forced to withdraw.
In the retreat, one of the autonomy supporters felled a fleeing MAS supporter, Edwin Vargas, with a rock. As he was lying prone and partially unconscious on the ground, a woman rushed towards him and began to drag him towards her store. As she was helping him to his feet, the crowd of autonomy partisans surrounded them both and began to beat Vargas with their fists and two-by-fours. Remarkably, amid the struggle, the woman and her family were able to push him inside their store and separate him from his attackers by closing and locking their storefront’s metal grate. Angry and unsatisfied, the crowd then turned their ire toward the woman, accusing her of being a MAS supporter. She responded, "I’m a cruceña (from Santa Cruz), but you can’t kill this man." After beating on the grate and arguing for several minutes, the crowd finally dispersed.
To start, I don’t know anything…but sometimes I think that autonomy is only for "those who have." And for the poor that are helping them, the rich are not even going to give them a job. They are not going to give a job to anyone. I don’t understand what I read about the problems with autonomy, not with the "Yes" any more than with the "No."
Mrs. Vasquez’s oldest daughter, Viviana Balsán, supports autonomy and was angered by the provocative tactics of the MAS supporters.
We don’t want there to be confrontations. We want a clean vote, especially because Santa Cruz is not an aggressive department; Santa Cruz is healthy, free and independent. Because of that we helped [the anti-referendum protestor] who was here, and calmed everyone down a little, especially the youths.
Shortly after confrontation, a truck carrying ten members of the Santa Cruz Youth League (Union Juvenil Crucenista) pulled up at the polls to join the neighborhood youths defending the precinct. Wearing expensive sunglasses and sleeveless shirts that showed off their large, gym-made muscles, the new arrivals clearly came from more prosperous areas of Santa Cruz.
Their presence was not unexpected; leaders of the Santa Cruz Youth League publicly declared, with the blessing of the Prefect, that they would patrol voting booths throughout the city. Their proclamation was met with scorn from Santa Cruz’s social movement organizations – the Youth League has a history of aggression against MAS supporters and indigenous migrants. Many MAS supporters stated openly that they armed themselves with sticks and stones on May 4 primarily due to their fear that these Youth League patrols would attempt to violently break up their protest at the Rotunda.
9:30am – Claudina Teventh High School Polling Precinct, Plan Tres Mil
A child poses with his home-made weapons and boasts "This is how we will take down Evo."
Inside the high school, voting resumed at a brisk pace. The overwhelming vocal support for the Autonomy Statutes was surprising considering that in the 2005 General Elections, community members voting at these same polls supported Evo Morales' presidential bid with a strong majority.
Marco Antonio Rivera, a professional salesman and a former MAS party member, explained to us why he shifted his political allegiance:
Since the President first assumed his Presidency, [the people of Plan Tres Mil] have been provoking one another here and there. Now, there are always protests. The protestors never start with dialogue and always end their "dialogue" in this way.
I voted for MAS. I was one of the first that helped Evo at the beginning, but, with all that he has done, many people regret having voted for him.
All of the tension and abuses created by the government over the voting for "Yes" and for "No", have caused many people, including me, to vote for the "Yes" now: First out of rage, and secondly for love of this country. Autonomy is the beginning of a change that will grant equality to everyone.
Mr. Rivera's testimony illustrates the disappointment that many of Plan Tres Mil’s residents feel about the conflictive state of affairs in the neighborhood since President Morales' was elected in 2005.
By the time the polls closed on May 4, 81 percent of voters at Claudina Teventh voted in favor of the Autonomy referendum, according to the Departmental Electoral Court. However, the fact that less than half of registered voters in the polling station’s rolls chose to participate indicates that MAS’ boycott was also effective and that the political map of this area of the Plan remains unclear.
Back on the street, some 40 autonomy supporters armed with sticks and stones stationed themselves at either side of the polling station’s entrance. A majority of the young men were inebriated. For the community members who actively participated in the morning’s conflict with the MAS supporters, a "Yes" vote for the Autonomy Referendum is a direct rejection of the President himself.
The group frequently used the term ‘kolla,’ often paired with other profanities, to describe the President. Kolla refers to an ethnically Aymara or Quechua person and although it is sometimes used in a neutral, descriptive sense, in Santa Cruz it is often used in a derogatory manner. In Santa Cruz, the discussion of the racial, ethnic and class divide often pits ‘kollas’ against ‘cambas.’ ‘Camba’ is also a word with a mobile definition; it can refer to all people from Santa Cruz, but is often used to refer to the lighter skinned elites.
Local autonomy supporters armed with machetes, sticks and rocks give chase as anti-autonomy protestors retreat from a confrontation outside of a polling precinct in Plan 3000.
Using a string of racial epithets, a local resident from the group of autonomy supporters drunkenly voiced his antagonism towards Morales' Aymara race and his resentment of what he perceives as a bias against the lowland Departments in favor of Bolivia’s highlands:
Evo is a f*cking Indian. Our President is a f*cking drunk that doesn’t know anything… He is a racist Indian that doesn’t care about Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando. This Indian only thinks about Oruro, Potosi and La Paz, and nothing more.
Given such hate, it is unclear if the rivaling groups in Plan Tres Mil will ever be able to peacefully co-exist again. When asked about whether there ever will be a relationship between pro-autonomy and MAS supporters, Robert, one of the original defenders of the high school, offered the following analysis of the situation:
You could say that we already have a relationship with them. We support these Kollas by buying their goods and in repayment they do whatever they want to us. But, they aren’t men, they aren’t gentlemen, because without fail the next morning there they’ll be, sitting at their stands, selling their products to you, selling them to you, and selling them to you. And we are the ones that are always going to buy from them… It’s as if I pay you so that you can treat me like a son of a bitch. The question is what happens if I hit you back?
10:30am – The Rotunda, Plan Tres Mil
Back at the anti-referendum rally, the protest’s leaders were undeterred and announced that, as soon as more protesters arrived, they would again take to the streets in order to shut down more polling places in the Plan. During the wait, we were approached by "El Cholo," a veteran activist who came to Plan Tres Mil as a representative of the Executive Commission of the city of El Alto’s the federation of neighborhood councils, FEJUVE. In recent years, El Alto’s FEJUVE has been one of the principal actors in Bolivian social movements’ struggle against globalization. El Cholo decided to come aid the people in the Plan’s fight against the Santa Cruz elite’s imposition of the autonomy statutes.
I believe in equality of classes, without oppressors or oppressed, without exploiters or exploited, nor rich people nor poor people. .
In Santa Cruz this is not the case. There are not even four people, Klinsky, Dabdoub, and Costas that wrote the Statutes.
Pablo Klinsky is a conservative Parliamentary Legislator and one of the principal authors of the Autonomy Statues. Carlos Dabdoub is a high level official in the Prefect’s office and formerly the leader of Nación Camba, a separatist political group with strong racist and fascist tendencies. Ruben Costas is the Prefect of Santa Cruz and former President of the Civic Committee.
The people should elect the assemblymen in order that they write a statute for us. I would like to talk with the residents in Plan Tres Mil to see if they know at least one article [of the statues]. No! Yet [the elites] come to flier "Vote for Yes" as if we were a congressman who simply raises his hand. It can’t be like that. The time when they just utilized us for the vote is finished. Now it’s more participatory. Now people want to know why they are voting, no?
Look. Autonomy means to make one’s own norms. It’s beneficial. This is a rich country. All the departments are rich. There can be sustainable autonomy. But, what happened? It has to be an autonomy statute with a base in the constitution and the legal codes. But right now the constitution doesn’t indicate anything; it doesn’t say anything about autonomy statutes. That’s the difference.
11:00am – Pueblo Nuevo
After a forty-five minute drive south of the Rotunda, we arrived in Pueblo Nuevo [New Town], a neighborhood that has a majority Guaraní population. The Guarani are Bolivia’s third largest indigenous population, many of whom have migrated to the city from the Bolivian southeast Chaco territory. At the very periphery of the city of Santa Cruz’s urban sprawl, Pueblo Nuevo looks more like a small rural farming community than part of a major city.
On May 4, Pueblo Nuevo’s only school served as the main polling station for a number of similarly poor and marginalized communities in the surrounding area. The high school’s cracked windows, barren schoolyard and dilapidated structure highlight government’s neglect of this community.
Unlike the Plan, Pueblo Nuevo’s polling station experienced no conflicts. The director of the polling precinct believed that partially this was due to a very low voter turnout in comparison to Bolivia’s most recent General Elections. Marilín Carayuri, a resident and active member of the local Guarani community organization, explained to us that lack of participation was in part due to the fact that the national Assembly of Guaraní Peoples urged its member-communities to boycott the Referendum. She also explained how very few Guaraní people see common cause with the Autonomy statutes:
We, as an indigenous people, have always been autonomous. Here the karai [whites]are co-opting this idea that we have always fought for as an indigenous people. We already fought for indigenous autonomy to be brought forth in the Constituent Assembly and included within the new Constitution.
That’s why we aren’t in favor [of the Autonomy Statutes]. I am speaking not only for myself but also for a majority of Guaraní brothers and sisters who are not in agreement and will not show up at the polls. Should Guaraníes choose to show up to vote, it is simply customary and due to the fact that, for them, exercising their right to vote is an affirmation of being a Bolivian citizen.
Additional interviews with community members confirmed Marilín’s assertions. We spoke with Máximo, a Guaraní man who was standing outside the high school in order to take a look at the voting:
Well, I don’t know if I’ll actually vote. We’ll see… Right now, I look at autonomy and I don’t know. We’re from the countryside. By and large those that have money need this autonomy but it doesn’t do anything for us. That’s why we aren’t supporting it.
When we asked another older Guaraní man about what he thought about the Autonomy Statutes, he was frank about his lack of understanding:
We from the countryside, the Guaraní, (pause) I can’t say because we don’t know what today’s vote is about. And so, I can’t say if it’s good or just. I just came here (pause) to vote, nothing more. We don’t know how or which. We (pause) don’t study much. So we don’t know which statute, or what this word [statute] means. (pause) We Bolivians always have to support what there is, no? And so I voted yes, nothing more.
Magdalena, a resident of Pueblo Nuevo, represents the political and social impact that migration has on Santa Cruz.
Magdalena, a native of the Department of Tarija, spoke to us about her lack of hope that any political change would improve her life and why she felt obliged to vote in favor of the statutes.
Her thoughts about autonomy center around hope for unity:
The reason, above all, is you need to realize that one lives in land that is camba [of Santa Cruz], you were born on land that is camba, even if you came from a different place. In the end, you have to realize, one doesn’t live from the government, one doesn’t live from the Prefect – we live from our work. And what a bad scene, fighting we don’t win anything. The government is fighting with leaders from all over.
[I support the Prefect] because my children were born here. Although I’m from Tarija and my husband is Guaraní, they are cambas. What a scene! Is Evo going to give me something to eat? No way! In the end, one has to know how they are going to live.
However, she has few illusions about either side.
Ultimately, I must tell you that, for me, the truth is that the two are almost the same. First, the government, for its part, works well, but there are things that they fail with as well. They make mistakes, provoke. However, I do not like the Prefect’s office either. The Prefect’s office, for its part, conducts itself well but they are all businessmen. What do we gain? We work for them, we have to support them, and, if not, "bye, kiddo" and they won't give us work. So, what will we do?
My daughter works as a municipal guard for the Prefect’s office. Yet, she is in favor of Evo, but she should be in favor of the Prefect. She did not want to vote. Yesterday, before she left the house she told me: "Please, vote ‘No.’" "But, I am with the other side," I told her. She tried to reason with me until the afternoon. What can we do?
4:30pm – Engineer’s Society Polling Precinct, Barrio Urbari
The scene is tranquil as children play in front of beautiful Barrio Urbari's Society of Engineers polling station while waiting for their parents to cast their votes.
On the other side of the city, in a wealthy neighborhood called Barrio Urbari, the scene at the polling station was dramatically different. Kids rode bikes and child-size off-road four wheelers up and down the neighborhood’s well-paved roads outside the precinct while their parents cast their votes. Others were keeping out of the sun, drinking orange juice provided by traditionally-dressed market women, and chatting with friends in the shade large flowering trees.
After being received warmly by one of these groups, we chatted with Martin Crespo, a financial auditor for a large multinational corporation, who openly shared with us what he believed to be advantages of departmental autonomy:
I think that Autonomy is going to create development in the region. The regions can manage their own economy and every region is going to administrate the revenue that it generates. That will create economic development and a better distribution of wealth between all the region’s inhabitants.
Everyone has to understand – even those who are pro-autonomy – that the autonomy process is slow;
Martin Crespo reflects on the economic benefits that the Autonomy Statutes have the potential to bring inhabitants of Santa Cruz while standing outside of Barrio Urbari's Society of Engineers polling station.
.5:00pm – Polling Precinct, Alto San Pedro
The final stop of our precinct tours was Monsignor Luis Rodriguez High School, a polling precinct in the neighborhood of Alto San Pedro. Most of Alto San Pedro’s residents are salaried employees, small business-owners, and mid-level professionals who make up the city’s middle class.
Immediately upon entering the precinct, we were swarmed by a group of poll workers and voters eager to give their opinions on Autonomy and the Statutes. Umberto Rioja, the director of the polling precinct and two-time President of Alto San Pedro’s neighborhood council, expressed his support for the Autonomy Statutes because he rejected what he perceived to be Bolivia’s overly centralized State:
Honestly, I’ll tell you that we are in this process, this is what we want. To be a people with autonomy is much better, because we have a grave problem with centralism. For example, I worked with lawyers for 27 years. Everything, birth certificates, marriage certificates, everything comes from La Paz. What we want is less bureaucracy.
This polling precinct provided the additional intrigue of the fact that in the Presidential elections of 2005, the community members who voted in this precinct were split virtually in half over their support for Morales and his conservative opponent. When asked whether there has been a shift in political allegiances since the 2005 Elections, Mr. Rioja emphatically stated his case:
I’ll tell you, you know that in the 2005 elections MAS won in this district won by a lot? I hope you will see the vote today. And that you see and that the court knows that in district UV 50-4 that you are going to see a change in the vote in this neighborhood.
No place is safe from the conflicing opinions of this referendum as people graffitti over a pro-autonomy sign.
As more community members entered into the discussion, the emotional temperature of the group rose to blistering levels. One of the community members, Juan Carlos Ranea Molina spoke about what he felt was the unjust persecution of Santa Cruz by President Morales:
Evo Morales entered [the presidency] with a thirst for vengeance. He says that we [Santa Cruz residents] are the racists, however he is racist. He talks about 500 years ago [when Spanish colonists arrived]. We, from the department of Santa Cruz, don’t have anything to do with their last 500 years. It’s not our fault that some people were done wrong and have suffered. Nor is it our fault that we were born in blessed, fertile land and that they were born amid rocks, right? Nor are we racists however he attacks Santa Cruz all the time. So, he has this hate against us people from Santa Cruz.
It’s not our fault that in Santa Cruz there are a lot of good looking people. In other words, it’s not our fault that we have faces of people and they have faces of llamas. I’m sorry to speak this way. But it’s not our fault.
A very animated woman set off on another unprompted diatribe against President Morales:
Evo Morales unfortunately has mud for brains. I’ll tell you honestly, its not that you’re a bad person if you are poor or without an education or whatever. But he rose to power and said "God gave me this." Well, he’s a communist or I don’t know what but he doesn’t believe in god, he believes in Pachamama [mother earth in Andean cosmology], he believes in mud, he believes in chicha [a fermented corn beverage integral to Quechua customs] that they pour or however it goes. Well, that’s their custom like we have our customs. But, I’ll tell you honestly, never was there this racism, like there is now. Thanks to this president we are how we are, looking at each other, Bolivian killing Bolivian.
In contrast, when the conversation steered towards Santa Cruz’s regional elites, the community members spoke in glowing terms. The woman continued:
It’s us [the residents of Santa Cruz] that are the mainstay of Bolivia, and look what he is doing to the businesspeople. It’s not two, three or four families. He has Branco [Marinkovic] in his sights, this man with a vision for the future. It’s not his [Marinkovic’s] responsibility to give jobs to thousands. Ruben Costas isn’t to blame for being a visionary from his roots. Like in my case, it’s not my fault my father and mother taught me to work. It’s not our fault that our air is purer here. Listen, and they were born between rocks. And all of these people [from the highlands] have come here. You, wherever you go you see a kolla [Indigenous person]. But they aren’t going to destroy us and our land. That we will not allow.
After twenty-five minutes, we politely ended the discussion and turned to leave the group when another woman told us that it was very important for us to report what had been said. Her friend then added, "Yes, that Bolivians aren’t all Indians. Some of us here think." The first woman nervously corrected her, "Now, remember, Indians are people too."
The Results of the Referendum Vote
As the Department of Santa Cruz’s polls closed Sunday, the vote clarified little; both the anti- and pro-autonomy supporters claimed victory. Preliminary results showed that voters who participated in the referendum overwhelmingly approved it with 85.7 percent of ballots cast for "Yes" throughout the department. Shortly after these results were released, thousands of pro-autonomy supporters flooded into the capital city’s central plaza and celebrated their victory with zeal.
However, while the autonomy supporters celebrated their victory, the legitimacy of those results has been called into question due to reports of irregularities and electoral fraud in at least 15 regions. Specifically, there are reports that some ballot boxes in the cities of Cuatro Cañadas, San Julián, Yapacani and in Plan Tres Mil were stuffed with ballots already marked "Yes" when they arrived at their precincts. In addition, it is widely agreed that Sunday’s vote sustained very high levels of abstention. The national government cites independent polls which state that somewhere in between 39 and 45 percent of registered voters in Santa Cruz abstained from voting. In contrast, Santa Cruz’s largest privately-owned newspaper, El Deber, reported that their exit polls indicated a 25.5 percent abstention rate.
Along with reports of violence in the provincial towns of Montero, Yapacaní and San Julián, the neighborhood Plan Tres Mil became a dangerous conflict zone as MAS supporters and the Santa Cruz Youth League engaged in countless confrontations throughout the entire day. Sadly, in addition to numerous injuries, these violent conflicts claimed the life of a 69 year old man who was killed as the national police shot tear gas into the melee to disburse the crowd.
Ultimately, the final statistics on abstention may very well provide the most definitive gauge on the situation. If official statistics are released that show the aggregate number of those who abstained, combined with the "No" votes, "Null" votes, and "Blank" votes, approaching 50 percent of the total registered electorate, then the legitimacy of the Referendum will be seriously called into question.
While the success and significance of the election remain under debate, our experience during Sunday’s Referendum exposed interesting themes as well as deep tensions in Santa Cruz.
In most of the neighborhoods we stopped in, people expressed a strong connection to Santa Cruz in different ways. In the Plan, supporters of MAS chanted "¡Viva Santa Cruz!" [Long Live Santa Cruz!] as they walked from the Rotunda to find ballot boxes to burn. For Magdalena, an apolitical migrant from Tarija, living and raising her children in Santa Cruz were two strong reasons she felt obliged to vote "Yes." For the middle-class residents of Alto San Pedro, their Santa Cruz is threatened by the influx of indigenous migrants from the highlands.
Feelings of exclusion ran throughout almost all of our testimonies. Many people told us that they voiced their opposition to the Autonomy Statutes because they felt that the statutes were written behind closed doors and only served the rich. Supporters of the statutes overwhelmingly thought that Evo Morales neglected them, left them out, or even hated them.
Interestingly, only vocal supporters of the "Yes" vote made race the central focus of their discourse. Many of the youths who defended their neighborhood polling station in the Plan 3000 and the voters in Alto San Pedro told us that President Morales’ actions were only to benefit those of his race. They frequently declared – often in a starkly contradictory and defensive terms – that they were not racist, but rather that Morales was racist against people from Santa Cruz, or non-Indians. Although some of the Guaraníes we interviewed highlighted race as well, not a single resident of the Plan 3000 – most of whom were migrants of Quechua or Aymara descent – mentioned race or racism in their critiques of the Autonomy Statutes. Rather, they framed their responses in terms of class.
Finally, our discussions left us with a strong impression that Bolivia’s "process of change" has brought to the surface deep divisions in Santa Cruz. These rifts not only divide the rich and the poor, but as demonstrated on May 4, divide poor migrant barrios themselves.
Alexander van Schaick is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Bolivia. Until recently, he was also was an organizer for the IWW in New York City. He can be reached at J.A.vanschaick(at)gmail.com
David Bluestone is currently conducting investigative research on urban Guaraní populations as a Fulbright Scholar in Bolivia and Researcher with the University for Strategic Research of Bolivia (U-PIEB). He can be reached at DBluest(at)gmail.com