Bolivia: A Referendum and the Threat of Military Force
Stratfor TodayMay 05, 2008SummaryBolivia's Santa Cruz department passed a referendum May 4 that grants it the fundamental tools of independent statehood. The move leaves it up to Bolivian President Evo Morales to call the province's bluff and decide whether to use military force to ensure Bolivia's unity. If Morales decides to use force against the secessionist regions, he will risk destabilizing the country and may prompt neighboring countries to intervene.AnalysisThe Bolivian department of Santa Cruz passed a declaration of autonomy by popular referendum May 4, with 85 percent of voters in support of the measure. Three other departments — Pando, Beni and Tarija — are expected to hold their own referendums in June. Designed to give Santa Cruz autonomy from the central government — and the policies of President Evo Morales, in particular — the referendum grants Santa Cruz the ability to sign treaties with foreign nations, form parliament, create a local police force and decide all matters related to land distribution.
The referendum puts Santa Cruz in a position to remake itself into an independent state. In doing so, Santa Cruz has put Morales' government in the position of having to seriously face the possibility of using military force to maintain the integrity of Bolivia's borders. Morales maintains the loyalty of the military — as well as a majority of the country — and any real movement toward independence from the lowlands will put those departments in increasing risk of military confrontation. With Bolivia's stability on the line, the country's neighbors face increasing pressure to intervene in order to ensure, at a minimum, that Bolivia's energy exports are not disrupted.The four opposition departments have been in negotiations since August 2006 over a new constitution being pushed by Morales that would strengthen the political powers of the central government with the goal of equalizing the distribution of income from oil and natural gas resources found mostly in the lowlands. Morales also plans significant redistribution of landholdings to indigenous populations. The Morales plan to redistribute wealth in the country to alleviate the poverty affecting the indigenous populations of the highlands would disrupt the basic fabric of Santa Cruz's economy.The referendum is the culmination of a long series of moves by the secessionist departments that have included outright declarations of independence. The referendum was specifically outlawed by the Bolivian National Congress, which effectively gives Morales legal justification for blocking the independence move as he sees fit.By far the largest department, Santa Cruz is home to about 26 percent of the Bolivian population and 10 percent of the country's natural gas and oil resources and is the seat of power of the lowland opposition movement that seeks autonomy from the Bolivian central government. The department is held under tight oligarchic control, with some 60 percent of the land held by only a handful of families. With an export-oriented economy that is home to 90 percent of Bolivia's industrial capacity, Santa Cruz alone generates about 50 percent of Bolivia's GDP.
The remaining secessionist regions make up less than 10 percent of Bolivia's population and carry very little weight on their own, although they are home to a disproportionate percentage of natural resources. Tarija department has 85 percent of the country's energy reserves.If Santa Cruz and its fellow secessionist departments are able to build up a sufficient institutional foundation to effectively maintain independence, they may be able to stand up to the central government, using their significant resources as leverage. However, even if Santa Cruz cannot take the other regions with it, the department is economically viable as an independent agent. Without it, La Paz would be economically hamstrung.Morales' government is by no means out of options for keeping Santa Cruz in line, however. Economically, the government has been steadily increasing its hold over the industry since Morales came to power. This includes recent measures by the government to finalize control over Transredes, the company controlling pipeline connections throughout the lowlands. The government has also established legal control — with a show of military force — over Bolivia's two largest natural gas fields, located in Tarija. Economic levers are limited, however; lowlanders are the source of most technological know-how and ability to invest in maintaining and developing infrastructure.The fundamental trump card to Bolivian secessionist movements is the military, which so far has stayed out of the conflict between the factions. There are no indications that the loyalty of the military has faltered, but it remains to be seen how far Morales is willing to go in opposing independence. Although the Bolivian military is not a huge force on its own, it certainly has the ability to rein in domestic unrest.The only real hope for the secessionists in a military conflict is the influence of outside actors.As tensions rise in Bolivia, explosive rhetoric from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may well translate into actual action in support of the Bolivian government. Always looking for a new opportunity to exert his political influence in South America, Chavez may view an increasingly disintegrating Bolivia as a perfect opportunity to make a move.More important, if it comes to a fight in Bolivia, the potential for Brazilian intercession increases. Brazil has no interest in seeing a civil war in Bolivia that would disrupt natural gas supplies to Brazil. As it considered the need to intervene, Brazil would have to weigh its options seriously. If it supports the secessionists (the source of natural gas exports) in the short term, it risks supporting a civil war, which is bad for business. However, if by intervening in the lowland departments — which lay along Brazil's southwestern border — Brazil can impose some measure of stability, it may seek to do so.A Brazilian incursion into Bolivia would fundamentally alter the structure of the Southern Cone. Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia form an essential buffer between the two major powers of South America: Brazil and Argentina. Each maintains significant influence in the other three states and has historically struggled with one another to maintain the independence of those states.If Brazil finds itself with no choice but to intervene in the Bolivian chaos, it will be in direct conflict with Argentina's core imperatives and will fundamentally challenge the stability of the region.