Things have reached a new climate in Bolivia from where extremist factions are on the rise. On the one side a group called the ‘Ponchos Rojos’ seeking Indian insurrection, were recently seen on TV decapitating the heads of dogs as warning to the opposition. To the other, rekindled Fascists, using Nazi symbolism, have begun firing arms at manifestations. As steps towards a newly-thought indigenous constitution are realized, up to what point will talk of ‘imminent civil war’ come to, as the country divides even further?
Evo Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, says that the changes in the country’s constitution will redress centuries of discrimination by a political class dominated by a European-descended elite. Proposals there range from rechristening Bolivia with an indigenous name, Qollasuyo, to that of land reform and allowing Morales consecutive presidential terms.
The country is at an unstable situation, in which poor and well-organized sectors of society have managed to take control of the government, but have not actually taken control of power. The power, as such, still resides with the government’s main political enemies based in Santa Cruz, Sucre and Cochabamba, the country’s economical bastions.
The leaders of opposition say they want greater autonomy from the capitol La Paz. Some, a radical minority, want full independence. They complain that they generate Bolivia's wealth and do not see why they should subsidize the poor in the mountains. Many wealthy landowners also oppose government measures to redistribute land to peasant farmers and limit the size of properties.
The story is of a disillusioned people who, with the great responsibility of constructing Bolivia for the new century, remain divided, in conflict, without a firm ideology of unity and of constructing a more just social order. As such the youth and the poor become the ‘cannon fodder’ for extremists capitalizing on the disarray.
One such group is the Falange Socialista Boliviana, a far right movement founded in the late thirties, whose voice, though silenced for the past thirty years, now regathers emphasis. Their talk of arms and radical change is seen by some in the East and South as the only firm solution. Curiously they are seen bearing Nazi symbols which leads one to think their rhetoric is openly racist.
Strongly affiliated are the ‘juventudes cruceñas’, young demonstrators from Santa Cruz said to now be arming themselves under slogans of “defending the patria”. They have already attacked shop keepers and vandilised in and around districts where there are MAS supporters (Movement Toward Socialism – Evo Morales’ party).
A counterpart on the left is the Ponchos Rojos, indigenous activists from the high plains who recently slit the throats of two dogs before television cameras shouting the names of the two leading opposition leaders, Branko Marinkovic and Rubén Costas. An Ayamara ancestral organization, composed of men over 50, it assures 100,000 members in their files. It has also converted itself in one of Morales’ main strike forces. Their leader Ruperto Quispe now threatens to take the lands of Santa Cruz “immediately” if the Constitution fails. They are also allied to hardened miners loyal to Morales, who explode small dynamite charges occasionally to intimidate any potential anti-assembly protesters.
All of the pieces seem to be in place for a civil war – a general climate of discontent and resentment after a long history of colonial oppression; a concentrated campaign aimed at stirring up fear, hatred, and racial/ethnic and regional divisions; the aggressive use of the media in promulgating violent conflict; the near-total silence of international observers regarding these same trends. Bolivia has always been an unstable pocket within the southern continent. But the intensity of the present cloud of instability could bring it closer than ever to a full eruption.