The consequences of persistent inequality are with us today. They appear to be pushing Bolivia towards civil war in slow motion. Today there was a brief flutter of news about the situation because Evo expelled the American ambassador, and the U.S. followed suit, but in general you've got media silence in America. The split is between the central government and “autonomists” in the “Media Luna,” which is marked off in dark green in this map taken from Mark Weisbrot:
Things are bad. How bad? American Airlines just stopped flying to the country. Autonomists in Santa Cruz have seized control of most federal offices in the province. Tarija — which produces 60% of Bolivia's natural gas — experienced bloody riots yesterday, where autonomists seized the customshouses and airport and federalistas (my term, not a Bolivian one) blew up the governor's parking garage. Meanwhile, the nightmare that my Brazilian and Bolivian colleagues discussed in Venezuela? Well, it came true for about 12 hours.
Brasilia is reacting in a manner that could best be described as confused, but understandably so. On Tuesday, the Brazilian foreign minister committed a Kinsley, when he stated that if Morales can't secure the pipeline, then his government will be forced to open relations with the Media Luna. Today, however, the Brazilian national security advisor reiterated Brazil's position that Bolivia has but one government and intimated that his government might send troops to support Evo.
So what's it all about? I'm sure you all can guess, but a rough overview is below the fold.
That map above? The number labeled “hydrocarbon revenue per person” has nothing to do with hydrocarbon production in the province: Tarija and Santa Cruz produce 82 percent of the natural gas, with Cochabamba and Chuquisaca generating the rest. The number is the per capita value of the hydrocarbon taxes that are kicked to the various provincial governments through a revenue-sharing scheme. The provinces receive half the total revenues; the federal government keeps the other half.
In other words, Tarija generates 60% of the hydrocarbons, but keeps only 15% of the public revenues, and Santa Cruz produces 22% but keeps only 8%. Now, the number is misleading. The federal government may not spend a whole lot in those provinces, but it does spend something. More importantly, it kicks back a lot of revenue in the form of fuel subsidies used by the mechanized farms in both provinces. And of course, in terms of basic equity, there's nothing wrong having richer provinces subsidize poorer ones.
The problem is that the gas production cuts across an ethnic divide. The European-dominated provinces don't like subsidizing the Indian population. Nor do they trust that a government elected by the Indian majority will continue to spend on fuel subsidies. Worse still, this particular elected government has come out strongly in favor of land reform, which hits right at the economic lifeblood of the Media Luna ... and the landowners there seem to feel at some level that the Indians are foreigners trying to seize their property.
As a result, it's getting ugly.
And it could get uglier. Bolivia has a conscript army: roughly one-quarter of all males are drafted at age 19. Now, service is technically universal, but the armed forces don't need all who become eligible.
But there is one difference between the Bolivian pattern and the typical Latin American one: because the government requires proof of service in order to obtain a university degree or travel overseas, a large chunk of the conscripts used to come from the European middle class. There's certainly tension between Evo and his officers, and the military has made it clear that it does not want to use force without written orders.
In short, nobody knows how the military will break if the tension keeps up. I doubt that it will come to secession, but I'll admit to being surprised at the recent turn towards violence. If the Army has to be called out to put down disorder in the Media Luna, then things will get rather ugly rather quickly. I suspect, however, that compromise will eventually win the day: no land reform (which is probably a bad thing, but better than civil war) and minor tinkering to the revenue-sharing formula.