“Bolivians will not allow a new coup d’état to take place” says Gabriel Villalba Pérez

Bolivian lawyer and professor Gabriel Villalba Pérez spoke to Peoples Dispatch about the political conflict at the center of the anti-government strike called by the conservative opposition

November 18, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
Over 1.5 million Bolivians took part in a rally in La Paz on November 29, 2021, in defense of democracy and President Luis Arce’s government. (Photo: Luis Arce/Twitter)

The indefinite strike called by the conservative opposition sectors in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz department has been ongoing for almost a month. The primary demand of the opposition, regarding the Population and Housing Census, was resolved last weekend, nevertheless, they continue to remain in the streets against the progressive President Luis Arce and the government of the ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party.

The strike, which began on October 22, has not only affected the livelihood of the residents of Santa Cruz, but has also caused great distress to the population due to the climate of violence and insecurity in the department.

The strike has been marked by acts of violence, vandalism, racism and discrimination against those who oppose it. The supporters of the far-right opposition leader and governor of Santa Cruz, Luis Fernando Camacho, who called for the strike along with the president of the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee, Rómulo Calvo, and the rector of the Autonomous University Gabriel René Moreno (UAGRM), Vicente Cuéllar, have been attacking the people and organizations that support President Arce and the MAS.

On November 14, the Ombudsman’s Office reported that since the beginning of the strike, it had recorded at least 42 cases of human rights violations. These include physical attacks, attacks on the press, rapes, murders, the fire at the Confederation of Peasant Workers (CSUTCB), and the looting at the Departmental Trade Union Center.

On November 10, the Minister of the Presidency, María Nela Prada, reported that at least 178 complaints had been recorded with respect to injuries, in addition to four deaths and one case of gang rape.

The strike has also caused severe damages to the Bolivian economy. On November 11, the Minister of Economy and Public Finance, Marcelo Montenegro, reported that the strike had resulted in the loss of more than USD $700 million.

Last week, on November 9, the Technical Commision, consisting of experts from Bolivia’s public universities, concluded discussions on when to hold the Population and Housing Census. After working for four days with national and local government authorities and civic and technical representatives from all nine departments, the Commission proposed to carry out the census between March and April 2024, and reduced the time stipulated for the redistribution of the country’s resources by one month.

On Saturday, November 13, President Arce announced that the census would be carried out on March 23, 2024, and that the redistribution of resources would be made in September 2024. The same day, he made it official by signing a supreme decree.

Nonetheless, the opposition sectors continue in the streets against the national government, dragging out the strike.

To understand the political conflict and the situation on the ground, we spoke with Bolivian lawyer and university professor Gabriel Villalba Pérez, who is also the director of the Center for Geopolitical Studies of Our America (CENAC) in Bolivia.

Peoples Dispatch: What is happening in Bolivia? What is the reason behind the strike in the country’s Santa Cruz department? What solution has the Bolivian society come up with?

Gabriel Villalba: In Bolivia, we have experienced days of exacerbated violence, and the pretext behind it has been for the Population and Housing Census to be held in 2023.

In fact, the census should have been carried out in 2022, and, incidentally, it was the first proposal made by the central government since the last census carried out in Bolivia was in the year 2012. Therefore, it should have been done in 2022. However, for the census to take place in 2022, it required a preparation of at least two previous years.

Now, what happened in those two previous years? We had the COVID-19 pandemic, and in 2019, the breakdown of the constitutional order, the subversion of the constitutional order. A group in Bolivia had taken power in an illegal, unconstitutional, and illegitimate way. Using Mrs. Jeanine Áñez as a puppet, it created a government of 11 months that was responsible for more than 50 cases of corruption, in addition to massacres against the civilian population. We are talking about the Sacaba and the Senkata massacres. On November 15, we commemorated three years since the massacre in Sacaba, when military and police forces first classified a march against the Áñez regime as peaceful and later shot the protesters dead and left them wounded. There are multiple reports from the international community on these violent events. This is the background.

We talked about the fact that the census should have been carried out in 2022. The national government’s first proposal was that it be carried out in 2022. The representatives of the Santa Cruz department were the first to oppose this date, arguing that it was too early, that the cartographic reference did not exist. It was then immediately arranged that the census would be in 2024. The representatives of Santa Cruz also opposed this date, arguing that it was too late, that it should be carried out in 2023. They pressed that the census should be carried out in 2023 without having the slightest technical support.

As a matter of fact, the authority that determines the date of the census is not a governmental body, nor is it the Civic Committee, but it is an organization that brings together different governments, autonomous departmental governments, autonomous municipal governments, different public universities, and it is called the National Council of Autonomies. Through multiple meetings in the past weeks, it has been finally agreed that the census will be carried out in 2024 and the allocation of resources will be done in September 2024.

This last provision motivated President Luis Arce Catacora to set March 23, 2024, as the date for the census. He also announced that the allocation of resources, which has been a consistent demand of the citizens of Santa Cruz, will be done by September 2024.

PD: How has the strike affected the people of Santa Cruz? What do people think about the steps taken by the Arce government to address the crisis?

GV: During these past four weeks, we have witnessed systematic regional terrorism, which, for example, has burned down the headquarters of the Confederation of Peasant Workers in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, vandalized the headquarters of the Departmental Trade Union Center, terrorized the people who wanted to work in the department, mobilized armed groups led by the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC), which is a paramilitary group, in fact a fascist arm that the Santa Cruz Civic Committee has, to assault the citizens of Santa Cruz who wanted to work.

There have been numerous cases of human rights violations, violations of the right to access health, to access education. There have been three deaths, dozens of injured people. All in order to recreate the conditions that led to the breakdown of the constitutional order in 2019, see that happen this year 2022.

The government’s actions have not been enough. A tough president with a hard hand should have sat to enforce the rights of the majority of the citizenry, whose rights were being violated. As I previously mentioned, citizens’ rights to access health, access education, other fundamental human rights, their rights to physical integrity, to peace were violated.

The Ministry of Government has not been up to the task, just as the Bolivian Police. Additionally, the Bolivian Police Command was meeting with Luis Fernando Camacho, while a group close to the governor and the Santa Cruz Civic Committee vandalized the headquarters of the Confederation of Peasant Workers in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

The rational scope of determining the census date had already been exceeded. There was no longer any rationality, since between the proposal of the central government to carry out the census in 2024, publish the results in September 2024, allocate the resources in October 2024 and the proposal of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee to hold the census in December 2023, publish the results in June 2024 and allocate the resources in September 2024, there was only a one month difference.

Therefore, there is a popular perception, all the people, the social organizations in Santa Cruz de la Sierra believe that those three deaths could have been avoided, that dozens of injured people could have been avoided, that all the events I narrated earlier could have been avoided with a concrete, direct and systematic action of the central government. It seems that the central government waited for the conflict to develop further.

Consequently, for a part of the population, there is a peace of mind that the date for the census in 2024 has been determined and that the Civic Committee that was promoting the acts of violence has finally accepted it.

Nevertheless, on the other hand, there is a general annoyance against the national government because it allowed the peasant confederation’s headquarters to be burned down, it allowed these violent groups to act as they did in 2019. In other words, the social organizations felt vulnerable and defenseless on the part of the central government that should have mobilized the police, that should have mobilized the Ministry of Government, the Ministry of Justice to put an end to the violence with the legal resources available.

These people are extremely upset. They argue that the government has abandoned them and left them alone to their fate. Fundamentally, the people, the social organizations, are the ones who face and fight against all these organized civic groups, who have strong links, the equipment and the provision of weapons, the Santa Cruz Civic Committee that vandalize the popular neighborhoods and the social organizations in Santa Cruz.

PD: What do you think about the current situation in the country today as compared to 2019? How will people and the social movements respond if the situation deteriorates and becomes a real threat to democracy?

GV: Regarding the current situation in the country, there is already widespread awareness among the national popular bloc that the subversion, the breakdown of the constitutional order in 2019, can never be allowed again. The same formula of 2019 to overthrow governments, operated by external factors and internal opponents of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, cannot be repeated, since the population has already experienced its consequences firsthand in 2019.

Although it is a very particular fact, there was a negative, mobilizing feeling that an alleged electoral mega-fraud had been committed in the 2019 elections. Despite the fact that the government of Jeanine Áñez had the support of internal actors and allies such as the president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal Mr. Salvador Romero and the godson of opposition Carlos Mesa, the support of the regional allies such as the Organization of American States, of the international allies such as the European Union, the British government, the US government, they could not prove in more than 11 months the true existence of a mega electoral fraud of 2019 as they called it.

Nonetheless, the popular movement and its actions led to the establishment of a legally constituted government. Therefore, the population, knowing all this, will not allow this kind of engineering of a new coup d’état to take place again.

They avoided and defeated it around this same time in 2021, when the civic committee tried to re-organize against the Arce government. They did it again now in 2022, when the civic committee used the 2023 census as the pretext. Finally, they had a partial victory, one could say, the government won and the civic committee also won, both in their proposals for census.

However, the civic committee has immediately jumped to another issue, the issue of opening up to federalism in Bolivia. Federalism implies another model of state different from the one we currently have in the Plurinational State of Bolivia.

I believe that the civic committee is going to continue with their attacks against the government of President Luis Arce, against the government of the Movement Towards Socialism.

Luis Fernando Camacho has actually revived. Before this “fight” for the census in 2023 led by the civic committee against the national government, Luis Fernando Camacho was a political corpse, he was a governor who had not executed even 9% of his budget. With this conflict, he revives politically and becomes an important operator and an important political ally of all the international geopolitical interests placed in Bolivia, by the United States, England, and the European Union.

I’d like to say it again, Bolivia has the largest lithium reserve in the world. It also has an important iron reserve, precisely in El Motul, an area in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Therefore, there are geopolitical interests placed in Bolivia that local operators and traditional opponents are going to use to destabilize the government of the Movement Towards Socialism, and put a lackey and servile government to their transnational interests, just as the government of Jeanine Áñez, who in the first few weeks, put all of Bolivia’s natural resources on a silver platter for their exploitation through international consortiums, mainly European, British and North American.

PD: We see that Luis Fernando Camacho is losing support. Vicente Cuellar and Rómulo Calvo, the other leaders of the Inter-institutional Committee, have agreed to the date of the census. Do you think the strike will be lifted soon?

GV: The mobilization of the civic committee is no longer for the census in 2023. It is now to demand the release of those arrested for the outrages I mentioned earlier, and for the formation of a commission to evaluate the viability of their proposal for federalism in Bolivia.

The national government has left the decision to release those arrested in the hands of the legislative branch. Thus, it is an issue that has already been resolved and settled, but it still leaves multiple edges for analysis and also for the true dimensions to be known, the true reality of what happened here in Bolivia since the hegemonic mass media presents a totally biased version of anti-government interests, it is the role that the media has always played in Bolivia. The media in Bolivia are and act as the main opposition party to the government. They all act like a cartel and in reality they are the main opposition party that the government of the Movement Towards Socialism has.