Published at the the Inter-American Dialogue’s daily Latin America Advisor on November 9th, 2022
Thousands of people in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s agricultural hub, took the streets on Oct. 22 to protest the postponement
of a national census, delaying access to more economic resources. In response, Bolivia’s government said on Oct. 26
that it will temporarily suspend exports of foodstuffs, including soy and beef, to safeguard food security in the country. Also this month, President Luis Arce’s government reached an agreement with gold mining cooperatives in order to halt protests in La Paz. How are the protests in Bolivia connected, and what do demonstrators want? Will the measures
Arce is taking be enough to satisfy protesters, or does he face continued demonstrations? What is causing the food scarcity, and how are the protests affecting the country’s economic outlook?
Peter DeShazo, visiting professor of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs:
“The ‘paro cívico’ shut down the key city of Santa Cruz and is now in its third week, disrupting national food and energy supply. Headed by the oppositionist governor Luis Fernando Camacho, the paro has the stated goal of forcing President Arce to conduct an already-delayed national census in 2023–thereby generating more congressional seats for Santa Cruz in time for the 2025 election. The shutdown is a political shot across Arce’s bow–a challenge to his administration at a moment of weakness. Arce calls it a ‘coup,’ has mobilized pro-government supporters in Santa Cruz to oppose it and shuffled top military commanders to ensure loyalty to the government. Bolivia is deeply divided, with a potential for still greater polarization. The governing MAS party is buffeted by increased tension between Arce and former president and current party boss Evo Morales–who likely hopes to run for president in 2025. While Arce was elected in 2020 with a solid majority, the MAS did poorly in regional elections in 2021, and internal fissures are deepening. For its part, the opposition is splintered. Arce struggles to rekindle an economy ravaged by Covid-19 and the 2019-2020 political crisis, though it was already in decline from its pre-2015 peak growth years, when natural gas exports generated big revenue flows. By all appearances, the salad days of the MAS–when Evo Morales presided over a hegemonic political movement and the government was buoyed by windfall revenue from gas–are unlikely to return.”
Daniel E. Moreno Morales, senior researcher at Ciudadanía, Comunidad de Estudios Sociales y Acción Pública:
“Bolivia has a long history of social turmoil and political instability. In one of the most recent events, in 2019, then-President Evo Morales had to resign after three weeks of protests against a controversial re-election that the OAS and other international observers saw as unfair. Protests started in Santa Cruz with the initial demand of a runoff election, but
they then escalated into nationwide demonstrations that demanded the president’s resignation. This episode of recent history shows how quickly protests can escalate if the government does not properly manage them. It also shows a new balance of power in the country, with Santa Cruz converting its status as the country’s richest and most populated region into political relevance. The Arce administration postponed the upcoming national census to mid-2024.
Santa Cruz leaders demand that the census be conducted within a timeframe that would allow the results to be considered before the 2025 national election, redistributing congressional seats in favor of that region’s growing population. So far, the Arce administration has not agreed to moving forward the date of the census and some of its members have instead actively proposed deploying police and military actions against the protesters. This fact shows the increasingly visible internal disagreements and disputes for power within the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). Under these conditions, the government has a weak position to negotiateother, unrelated, protests. The gold miners
took advantage of the circumstances and obtained benefits (such as low taxes and access to national parks and other protected land) that many Bolivians have considered illegitimate. And the miners might not be the only ones to benefit from the circumstances: a government that faces both paralyzing protests and an internal political struggle can
do little against powerful interest groups.”
Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network:
“Demonstrations are a recurring strategy to obtain state concessions. Regional elites and Governor Camacho called the current strike. By law, censuses occur every decade, but the Arce government faces significant delays due to the pandemic, rising hydrocarbons prices and extensive graft during the Añez government. Santa Cruz elites argue that the region’s population has increased significantly, making them entitled to greater central government funding and increased representation in the Legislative Assembly.
Their opponents fear gerrymandering of voting districts and efforts to contest the 2020 election, as occurred in Bolivia in 2019 and in the United States. This top-down strike revives the racism of the 2019 coup. It cut off daily income for the great majority of Cruceños, who work in the informal sector. Yet, businesses linked to regional elites continue to operate. The strike began with the fatal beating of a municipal worker who attempted to cross a blockade. The Santa Cruz Youth League (UJC), deemed by the IACHR and the United States as an illegal para-state group that must be disbanded,
has played a central role in the violence. The Arce administration lifted the great majority of the export prohibitions, and food is plentiful, although the strike and external blockade launched in response have significantly slowed movement in urban Santa Cruz. Arce has made inroads in dialogue with key sectors. Yet, his failure to disband the UJC or to prosecute Camacho for admitting that his father paid security forces to mutiny in 2019, facilitated the resurgence of this
regional conflict. A lack of clear government messaging or inter-ministerial coordination further impedes progress.”
Susana Anaya Navia, economist with specialization in hydrocarbons and energy:
“The indefinite strike in Santa Cruz that started on Oct. 22 and the protests by gold cooperatives in the city of La Paz have different motivations. The first is mainly political. The second is economic and involves mining mobilizations. The latter was solved through a generous agreement that creates a single tax of 4.8 percent on gold sales, replacing legal taxes. The agreement also includespermission for cooperative members, the social and electoral base of ruling party MAS, to extract gold in protected areas. The Santa Cruz case relates to the date of the national census and its implications for the 2025 elections, which affect all Bolivians. It is based on the impression, according to research and international reports, that the current electoral roll and system are distorted, favoring the ruling party. Ten years after the last census in November 2012, the government set Nov. 16, 2022 to conduct the next one. The authorities involved ratified the date. However, last July, the government suddenly pushed the date back to 2024. The Santa Cruz strike requires that the census be carried out in 2023 in compliance with the conclusions of a massive town hall held on Sept. 30. If the census is conducted in 2024 as the government intends, the results, which affect the composition of the Legislative Assembly, would not be known before the 2025 elections. The effects on the economy and the shortage of products derive—more than from the peaceful strike— from the blockades and siege of Santa Cruz carried out by social organizations related to the MAS and from the government decision to temporarily suspend exports of agricultural products.”
Mauricio Becerra de la Roca D., partner at BDA Abogados:
“The social protests that are occurring primarily in Santa Cruz de la Sierra are legitimate, due to the sudden change of date for the census from the originally scheduled November 2022 date to May 2024. The national census is necessary
to achieve greater distribution of economic resources in the Santa Cruz region–the economic vehicle of the country. It will allow for a redistribution of taxes according to the population. One needs to bear in mind that the last census was in 2012, and the demographic has drastically changed amid a strong migratory trend toward Santa Cruz.
Unfortunately, the conflict is becoming political and enthralled in the defining of a new electoral register and distribution
of legislative seats. Currently, there is a struggle of forces in which, it seems, the government wants to weaken the civic movement of Santa Cruz. The shortage of basic foods is caused by difficulties in transporting products, which can lead to a national shortage. This affects not only citizens, but also producers and manufacturers. Talks are happening with the hope of technically establishing a date for late 2023 and putting an end to this social conflict.”