SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — “Against narco-communism,” reads one line of graffiti in this city in the lowlands of Bolivia. “To arms, Cruceños,” reads another, calling on residents to fight the government of President Evo Morales, who put the armed forces on alert this week as four eastern provinces move toward greater autonomy.
Elsewhere in South America, such calls might be dismissed as mere bombast. But not in Bolivia, where fears of political violence are intensifying in Santa Cruz, a bastion of opposition to Mr. Morales, a former coca grower and the nation’s first indigenous president.
“They call us reactionaries, but we have a lot to react against,” said Wilson Salas Pinto, 43, a director of the Bolivian Socialist Falange, a right-wing group here whose members wear black berets and parade with their hands in the air à la Mussolini. “Evo wants to transplant Cuban Communism to Bolivia. We’re prepared to resist that project.”
Upon first glance at the ethnic tensions here, it is easy to focus on increasingly vocal fringe groups like the Falange. A counterpart on the left is the Ponchos Rojos, or Red Ponchos, indigenous activists from the high plains who recently slit the throats of two dogs before television cameras as a warning to those who resist Mr. Morales’s plans.
Eastern Bolivia’s clash with the president, however, is far more complex. Leaders here have long chafed at the influence of the capital, La Paz, but recent moves by Mr. Morales, who has received substantial financial and political support from President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, have added to concerns over power consolidation.
The sudden moves this week to seek greater autonomy came after the president’s supporters rushed last weekend to approve a new Constitution, despite an opposition boycott of their assembly. They had abruptly switched the vote to the city of Oruro, a Morales stronghold, from Sucre, which had been racked by street protests.
Even Mr. Morales’s critics acknowledge that the new charter, which must be approved in a public referendum, has positive aspects — it would, for example, abolish child labor. But they are also alarmed by efforts to increase indigenous power, like items to guarantee representation of Indians in Congress or to allow Indians to mete out justice outside the judicial system. Another measure would allow Mr. Morales to run for re-election to a second five-year term...
Political power is one issue dividing the country. Petroleum is another. Most of the natural gas and oil in Bolivia, which has South America’s second-largest natural gas reserves after Venezuela, is produced in the east.
But Mr. Morales recently moved to use some petroleum royalties to finance new cash payments to the elderly, an attempt to forge a social security system for his nation, one of Latin America’s poorest. This plan would deprive provinces in the east of revenue used for works like bridges, roads and schools.
Much of the power over petroleum remains in the president’s hands, and left-leaning leaders in Argentina and Brazil, the main buyers of Bolivian gas, are not about to make deals with Santa Cruz. This leaves the province in need of something other than independence...
It's the oil again, the dead giveaway.
If you don't have time to read Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes" you owe it to yourself to read Chalmers Johnson's review of it to open your eyes to the way that secret wars work.