Potential Flashpoints in South America (II): Could the Situation in Bolivia Spark a Regional War? (ARI)

Potential Flashpoints in South America (II): Could the Situation in Bolivia Spark a Regional War? (ARI)

Theme: The critical political, institutional, ethnic and social situation in Bolivia today, aggravated by the referendum on political autonomy held in several regions, could lead to a worrying level of regional instability.[1]

Summary: In recent months, various different voices, ranging from governments friendly to Evo Morales to the OAS, have expressed concern about the critical situation in Bolivia and the possible fragmentation of the country. Some have even gone as far as to warn that this could have an impact on the region as a whole. If a domestic conflict were to break out in the country, Brazil and Argentina could be directly affected, while Chile and Peru would also suffer the consequences. At the same time, Venezuela and the US are keeping a concerned eye on the deteriorating domestic situation.

Analysis: The question posed in the title of this ARI is not science fiction, nor is it groundless; rather, it seeks to determine whether the various political, institutional, ethnic and social crisis scenarios in Bolivia could lead to a domestic armed conflict among Bolivians and, in turn, to war on a regional scale. Since Evo Morales became President of Bolivia over two years ago, public debate has increased and tension has been rising in many areas of national life. Although a large part of the population expected that the triumph of the candidate of MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo –Movement towards Socialism–) would end the high level of conflict (protest marches, blocked highways and sieges of public buildings) that put an end to the presidencies of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa, and which enabled Morales to win an absolute majority in the first round of voting, their hopes for peace and a return to normality were quickly dashed. Political manipulation of the controversies, both by the government and the opposition, stoked the fires even more. Old disputes were revisited and new ones emerged, clearly revealing the deep ethnic division and underlying social conflicts. Six of the nine Prefectos (Prefects or Governors) were elected along with Morales, leading to a power split between the central government and the regions, and thus increasing the political contradictions.

The MAS government was unable to solve most of the many existing problems and had no real idea how to do so anyway, and ended up making most of them worse. Morales was unable to prevent the ‘seizure’ of the Bolivian state apparatus (including civil service jobs) by the various groups that came together in MAS –a movement that fused many different forces–. One of the favourite slogans of many of the social movements was ‘we want a government that will give us jobs’, regardless of whether or not the job-seekers were actually qualified. As a result, government departments and agencies were emptied of technical staff, experts and professionals of all kinds. The Bolivian diplomatic service, clean of ‘bourgeois’ contamination, demonstrated the experiment’s limitations, as did the ‘re-nationalisation’ of YPFB (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos –the Bolivian oil company–), another dramatic showcase of the new Administration’s enormous lack of technical know-how. In this context, in which different groups were extracting all the benefits and privileges they could from the state, conflicts developed not only between government supporters and the opposition, but in some cases between different government factions, sometimes with alarmingly high levels of violence. One of the most serious was in October 2006 in Huanuni, where there were bloody clashes between unionised miners who worked for the state and other miners who belonged to co-ops or who worked independently, resulting in 16 deaths, mostly caused by the sticks of dynamite used by the gangs to defend their positions.

Although the nationalisation of the oil and gas industry (implemented by an executive order by President Morales on 1 May 2006) did not stir up much debate or protest since it touched the most sensitive nerve of Bolivian nationalism, there were other measures that revealed the huge gap that separated the government from the opposition. One of the main issues of discussion was the reform of the national constitution, which theoretically should have led to a broad national consensus on a new political model for Bolivia. The call for elections to the Constituent Assembly, approved before MAS came to power, established that a qualified two-thirds majority would be needed to ratify the new text. After its large and unexpected win in the presidential elections, MAS hoped to receive enough support to be able to push through a reform tailored to its tastes, and to do so it prepared election regulations that benefited the party. In the end, MAS was unable to obtain the necessary support, but thanks to the opposition’s fragmentation and lack of ideas or proposals, it did win a comfortable majority in the Assembly. In any case, in order to make headway in the drafting of a Constitution based on consensus –one that would lead to a renewal of the Bolivian political system– it was necessary to work towards a broad consensus with the main opposition groups, such as Podemos (Poder Democrático y Social –Social and Democratic Power–), UN (Unidad Nacional –National Unity Front–) and MNR (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario –Revolutionary Nationalist Movement–). This proved impossible, given the rigid, belligerent stances taken on both sides, neither of which was willing to shift from essentially ideologically-based, fundamentalist starting points.

The lack of an organised opposition led to a situation in which the departments and their leaders –both the Prefects and the leaders of the so-called civic movements– became the vanguard of opposition to the Morales government. The disputes intensified with the national government’s determination to change the system for sharing the Direct Tax on Hydrocarbons (DTH), which the Morales Administration was beginning to use to benefit its supporters. This 32% tax on oil and gas revenues was created in 2005 by popular demand, before Evo Morales became President. The law implementing it was aimed at distributing these funds among the national, regional and municipal treasuries, beyond the control of the executive branch. By Morales’ order, 30% of the DTH was allocated to paying a life pension to people over 60 years of age. This so-called Renta Dignidad (dignity income) met with anger and protests on the part of the former beneficiaries –the regions, municipalities and universities– whose income was reduced. The authorities in the anti-government regions accused the President of not respecting a preliminary agreement to seek other sources of funding that would avoid cuts to the regions. On top of this, in November 2006, Morales promulgated a law that would allow the State to expropriate land considered to be idle, large landholdings and redistribute it to peasant farmers and indigenous people. This mostly affected land owners, including many large ones, in the media luna departments.

This level of conflict increased the number of departments demanding greater autonomy, including Cochabamba and Chuquisaca. Even the Prefect of La Paz has made statements critical of the national government. The case of Chuquisaca was one of the most paradigmatic, clearly showing Evo Morales’ limitations vis-à-vis the social movements that support him, such as the cocaleros (coca farmers) of Chapare or the El Alto neighbourhood groups in La Paz. One of the theoretical objectives of the new Constitution was to re-establish the national capital in Sucre, the seat of the departmental government, which was abandoned in favour of La Paz in 1899. The central government very quickly rejected all proposals that involved changing the status of La Paz –which would have been detrimental to the people of that city– leading to major protests in Chuquisaca, supported by a large part of the country.

In some cases, verbal disputes turned violent, to the point that lives were lost. In January 2007, three people died in clashes between sympathisers of Cochabamba’s Prefect, Manfred Reyes Vila, who was hostile to the government, and cocaleros who supported President Evo Morales. Later, in August 2007, the Constituent Assembly removed from its agenda the debate on the proposal to move the executive and legislative branches of government from La Paz to Sucre, leading to violent clashes that paralysed the Assembly. In November 2007, the draft Constitution was passed on first reading in a tense session held at a closed meeting of pro-government Assembly members at a military centre in Sucre, among major street protests. Three people were killed and over 300 were injured. Of the 255 elected members of the Constituent Assembly, only 138 were present to vote –all of them from the government party or pro-government groups–. As a result, 136 members of parliament voted in favour of the new Constitution, which officially establishes a ‘plurinational’ state, the re-election of the President of the Republic, autonomousegions for indigenous people and a communitarian state.

Only a few days after it was approved on first reading, six departments (Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, Pando, Cochabamaba and Chuquisaca) joined a strike against what they considered the President’s ‘anti-democratic’ measures, from the approval of the draft constitution without the approval of the opposition, to the cut in oil revenue (DTH) funding. At the same time, peasant farmers and indigenous people began mobilising in El Alto and La Paz to support Morales’ draft constitution. Bolivia became the prisoner, on one hand, of the violence of the social sectors that helped Morales achieve power –and who were impatient to speed up the promised changes– and, on the other, of all the forces that opposed these changes.

In December 2007, the Constituent Assembly ratified the approval of the 411 articles of the draft constitution, which is due to be submitted to referendum some time in 2008. Of the six regions that rejected it, five have presented their statutes of autonomy. The peasant unions loyal to Morales and other social movements with similar aims, indicated that the autonomous regimes proposed by the regions are ‘illegal and separatist’ and threatened various protest actions, such as burning ballot boxes and sabotaging the Santa Cruz autonomy referendum on 4 May, as well as other similar plebiscites to be held in June in the anti-government departments of Tarija, Beni and Pando. Signatures for the referendums are already being collected in Chuquisaca and Cochabamba, and even La Paz has stated that it wants autonomy. The Santa Cruz referendum has clearly demonstrated that the Bolivian political system is deadlocked. Despite the efforts of the central government, over 60% of the population of the department went to the polls and more than 80% of them voted ‘yes’ to the statute of autonomy. However, Morales rejected the result as illegal and lacking sufficient popular support, in his opinion, although once again he called for negotiations. The problem with these constant calls for dialogue from various quarters is that neither side of the dispute –neither the government nor the opposition– wants to ease its demands in order to begin serious negotiations that could have a chance of arriving at a minimal consensus.

To date, little headway has been made in the dialogue between pro-government forces and the opposition aimed at solving the Bolivian political crisis. The two main opposing blocks –MAS and the social movements that are sympathetic to it on one hand, and the departmental prefectures, civic committees and opposition parties on the other– seem to have decided that each one will unilaterally move forward with its different national project. As the Bolivian conflict develops and the country’s governability slides further into crisis, the political consequences could spill over into neighbouring countries. Some fear that the constitutional debate is opening a Pandora’s box of nationalisms, including the right of indigenous nations to have their own government and justice systems, as well as the re-establishment of their territorial structures with control over natural resources. The underlying problem is that the indigenous autonomous regions overlap with the municipalities and departments, which could lead to impossible situations and bring the national administration to a total standstill.

The most pessimistic observers warn that a ‘Balkanized’ Bolivia would infect neighbouring Chile, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay, where there are Aymara, Quechua and Guaraní populations along the borders. However, others, such as Dante Caputo, the official OAS envoy to Bolivia, are more optimistic and suggest that secession is practically impossible or unviable, since no country in the region would recognise any political entity that wanted to separate from Bolivia. Nonetheless, Hugo Chávez’s open interference in Bolivian affairs does nothing to support moderate positions and could eventually lead events into uncontrollable directions. In any case, there are two additional problems that are no less important: first, the possibility that flows of Bolivian refugees could cross the borders in search of refuge in Argentina, Brazil or Peru, leading to migratory chaos; and second, the energy issue, given the direct dependence of Brazil and Argentina on Bolivian gas, and the indirect dependence of Chile and Uruguay. For the moment, radicalisation has been observed only in relatively small political groups in Puno (Peru), coinciding with the rising indigenous movements in Bolivia. The government of Alán García has reported that indigenous youths from the south of Peru, as well as former policemen and soldiers, are receiving military training at military police academies in Bolivia, through the so-called Casas ALBA, financed with Venezuelan money as part of a strategy aimed at fomenting an indigenous uprising in the region. It must be kept in mind that the Ponchos Rojos, a radical Aymara Indian organisation loyal to Morales, proposes the reclaiming of Aymara territory that would extend to Peru and Chile. At the same time, the Pandora’s box of nationalisms has also been opened with Morales’ stated aspiration of access to the Pacific Ocean and its claim against Chile –one that mixes with Peru’s border claim against Chile to the International Court in the Hague and that could cause even more tension among neighbours in the region–.

Argentina and Brazil
The possible social consequences of a civil conflict in Bolivia would most directly affect Argentina and Brazil, both of which have many Bolivian immigrants, many without their papers in order. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of Bolivian refugees fleeing from a civil war in their country would be an extremely destabilising scenario for the societies of Argentina and Brazil. According to information published in several media, in November 2007 the Brazilian army carried out manoeuvres based on a hypothetical large-scale rescue of Brazilian citizens on its border with Bolivia and Paraguay, in the case of a political and social collapse in Bolivia, although the Bolivian Foreign Minister, David Choquehuanca, minimised the significance of the operation.

At the same time, both Argentina and Brazil have to defend their interests in Bolivia, especially in the oil and gas sector, which they need to fuel their economies. The situation has worsened with the drop in Bolivian production, a direct result of the lack of investment in exploration and operations, as well as the disorganisation in YPFB and in the oil and gas sector as a whole since the nationalisation order in 2006. For this reason, Evo Morales acknowledged early this year that he would have serious difficulties meeting his commitments in terms of gas sales to Argentina and Brazil in 2008. This highlighted the energy problem that these two countries face, as well as Chile, which does not have access to Bolivian gas for political reasons. For now, Chile is not part of the Bolivian gas equation, since Morales and MAS made use of nationalism and the affronts suffered in the War of the Pacific in order not to sell gas to Chile. This means that any negotiation by which La Paz sells gas to Santiago will have to involve ocean access for Bolivia. At the same time, it must be kept in mind that Argentine gas exports to Chile, and to Uruguay as well, depend directly on the arrival of Bolivian gas to its gas pipelines, since Argentina is also facing an energy crisis and is suffering the consequences of a dramatic drop in investment in the sector.

Following the nationalisation of the oil and gas sector, the Brazilian company Petrobras cancelled over US$1 billion in planned investments in Bolivia. After tense relations between the two governments, President Lula announced in December 2007 that Brazilian investments would begin again. The over-optimistic calculations made by the Bolivian President –and too dependent on the investment capacity of the Venezuelan company PdVsa– led his government to a dead end, since he did not count on nationalisation sparking a significant pull-out of foreign investment in the sector. To make matters worse, most of the promises made by Chávez remained just that –promises– and did not bring tangible advances or a greater rationalisation of YPFB activities. As a result of all this, Bolivia has not fully met its commitments to export natural gas to Argentina and Brazil. The country’s domestic problems, the lack of greater investment and clear rules of play, and the fear that a new constitution would make it necessary once again to change currently valid contracts do not suggest a strong recovery in the sector, despite the announcement byhe Morales government that large-scale investments are on the way.

Gas production in Bolivia currently stands at around 40 MCMD (million cubic meters per day), rising to 42 MCMD in 2008, compared with a combined foreign and domestic demand of 46 million. Bolivia sends 27-30 MCMD to Brazil and has an agreement that obliges it to export up to 7.7 MCMD to Argentina, although it is able to supply only 2.5-3 million at present. The long-term solution for Brazil is likely to be the deep-water gas field found recently by Petrobras of the Santos coast. Although the company has made no estimates of its true potential, the most reliable estimates suggest that within very few years Brazil could become self-sufficient in gas.

Bolivian coca is another source of concern for neighbouring countries, especially Brazil, which is the final destination of a large part of the production, thanks to the natural conditions along a porous jungle border 3,360 kilometres long. The border between the two countries is guarded by not many more than 100 men, while only 10% of the air space along the border between Argentina and Bolivia is covered by radar, providing drug traffickers with total freedom of movement. Modern laboratories are beginning to proliferate in the jungles of eastern Bolivia, bordering on Brazil, while in the west, drugs destined for Chile and Argentina are still being produced in more precarious factories. Between 70% and 80% of Bolivia’s cocaine production is sent to Brazil –three times more than in 2005– and a significant part of it is re-exported to Europe. Brazilian government officials have stated concern about drug trafficking and have suggested that it could even lead to a diplomatic conflict between the two countries.

There is no doubt that as a former cocalero leader, the rise of Evo Morales to power has had an impact on the increase in coca production, especially in the Chapare region, and by extension, has led to an increase in cocaine trafficking. Soon after his arrival at Palacio Quemado, Morales spoke in favour of the traditional value of coca leaf in indigenous culture and its use for medicinal and nutritional purposes. He also defended Bolivia’s unique position as a traditional user of coca leaf, though he ignored the worrying increase in drug consumption in the country. In December 2006, the Bolivian government approved a new drug addiction policy, known as the Estrategia de Lucha contra el Narcotráfico y Revalorización de la Hoja de Coca, 2007-2010 (strategy for fighting drug trafficking and increasing the value of the coca leaf). Its goals include industrialising coca leaf and increasing the total area of coca leaf crops allowed under Bolivian law from 12,000 to 20,000 hectares. Opposition forces argue against Morales’ policy of increasing the area of coca cultivation, since more coca cultivation means more peasants affiliated with the cocalero unions (a rise from 24,000 in 2004 to 45,000 in 2008), whose six federations are still led by Morales. The opposition claims that the cocaleros devastate forests to turn them into coca production areas, and that they plant rice and corn to camouflage the drug, not even bothering to harvest the crop, since they are only interested in the coca.

In fact, the picture is mixed. There was a total of between 27,500 and 30,000 hectares of coca cultivation (both legal and illegal) in 2006, according to reports by various international bodies –an 8% increase over 2005–. The same year, the total area of crop eradication dropped by 17% to 5,070 hectares –the smallest amount in 10 years–. The forced eradication of surplus coca –supported by the US between 1997 and 2001 under the Plan Dignidad (Dignity Plan)– has been replaced by voluntary eradication under Morales, whose goals continue to be established by the cocalero unions. Not all cocaleros are in favour of voluntary eradication, as is the case in the Yungas region to the north of La Paz.

Coca production accounts for 2% of Bolivia’s total GDP (production has increased, but the price of the leaf has dropped) and it is undoubtedly a very lucrative business for the rural economy, although cocaleros prefer to claim it is an issue of ‘cultural identity and self-esteem’. Producing it requires little investment, it yields several harvests a year, and there are always buyers. The Morales government also relies on the cocaleros for street support. The cocaleros have mobilised on several occasions to defend Morales, his Constituent Assembly and a large part of the measures his government has taken. They also tried to march on Santa Cruz to forcibly stop a referendum on autonomy –something the government finally opposed–.

The US, like Brazil, argues that more coca cultivation means more drug trafficking and, as a result, does not support the ‘zero cocaine but not zero coca leaf’ policy. The election of Morales has hampered US anti-narcotic programmes in Bolivia. In fact, Bolivia’s capacity to stop the flow of the drug to neighbouring countries has diminished since Washington reduced its direct participation in the country’s anti-narcotic operations. Nevertheless, Washington has so far avoided a complete break with La Paz because it did eradicate the promised hectares (over 5,000) and has cooperated with some seizures.

Interference by Chávez
The Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez also plays a major role in the Bolivian conflict, given his determination to promote a Bolivarian movement in the region. The nationalisation of the oil and gas sector itself ties in with his strategy to encourage the construction of a big pan-South American state-owned oil company. Even his desire to ‘swim at a Bolivian beach’ (contrary to Chile’s position) reflects the leading role Chávez has tried to play in Bolivia. The strong influence that Chávez was going to have on the new Bolivian government became clear in December 2005, when, on his way to Europe, the President-elect was joyfully received by the Venezuelan government. Interference by Chávez goes beyond lending his security personnel or Venezuelan airplanes to Morales for his foreign trips. Chávez set out to win Bolivians to his cause with an ambitious assistance plan that ranges from the creation of a network of community radio stations to energy agreements, to the deployment of doctors, teachers, food and military aid. In January 2006, one day after the Bolivian President took office, Chávez and Morales signed their first cooperation agreements, and in May 2006, Chávez promised US$1.5 billion to Bolivia to finance gas processing plants and to create an exploration fund for new natural gas reserves. The lack of transparency in Venezuela’s fiscal accounts and its excessive promises of assistance to other Latin American countries has made it difficult to calculate how many and which agreements have met. However, all indications are that formalised assistance accountsor only a small part of all that has been promised.

In May 2006, both the two countries signed a defence agreement aimed at ‘establishing technical cooperation mechanisms… to improve and complement each country’s defence capacities’.The document established the construction of a river port in Quijarro, in south-eastern Bolivia, with the help of Venezuela, as well as the construction of a military installation in Riberalta, in the north. Three months later, the Venezuelan Defence Minister visited La Paz and signed another military cooperation agreement whose contents were not made public. An official note indicated that the agreement involved ‘cooperation for the exchange of perspectives and strategic positions on defence’. The senators of the opposition party Podemos claim that the military agreements with Venezuela include ‘high-level relations in areas that give reason for concern regarding Bolivia’s internal security’. The agreements are in a framework of ‘standardisation and inter-operationality’, which could mean that Bolivian military forces will be forced to adopt the Venezuelan military model, or that there will be cooperation with Venezuela for ‘crisis management’, which is seen as an open door to Venezuelan military intervention in domestic social rises in Bolivia.

In September 2006, Morales announced in New York that Venezuela would finance the construction of military installations in Bolivia as part of the signed agreements. From Lima to Asunción, the first complaints were heard from neighbours about what was beginning to be seen as a militarisation of the Bolivian border, financed by Venezuela. Chávez has increased the presence of Venezuelan military personnel in Bolivian territory and Venezuelan planes often come and go without any kind of supervision. In December 2007, a group of residents of Riberalta, in the province of Beni, attacked a Venezuelan military airplane with stones, forcing it to leave. The suspicion was that the plane may have been carrying weapons for Morales’ supporters. It is estimated that 330 non-commercial airplanes landed unsupervised at the Santa Cruz airport in 2007: 237 were Venezuelan, 62 Cuban and 13 Bolivian military planes. The lack of transparency of these operations make many observers and analysts suspect that the planes arrive full of weapons and military equipment and that they leave the country with many kilos of cocaine. These suspicions increased when, after the Venezuelan National Assembly, Chávez said that ‘my friend Evo sent me coca and coca paste’.

The issue of Venezuelan funding for the Bolivian military causes even greater concern. According to some reports, Chávez has delivered money directly to Bolivian garrisons, distributing cheques drawn against the account of the Venezuelan embassy in La Paz. Also, five days before pro-government deputies approved the new constitution, Morales provided the high command with US$3.7 million from Venezuela to be distributed among 125 military units. An opposition deputy reported that the generals of the high command receive a cheque for US$20,000 every month and, according to the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, Chávez’s contribution to the defence sector may come to about US$50 million. There is no doubt that Venezuela’s increasing rearmament is causing general concern and the fact that Bolivia is moving in the geopolitical orbit of Caracas is one factor more in the scenario of potential regional tensions. Threats by President Hugo Chávez to make Bolivia a ‘Vietnam of machine guns’ if his ally is overthrown or assassinated, has only heightened the accusations that Caracas is involved in interventionism.

The US
The tension between Bolivia and the US, and in particular the disputes with the US Embassy in La Paz, have increased since Evo Morales came to power. Morales has directly accused Ambassador Philip Goldberg of trying to destabilise his government, and has accused Washington and the CIA of being behind the opposition movements in the anti-government regions. Recently, he has even accused the US of directly encouraging a project to divide Bolivia into two independent republics. The peasants who cultivate coca leaf have also demanded that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) leave the country, as they accuse the organisation of conspiring against their government and providing money to groups that oppose the President. Vice-president Álvaro García Linera even asked the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) –a private, bipartisan institution funded by the US Congress that operates in various countries to strengthen democratic institutions– to hand over receipts for the funds granted to different Bolivian groups. The situation is becoming more complicated because there iso law in Bolivia to regulate international cooperation.

As has been mentioned, the US and Bolivia do not agree on the eradication of coca plantations either. The US is the main source of financing in Bolivia for the fight against drugs and the eradication of coca plantations –providing about US$30-34 million a year– but it is concerned about the cocalero policy of the Morales government, which wants to increase legal crops by 8,000 hectares and insists on vindicating its traditional use. The US also wants Bolivia to beef up its drug control strategy and pass a law against money laundering and financing terrorism. But it is not simply a question of eradicating coca and of the different perspectives on its use. Cooperation in the fight against drugs enables Bolivia (and three other Andean countries) to export products to the US without paying tariffs, under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) –a tool more indispensable than ever for ensuring investment and employment in the country–. Despite the conflicts with the US Ambassador, Bolivia asked Washington in the strongest terms to extend the ATPDEA beyond its expiry date in February 2008, which it did. The alliance between Evo Morales and Chávez has also led to greater distance between Bolivia and the US. At the latest ALBA summit (Alternativa Bolivariana para las Américas –Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas–) Chávez accused the US of being behind the current crisis in Bolivia, and of wanting to overthrow the government. At the same time, Washington disapproved of the visit to La Paz by the Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Conclusions: The international community, Latin American governments, the OAS, and above all, the neighbouring countries are increasingly expressing their concern about Bolivia’s political, economic and ethnic problems, which could spark a deep crisis in the country. They are warning not only of the risk of civil war –which increases or diminishes from one moment to the next– but also of the risk of the nation breaking up. There are several questions in this regard, but three stand out as the most important: What are the risks that escalating tensions could lead to open, violent clashes between Bolivians? What are the risks that a conflict of this kind could end up affecting the region as a whole? And what are the risks that Bolivia could split into two separate countries?

If we look at the history of Bolivia, we see that, to date, most political and social conflicts have been taken to the limit, but that dialogue and negotiation have won out in the end. This is something we have seen in recent months, but it is also true that those who play with fire can get burned. Given the radicalised stances and the existence of armed groups on both sides, it is not impossible that a violent clash resulting in a number of deaths could spiral into an uncontrollable situation.

As for the second question, it must be kept in mind that Bolivia is a is Ecuador, which since Colombia’s attack on the FARC camp in its territory, has decided to align itself with Venezuela on regional issues. The claims made by Chávez and his allies about the threat of real disintegration in Bolivia that could lead to civil war, and the criticism of the US for its interference in the Bolivian conflict are both reasons for real concern, especially in light of Venezuela’s threats to turn Bolivia into a new Vietnam if an attempt is made to destabilise Morales. The change of government in Paraguay likely means a new ally for Morales, since President-elect Fernando Lugo has taken a clear stance on the issue, but everything will depend on how negotiations with Brazil develop on the issue of the sale of electric energy from Itaipú. The risk of open war between various countries in the region over the Bolivian conflict can be largely ruled out. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that different regional governments would unofficially support different warring factions.

Secession, meanwhile, is quite unlikely, but again, it cannot be entirely discounted as a possibility. Latin America’s borders have hardly changed since the mid-19th century, when the new Republics were formed. Some territorial gains were made, but at the cost of another country that gave up a portion of its territory to a neighbour, as was the case of Bolivia with Chile or Bolivia with Brazil (in what is now the Brazilian state of Acre). However, no new political units emerged, as they did in Europe. The sole exception was Panama, which arose in the early 20th century after breaking away from Colombia. This lack of precedents is an important centrifugal force, as is the nationalism of all Bolivians, regardless of the type of State that they might now have in mind. These factors, added to the more or less enthusiastic way that all the governments in the region have supported the Morales government, is what has led Dante Caputo to suggest that, in the case of secession, no government in South America would recognise a new Republic. This may be true, but it does not entirely rule out the possibility that some other country in the Americas, including the Caribbean, could recognise a new political entity or that such recognition could come from a European or Asian country. This would indeed create new upheavals –and greater ones–. For now, however, and despite the complications involved in the situation, it is most likely that the status quo will be maintained, though no one knows for how long.

Carlos Malamud
Senior Analyst for Latin America, Elcano Royal Institute

Carlota García Encina
Research Assistant, Elcano Royal Institute

[1] The first document in this series on ‘Potential Flashpoints in South America’ is the ARI titled ‘Potential Flashpoints in South America (Introduction)’, by Carlos Malamud, https://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/rielcano_eng/Content?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/Elcano_in/Zonas_in/Latin+America/ARI27-2008.