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Bolivia and the autonomist question

ZAA NKWETA, TRNN: Forrest, in the light of all the political developments that have been happening in Bolivia over the last few days, the new regional body called UNASUR gave a unanimous declaration of support for the Morales government. What is the significance of this? And how much political weight does this carry?

FORREST HYLTON, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: This is the second time since it’s been founded in four months that UNASUR has intervened decisively in a regional diplomatic crisis for a peaceful and consensual settlement, at least in terms of the countries of South America. The United States has really been cut out of the loop in terms of decision making process at the interstate level in the hemisphere, and this is historic. Not since the United States acquired the colony Puerto Rico in what was called the Spanish-American War of 1898, which really marked the rise to power of the United States as an empire, has the United States’ influence been so weak in its own backyard, so to speak. So you really see that its dominance in the Western Hemisphere has waned considerably as these countries come together in order to reaffirm the democratic legitimacy of Evo Morales and his government, as against the attempts at secession or sedition carried out by the opposition prefects in the eastern lowlands.

NKWETA: Now, you said this is unprecedented. Why do you believe that Morales has the support of his regional neighbors at this time? What has precipitated this support?

HYLTON: They are very clearly in favor of greater regional integration, and they see that regional integration passing through the Bolivian central government as opposed to passing through these departmental prefects, whose authority at the international level is obviously nonexistent. So in that sense, given that the push for greater integration regionally in terms of trade, markets, even infrastructure, it really makes sense for the governments of Brazil and Argentina to be taking a lead in diplomacy, and I will have to say that Chile is also right there with them. And that really leaves the United States sort of behind the curve in every respect. Before, they obviously used to be able to impose military dictatorships as a way of dealing with regional crises, and now we’ve kind of come full circle. So that’s why it’s so significant. We’ve just never seen this type of unity before.

NKWETA: Now, the expulsion of the US ambassador Philip Goldberg, is this another step towards this regional integration, taking care of their own in their own backyard?

HYLTON: It’s very well received within Bolivia itself by the majority of Morales’s supporters, this kind of move against the ambassador. I mean, it’s obvious that the people who wield the real power in Bolivia are in fact these departmental prefects and their allies, rather than the US ambassador, who’s in some ways symbolic. And yet Bolivia doesn’t really need to be in any hurry to reestablish diplomatic ties with the United States government. They can simply sit out the election, then wait and see what happens. And clearly any incoming administration’s going to want to repair the damage that has been done under the Bush administration. So, in fact, Bolivia’s in a pretty good position right now. The central government is in a pretty good position in terms of its own legitimacy vis-à-vis these autonomists, so-called autonomists, separatist opponents, who are now really kind of in the role of international outlaws.

NKWETA: Morales, in terms of what he has done before, has always offered concessions to the autonomists. How is he going to appease the autonomists without betraying his base, his political base, the indigenous majority of the country?

HYLTON: He was willing to try to work a kind of almost double-referendum or somehow integrate some of these autonomist demands coming from the opposition prefects into the new constitutional referendum that he has set for December 7. So Morales clearly was willing to find some way to incorporate their agenda into his agenda of getting the Constitution approved in a referendum by the people. And he knows that he can get more than a majority of voters to vote for this. It’s already been approved by two-thirds in the Constitutional Assembly, and now it remains to be approved by his base. So he had an interest, in some ways, in finding a way to incorporate these opposition sectors, and he was willing to offer them some sort of compatibility of agendas. They really did play their hand; they went for broke. And at least right now, given the support he has from all the countries in UNASUR and given the support that he has within the country for kind of holding back on the use of force, I would say he’s in a much stronger position now than he has been in quite some time.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Forrest Hylton teaches history at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia-Medellín. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and with Sinclair Thomson, co-author of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007). He has contributed to New Left Review, NACLA Report on the Americas, and CounterPunch, and his short fiction and translations have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail. Also, he authored the novel Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy (City Works Press, 2010).