20 October 2007
Bolivia may be on the verge of civil war
The airport at Santa Cruz, Bolivia, has been occupied by over 7,000 demonstrators who forced the retreat os the 220 troops that President Evo Morales sent in to occupy the complex. In theory this is a dispute over landing rights, but what we are actually seeing is the start of a secession movement in the gas rich province, which is home to about 25% of the Bolivian population.
In a country where most of the population are landless American-Indians, the Morales government came into office promising land reform and large scale nationalisations. The eastern province of Santa Cruz is home to the wealthy landowners who have dominated the country since independence in the Nineteenth Century. It is also where almost all the natural gas fields are to be found. The previous government sold off the production rights to this gas at knock down prices and that was one of then factors that led to the election of Evo Morales in 2006. He is now being pushed by his supporters not to back down over land reform and nationalisation.
On the other side sit the largely ethnic European population of Santa Cruz. They have never accepted Morales' presidency, nor his economic programme. It looks as if Santa Cruz has decided that the airport is as good a place as any to make their stand for virtual independence from the central government.
If Morales backs down he runs the risk of being overthrown by his own outraged supporters. If he doesn't, then the government will have to use far more than 220 troops to retake the airport. The potential consequences of that are not hard to imagine.