June 10, 2005


Collas and Cambas Conflict in Bolivia

By Humberto Caspa,Ph.D

At the OAS meeting in Fort Launderdale, Texas, President Bush again invited Latin American leaders to follow the path of neoliberal economics, and urged Congress to pass a resolution accepting CAFTA, a multi-national free-trade agreement with Central American countries.

Bush’s pledge couldn’t have come at a worst time for the Bolivian committee. Neoliberal economics has been attributed to be a major factor for their country’s ongoing problems. Although the current crisis stems from these policies, a historic animosity between the western (collas) and the eastern (cambas) populations has further polarized the country, and might be leading to an imminent civil war.

The Collas and Cambas conflict dates back to the last century. The scars, however, have recently been reopened during the last stages of the Jaime Paz Zamora administration, in 1992. Prominent leaders of the eastern-side city of Santa Cruz exhorted him to decentralize the system.

Meanwhile in La Paz, the administrative capital, a group of indigenous leaders also asked Paz Zamora to build consensus under a new constitutional assembly, which would, among other things, expand rights for indigenous communities.

Neither of these requests made it through the Paz Zamora Administration. In addition, his successor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, not only ignored them but also instituted an innovative Popular Participation Act.With this law in place, the central government delegated some administrative functions to local governments.

Sanchez de Lozada’s Popular Participation policy is, by far, the greatest accomplishment in his two separate presidential tenures. Nonetheless, his radical stance toward economic liberalism only allowed a few transnational corporations to take advantage of the rich state-owned industries through a dubious privatization process. By contrast, the larger Bolivian population usually fell behind, even though indicators have often showed an overall improvement of the national economy.

Later, during the Hugo Banzer administration, pleas for decentralization and calls for a constitutional assembly again became public notice. However, Banzer’s infamous dictatorial tactics temporarily put the issues on hold. He was known for using “carrot” policy in the eastern region, and a “stick” strategy against the indigenous communities in La Paz. As a result, his policies conspicuously favored the eastern cities as well as U.S. interests in Bolivia. A combined effort of the DEA, a local police force and the military almost wiped out coca-leave growers from the western side of the country.

Two distinct indigenous leaders evolved as a result of Banzer’s uncompromising posture. Evo Morales in the valley of Cochabamba and “Mallku” Felipe Quispe in the rural areas of La Paz. Soon they became symbols of the indigenous movement and their plight. Today Evo Morales continues to be a central political figure; whereas Quispe’s flamboyant strategy gradually subsided because, in part, other young indigenous leaders arose in the political scene.

Together they fought against status quo. They helped organize a popular movement that eventually toppled Sanchez de Lozada’s second tenure in 2003. People didn’t want to face another five years of unpopular trickle-down economics. Sanchez de Lozada fled to the United States.

When Carlos Mesa stepped in power, most Bolivians hoped he would galvanize support for national reconciliation. Instead he further polarized the country. His soft-spoken style and lack of determination provided means for others to broaden their political demands, particularly in Santa Cruz, as they now campaign for autonomic governments.

Meanwhile, the indigenous communities in La Paz also upgraded their expectations. Evo Morales and other union leaders were vocal about not only convening a constitutional assembly, but also pushing a political agenda that included nationalization of the oil industries.

From the outset, Mesa lost control of the government. His intellectual capacity never has been put in question. He is a well-known scholar and author of many books. I always thought he would make a great university leader than a president of a country. Unfortunately during his tenure, he had no political base and no backing in Congress.

His government ended up overpowered by two radical movements that aren’t eager to yield an inch of their promises. The “cambas” would like to further push the country toward an ineffectual neoliberal world, while the “collas” want to get it back to that a heroic and glorious revolutionary past. None will get the country on its feet. Bolivians need to find a middle point.

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