By Tony Phillips

On Sept. 9, separatist groups in the resource-rich eastern “half-moon”1 states of Bolivia launched violent attacks on the offices of the government of President Evo Morales. Rebel state governors,2 who lead the National Democratic Assembly (CONALDE),3 seek to prevent new laws on distribution of oil and gas revenues, and land reform.

As opposition leaders spoke openly of secession, President Morales tried to maintain central control. On Sept. 12 a massacre of indigenous government supporters in the Northern province of Pando led to a severe political crisis referred to by the Bolivian government as a civil coup d’état. As the crisis plays out, the role of international diplomacy has taken center stage. Here reactions to the crisis have diverged sharply between the George W. Bush administration and South American governments.

Bolivian Internal Crisis

On Sept. 9 an escalation of three years of internal power struggles came to a violent crescendo in Bolivia. Since elected, Morales has faced fierce opposition to mandated reforms from the opposition group CONALDE, which has used increasingly divisive tactics to try to prevent political changes in the Bolivian Constitution.

Their tactics are curiously similar to the unsuccessful 2004 attempt to oust Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In both countries, violence was preceded by a failed attempt to recall the president through a referendum (a civic vote of confidence in the president). In both cases, this backfired, strengthening the president’s position against an opposition concentrated in powerful, well-funded, rightwing political parties opposed to socialist reforms and in defense of free-market, export-oriented trade policies.

After the recall referendum confirmed President Morales’ tenure by a two-thirds majority,4 he announced plans to move ahead with constitutional changes on land reform and distribution of increased oil and gas revenues. Oil and gas revenues are key to regional state coffers. Land reform challenges the legitimacy of titles to large tracts of unused land, much of it in the hands of opposition leaders. Also, if land reform were to proceed it would likely mean further migration of landless Aymara and Quechua populations from the highlands into jungle regions of the half-moon states, which would in turn dilute the voting power of anti-government political forces in their region.

After their defeat in the recall referendum, CONALDE tactics became increasingly desperate. In Santa Cruz, Governor Ruben Costa said: “In times like these, any extreme measure is an option.” On Sept. 9, PODEMOS deputy and member of the provisional assembly for an autonomous Santa Cruz, Oscar Urenda Aguilera,5 declared: “We are sufficiently strong to split the country […] if I have to take up a stick, a slingshot, or arms, I will do it […]”6 That same day rightwing mobs took to the streets of the city of Santa Cruz, looting and burning central government buildings. They paid special attention to destroying the offices of the national Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA).7

Opposition groups set up roadblocks and seized oil and gas installations. Along with the attacks on property, there were numerous racist beatings and attacks on soldiers in uniform. Violence culminated in a massacre in the Northern state of Pando, which borders Brazil and Peru. There armed foreign and Bolivian militia sent by the Pando Governor, Leopoldo Fernandez, intercepted a group of about a thousand mainly indigenous Morales supporters marching to a meeting. They allegedly attacked the marchers, and according to live videos of the confrontation shot at them as they fled for their lives across the river,8 killing at least 30 indigenous Morales supporters.9

News of the massacre reached La Paz and the government ordered regular troops into Pando to restore order. They placed the city of Cobija under martial law. Governor Fernandez’s troops capitulated quickly in Cobija but military activities continue in other parts of Pando. The massacre is under investigation and Fernandez is under arrest in La Paz. He has admitted ordering the interception of the indigenous supporters.

U.S. Condemns Morales Government, Silent on Opposition Violence

Condoleezza Rice’s Sate Department spokesperson Sean McCormack, reacted with indignation at the Sept. 10 expulsion of U.S. ambassadors from La Paz and later Caracas, and ignored the Pando massacre.

Congressman Eliot L. Engel, the chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere said: “I am outraged by President Morales’s declaration that Ambassador Goldberg will be asked to leave Bolivia. All of us in Washington have tried to show restraint in responding to President Morales’s deeply offensive personal attacks on our fine U.S. Ambassador in Bolivia, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and all other things American. But, this time Mr. Morales has gone too far.”

Stating he was a “personal friend” of Goldberg’s, Engels went on: “Given the litany of attacks and actions against the United States, I believe we should review every aspect of U.S. policy toward Bolivia—from foreign aid to our trade relationship,” he added.

The same week of the massacre, Assistant Secretary of State David Johnson stepped up hostility toward Bolivia by naming it, along with Venezuela10 and Burma, for having “failed demonstrably” in the war on drugs in 2008, although he stated that the president had refrained from cutting off lucrative anti-drug aid packages for Bolivia. On Sept. 28, President Bush turned up the heat on Bolivia with a proposal to take away Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA)11 aid for Bolivia.

As Washington issued statements criticizing the Morales government, it remained singularly silent on the opposition’s acts of violence and destruction. The U.S. mainstream press predictably followed suit. The Washington Post in an article about the expulsion of ambassadors on Sept. 12 noted: “a rising tide of violent anti-government protests in Bolivia, which led to the deaths of at least eight demonstrators on Thursday,” failing to mention that the demonstrators killed were indigenous supporters of President Morales.12 The New York Times the same day did not report the massacre at all and instead published an inflammatory article on the expulsions that warned ominously of “a Cold-War style contest in the region.”13

Also on Sept. 12, McCormack14 asserted that Venezuela had links to FARC terrorism and drug trafficking. He denied claims that Washington had been meddling in Bolivia’s internal conflict in favor of the separatists, stating that “this reflects the weakness and desperation of these leaders as they face internal challenges and an inability to communicate effectively internationally in order to build international support.” He added: “The only overthrow we seek is that of poverty.”

The South America diplomatic reaction was markedly different. Virtually all South American countries rapidly issued statements supporting the Bolivian government and condemning the violence, as did the OAS and the European Union. The Bolivian crisis demonstrated a new actor in regional politics: The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).


On Sept. 15, while Western press focused on the expulsion of the ambassadors and the State Department made allegations on drug and terrorism links, a quiet revolution took place in Chile’s infamous Moneda Palace.15

President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, pro-tempore president of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), called an emergency meeting to discuss the situation in Bolivia with President Morales.

Bachelet took visiting presidents on a tour of her government palace pointing out the room where President Salvador Allende took his own life with the words: “I have faith in Chile and her destiny.” President Allende committed suicide while under attack from Augusto Pinochet’s troops in the military coup of Sept. 11, 1973.

The message of the tour was clear. In 1973, there was no organization of Latin American states willing to support a legitimately elected left-leaning president facing a coup attempt in his own country. And now there is.

UNASUR Declaration of La Moneda16


The heads of state of UNASUR, meeting in the Palace of La Moneda, in Santiago de Chile on Sept. 15, 2008, with the task of considering the situation in the Republic of Bolivia, remembering the tragic events which occurred in Chile in 1973 and shocked all of humanity;

Considering that the constitutive treaty of UNASUR, signed in Brasilia on May 23, 2008, established the principles of unrestricted support for sovereignty, of non-interference in internal affairs, of territorial integrity and inviolability, of democracy, its institutions, and the unrestricted respect for human rights, faced with the grave events happening in the sister Republic of Bolivia, and in favor of strengthening political dialogue and cooperation for the strengthening of citizens’ security;

In agreement, the member countries of UNASUR:

    1. Express their full and decided support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales, whose mandate was ratified by a large majority in the recent referendum.
    2. Warn that their respective governments emphatically reject and will not recognize any situation that entails an attempt for a civil coup, that ruptures institutional order, or that compromises the territorial integrity of the Republic of Bolivia.
    3. Consistent with the above, and taking into consideration the grave situation that affects the sister Republic of Bolivia, condemn the attack on government facilities and public employees by groups that seek to destabilize Bolivian democracy, and demand the prompt return of these facilities as a condition for initiating a process of dialogue.
    4. At the same time, appeal to all political and social parties involved to take the necessary measures for the immediate cessation of acts of violence, intimidation, and disrespect to established democratic institutions and public order.
    5. In this context, express their strongest condemnation of the massacre that took place in the department of Pando, support the appeals made by the Bolivian government to form a UNASUR commission in this fellow country to undertake an impartial investigation that will establish and clarify the facts, as soon as possible, of this lamentable event, and to make recommendations toward guaranteeing that the massacre does not go unpunished.
    6. Urge all members of Bolivian society to preserve national unity and the territorial integrity of the country, which are basic fundamentals of any state, and to reject any attempt to undermine these principles.
    7. Appeal for dialogue to establish the conditions which will allow the country to overcome the current situation and arrange for a sustainable solution within a framework of full respect for the rule of law.
    8. In this regard, the presidents of UNASUR agree to create a commission open to all its members, coordinated by the president pro-tempore, to accompany the legitimate government of Bolivia in these tasks.
    9. Create a commission of support and assistance to the government of Bolivia, according to its needs and including specialists.



What is UNASUR?


In April 2007 at the first South American Energy Summit on Margarita Island, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez proposed to rename and inject new life into the South American Community of Nations (CSN), founded by Brazil in 2005. The CSN became the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The formal inauguration of UNASUR occurred a year later in a ceremony in Brasilia on May 23, 2008. President Lula of Brazil and President Chavez of Venezuela have promoted UNASUR as a South American political, military, financial, and energy alliance.

UNASUR’s mission is the development of an integrated space, in political, social, economic, cultural, environmental, energetic, and infrastructure terms, that serves to strengthen the South American identity, and to give South America greater leverage in international fora.17

The UNASUR founding treaty states: “The UNASUR member states identify with these common values: the unlimited respect for the sovereignty, integrity, and inviolability of the territory of the member states; the self-determination of its peoples; solidarity; cooperation; peace; democracy; civic participation and pluralism; universal human rights; indivisible and interdependent; the reduction of asymmetries, and harmony with nature for sustainable development.”

When Chavez coined the name, UNASUR, he said: “We are talking about union, not integration, […].” President Chavez was referring, in somewhat derogatory terms, to many South American Integration projects based solely on trade. Examples include the South American Common Market (Mercosur) and the Community of Andean Nations (CAN). While both Mercosur and CAN tried to develop politically, they have had limited success. Integration instead meant reduced tariffs between member states for preferential exports within common markets. The term “union” reflects Venezuela’s long-espoused ideal of Bolivarian reunification in South America. Venezuela formed part of “Gran Colombia”18 created by Simon Bolivar after he won independence from Spain, along with modern-day Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador. It is from this eponymous South American figure that Bolivia received its name.


UNASUR has had a baptism of fire. When Colombian troops attacked a FARC camp in Ecuador, President Morales called on UNASUR to calm tensions between Venezuela and Colombia. In September 2008, Morales himself was to benefit from the UNASUR meeting in Santiago called to avoid a threat to his own nation. UNASUR met later in New York to follow up on the Bolivian situation.

In both crises one of the strongest arguments used was the inviolability of South American nations. After the Colombian military violated Ecuadorian territory, U.S. diplomats argued for flexibility in the pursuit of terrorism across South American borders. This U.S. proposal was shut down by the Brazilian Ministry for Foreign Affairs (Itamaraty).19

The Declaration of La Moneda (see sidebar) affirms solidarity in the region and the defense of democratically elected governments. It represents a new reality in South American international relations where Brazilian diplomacy, Venezuelan activism, and political alliances among UNASUR presidents20 make up a new driving force.

Talks in Bolivia

When news came through to Santa Cruz and the other half-moon state capitals, there was genuine shock that their capitalist business partners in Brazil had supported the socialist MAS party of Morales instead of backing their traditional oil and gas clients in Santa Cruz. They had little choice but to abandon the destabilization campaign and sign a pre-agreement to enter into negotiations with the government after Morales’ position was reinforced by the Santiago UNASUR declaration. Mario Cossío, a seasoned national politician and governor of Tarija, was quick to return to the negotiating table, which helped to convince the more radicalized and less experienced governors like Ruben Costa of Santa Cruz to do so too.

On Sept. 19, negotiations began in the central Bolivian state of Cochabamba with the rebel governors of Tarija, Chuquisaca, Santa Cruz, and Beni (but not Pando). While the governors want Morales to abandon land reforms, the central government is reportedly offering much the same deal as was offered before the violence. Isolated from support from Bolivia’s neighbors, CONALDE is in a less leveraged position. The accord to pacify the country is still in debate but President Morales has stated that whatever degree of autonomy might be negotiated will have to be legal according to the December 2005 constitution. “It will be impossible to implement the autonomies as specified in the so-called autonomy statutes, it is illegal, and it is unconstitutional, […]” he said on Sept. 25.

In this latest round of negotiations in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the rebel governors insisted on the presence of observers from the Organization of American States (OAS), but also present was a delegation from UNASUR.21 The OAS, formed in 1948 and based in Washington, DC, is a much larger organization of American states incorporating North, Central, South, and Caribbean American Nations where the United States government plays a preponderant role. Morales has expressed his preference for UNASUR participation in the Bolivian situation and at the end of the follow-up UNASUR meeting in New York on Sept. 24, he thanked the presidents of South America for their participation and facilitation.

The unanimous declaration of support from South American presidents in the UNASUR meeting in Santiago raises hope that this new forum could offer a stabilizing force for self-managed South American international relations that could rival or surpass the OAS. It is could be interpreted as further evidence of the rise in the diplomatic clout of Brasilia at the expense of Washington, DC.

Tony Phillips is a researcher and writer based in Buenos Aires and a contributor to the CIP Americas Program

End Notes

  1. The Half-moon region——(“media-luna” in Spanish) are the lowland jungle regions in the east of Bolivia. They have a marked cultural and ethnic difference from the highland majority in La Paz and the West. The local people in the Andean region and central Bolivia are mainly from the Quechua and Aymara tribes. President Evo Morales is ethnically Aymara, but also speaks some Quechua. The half-moon states are more tribally mixed with approximately 20 jungle tribes including the ubiquitous Guarani. There is also an influential group of Bolivians of European descent including recent immigration from Balkan countries and the Middle East attracted by the oil and gas boom and large cheap tracts of land. The half-moon states are aligned with the rebel central states of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca also.
  2. In Bolivia, state governors are known as prefects.
  3. CONALDE, COnsejo NAcionaL DEmocratica.
  4. A higher percentage than voted for President Morales in the presidential elections.
  6. “No nos van imponer las cosas, somos lo suficientemente fuertes como para partir al país y si tengo que agarrar un palo, una onda, un arma, lo voy hacer, pero voy a defender mi territorio y nadie va a pasar por encima.” Source:
  7. for publication on large landowners and land reform to date see:
  8. Article dated Sept. 16, 2008 entitled “Video Reveals How Assassins Murdered Defenseless Peasants”:
  9. It is likely the tally will surpass 30 dead as local reports cite more than 100 missing.
  10. “Of [the] 20 [major drug transit or drug-producing countries], the [U.S.] president has determined that three countries, Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela, “failed demonstrably” during the last 12 months to make sufficient or meaningful efforts to adhere to the obligations they have undertaken under international counternarcotics agreements.”
  11. The ATPDEA is a trade deal with Andean nations which offers access to U.S. markets at preferential tariffs in return for cooperation on drug matters.
  12. “Venezuela Joins Bolivia in Expelling U.S. Ambassador,” Washington Post Foreign Service, Friday, September 12, 2008: (accessed Sept. 29).
  14. Full text of press conference available here:
  16. Translation as published in English on Venezuelan Embassy site in Washington, DC, (Presidential Press, Press Department of the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, September 16, 2008) (Accessed Sept. 29).
  17. Translated by the author from the Chilean government oficial declaration:
  18. Map of Gran Colombia,
  20. (Even from Bogota and Montevideo.)
  21. Also observing were diplomats from Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, the United Nations, the European Union, and the Catholic, Evangelical, and Methodist Churches.


1 Comment

Comments are closed.