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Healing Bolivia

BUENOS AIRES – Since the mid-19th century, Latin America has suffered fewer inter-state wars and undergone less state creation than any other region of the world. The continent has been a relatively quiet periphery because its countries tend neither to fight each other nor to divide from within. Bolivia, however, may be poised to buck the latter trend.

A referendum on autonomy which was approved in May in Bolivia’s eastern province of Santa Cruz has generated fear about the region’s eventual secession. This relatively rich, opposition-controlled, ethnically mixed, and more conservative province, blessed with fertile lowlands and hydrocarbons, voted for autonomy by a wide margin. The most outspoken anti-government forces in Santa Cruz seem to be itching for partition. And recent referendums in the Amazonian provinces of Beni and Pando appeared to have exacerbated this sense of potential national fracturing.

A key ingredient of this simmering conflict is ethnicity, the salience of which became evident even before the election of President Evo Morales in 2005. The combination of highly mobilized and vocal indigenous groups (the Amerindians, mainly located in the western highlands of Bolivia, represent some 55% of the population) and the declining influence of traditional elites at a time of socio-economic deterioration, has created a society in which there are more losers than winners. The referendum marked a critical conjuncture of Bolivia’s social, regional, and political divisions.

Yet, despite Bolivia’s arrival at this gloomy turning point, events can, paradoxically, turn out moderately well. The country stands before two distinct paths: uncontrolled and protracted civil violence, political crisis, and institutional collapse, or short-term tension, medium-term accommodation, and long-term stability.