Crisis in Bolivia: Santa Cruz Isolates Itself to Economically Attack La Paz

Sofia Solari Arena

More than a week after the arrest of Governor Fernando Camacho, the opposition department has deepened its confrontation with the national government and seeks to “choke” the Bolivian economy.

A little more than a week after the arrest of the governor of Santa Cruz, Fernando Camacho, the richest department of Bolivia deepens its game and focuses on “isolating” itself to damage the central government, while the three forces of the ruling coalition cannot leave behind their own internal conflict. The conflict between this department and La Paz is historical and has always been sharpened when the Palacio del Quemado was governed by progressive forces. However, the authorities of Santa Cruz are aware that they cannot enter again into a work stoppage because the costs of having carried it out for 36 days last year left their economy quite battered. Therefore, for now they are seeking to sustain the level of activity but to cut all links with La Paz.

Two days after Camacho was arrested, all the forces of Santa Cruz that support him met in the framework of an Assembly of the Cruceñidad and voted to close the departmental roads to isolate the territory as well as to hold “vigils” in the public institutions that perform tax collection functions in order to sabotage the income that the central state receives from that department. “This measure is to isolate ourselves”, explained to El Destape Reinerio Vargas, vice-rector of the Autonomous University Gabriel René Moreno (UAGRM), one of the institutions that is part of the Civic Committee pro Santa Cruz, a kind of political table where all the powers of the department are represented. The bet of Santa Cruz is strong and could complicate the government of Luis Arce because 70 percent of the food consumed in the whole country is produced there and Santa Cruz is also responsible for about 40 percent of the GDP.

Santa Cruz has land communication with Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil and it trades a portion of its production in that triple border, so it could continue to receive resources despite its partial “blockade”. “Our intention is not to block trade with neighboring countries, but only to the interior. However, it is good to recognize that we have been surpassed by our ‘plan’ because we were ‘sponsoring’ three or four blockade points and now we have 12”, explained to this portal Fernando Larach, vice-president of the Santa Cruz Committee, and recognized that the claim of the department took certain autonomy. The Bolivian government, however, has taken the opposition’s strategy down a peg, arguing that the resources that Santa Cruz receives from abroad come from the Central Bank.

Camacho’s arrest makes the historical regional conflict red hot.

As part of the crusade that the richest department maintains with the central power, in recent days went out to seek support from all Bolivian regions and also political forces in other countries. Thus it was that this Wednesday the National Civic Committee met in Santa Cruz and decided to give its support to the most opposing district of the whole country. In the communiqué that came out of the meeting, they stated that they support the blockades and declared themselves in a state of mobilization. In addition, they also received the support of the ultra-right wing forces of VOX from Spain and the Chilean Republican Party, which nominated Antonio Kast for the Presidency, through two deputies from both forces who flew to Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz bet on this strategy to try to affect Arce’s government so that somehow they have to sit down to dialogue. The main opposition force achieved an important victory in 2022 when it managed to get the Government to redefine the date on which it was going to carry out the census and forced it to take this discussion to Congress. But the year ended with a setback for the ruling party when the Attorney General’s Office ordered the arrest of Camacho in the framework of the “Coup d’Etat I” case. From that moment on, the opposition came out in unison to denounce the “arbitrariness” of that measure and of the whole “judicial apparatus”.

“We protest against the arbitrariness carried out against Camacho and because in Bolivia there is no Justice that resolves. Justice works for the interests of the Executive”, denounced Larach in dialogue with El Destape. However, as soon as the arrest of the governor became known, the Prosecutor’s Office explained that Camacho had “full knowledge of the legal process” that was initiated in 2020 for his public role in the protests prior to the coup against the now former president Evo Morales and in the subsequent de facto inauguration of Jeanine Áñez, who is also detained today. For the same legal process, the then military leadership is also detained.

Camacho has at least eight open cases in La Paz, all of which have been filed there because of the difficulty for any type of prosecution to prosper in a department where the complainants have doubts that any degree of impartiality prevails. He has several charges against him, and the most resounding, besides the case for the Coup, is the one opened after the 36-day strike that he led for the census and which accuses him of instigation to commit a crime, serious damages, terrorism and separatism.

The official internal conflict

While the opposition moves forward to weaken the central government, the authorities of the Palacio Quemado add chapters to their internal conflict. If during the debate on the census the the fight broke out between Evo Morales and Luis Arce because the former asked for a more radical position against Santa Cruz and the latter opted for a more dialogist way out, now Evo questioned Vice President David Choquehuanca who was not playing a leading role in this scene.

This week MAS issued a hard communiqué entitled: “Brother David Choquehuanca, where are you?” There it asked the Vice President to make a statement on the events of the last days and come out in defense of Arce. “An urgent call (…) to come out of the cave of suspicious silence”, opened the letter and continued: “In defense of Arce who is the target of the permanent attacks of the right-wing coup plotters and their media companies”.

In the letter they accused Choquehuanca of not appearing publicly since Camacho’s arrest, called that attitude “worrisome” and said they hope that his “silence” does not mean disagreement with the investigations and processes against “the authors and accomplices of the coup d’état” of 2019.

Both Choquehuanca and Evo dispute the representation of different indigenous sectors and the moment of rupture was when the former president played for his reelection and the now vice-president, who came from being chancellor and aspired to be his successor, did not align himself.

According to the political scientist Fernando Molina in a dialogue with this portal, for the return of MAS, in 2021, Evo managed to push him aside and Arce’s candidacy worked as a kind of stopper. “They were never reconciled”, considered Molina. Today Choquehuanca has his force distributed among the Foreign Ministry and in other ministries; in addition to having the support of the Aymara social movements living in La Paz and in the northwest of the country.

Translation by Miguel S. for Internationalist 360°