Will Bolivia’s Half Moon Rise Again?

By Robert Albro

In early 2014 Bolivian President Evo Morales’s main nemesis, the Media Luna (or Half Moon), composing the eastern departments of Tarija, Pando, and Beni, and led by the economically powerful department of Santa Cruz, has all but vanished politically. Morales is a prohibitive favorite to win a third term, while the opposition Social Democratic Movement built on the vestiges of the Media Luna is not a serious electoral contender. In 2008 this seemed highly improbable. Evo Morales was in a battle for control of Bolivia’s future. The Media Luna was in open revolt. The conflict had begun with Morales’s election in 2005 and was exacerbated by the acrimonious constituent assembly of 2006-2007. It came to a head over the MAS government’s intention to nationalize the country’s natural gas industry and use royalties from Tarija’s vast reserves to fund a new national pension plan. The Media Luna wanted greater regional autonomy and control over revenues. Its August 2008 revolt, which raged for several months, included a region-wide strike, widespread road blocks, takeover of natural gas facilities, government offices, and airports, and violent skirmishes between youth brigades and the police and army, culminating in the killing or wounding of dozens of pro-MAS indigenous marchers in Pando.

Then what happened? The Media Luna, led by elites who had dominated Bolivia’s economic and political fortunes at least up through the second Banzer regime (1997-2001), discovered the limits of its diminishing influence. Throughout the conflict in 2008, Morales maintained control of the machinery of state, including the police and the military, while opposition leaders lacked a political party, critical presence in government, or the international leverage to oust the MAS government. Nor did they have a clear agenda beyond opposition to Morales. Their at times racist attacks fueled national outrage, mobilized defenders of the government, and elicited international condemnation. Accused of conspiring with the Media Luna, the U.S. ambassador was expelled. Media Luna overtures to the OAS were rejected. Most tellingly, UNASUR issued an unequivocal statement supporting Morales’s “constitutional government” and comparing Media Luna tactics to the ousting of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973.

Morales’s 67% victory total in the 2008 recall vote, convened as a concession to the opposition, hastened its fragmentation. Moreover, the MAS has made steady electoral inroads in the East, in part capitalizing upon a demographic shift. Santa Cruz is now far from “wealthy and white,” and the MAS enjoys sizable support among indigenous groups, highland in-migrants, urban and rural poor, and small business owners. Support for the MAS led to popular rejection of autonomy initiatives in these departments. The MAS has also successfully recruited candidates among former elite enemies, a strategy of cooptation that has enabled it to gain six of nine governorships (including in Pando). Even in the once reactionary bastion of Santa Cruz, the MAS won nine of fifteen provinces in the most recent elections. At the same time, the MAS has promoted its model of state capitalism with the private sector, promising to respect private property, and pledging economic development, even as it has begun to expropriate the agricultural holdings of many lowland opposition leaders.

What seemed an existential threat to Morales and the MAS in 2008 has been reduced to a disjointed cadre of right-wing ideologues in 2014. The fate of the Media Luna is a lesson about the sometimes rapidly changing political and economic circumstances around elites in Bolivia and Latin America. The MAS firmly controls the Bolivian state and enjoys broadly distributed electoral support. Despite occasional tensions, neighboring states have also backed the Morales administration. With major agribusiness and hydrocarbons investments in Bolivia, Brazil energetically pressured Media Luna leaders to negotiate with the MAS government. Internationally isolated, lacking a credible electoral instrument, with less economic clout than in the past, Media Luna elites also have lost their historical monopoly brokering access to the global economy. Perhaps hardest to recapture: they no longer appear able to offer a compelling national project or vision for the future.

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