avoided any meaningful coverage of Bolivia since the election of Evo
Morales in December, 2005, the international media is now obliged to
play catch up. Yesterday, the Andean nation of 9.1 million held a
crucial vote which could pave the way for secession of the
resource-rich Santa Cruz region.
a challenge to Morales’ authority, more than 80% of voters approved a
referendum which would allow more powers for Santa Cruz, an area which
is responsible for about 30 percent of Bolivia's gross domestic product
while making up about a quarter of the country's population. Morales,
who rejected the autonomy vote as illegal, called on the opposition to
engage in a dialogue with his government.
Fundamentally, the Santa Cruz imbroglio is a struggle over oil and gas.
mixed race elite in the lowlands wants more local control over the
resources while Morales, who has the support of indigenous peoples in
the highlands, wants the wealthier eastern regions to contribute more
to the poorer west.
leaders in Santa Cruz are particularly incensed by a new draft
constitution which would limit large land holdings. In a repudiation
of the constitutional reforms, the people of Santa Cruz voted yesterday
to give their region more control over land distribution, as well as
rich oil and gas reserves.
So what happens next?
Santa Cruz referendum has set an ominous precedent: three other eastern
provinces, Tarija, Pando, and Bendi, which also possess large fields of
crude oil and natural gas, have said they too will vote on greater
autonomy. If voters there move to repudiate the central government as
well, it could set up a civil war scenario leading to national breakup.
The Secret Hand Behind Secession
political tensions were not high enough, Morales escalated matters
further when he accused the U.S. of backing eastern secessionists.
Warning that he would take “radical decisions” against foreign
diplomats who become involved in Bolivian politics, Morales remarked “I
cannot understand how some ambassadors dedicate themselves to politics,
and not diplomacy, in our country. That is not called cooperation. That
is called conspiracy."
Meanwhile, Vice President Álvaro García accused the U.S Embassy of
financing "publications, trips, and seminars" to help Morales'
opposition develop "ideological and political resistance" to the
Morales has some just reason to be paranoid. As I document in some detail in my current book, Revolution!
South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan),
Morales’s socialist agenda, coca-style nationalism and hostility to
economic neo-liberalism has hardly succeeded in ingratiating himself
amongst the Beltway elite. The Bolivian leader’s increasingly close
ties to Venezuela and Cuba have similarly set off the alarm bell for
an effort to rollback social and political change in Bolivia, the U.S
has funneled millions of dollars to opposition groups through USAID and
The National Endowment for Democracy. What’s more, USAID explicitly
supports demands of the right wing for greater regional autonomy in the
not the first time, however, that the U.S. has sought to encourage
secessionist sentiment within South American regions possessing rich
1908, the US helped to support a military coup d'etat in Venezuela
launched by Juan Vicente Gómez. Gómez's primary goal was to establish a
strong, centralized state. To achieve this, he would have to head off
secessionist sentiment in the westernmost state of Zulia.
a brutal dictator, could ill afford political problems in the west.
Measuring 63,100 square kilometers, with 178,388 inhabitants in 1908,
Zulia was not only large in terms of sheer land mass, but also
economically important. When Gómez took power, Zulia had the most
substantial budget of any Venezuelan state. The largest city,
Maracaibo, had a population of about 39,000 at the turn of the century.
discovery of vast oil deposits in Lake Maracaibo complicated matters
somewhat for Gómez. U.S. President Warren Harding attached singular
importance to promoting the expansion of U.S. oil interests abroad, and
the State Department was riddled with officials compromised by
conflicts of interest.
example, William T.S. Doyle, the resident manager of Shell Oil in
1919-1920, was a former head of the State Department's Division of
Latin American Affairs. Jordan Stabler, another State Department
official, went on to work for Gulf Oil. Francis Loomis, a powerful
State Department official, later worked for Standard Oil.
December 1921, Gómez received a shock when he was apprised of a plot
for a military invasion of Venezuela. The plan was foiled when the
Dutch authorities stopped a ship setting forth from Holland. The ship
had been chartered to travel to Venezuela, apparently to engage in a
"filibustering expedition." Another ship was prevented from setting
sail from England. Both ships, the British Public Records Office
stated, had been funded to the tune of $400,000 by "oil interests of
the United States," which "had been pulling every possible string in
order to block the development of the British Concessions which they
ultimately hoped to get hold of."
the plot hatched by American oil interests never came to fruition, the
growing oil presence was a concern for Santos Gómez, the Zulia state
governor. In 1923, he personally wrote Gómez, warning his chief that
oil workers could be subverted by enemies of the regime.
The U.S. Navy in Zulia
the later Republican administration of Calvin Coolidge espoused a
policy of non-intervention in Latin American affairs. Nevertheless,
Gómez acted decisively to appoint a stronger and more competent state
governor in Zulia, Vincencio Pérez Soto. According to the historian
Brian McBeth, rumors of oil companies sponsoring Zulia secession
concerned Gómez and convinced the dictator of the need to appoint a
stronger man as state president. Clearly, the oil-rich Zulia region was
increasingly critical. By 1928, in fact, Venezuela would become the
leading world oil exporter.
the 1920s, U.S. economic interests in Zulia grew, with American oil
companies such as Standard Oil and Gulf joining their British
counterparts in the Lake Maracaibo area. According to the U.S. consul
in Maracaibo, Alexander Sloan, there was widespread disaffection in
Maracaibo against the Gómez government. Sloan said that Zulia natives
as well as Maracaibo residents "do not now and have not for years felt
any great affection for the central government."
Pérez Soto was confronted with unsettling news. On July 2, 1926 the USS
Niagara arrived off the coast of Zulia. The U.S. consul requested that
the sailors be allowed to celebrate the 4th of July in Venezuela. When
an air officer attached to the Niagara requested permission to fly over
Maracaibo in honor of July 4th, Pérez Soto grew suspicious. Reports
reached the governor that the real reason for the over flight was to
take aerial photographs of the region. Pérez Soto barred the
disembarking of the Niagara crew and refused to authorize the
Gómez, the governor related that the U.S. sought to station the Niagara
in Venezuelan waters "as a kind of sentinel of North American interests
in Venezuela." Pérez Soto then employed his intelligence to obtain
detailed reports concerning the activities of U.S. marines from the
Niagara on Zapara island, located in the mouth of the Maracaibo Bar.
Soto uncovered that the Niagara crew had mounted a wireless radio with
a reach of 2,000 miles. Pérez Soto was particularly concerned that
powerful sectors of Maracaibo society might conspire with the United
States to further Zulia secession with the aim of separating the state
from the rest of Venezuela.
The Republic of Zulia
an effort to lessen tensions with foreign interests, Pérez Soto assured
oil company managers that he was "anxious to discuss their problems
with them and to lend them any aid in his power." Pérez Soto sought to
assert his authority over the oil companies through diplomatic and
legal means. As the U.S. consul put it, Pérez Soto and local officials
were determined "that conditions such as existed in Tampico [Mexico]
are not to be tolerated here, and [they] have become much stricter in
enforcing discipline and obedience to the laws." In a note to Gómez,
Pérez Soto mused that perhaps the oil companies would put up with
legality and honesty—"or maybe not, and they will try to undermine me,"
through their representatives in Caracas.
many respects Pérez Soto had been more a more forceful governor than
his predecessors. For Gómez, however, the risk was that the more
powerful Pérez Soto became, the greater the possibility that the
charismatic politician would become a rival in his own right. As Gómez
consolidated power he faced yet further military unrest, and there were
ample opportunities for Pérez Soto to create intrigue.
July 1928 Col. Jose Maria Fossi, a trusted Gómez subordinate, turned
against the dictator, taking the city of La Vela de Coro for a few
hours. The military uprising, which called for revolutionaries to be
reinforced by 300 Venezuelan and 90 Dominican rebels working in
Curacao, was crushed by Gómez's troops. Fossi later remarked that
Pérez Soto had approached him and offered him money in exchange for his
support in fomenting a separatist movement. The ultimate aim was to
form a new republic comprising the Venezuelan states of Zulia, Falcon,
and the Catatumbo region of Colombia. The venture, added Fossi, would
have the support of the oil companies in Lake Maracaibo.
such reports must be treated cautiously, Colombian authorities were
apparently concerned about a plot and Bogotá's House of Deputies met in
secret session to discuss "moves of Yankee agents in the Departments of
Santander and Goagira which sought to provoke a separatist movement
which, united to Zulia, would form the Republic of Zulia." Pérez Soto
dismissed rumors of his involvement in Zulia secession as "treason
against the Fatherland, and an immense dishonor." However, Pérez Soto's
credibility was further damaged when correspondence reached Gómez
himself hinting at efforts to involve Pérez Soto in Zulia secessionist
plots. McBeth writes that "important oilmen with close connections with
the State Department had enquired about the suitability of Pérez Soto
as President of Zulia."
What is the present day relevance of all this history? We must remember that the U.S. helped to install Gómez in the first place
and sent U.S. gunboats to help the dictator to power in 1908. What’s
more, Gómez himself was a solid anti-Communist. And yet, powerful
interests in the United States were still not satisfied with
Gómez’s reactionary credentials and sought to intrigue against the
dictator. Given the history, it is hardly surprising that the U.S.
would now encourage secessionist sentiment in Bolivia, a country whose
President displays far less ideological affinity with Washington than
Gómez during the early twentieth century.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Hugo
Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Revolution!
South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan,