From a Texan-Venezuelan to an Ecuadorian Giuliani: The New Secessionists

Having
failed to halt the tide of South America’s Pink Tide, Washington is
seeking to cultivate relationships with secessionist leaders in order
to facilitate the breakup of countries which share left leaning
governments. 

By Nikolas Kozloff - CounterPunch
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Having
failed to halt the tide of South America’s Pink Tide, Washington is
seeking to cultivate relationships with secessionist leaders in order
to facilitate the breakup of countries which share left leaning
governments.  In Bolivia, the United States Agency for International
Development (USAID) has explicitly supported demands of the political
opposition for greater regional autonomy in the eastern section of the
country and has funneled millions of dollars to the right.

It’s
an inflammatory move which has incited a diplomatic firestorm
throughout the region.  Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, an important
ally of the Morales government in La Paz, has said that his country
will not stand for secession in Bolivia’s eastern lowland states.  The
stage now seems set for confrontation, as Bolivia's largest and richest
state overwhelmingly backed a referendum calling for greater autonomy
earlier this month. 

Chávez
declared that his government has not meddled in the domestic affairs of
other Latin American nations, but would do so if Bolivian states now
seeking greater autonomy from Bolivia's central government push for
total independence.  On his weekend radio and television program, the
Venezuelan leader blamed "oligarchs" and "fascists" in Bolivia for the
unrest.

"The CIA and its lackeys" aimed at seizing control of regional
governments through illegal referendums, Chávez said, "but we will
defeat that plan through integration, political union and ideological
strength." 

News
of the secession movement in Bolivia has alarmed the Venezuelan
authorities.  It’s not difficult to see why: in western Venezuela, the
right wing opposition is pushing for greater autonomy from the central
government.  In response to the political crisis in Bolivia, Chávez
likened opposition efforts to win control of states near Venezuela's
border with Colombia to "separatist" moves in the impoverished Andean
nation to the south.  With secession rapidly turning into a worrisome
political dilemma for regional governments, right wing opposition
figures are now coming to the fore. 

Who are these secession leaders who wish to derail South America’s Pink Tide?

A Texan Venezuelan

With
the largest inland lake in Latin America, the most fertile land and 40
percent of Venezuela's oil production, the western state of Zulia and
its capital Maracaibo may rightly claim to be the country's productive
backbone.  Zulia has always thought of itself as the Texas of Venezuela
-- a land dominated by oil, cattle and predominantly conservative
politicians.  It is the country’s most affluent and populous state.

Local residents have long taken pride in zulianidad - a state identity based loosely on Caribbean food and hospitality, a local musical genre known as gaita,
and the syncretic Christian practices that dominate local religious
life, chief among them worship of the "Black Christ" housed in
Maracaibo's cathedral. 

In
the twentieth century some “Zulianos” sought greater autonomy from the
central government.  Historical documents in the Public Records Office
of Kew Gardens in London suggest that U.S. oil companies have been
embroiled in secession plots (for more on this murky history, see my
earlier Counterpunch articles on Zulia secession). 

Currently,
the most high profile politician pushing for greater Zulia autonomy is
Manuel Rosales.  Born in 1952, Rosales began his political career in
the 1970s as a local member of the city council in the town of Santa
Barbara del Zulia.  A teacher, Rosales rose through the ranks of Acción
Democrática, one of the two corrupt parties that dominated Venezuelan
political life in the twentieth century. 

Rosales
went on to be elected mayor of Maracaibo and formed his own party, A
New Time.  An implacable foe of Hugo Chávez, Rosales went on to be
elected Zulia governor in 2000.  Even as Chávez and his followers
racked up one electoral victory after the next, Rosales defied
conventional political wisdom by winning reelection in 2004. 

“I Made a Mistake in Good Faith”

A
politician who defines himself as a believer in freedom and social
justice, Rosales nevertheless supported the U.S.-supported 2002 coup
against Chávez.  Rosales was a signatory to the infamous “Carmona
Decree” dissolving Venezuela’s democratic institutions.  He later
claimed, unconvincingly, that he had made a mistake “in good faith.” 
At the time he signed the decree, Rosales argued, it appeared as if
Chávez had voluntarily resigned from the presidency amidst urban
confusion and gun battles erupting in the streets of Caracas.

In
December, 2006 Rosales ran against Chávez in the presidential
election.  Though he received support from the middle class opposition
he went down to bitter defeat, losing by some 25 percentage points. 
The campaign unfolded amidst a climate of intrigue, as Chávez accused
Rosales and the U.S. of promoting Zulia’s political independence and
having ties with Rumbo Propio (or “Own Way”), a group which supported
Zulia separatism.  Néstor Suárez, an anti-Chávez figure who opposed the
government’s social programs in favor of “liberal economics,” led the
right wing organization.

Though
Chávez has failed to prove that Rosales had any link to secessionist
plots launched by the likes of the U.S. or Rumbo Propio, the Zulia
governor has cultivated close ties to the U.S. since his electoral
defeat in 2006.  Last year, prior to Venezuela’s vote on a
constitutional referendum, Rosales went to Washington to meet with
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas
Shannon.  Rosales urged the U.S. to press Chávez to slow his
constitutional overhaul plan which would have accelerated the
government’s progressive social agenda and abolished presidential term
limits.

Ratcheting
up the pressure yet further on Chávez, Rosales now says that he favors
some degree of regional autonomy for Zulia.  The Zulia governor has
said that he favors greater independence from Caracas on the grounds
that the government intends to take power away from states and
municipalities, and “centralize everything.” 

Rosales’s
statements come in the wake of a renewed autonomy push by New Time
state legislators.  In early May, they proposed a feasibility study for
potential autonomy from the federal government which they compared to
the autonomy efforts in Bolivia’s wealthy province of Santa Cruz. 

In
response to the inflammatory moves by Rosales’ party, Chávez supporters
have lashed back.  “We legislators categorically reject this
separatist, secessionist proposal of the state because it goes against
our values and the integral development of the country,” said José Luis
Acosta, a pro-Chávez state legislator from Zulia.  Acosta added that
“We, with the law, with the People in the street, and with the armed
forces, will put up a fight.”

“I Need to Urinate On You”

Venezuela
is not the only country facing an internal secessionist movement.  In
Ecuador, the right opposition to President Rafael Correa is coalescing
around Jaime Nebot, the mayor of the coastal city of Guayaquil. 
Affiliated to the country’s Social Christian Party, Nebot ran twice for
the Presidency, in 1992 and 1996.  During his second presidential bid,
Nebot ran on a pro-business platform stressing privatization of public
services. 

Born
into a prominent Guayaquil family, Nebot entered politics in 1984 when
President Leon Febres-Cordero appointed the ambitious young man
Governor of Guayas province, the district encompassing Guayaquil.  

Nebot’s
association with Febres-Cordero, a key ally of Ronald Reagan at the
time, is not flattering.  As I explain in my new book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left
(Palgrave-Macmillan), torture and killing by the military as well as
disappearances and arbitrary arrests multiplied in Ecuador during this
unfortunate period of the country’s political history.

Later,
Nebot rose to national prominence when he won a seat in Congress on the
Social Christian Party slate.  While serving in Congress, Nebot became
known for his colorful and tasteless outbursts.  In August, 1990 Nebot,
visibly agitated, began yelling hysterically at a fellow congressman,
Víctor Granda of the Socialist Party. "Come here so I can urinate on
you," Nebot shouted memorably at Granda. "I can't just hit you. I have
to urinate on you."  Police had to physically intervene to stop Nebot
from physically assaulting his adversary.  The incident was caught on
Ecuadoran national TV and has been preserved for posterity on YouTube. 

Ecuador’s Giuliani

In
2000 Nebot was elected Mayor of Guayaquil where he pursued a
conservative, pro-business agenda emphasizing gentrification and crime
busting (he was reelected in 2004 to another four year term).  In his
zealous drive to emulate tough guy Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Nebot
contracted former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton to
help shape the city's urban regeneration strategy in 2002.  Nebot flew
Bratton in from the United States, paying him an enormous sum of money
for just three days of work.  Bratton proposed an overhaul of
Guayaquil's anti-crime structure which later became known as "Plan
Bratton.”

The
New York cop’s anti-crime structure has formed part and parcel of the
city’s regeneration plan, which has turned Guayaquil into a kind of
dystopian urban nightmare.  In the new Guayaquil, urban “undesirables”
found working in gentrified areas face tough penalties: beggars and
itinerant vendors may be imprisoned for up to seven days and fines can
reach as high as $500.

“Just Like Miami”

A newly constructed boardwalk called the Malecón 2000
is praised by many local residents as being “just like Miami.” 
However, indigenous street vendors do not fit into this ideal and there
have been ongoing efforts to remove them from cleaned up urban spaces. 
In an excellent and thorough recent scholarly article, University of
Glasgow geographer Kate Swanson described the contours of Nebot’s
social policy. 

The
boulevard, she writes, “is monitored by heavily armed police who
individually assess who can enter the gated grounds and who cannot.
Within the regenerated area, there are now at least 52 police-operated
video cameras running 24 hours a day. This municipal gaze is not only
concerned with crime control; rather, a key function of the cameras is
to monitor the regenerated areas for the occupation of public
space—particularly by informal workers.”

The Malecón,
which lies adjacent to the Guayas River, is totally manicured and
sanitized.  Pedestrians may lounge in cafes and gardens, sit on benches
or even eat in a local McDonald’s.  “Yet,” notes Swanson, “this too is
guarded and monitored by heavily armed police during all opening hours.
The gates close at midnight to prevent undesirables from sneaking in
and spending the night. This boardwalk was designed with tourists and
Guayaquil's upper-middle classes in mind.”

According
to Swanson, there’s been much criticism of the social impacts of
Nebot’s revitalization projects.  In fact, she notes, newspaper
articles have been replete with complaints by informal workers
denouncing police harassment.  In 2003 alone, the media reported 10
cases of excessive police force in Guayaquil, many of which were
captured on film.  At night, informal workers are not allowed to pass
into revitalized areas of the city, and the streets are patrolled by
truckloads of young, heavily armed police officers.

Nebot to Correa: “We Refuse to Be Guinea Pigs”

Having
failed in his presidential ambitions, Nebot is now seeking to
capitalize on secessionist sentiment in Guayas, the nation’s most
affluent province.  The populous, agricultural region contributes a
huge share of money to the central government and is rich in natural
resources.  Banana, cocoa, rice, sugar cane, cotton, tropical flowers
and fruits are grown there, both for domestic consumption and export. 
There is a fishing industry, focused mainly on tuna and on shrimp
farming, and food, cement, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries. 
What’s more, Guayaquil is the nation’s largest port.  

If
Guayas were to ever secede from Ecuador, such a move would prove
economically devastating for the country.  Nebot however is determined
to turn up the pressure on Correa, saying that the government needs to
stop its “socialist project” before the country cracks up.  Nebot and
his followers argue that Correa’s desire to reform the country’s
constitution is aimed at making the President a “Chávez-style”
dictator.  

In
January, 2008 Nebot led a march of tens of thousands through
Guayaquil’s streets in the name of defending the city’s autonomy from
Correa’s plans for further centralization.  Supporters waved the city's
blue and white flag and chanted "Long live Guayaquil, dammit," and
"Down with Correa." 

"As
long as you are alive and I am alive, he will never push us around,"
Nebot shouted to the crowd. "We will not be guinea pigs of a failed
experiment."  An estimated 150,000-200,000 people attended the protest,
around double the number who joined a government-sponsored march in
Guayaquil a week earlier to mark the Correa government’s first
anniversary in power.

Meet Rubén Costas: Bolivia’s Secessionist

Fair
skinned and European looking, Rubén Costas hardly resembles Bolivia’s
indigenous president Evo Morales.  Elected Prefect of the western
department of Santa Cruz in 2005, Costas has become a key advocate for
greater regional autonomy and a thorn in the side of the government in
La Paz. 

Following
Costas’ election, the right opposition escalated its pressure on the
Morales government, organizing protests in the city of Sucre against
the President’s proposed Constitution which would have given the
country’s indigenous majority a greater say in political decision
making.  When clashes erupted which resulted in the deaths of three
demonstrators and a policeman, Costas pounced by calling for a 24-hour
business strike. 

An
advocate for powerful business interests, Costas was also one of the
right wing politicians who called for a referendum on Santa Cruz
autonomy earlier this month.  Prior to the referendum, Costas remarked
hopefully that the departments of Tarija, Pando and Benin would join
Santa Cruz in its drive for autonomy and “a second Bolivia will be
created.”

On
the eve of the referendum vote, Costas assured Bolivians that there
would be no violence.  At a rally, he announced “We don't want
dynamite, nor clubs, nor rancor. The democratic vote is our only
weapon."  Predictably however, Election Day was marked by violent
clashes between government supporters opposed to the autonomy statute
-- mainly indigenous migrants from Bolivia’s impoverished western
highlands provinces -- and members of the rightwing Santa Cruz Youth
Union.  

As
a result of the May referendum, the stage is now set for irrevocable
future conflict: 85% of the residents of Santa Cruz voted for
autonomy.  As part of the referendum Costas himself will take over as
Governor of the department, though Morales has called the vote illegal
and nonbinding.  Making further mischief, Santa Cruz leaders have
pledged to withhold levies paid by energy companies operating in the
area.

Santa Cruz, Guayas, and Zulia: What Do They Have in Common?

Like
Guayas and Zulia, affluent provinces in Ecuador and Venezuela
respectively, Santa Cruz is the richest department in Bolivia. 
Bolivia’s eastern departments account for most of the country’s natural
gas production, industry and gross domestic product.  Like Chávez, who
is worried that Zulia secession would lead to a cutoff of oil revenue,
Morales can ill afford secession in the east: Bolivia is South
America’s poorest country and desperately needs proceeds from the gas
industry. 

There’s
a racial and political dimension to these conflicts too.  In Ecuador,
it is Nebot and the predominantly white and mestizo coastal elite which
seek to secede from the Indian highlands.  In the small Andean nation,
it’s the Indians who are pushing radical social change, whereas whites
and mestizos on the coast fear the rise of socialism. 

In
Bolivia, there’s a similar dynamic at work: Morales’s indigenous
supporters in the highlands constitute the radical political vanguard
which are increasingly at odds with whites and mestizos in the
lowlands.  In Santa Cruz, the elite fears Morales’ plans to promote
land reform and to capture greater energy revenue for the central state.

The
similarities between these secessionist movements are not lost on the
region’s leaders.  Javier Zárata, the Bolivian Ambassador to Ecuador,
recently remarked that“what is occurring in Bolivia is not an isolated
action.” “I know there have been coordination meetings last year and
the year before among representatives from Santa Cruz and
representatives of Guayaquil, and other states of other countries,” the
diplomat added.

Speaking
on his weekly radio show, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa said that
“oligarchical and separatist” Bolivians were trying to destabilize the
Morales government.  Correa remarked that regional governments would
not stand for secessionist movements in Santa Cruz, Zulia and Guayas. 
Elites in all three countries, Correa declared, sought to roll back
progressive social change “so as to continue with imperialistic and
neo-liberal policies.”

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan)