June 25, 2004

Corruption, the enemy of Autonomy?

MABB is a registered TM.

StaCruz-demoThe display of support for regional autonomy from around 150,000 people in Santa Cruz de la Sierra has sparked a debate over a topic that up to now was taboo in Bolivia.

The participants of this demonstration gathered around the Cristo Redentor monument to demand the Mesa administration for a referendum on the issue of regional autonomy until the end of this year.

Such demand has sparked criticism from the part of politicians and government officials in La Paz. The minister of Economic Development, Horst Grebe Lopez, has criticized the demand as a step backwards for Bolivia. Members of parliament representing MAS, NFR, MNR, MIR, have also criticized harshly the call for autonomy. High officials of organized labour (COB) have questioned the motives of such a move.

On the other side, the Santa Cruz parliamentary faction has confirmed its support and intentions to continue working for the referendum. As have municipal officials of Santa Cruz and leaders of civic organizations.

One major aspect of this debate is whether or not autonomy will indeed bring Bolivia forward in its efforts to re-activate its economy and bring much needed stability in the country. If we look around for other examples that provide a positive argument for increased autonomy, we can find an interesting example in the case of Spain. However, Bolivia is no Spain. The differences are real and have to be accounted for.

Corruption is a malign cancer which is ingrained deep within Bolivian society. Is from this point of view that one can see problems arising when and if autonomy is implemented. There are plenty of examples to cite at the moment arising from popular participation and the municipal governments. The latest example being the tragic case of Ayo-Ayo, where the mayor was murdered by people on the community. The community cited the Major's illegal appropriation of municipal funds for which he was being investigated and the freezing of such funds as a result of the investigation. Similar indictments were filed in the municipalities of Warnes, Buena Vista and San Miguel de Velasco located in the department of Santa Cruz. The accusations also point to municipal officials appropriating funds illegally. These funds were also frozen.

These kinds of conflicts bring great problems for the municipalities themselves. In one case, the hospital does not have any electricity because the local government cannot fulfill its obligations. In other cases, government projects cannot be implemented due to the lack of funds. As a result people suffer and are pushed to their limits.

The real danger of this situation is the reaction a community will or might have as a result of the problems affecting the community. If some municipalities decide to follow the example of Ayo-Ayo, as in the case of Warnes, then the central government has a real difficult situation in its hands.

Moreover, with autonomy in place, won't these cases of corruption have more opportunity and even more incentives? After all, these corrupt officials will not have anyone to control them and will be responsible for their own actions. The opportunities for all kinds of irregularities are there, I'd say.