The 109th Congress heads for the exits “Para-politics” and the security forces
Dec 082006

Wealthy Bolivians are up in arms about a new land-reform law that might allow the government to expropriate "unproductive" land from large landholders and distribute it to landless campesinos. The law is one of many grievances driving protests against President Evo Morales in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city and a center of cattle-ranching and conservative politics.

In that context, consider this article, published yesterday by the Bolivian presidency’s news service. In a ceremony attended by Bolivia’s high military command, Morales handed out 1,024 parcels of land to sergeants and other non-commissioned officers. Excerpts:

The president of the republic, Evo Morales, delivered this Thursday afternoon, in the zone of La Tamborada, south of the city of Cochabamba, 1,024 plots of land to sergeants and warrant officers of the armed forces.

Before members of the military high command and a multitude who gathered in the zone of La Tamborada, the president of the Bolivians said that in the coming year, housing policies will be much more aggressive.

… The commander-in-chief also commented that he had been in Trinidad the previous month to hand out land and housing for teachers; the same was done in Riberalta for the blue-collar manufacturing sector. "And now we are here, together with warrant officers and sergeants of the Armed Forces."

… To the members of the Landless Movement he explained that he handed over housing to members of the armed forces this Thursday because they are also sons of the pueblo (popular sectors), who are prepared to defend the fatherland, since in this government this institution no longer has a repressive face.

"It is also the government’s obligation to attend to the armed forces’ demands," he remarked.

Making the military one of the first beneficiaries of government land giveaways is a novel idea, though it is definitely not a step forward for civil-military relations:

  • It politicizes the military by encouraging it to buy into a domestic policy agenda.

  • It provides a material incentive for loyalty to the state and the constitution, when such incentives should not be necessary.

However, it is brilliant politics:

  • It seeks to convince Bolivia’s military – a mostly conservative institution which until about 25 years ago had a long history of coups – to keep out of politics and support a commander-in-chief from the left, even amid a serious political crisis.

  • It seeks to drive a wedge between the military and the Santa Cruz landowning elite.

In 1954, shortly after he began expropriating unused land from U.S. fruit companies and other large landowners, Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz was deposed by a CIA-sponsored military coup. Decades of horrific violence followed. Would the story have been different had Arbenz distributed some of the land to soldiers?

3 Responses to “Keeping the soldiers happy in Bolivia”

  1. richtiger Says:

    My wife’s former employer and mentor, a Bolivian lady, owns and lives on a ranch near Santa Cruz.
    It’s probably too modest to attract Eva Morales’ attention; but I can well imagine that the lady in question might be upset by Morales’ land policy. At least, she has in the past voiced concerns about “agitators.”

    Of course, the main point of Adams’ post is the distribution of land to the military; but more general questions of justice float in the background.

    Where is the justice in the accumulated wealth of the Colombian oligarchy? Where, indeed, is the justice in my personal position as a member of the American lower middle class and the owner (more or less) of a house, two cars, and three computers.

    Like my Bolivian acquaintance, I might be unhappy if I had to give one of my computers to someone in Colombia or Bolivia. But that might be more just.

  2. jcg Says:

    richtiger: It would also be more just if you gave them to anyone else in America or in the rest of the world that can’t afford to have a PC, not just those in Colombia or Bolivia.

    Otherwise, I’m no great landowner or anything like that, but I’d be willing to pay more taxes and even give up some of my limited, non-essential possessions if it was done in a reasonable and useful manner, not as part of a revolutionary orgy of arbitrarity.

    Redistribution is a just concept, but the methods employed to implement it should also be just.

  3. Randy Paul Says:

    Regarding Arbenz & United Fruit, I doubt if buying off the military with land would have made a difference. What was amazing about the Guatemala Coup was how great it was a triumph of style over substance. In other words, the force in Guatemala could have probably repelled the actual in vaders, but the CIA’s propaganda arm did an effective job of making everyone think that a huge force was coming into Guatemala to throw Arbenz out.

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