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?