Bolivian Lessons for Rojava

By Carlos Rocabado:

Bolivians vote for a new constitution, 2009

Bolivians vote for a new constitution, 2009

In 2005, a national revolution led by the Movimiento Al Socialismo (Movement towards Socialism, MAS) concluded its victorious ascendance with an incontestable victory in the general elections; Evo Morales, an indigenous leader, was elected president. With the MAS in office, the way was opened to a Constituent Assembly. The prospect of a new Constitution brought new hopes of equality and redistribution. It also raised expectations for a new territorial reconfiguration.

A first territorial issue was that of the Chaco. There is a region in South America called the Gran Chaco. It divides itself between three countries: Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia. The chaqueños are proud of their culture, and while they do not constitute a differentiated ethnic group or have their own language, they clearly held regionalist views in the constituent process in Bolivia.

Bolivia is divided into nine departments, which are in turn divided into municipalities. The regionalist chaqueños are distributed in three oriental departments of the country: Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca and Tarija, and comprise 3% of the national population. They dreamt of a tenth department: the Chaco, which would unite the chaqueños distributed in the three departments that were created during the colonialist and republican periods, both in disgrace during the constituent process. Other groups also longed for a reconfiguration of the administrative division of Bolivia: indigenist groups wanted to recreate some features of the ancient precolonial cultures through indigenous autonomies that superseded the existing municipalities.

However, in the constituent assembly of 2007-2009 the MAS ended up supporting conservative views over territorial administration issues. The MAS was interested in the dangerous income and political power that a single department had: Tarija holds the biggest reserves of hydrocarbons in Bolivia and was in that moment in hands of the opposition. The ruling party then pushed to create a new territorial layer, the “region”, formed on top of the municipalities but under the departments; this only happened in Tarija, though, to accomplish the political objectives of the central government. It did not create similar chaqueño regions in the departments of Chuquisaca and Santa Cruz. In fact, no other region has been created in the country since then. In terms of indigenous autonomies, it pushed for the conversion of eleven municipalities to indigenous entities (the guaraní indigenous minority have used this option in two municipalities of the Bolivian Chaco, in the departments of Chuquisaca and Santa Cruz; proving that the Chaco region itself is not that homogenous). No other municipality has since demanded this type of conversion. Territorially speaking, the socialist revolution is experiencing important difficulties in reorganizing the administrative division it has inherited.

Chaco region, Bolivia

Chaco region, Bolivia

The MAS, a socialist party, recently declared its support for the Rojava resistance movement against ISIS through the Chamber of Deputies it controls. It is no less important to say that the MAS also supports the Assad regime, a position fuelled by the international policy pursued by Iran in the Latin American region during the past decade. This is an apparently contradictory position that has yet to be resolved.

The Rojava Charter mentions three autonomous regions, Afrin, Jazira and Kobane, while it also calls them cantons (art. 3). These regions and cantons have relative correspondence with the administrative division of Syria. What are the options then in a post-Assad reform for the Kurd territorial reconfiguration? The most optimistic one is the division of the governorates that have Kurdish population, or that are under Kurdish control. Both conditions are not necessarily correspondent, as the resolution of the civil war depends also in the accomplishments of the YPG/YPJ forces on the field. In an optimistic way, the Aleppo, Ar-Raqqah and Al-Hasakah governorates would have to be partitioned to create the new Rojava region.

But let’s not forget the Bolivian case, where the revolution was led by the central government but it surrendered to itself territorially. An outcome that leads to the Kurdish control of actual Afrin and Kobane districts, and a mild reform on the Al-Hasakah governorate to recreate the ethnically diverse Jazira district/canton, is nothing but a bad outcome after so many lost lives.

The Rojava revolution cannot ignore the historical forces that led up to the constitution of the actual territorial Syrian administrations. If the Kurd region wants a viable future, it should consider all the political facts. A centralist regime cannot completely forget its roots, even under a revolutionary new government. The Rojava revolution should be smart enough, but also quite realistic, about the possibilities of a new territorial configuration on unilateralist terms.

Carlos Rocabado is a decentralization expert, writing from Bolivia.

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