Refounding Bolivia: Morales Calls
for Vote on a New Democratic Constitution
by Raul Burbano, Socialist Voice
Bolivian President Evo Morales has called
for a national referendum on the country's new draft constitution
on December 7. The demand of the Bolivian people for a new and
socially, politically and economically inclusive constitution
is at the heart of the present political upheaval in that country.
Right-wing forces representing the country's
traditional ruling oligarchy have launched a secessionist movement
to balkanize the country, in an attempt to block the constitutional
referendum. They have organized murderous fascist gangs to terrorize
They are backed by the U.S. government,
whose ambassador, Philip Goldberg, has recently been expelled
from Bolivia for his support of the opposition and openly admitted
interference in Bolivian political life.
On the other side the vast majority of
the Bolivians, more than 67% of whom just voted support President
Evo Morales in a recall referendum.
The constitutional struggle in Bolivia
is linked to the broader regional struggle in Latin America over
who will benefit from its wealth - the masses of the continent
or its traditional oligarchy backed by Washington.
The demand for a new constitution is not
limited to Bolivia. In fact, over the past 15 years there's been
a demand for a Constituent Assembly to propose such a document
in virtually every Andean country in Latin America: Colombia (1991),
Peru (1993), Ecuador (1998), and Venezuela (1999). All of these
countries have written or modified their Constitutions. In contrast
to some of these experiences, the demand for a constitution in
Bolivia emerged from grassroots movements and has widespread national
Lengthy constitutional struggle
Bolivia's demand for a Constituent Assembly
is not a recent development; it goes back to the early 1990s.
It emanated from the Guarani people with their "Great March"
from the eastern lowlands of Bolivia to La Paz; their slogan "Land,
Territory and Dignity" which was rooted in the demand for
a Constituent Assembly. Then in early 2000 we saw the demand for
a Constituent Assembly taken up by both urban and rural social
movements who had suffered at the hands of previous governments'
neoliberal policies. This culminated in the Water Wars of Cochabamba,
where residents poured into the streets to protest Bechtel's takeover
of their water system, and the attempted nationalization of their
gas, the Gas Wars in La Paz. During this turbulent period t the
call for a Constituent Assembly merged with the call for a referendum
on the gas issue.
In 2005 the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo)
under Evo Morales was elected under a platform to "refound"
the country's political institutions through a Constituent Assembly.
This was seen as the only way to bring about change and address
the endemic inequalities in the country. The magnitude of inequality
that the MAS is trying to rectify can be summed up by the issue
of land. According to the United Nations' Development Program,
25 million hectares of prime farmland is controlled by 100 families.
In contrast, the remaining five million hectares of farmland in
the country are shared among two million campesinos. This profound
inequality is endemic and represents what is being challenged
with the new constitution.
The Law Convoking the Constituent Assembly
resulted from a negotiated process between the political parties
in the Bolivian Congress and the executive branch headed by Evo
Morales. Bolivians in each of the 70 voting districts elected
three delegates. The party that received the most votes sent two
representatives from the district and the second or third place
party sent one, thus guaranteeing that no party could monopolize
the assembly. The only condition was that a minimum of 30% of
the delegates had to be women. On July 2, 2006, Bolivians elected
255 delegates for the Constituent Assembly. The MAS sent 137 delegates
(64 were women), the opposition 99, and the rest were independents.
There are 411 articles in the new constitution.
Many are progressive and outright revolutionary promising to refound
the country to the benefit of the majority. The new Constitution
is controversial, but the majority of Bolivians, the indigenous
people, fully support it, as the August 2008 recall referendum
Focus of controversy
The following articles or sections of
articles from the new constitution are the most important to the
indigenous majority of Bolivia and also the most controversial.
0. Bolivia is a unitary, plurinational,
communitarian and democratic State: This means that all 36 peoples,
cultures, languages have the same rights and opportunities, and
are recognized equally before the law, institutions, and society.
It refers to a Bolivian unity that respects autonomy - i.e. municipal,
departmental, regional, indigenous-originario, campesino and peasant
autonomies. This guarantees the unity of the state and the democratic
decentralization of power.
0. Plurinational public administration: This refers to all public
functionaries, requiring them to know the dominant indigenous
language of the region where they work. This will enable them
to be able communicate with the people they represent. They are
also to know the Spanish language, to enable then to communicate
with the rest of the Bolivians; and a foreign language, as a link
to the outside world.
0. The nationalization of natural resources, renewable and non-renewable,
under the control and ownership of the Bolivian people: This would
forbid the ownership of gas, oil, mining resources, water, land,
and forests by foreigners. All natural resources will be the property
of Bolivians, for use by Bolivians for the benefit of Bolivians,
and administered by the state.
0. Sovereign natural resources: Non-state organizations are prohibited
from directly involving themselves in the administration, management,
control and preservation of forests, parks, and natural reserves,
as well as biodiversity, all of which are under the control of
0. Social and communitarian economy: The state will participate
in the strategic sectors of the economy. Foreign private investment
will be subordinated to national development plans. Private property
should guarantee that it plays an effective social function for
the benefit of human beings. Ownership in the economy will be
public, private and communitarian. Medium and small rural producers,
agrarian communities and productive associations will receive
state protection, economic support, credits, technology, and infrastructure
in order to guarantee the well being of society. A mixed economy
is proposed to reassure business interests and maintain market
0. Expropriation without indemnification of latifundios: The goal
is to redistribute land amongst producers including those from
the countryside and city who are willing to produce for the benefit
of society. This is a major blow to the giant landholders - the
Ronald Larsens and Branko Marinkovics of the Media Luna (eastern)
0. Reelection and revocation by popular mandate of any elected
authority: Never again will authorities be untouchable owners
of their positions. The people are sovereign and the people can
ratify or change their authorities when they so desire.
0. Election of all authorities of the Judicial Branch, including
the Supreme Court: This is a change from the current undemocratic
model of appointment by congress, which has seen nepotism flourish
in the courts. It looks to redress the balance of power that has
for so long being in the hand of the elites.
0. Recognition of communitarian justice as an alternative, complementary
and ancestral form of solving differences and conflicts: The indigenous
systems of justice would be given the same standing in the official
hierarchy as the existing system.
0. A plurinational Parliament with only one chamber: In essence,
this is a reengineering of the political institutions. The goal
is to break the oligarchies' traditional monopoly in the Senate
that has traditionally acted as an obstacle to all progressive
0. All Bolivians have the right to free health care and education
in equal conditions.
0. Total elimination of illiteracy.
Other articles in the constitution those are relevant and important
0. A new capital of Sucre: Sucre is to
be acknowledged as Bolivia's official capital.
0. Ban on sexual orientation discrimination: Bolivia would be
only the second country in the world, after South Africa, with
this constitutional provision.
0. Bolivia is a country of peace that promotes the culture of
peace. Bolivia repudiates all war of aggression and prohibits
the installation of foreign military bases on its national territory.
0. Water is considered a human right.
0. All the cultural rights for indigenous people are also accorded
to the Afro-Bolivians.
0. A wide number of social rights are established for children,
youth and older people, never before seen in 183 years of Bolivian
The national assembly approved the new
constitution in December 2007. The country's main opposition party
boycotted the assembly vote on the new charter. The constitution
now requires ratification by at least 51% of Bolivian voters in
a national referendum. If voters reject the draft, the country's
existing constitution will remain in effect.
It's important to note that a number of
articles have to be specifically approved by the voters. Among
them is an article that would limit the size of individual land
holdings to a maximum of 10,000 hectares. This is bitterly opposed
by the country's agribusinesses and big landowners of the Media
Luna region in the East. If passed this would have a major impact
on the lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando, and
finally address the historical injustice of unequal land distribution.
The opposition claims the constitution
proposes the creation of two Bolivias: "one for indigenous
people and another for non-indigenous people." As one opposition
member said, "with separate and parallel judicial systems
and languages effectively making the indigenous people first-class
citizens and everyone else second class citizens." The opposition
parties claim that the government is trying to establish a Cuban-type
one-party-dominated state that will put an end to pluralism. They
also argue that the government is just following in the footsteps
of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.
Those who support the constitution feel
that its plurinational communitarian aspect is a decolonization
of the state that for centuries has discriminated and marginalized
the indigenous majority. They believe that it is designed to give
every citizen equal access to Bolivia's resources. Others see
it as confronting the neoliberal doctrine and replacing it with
a viable alternative - the cosmovision of the indigenous people
(communitarian land and rights for nature) - thus creating a more
humanist and just society.
Vice-President Álvaro Garcia Linera
called it a first step in the new road towards "capitalismo
Andino Amazónico" (Andean-Amazonian capitalism) which
will "improve the possibilities of the emancipation of the
worker and community forces in the medium term". The Agencia
Nodo Sur (South Node Agency) explains that "Andean-Amazonian
capitalism is neither socialism nor neoliberalism, but a system
catering to the contemporary realities of Bolivia which recognizes
communal, state, and private forms of economic organization as
being equal under the law"
The "refounding of Bolivia"
with the new constitution and the reengineering of the political
institutions has widened the rift between the mountainous, largely
poor, and indigenous part of the country that backs Morales, and
rulers of the more prosperous Media Luna states, where the opposition
has their base of support.
The conflict is now rapidly coming to
a head. The opposition has said they would not allow the constitution
to be imposed on them. They are instigating a civil war in the
country with the hope that direct U.S. involvement in the conflict
will turn the tide to their advantage. Meanwhile, the government
is pressing for a vote on the new constitution before the end
of this year in the hopes that it will, for once and for all,
Raul Burbano is a member of Toronto Bolivia
Solidarity (email@example.com) and the Latin
American Solidarity Network.