As candidate for the Bolivian presidency in 2005, Evo Morales promised to nationalize hydrocarbon resources and to establish a constituent assembly. Nationalization of natural gas was announced on May 1. On Aug. 6, delegates to a Constituent Assembly gathered in the old capital city of Sucre to formulate Bolivia’s sixth constitution.

Morales told the delegates: “Today, after 181 years of republican existence for our country, the historical moment arrives to re-establish our dear, beloved Bolivia.” He was referring to the exclusion of indigenous people from government at the time of independence in 1826. Today they make up 70 percent of Bolivia’s population.

Morales said the Assembly would have power to reshape existing governmental institutions. The 255 delegates had an “enormous responsibility” to retrieve “the natural resources of this noble land,” he said.

Vice President Alvaro García Linera credited Bolivia’s social movements — such as labor unions and organizations representing small farmers, women and indigenous peoples — for a “peaceful revolution,” and called the Assembly “the most representative in all of Bolivia’s history.” He called upon it to steer the economic system towards economic democracy, create a framework for agrarian reform, and grant indigenous communities a measure of governmental autonomy.

The Assembly was to discuss formation of a council of state whose president would be head of state. Representing the social movements, the council would function alongside the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government and would have an advisory role.

Sylvia Lazarto, an indigenous woman and union leader, was named Assembly president. The government arranged for thousands of indigenous people, from 36 ethnic groups, to march, sing and dance in Sucre as the Assembly opened. The festivities coincided with celebrations honoring the birth of the Bolivian Army 181 years ago, a possible indication of a developing unity between the indigenous movement and the nation’s armed forces. The masses of native peoples in the streets were seen as exerting pressure on the Assembly to serve the social movements. Most of the city’s more privileged inhabitants shunned the crowds, noise and cacophony of languages. The Bolivian media gave the spectacle scant coverage.

But the Assembly stalled during its first weeks. Conflicts have arisen that mirror class and ethnic divisions.

Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party (MAS) had made concessions aimed at enticing political opponents into the process. Planners had agreed that passage of constitutional provisions would require approval by two-thirds of the delegates. MAS forces are now agitating for easing that requirement to 50 percent approval. That is because in the July 2 Assembly elections, the MAS won 135 seats, short of the 170 seats required for two-thirds approval, even with allies. Prospects for negotiation are slim. With the two-thirds requirement, minority parties have gained veto power over proposals for basic change.

In addition, critics point to underrepresentation in the Assembly of the social movements. Labor unions, indigenous organizations, women’s groups and small farmer associations are powerful now in Bolivia. They contributed mightily to Morales’ election victory last year, and some of their leaders feel shortchanged by not having delegate status themselves in the Assembly.

Lastly, a burgeoning autonomy movement is roiling the waters. The Assembly is charged with responding to recent pro-separation votes in four relatively wealthy eastern states. One of them, Santa Cruz, accounts for 90 percent of the nation’s industry, 60 percent of its oil wells, and 50 percent of the GDP. Twenty-five landowners own 54 million acres of land in the state.

Traditionally, indigenous movements have been sympathetic to autonomy, and that might coincide with support for such moves among the dominant classes for their own interests. Pro-autonomy moves may find some support in the Assembly.

Morales charges that right-wing groups have accumulated $11 million to fund disruptive maneuvers. The opposition Podemos Party threatened to boycott the Assembly. The Eastern Farmer’s Assembly, representing rich landowners and business interests, is reportedly planning an assembly of its own to discredit the official one. Opposition voices frequently criticize the Morales government for its ties with Cuba and Venezuela.

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