Making history, Bolivians approve new constitution

Bolivians celebrated long into the night following referendum approval of a new constitution by a 62 percent majority on Jan. 25. Opposition forces gained 36.4 percent of the 3.9 million votes cast. “The democratic spirit of the new constitution” represented for Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper “a notable political achievement,” unique in South America.

Bolivia is divided by class and race. Indigenous people make up 62 percent of the population; those living in poverty, over 60 percent. Opposition to the government of Evo Morales, South America’s first indigenous head of state, is led by landowning and business interests based in the eastern departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija and Chuquisaca, home to a vocal separatist movement.

From a balcony above La Paz’ Plaza Murillo, President Morales boasted, “We go from triumph to triumph” — from winning the presidency in December 2005 to a 67 percent majority victory in a recall referendum last August. “Thanks to the conscience of the Bolivian people,” he declared, “The colonial state was finished … colonialism, internal and external, ended.”

Voting proceeded peacefully and without disruption. Dozens of international observers were on hand. An estimated 55 percent of eligible voters turned out.

The new constitution, with 411 articles, institutionalizes state control over hydrocarbons, minerals and water. It establishes a “unitary, pluri-national, multi-cultural” state, with official status for 36 indigenous languages. Indigenous peoples, municipalities and, crucially, departments gain elements of autonomy. The latter opening blunts the assault of rightwing separatists, who refused to negotiate with Morales before the referendum vote.

U.S. bases in Bolivia are prohibited. The constitution calls for religious freedom and church-state separation. It codifies individual rights to education, social security and land.

The president, vice president and members of the National Assembly will submit to new elections on Dec. 6, 2009, President Morales being allowed one more term. Regional and municipal elections take place in April 2010. Bolivia’s opposition-controlled Senate was enlarged. Implementation of constitutional provisions will require 100 new laws. In a separate vote, a 77 percent plurality granted the state constitutional authority to appropriate up to 12,500 acres of idle land.

Election of delegates to the Constituent Assembly on July 2, 2006, launched a tumultuous, often violent process. Final Assembly approval of a new constitution came in December 2007 as mobs raged in the streets and indigenous delegates were attacked. Forced by continuing turmoil to cancel an earlier referendum, Bolivia’s Congress last October revised constitutional provisions and authorized the just-completed referendum.

During August and September, Bolivia’s eastern regions erupted in strikes, barricaded highways, airport occupations and vandalized government offices and media outlets. Natural gas lines and food warehouses were sabotaged and indigenous people, abused. Paramilitary youth groups organized by wealthy sponsors had free reign in separatist departments. In Pando on Sept. 11, thugs ambushed indigenous activists heading to a rally, killing 20 and wounding dozens. The government declared martial law and arrested Pando Governor Leopoldo Fernández.

Then the tide turned. In Santa Cruz, epicenter of agribusiness and transnational natural gas dealings, unarmed peasants and indigenous people faced down the gangs. Lauding “our dear Santa Cruz,” Vice President Álvaro García Linares cited the poverty-stricken district known as Plan 3000 that “resisted heroically.” Residents there joined in a march of 30,000 people on Santa Cruz city. Chaos eased.

Subsequently opposition forces leveled charges of corrupt management of the state oil company, dealings in narcotics, atheism and animosity against the Catholic Church, and plans to seize even cars and houses. Spokespersons threatened to ignore constitutional provisions. The mostly anti-Morales media reported on the government’s “totalitarian” features. Reports surfaced of a plot to kill Evo Morales. After the referendum, voting fraud charges circulated.

Writing on the Bolpress web site on Jan. 16, Vice President García Linares offered some explanations. First and foremost, the government expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg on Sept. 9, leaving the rebels “as orphans, without leadership.” Handing over Pando Department to temporary military control “sent a clear signal.” The rising up of social movements and poor people to confront the paramilitary destabilization offensive was of signal importance. Lastly, the vice president credited international solidarity, manifested especially by the Union of South American Nations meeting urgently after the Pando massacre to defend Bolivia’s national integrity.