While the international community was focusing on the recent Venezuelan referendum, another equally problematic situation was developing in Bolivia. On December 9, 2007, the constituent assembly approved the text of a new constitution which faces fierce opposition from certain groups including six of Bolivia’s nine provinces. The approval of a draft constitution requires two thirds of the votes of the constituent assembly which President Evo Morales does not have.
When the assembly was convened on Saturday, Morales’ party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) decided to change the rules and say that the approval of a constitutional text does not require two thirds of the total members but two thirds of the total members present. Of course, the only people who were there to vote were the supporters of Evo Morales. Only 160 assemblymen out of a total of 255 were present at the vote. That was the solution the supporters of Morales found to the problem of political stagnation he has been facing for the last several months. Assemblymen invented on the spot a new law that enabled them to pass major text for a constitutional reform that must be ready by December 14 and be subject to a popular referendum.
The plans by President Morales, a staunch Chávez follower, to revamp Bolivia’s constitution have reignited long-running conflicts between more indigenous Andean regions, where Morales has his support base, and wealthier lowland areas. There have been violent protests in Bolivia for and against a new draft constitution. In what appeared to be an effort to address the conflict, Morales proposed a referendum to decide whether he and nine regional governors should remain in their posts. Six of the country’s nine regions are controlled by his opponents. Morales says the reforms will give poor Bolivians a voice in running the country but his opponents argue they give the President too much power. Speaking on television, Morales said he would be sending a proposal to Congress to put his leadership to the popular vote.  Many criticize Morales’ actions since he took office as President as being divisive. His policy to nationalize the oil and gas industries has alienated foreign governments and investors. His so-called “democratic revolution” which promises a transfer of wealth and power from Bolivia’s elite to the mainly Andean Indian poor, has alarmed the more affluent eastern provinces.
Why are the governors protesting?
These states form a giant half-moon across Bolivia’s relatively prosperous eastern half, an area dominated by a largely mestizo and white population that has began to see with skepticism the newfound influence of the Aymara and Quechua Indian population of Bolivia’s western Andean highlands. Their frustration is rooted in years of living under Bolivia’s heavily centralized government. The protesters want the right to elect local officials now appointed by La Paz, along with more government money for health, education and infrastructure.  In addition, the governors of these affluent provinces are afraid of Morales’ evident plan to turn Bolivia into a Socialist state, nationalizing all sectors of the economy, following in Chavez’s footsteps and they don’t want to help Evo’s “project.” They have the resources and don’t want Morales to finance his Bolivarian Revolution in their country with the money these provinces generate. They want Bolivia to become economically viable and that is why they are seeking autonomy. They have said that they will “declare de facto autonomy” on December 14.
As stated six provinces announced they will not respect this measure. They began a hunger strike and called for civil disobedience. Controversy around constitutional reforms in Bolivia has been in high gear since the constituent assembly was elected in mid 2007. Indeed, Morales considered his election in December, 2005 as a mandate to transform Bolivian society. Morales was brought to power by a majority of previously excluded sectors, mainly indigenous populations. By the same token, he felt that the vote indicated non-confidence in the old political institutions and parties associated with an obsolete system. The protest social movements that preceded those elections provided this sense that everything that belongs to the past could be swept away to give birth to a “re-foundation” of the Bolivian state. This sense of having a mandate encouraged Morales to exercise power based on the simple principle of majority rule.
Thus, the constituent assembly is an idea that merges as popular social movements advanced in the political arena. The call for a constitutional assembly was negotiated between Morales and the opposition. At the same time a referendum on the autonomy for the Bolivian provinces was negotiated at the request of the opposition. The idea was to leave certain provinces in the hands of the old elite to continue controlling resources in the provinces and so avoid the expansion of the socialist revolution proposed by Morales. A national referendum was conducted with the majority voting against provincial autonomy except for residents of the provinces of the lowlands (eastern provinces).
The new proposed constitution recognizes the pre-colonial right of the indigenous people to their territory, to autonomy and to self-rule. The constitution adopts the moral principles of the indigenous people of the highlands. It establishes that the hydrocarbons are property of the Bolivian people thus declaring null and void all the contracts that violate this principle. Those who violate these principles will be considered “traitors to the nation”. The constitution also establishes the principle of private property but leaves open the possibility of expropriation in case there is any public need that requires it.
The constitution, contrary to the intention of the assemblymen in November 2007 does not secure the indefinite re-election of the President and does not deal with the issue of land distribution. Land distribution and federalization of local province natural resources was an element of antagonism as residents of the lowlands were afraid of nationalization. The constitution provides power to the indigenous population (which constitute about 55% of the population) and to the Bolivian state apparatus. The laws for the Indians have generated the perception that Bolivia will become a de-facto national state of the Indians, making indigenous people first class citizens above the mestizos and the white populations. Due to nationalistic and chauvinistic ethnic voices in the Indian population, anxiety is increasing as they attempt to redraw the current maps in favor of some sort of restoration of pre-colonial Indian sovereignty. Regarding private property and other rights it leaves citizens vulnerable to the arbitrariness of state power that can make decisions based on what they consider to be state interests.
This is why these proposed reforms have generated a movement in six provinces to become autonomous from the national state. These provinces want to keep their resources and are afraid of a totalitarian take over by Morales.
Undoubtedly, there is a lot to be done to correct the problem of the marginal sectors of society in Bolivia, more so when the problem of poverty and scarcity is overwhelming. However, Morales from the beginning tried to impose a project while ignoring an electoral minority with a real power on the ground. Instead of negotiating, Morales moved to impose his vision on others like a bulldozer, as did Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez. The difference between him and Chavez is that Chavez was able to enlist supporters thanks to his oil-rich resources which enabled him to bribe a population unwilling to think about the long term consequences of his despotic rule. Morales counted on Chavez’s help which he received but was not sufficient in bringing him the power he wanted. In Bolivia, the followers of Morales are not an overwhelming majority and the opposition defending their attacked interests did not remain passive.
Street confrontations rightly pushed Morales into negotiations but quickly Morales bypassed all the rules in order to obtain what he really wanted: which was a constitutional reform whose legitimacy will take the form of a contract between him and the indigenous populations while excluding the mestizo and white populations of the country. This move is simply not constitutional by any definition and is not legal under current Bolivian law (which Morales has nothing but contempt for).
Bolivians are now up in arms. They are also encouraged by Chavez’s recent defeat in the referendum over constitutional reforms since Chavez has always been a source of inspiration for Morales. What is more ominous, Morales’ definition of the conflict inevitably creates an indigenous/non-indigenous clash that could end up in civil strife involving dangerous interethnic and interracial dimensions. This can spread like a spiral into other areas in Latin America where indigenous racial nationalism movements exist (Peru, Chile) and consequently could have serious implications for regional stability. The recent public slaughter of two dogs by an indigenous group in Bolivia was perceived as a clear message to the opposition and reflects the validity of the point in question. This type of bloody and dirty conflict that Morales is encouraging represents Hugo Chavez’s dream of making Latin America chaotic so that it will require a continental savior like himself. Having said so let us not underestimate the striving potential of the new grassroots nationalistic and populist movements that have emerged in South America in the 1990’s, particularly in the indigenous community.
Bolivians set for a historic vote. December 6, 2007. NY Daily News.
Morales faces middle-class protests in Bolivia. January 28, 2007. Los Angeles Times.
THE AMERICAS REPORT
NANCY MENGES and
LUIS FLEISCHMAN, Editors
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. It features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press.
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