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A New Dawn for Bolivia?
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The new approved Bolilvian constitution, which puts the country's valuable natural resources in public hands and makes future privatisation difficult, marks a major landmark in Bolivian history that will create frissons of excitment throughout Latin America. Commentary by Vincent Bevins and Richard Gott.


27th January 09 - Vincent Bevins, New Statesman

On Sunday, voters in Bolivia backed a new constitution recognising indigenous rights and expanding public control over natural resources.

It follows a year in which the left further established itself as the dominant political force in Latin America.

The proposed Bolivian constitution grants rights to children, the disabled, migrants, and universally extends the rights to water, food, health and education.

It took a year and a half to finally arrive at a document. The majority of the democratic assembly, from all walks of Bolivian life, was broadly in support of Morales’ left-leaning and pro-indigenous agenda. Perhaps inevitably, a draft based on these principles quickly ran into committed opposition.

Some feared a loss of property or a radical version of socialism - Morales is one of the region’s most leftist leaders, a close ally of Cuba and Venezuela.

Some opposed what they saw as an impending dissolution of cultural unity. And some questioned the rights or ability of the indigenous to even participate in crafting the document.

Former foreign minister Manfredo Kempff asked, "What could a collection of sheep-herders, coca farmers and road-blockers, suckled by the NGOs, have to offer the country?...The Constituent Assembly has been very democratic, agreed. But it verges on irresponsibility to claim that illiterates can legislate."

The country's indigenous majority did not receive voting or property rights until the 1950s, and still have less than half the labour income and 40 per cent less schooling than the country's "white" population, often a mix of European and native descent. Some indigenous people live in slave-like conditions.

The constitutional process was hijacked both by boycotts of the assemblies and a large movement for regional autonomy spearheaded by governments of the richer Eastern regions last year.

And throughout, the country was marred by political violence. There were massacres of indigenous farmers and there were rallies where swastikas emerged.

But last August Morales was ratified as president in a recall referendum by 67 per cent of the population, and in October a heavily redrafted version of the constitution made it through congress.

Commenting on the document, visiting research scholar Devin Beaulieu says that it "frames Bolivian society within a traditional Republican structure while granting extensive indigenous rights." But it is lengthy, endlessly contested and worded awkwardly in ways that may provide many loopholes.

As it stands, the constitution would put the country's valuable natural resources in public hands, making future privatisation difficult.

It would cap land ownership at either 5,000 or 10,000 hectares, depending on a separate vote. Under one per cent of landowners in Bolivia have two-thirds of the country's farm land. But this land reform clause only applies to future land purchases, and it is ambiguous if or when it can be retroactively applied to holdings which may never have been properly certified.

It would build upon growing official opposition to the influence of the US by explicitly banning foreign bases on Bolivian soil. Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador last year, accusing him of trying to take down his government. Bolivia was also one of very few countries, with Venezuela, to expel the Israeli ambassador during the fighting in Gaza.

The constitution would officially separate Church and State, in contrast to the current official place for the Catholic Church. This has been a particularly sore spot for the opposition. A TV ad for the referendum vote showed a photo of President Morales, then one of Christ, and asks, "Who will you choose?"

But probably the most controversial clauses are those which officially recognize the country's indigenous groups, their right to native lands and their 26 languages. The groups would enjoy regional autonomy, even to dispense their "traditional" forms of justice. Opposition groups say this emphasis on indigenous rights amounts to support for "lynching," might lead to the racial "balkanization" of the country, or may even be racist itself.

The outspoken mayor of opposition stronghold Santa Cruz asked "How are we going to vote for those who don't want us?" “Those who vote ‘yes’ have the souls of slaves."

This kind of rhetoric is not rare for this conflict. The issues are big. The sizable European population fears a society based on resentment for them and which may threaten their way of life. And the indigenous feel their place in official society is long overdue.

Ariel Zeballos was one of few students in his private school with indigenous features. He says he felt completely rejected. "I hated myself then," he says.

"Evo Morales' figure and possible new constitution gave a bit of a new meaning to my colour of skin," he says. "He has been a bridge and he has brought many of our fears to the surface."

"It is divisive and unifying at the same time," he said.

The new constitution's long and contradictory phrasing, ambiguous enforceability and the scuffles which accompanied it stand testament to the enduring conflicts, poverty and contradictions that will likely haunt Bolivian politics in the near future.

Some of the very vocal opposition fear that their way of life is at risk, either to cultural opposition or to a Venezuelan or Cuban-style radical socialist project. Conversely, many of Morales' supporters and leftist activists thought too many concessions were given, such as on the crucial issue of land reform, largely as a result of fear of violence or secession from the right.

"I think the constitution is an attempt to affirm with the law that we must respect those who have had no respect," Zeballos said.

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A landmark for Bolivia

27th January 09 - Richard Gott, The Guardian (UK)

Sunday's referendum vote on a new constitution for Bolivia, which has led to a predicted victory for president Evo Morales and his Movement for Socialism party, will be welcomed by all those anxious for the country's future, but it will not in itself lead to a healing of the country's deep political and ethnic divisions. Yet it will certainly provide Morales with some breathing space as he contemplates the next steps to be taken towards a fairer society, to give the indigenous majority of the population the possibility of participating more comprehensively in Bolivian politics.

During the course of last year, the country was close to an undeclared civil war, with violence erupting in several cities, and rising to a violent crescendo in September. An opposition-inspired massacre of 18 people, mostly indigenous farmers, in the northern town of Pando led to political intervention by the newly-created Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The subsequent establishment of formal negotiations in October between government and opposition allowed the referendum to take place in relatively peaceful conditions.

Some have compared Morales' strategy with that of Hugo Chávez, who organised the re-writing of the Venezuelan constitution shortly after his election in 1998, and used it as a springboard for reformist measures in many areas of national life. The reforms proposed by Morales are comparably radical, yet many people would argue that they are long overdue. Unlike Chávez, who seeks a constitutional reform in February that would permit a president to enjoy permanent re-election (if actually re-elected), Morales agreed during October's negotiations with the opposition that the constitution would require presidents to stand down after two terms. He will put his name forward again for re-election next year, and since he is an indigenous candidate representing the majority population, he will almost certainly win.

The problems in Bolivia are caused largely by the ethnic minority, mostly the descendants of white settlers, who live in the eastern provinces of the country that contain the chief engines of the economy – oil and gas. Many of these people have a racist and fascist mentality and, after centuries in control, dislike the prospect of their future being dominated by the formerly-suppressed indigenous majority.

Like so much else in the world, much will depend on the decisions taken by Obama's team. The outgoing administration had long been opposed to Morales, even before he was first elected, regarding the former leader of the coca-growers' union as a political firebrand and not much better than a drug baron. The Americans worked so openly with the opposition behind the scenes that Morales was obliged last year to expel the US ambassador, a gesture that was immediately imitated by Chávez. (Morales repaid the compliment this month by expelling the Israeli ambassador from La Paz, during the Israeli assault on Gaza, in the wake of the Venezuelan decision to do the same.)

Obama will certainly wish to distance himself from the legacy of George Bush, and the relative quiescence of the Bolivian opposition since the Pando massacre suggests that they are unsure what future assistance they will get from Washington. The traditional allies of Bolivia's white minority have been their close Latin American neighbours, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, but these – on a leftist path – have all expressed their support and solidarity for Morales.

Whatever the eventual outcome of Morales' reforms, the new approved constitution is a major landmark in Bolivian history, providing for the long-needed re-shaping of the judiciary (including the establishment of "community courts"), a revival of the land reform legislation of the 1950s (including a cap on the size of landholdings by an individual owner), and the safe-guarding of the oil and gas reserves for the benefit of the people. Yet more important – and at the heart of the new constitutional charter – are the clauses that strengthen the rights of the country's indigenous peoples. Sunday's victory is one to savour and ponder, and will create frissons of excitement throughout Latin America.

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