[News] Fear and Loathing in Bolivia: New Constitution, Polarization

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 3 10:48:37 EST 2008

Fear and Loathing in Bolivia: New Constitution, Polarization

Written by Benjamin Dangl
Wednesday, 02 January 2008

"Let’s go unblock the road, compañeros!" a man in 
an old baseball cap yells as he joins a group of 
people hauling rocks and tires from a central 
intersection in Cochabamba. This group of 
students and union activists are mobilizing 
against a civic strike led by middle class foot 
soldiers of the Bolivian right. These actions in 
the street are part of a political roller coaster 
which is dramatically changing Bolivia as it enters the new year.

Two major developments marked the close of the 
year in Bolivia: the passage of a new 
constitution and the worsening of political 
polarization in the country. The new constitution 
reflects the socialistic policies advocated by 
indigenous president Evo Morales, while racism, 
regional and political divisions still threaten 
to push Bolivia into a larger conflict.

In the final weeks of 2007, a variety of protest 
tactics were used by political factions to 
advocate competing visions for the future of the 
country. From November 24-25, clashes between 
security forces and opposition protesters in 
Sucre left three people dead and hundreds 
wounded, forcing the assembly rewriting the 
country’s constitution to move to Oruro. 
Anarchists dressed in black and pounding drums 
marched against racism in Cochabamba, while older 
Bolivians in La Paz organized rallies in support 
of a new pension plan. In the town of Achacachi, 
Aymara indigenous leaders sacrificed two dogs in 
a ceremony declaring war on the wealthy elite in Santa Cruz.

Rightwing-led departments shaded green

Rightwing-led departments shaded green

Santa Cruz is a department with a capital city of 
the same name and is the center of the right’s 
growing movement against the Morales government. 
The Bolivian right is led by four right wing 
governors in the eastern departments of Beni, 
Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija, civic committees, 
business and land owners, and the political party 
Democratic and Social Power (PODEMOS). The right 
organized various civic strikes throughout 2007, 
while supporters of the Movement Toward 
Socialism, (MAS, the political party of Morales), 
also flexed their political muscle in protests, 
blockades and strikes. Though government and 
media battles often carve new policies and shape 
debates, street mobilizations remain a vital part of Bolivian politics.

Transformation Through a New Constitution?

On December 8-9, MAS assembly participants and 
their allies passed the new constitution in 
Oruro. Opposition party members boycotted the 
meeting. Representatives of neighborhood 
councils, mining unions, coca growers’ unions, 
student and farmer groups mobilized in Sucre to 
defend the assembly from right wing intervention. 
Activists blew up dynamite to intimidate 
political opponents while assembly participants 
chewed coca to stay awake throughout the weekend-long gathering.

The new constitution paves the way for many of 
the changes the government has been working 
toward since Morales was elected in 2005. The 
document gives the state greater control over 
natural resources and the economy, and guarantees 
expanded autonomy for departmental governments 
and indigenous communities. It also calls for a 
mixed economy, where the rights of private, 
public and communal industries are protected. 
Indigenous community justice systems are better 
recognized through the new constitution and the 
document establishes that Supreme Court judges 
are to be elected instead of appointed by 
congress. The constitution also lifts the block 
on second consecutive terms for the president. 
This change would allow Morales to run again for 
two more terms in a row, in addition to his current time in office.

Though it was passed in the assembly in Oruro, 
the new constitution still has to be approved in 
a national referendum along with a vote on an 
article on land reform which is still in dispute. 
This controversial article puts a limit on 
private ownership of land to 100,000 hectares. 
Such a policy would greatly impact large land 
holdings in the department of Santa Cruz and 
other regions. On top of these challenges will be 
the difficulty of actually implementing these 
policy changes which so far only exist on paper.

Rightwing assembly members from PODEMOS, civic 
leaders and governors announced that they will 
not recognize the new constitution as it was 
passed without their support. MAS’s take on this, 
as represented by Bolivian Vice President Alvaro 
Garcia Linera, is that the light-skinned elite do 
want to give up any of their privileges. Linera 
told the Los Angeles Times that these elites 
"have to understand that the state is no longer a 
prolongation of their haciendas [estates.]"

As a way out of the tense divisions, Morales 
announced that a referendum would be held in 2008 
on his presidency and all governorships. In this 
referendum, which is scheduled to happen sometime 
before September 2008, Morales established a rule 
that he has to receive over 54% of votes – what 
he received when elected president in 2005 – 
supporting his presidency to remain in office. If 
he doesn’t receive this support, he is to hold 
elections within 90-120 days. At the same time, 
there will be a referendum on whether the 
governors will stay in office. If the governors 
do not receive more votes than they did when they 
were elected in 2005, then they can be replaced 
by an interim governor of Morales’ choosing until the next elections.

This referendum could be a way for Morales to 
strengthen his own mandate, while weakening the 
right. Though criticism among Morales’ base of 
support has increased recently, when given a 
choice between supporting the right and Morales, 
this large voter group would likely vote for 
Morales. There is also a lack of alternatives to 
Morales among the Bolivian left. A massive voter 
registration drive, largely in rural areas, 
launched by the Morales administration is also 
likely to play into the president’s favor in this 
referendum. A recent poll conducted by Ipsos 
Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado showed that 56% of the 
population currently approves the performance of Morales.

The Right and New Polarization

Shortly after Morales announced plans for the 
referendum, the right made another bold 
announcement which made political negotiations 
even more unlikely. On December 15, right wing 
leaders in Santa Cruz declared autonomy from the 
central government. Leaders announced the 
creation of Santa Cruz ID cards, a television 
station and its own police force; the Bolivian 
national police force will no longer be 
recognized. In addition, the autonomy declaration 
establishes that 2/3 of taxes from the oil and 
gas industry in that department will remain in 
Santa Cruz, rather than going to the central 
government. Expanded autonomy for four of the 
opposition led, resource rich, departments would 
further threaten the stability of the Morales government.

Meanwhile, strikes, road blockades and protests 
have been organized among all political factions 
and violence has often erupted throughout what 
has been a turbulent end to the year. There have 
been approximately eight political bombings in 
Bolivia in 2007. Most of these incidents involved 
dynamite or grenades, and the majority of them 
were against leftist unions or MAS party officials

Morales and his opponents have shown interest in 
meeting to negotiate some kind of compromise. 
Such a meeting was put at risk when on December 
31 right wing leaders said they threw the new 
constitution into the garbage. Morales responded 
by saying that their autonomy statute should be 
thrown in the garbage. These declarations are 
likely to further erode relations between 
political opponents and increase division in the country.

A government plan to redirect gas industry taxes 
from departmental governments into a national 
pension plan has resulted in outcries from the 
right, and praise from MAS supporters. This 
pension, called the Dignity Salary, was approved 
in congress on November 27 without many 
opposition members present. The pension plan 
gives Bolivians over age 60 approximately $26 per 
month. The funds, which are to be an estimated 
$215 million annually, would be redirected from 
current gas tax funds which had previously gone 
to departmental governments. Right wing governors 
protested the pension, demanding that this 
redirected tax money stay in their departments.

Another of the right’s criticisms of the Morales 
administration is that the president’s policies 
are bad for business and international relations. 
Recent events and reports prove otherwise. On 
January 1, the government announced that in 2007 
the Bolivian economy grew by 4.2%, which is more 
than the 1.7% growth in 2001 when Jorge Tuto 
Quiroga was vice president of the country. 
Quiroga, of PODEMOS, is a key leader of the 
current opposition against Morales.

In mid-December, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio 
Lula da Silva and Chilean president Michelle 
Bachelet met with Morales in Bolivia to show 
their support for his government and the new 
constitution. The three heads of state negotiated 
a plan to develop a $600 million highway from 
Santos, Brazil, across Bolivia and to sea ports 
in Arica, Chile. During the same visit, the 
Brazilian hydrocarbon company Petrobras announced 
it would invest up to $1 billion to further develop the Bolivian gas industry.

Morales also cut a deal with a South Korean 
company to collaborate with Bolivian state-owned 
COMIBOL to exploit a copper mine in Corocoro, 
outside La Paz. On December 21, Bolivian foreign 
minister David Choquehuanca, during a visit in 
Beijing, announced proposals for Chinese 
investment in Bolivian telecommunications, 
transportation, hydrocarbons and minerals. Though 
specific deals with China were not discussed, 
Choquehuanca told Reuters that "We need 
investment but we need investment that gets us 
out of poverty, not investment that strips our 
natural resources and leaves us poor."

Last November, in the cold lobby of a museum in 
La Paz, Bolivian vice president Garcia Linera 
arrived late to a panel on political change in 
Latin America. It was raining heavily in the 
Bolivian capital and the political crisis 
threatened to tear the country apart. Throughout 
the presentation, Linera left the panel to field 
numerous cell phone calls. When he finally 
commented on the polarization and conflicts in 
the country, he warned about the risk of 
widespread division, and said this moment of 
"bifurcation" is "much closer than it appears." 
He spoke of how the "new state is consolidating 
itself" and how the right may "gradually 
accommodate" itself to these changes. Yet, he 
warned, the right could also work to block the 
government’s changes to revert to a past balance 
of power, which could create more tension. As 
Bolivia enters the new year, this tension is more present than ever.

Bolivia ended 2007 with more questions than 
answers about the future of the nation. Will the 
government be able to transform the state into 
something useful for a majority of Bolivians? 
What role will the social movements of Bolivia 
play in pushing for radical change? Will the 
policies in the new constitution be applied in 
effective ways? Though many of these issues may 
not be resolved in 2008, the good news is that 
Bolivia is directly addressing these critical questions.

Benjamin Dangl is the author of 
Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements 
in Bolivia" (AK Press, 2007).  Photos by Dangl.

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