[News] Fear and Loathing in Bolivia: New Constitution, Polarization
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
"Lets 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
countrys 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 rights
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. MASs 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 doesnt 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 presidents 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 rights criticisms of the Morales
administration is that the presidents 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
governments 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.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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