The Constituent Assembly: Between Utopia and Disenchantment

Herve Do Alto and Pablo Stefanoni

The July 2 elections to elect delegates for the Constituent Assembly represented a premature plebiscite for the government of Evo Morales Ayma, short of completing his first six months in the Palacio Quemado [presidential palace]. With the Movement Towards Socialism obtaining 50.7% of the votes, the new path initiated by the nationalization of hydrocarbons - decreed two months prior and staged with the military occupation of the petroleum camps, refineries and petrol stations across the country - was ratified. And this electoral victory was widened with the collapse of the seductive capacities of a right wing that had hegemonised power since the middle of the 1980s: Social Democratic Power (Podemos), the principal expression of conservatism, gathered barely 15%, nearly half the votes it got in the presidential election of December 18, 2005.

Nevertheless, despite the expansion by the governing party towards the east and south of the country – it won in Tarija with 41% and in Santa Cruz with 25% - MAS’ bastion continues to be the Aymara and Quechua west, where the government got the absolute majority in all the departments (La Paz, Cochabamba, Chuquisaca, Oruro and Potosi). These “two Bolivias” were expressed in the results for the autonomy referendum held parallel to the elections for constituents: even though the No vote against departmental autonomy imposed itself at the national level – an almost personal triumph of Evo Morales – the yes vote won by a big margin in Santa Cruz, Tarija and in the less populated Beni and Pando, anticipating a complex scenario in the Constituent Assembly that will meet for between six months to a year and which needs to respond to the diffuse, but well adhered to, expectations of the social and trade union movements - that the convention be the space to refound the country, after the long period of apartheid against the indigenous majorities.

The difficulties in making concrete this task are not few. Like the first steps have shown, the Constituent Assembly is a potentially conflictive scenario, on top of which can be added that, in Bolivia, the political battles are very commonly passing from the institutions onto the streets.

A negotiated exit?

On assuming power, the idea of a “salida pactada” [negotiated exit] – between the indigenous peoples of the west and the business elites of the east - seemed to have imposed itself, promoted by the vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera. Within this framework, together with the rush to approve a law of convocation for the Constituent Assembly and the autonomy referendum, the question for the popular consultation was agreed upon – which even MAS said they would respond in the affirmative to – and the necessity of a two thirds majority in the convention to approve the final text of the new political constitution of the state. This special majority has been visualized by the political and regional right as a limit on the corporative indigenous and popular hegemony within MAS, which would take the country down the path of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.

But Evo Morales did not take long in distancing himself from these initial accords: the first change of direction came a bit more than one month before the elections, when he publicly declared that he would vote No to the “autonomies of the bourgeoisie” and connected himself with the No position, which until that moment had been the almost subterranean position of the campesino unions who constitute the hard core of the party of government. The second step was to put in doubt the two-thirds, which MAS did not obtain, and propose that this be used to approve the final text of the constitution but not the individual articles, and which was confronted by the rejection by the right, blocking the beginning of deliberations.

In this way, the government today is debating between two strategies: push forward the positions of the government supporters through to the end, even with the risk that the conservative opposition withdraws from the convention, or look for a consensus that “recognizes the majority”, and does not blur the project of change promoted by the Bolivian president. Garcia Linera declared on August 22 that “in democracy it is the majority which makes decisions, the minorities have rights, but they can not be hostage to transitory minorities who resort to blackmail”. And Morales signaled that “there is no sense in a mere constitutional reform”.

At the same time, the described back and forth is a symptom of the general path of the government: the “populist-unionism” - which does not escape the confrontational discourse and polarization of the political camp – began imposing itself on the “indigenismo-social democratic” of Garcia Linera, which does not occur in a conflictive form, but rather, parting from the recognition of the vice president of the leadership of the still cocalero leader, who has imposed his personal stamp on the government.

And it is also within this framework that the historic connection between the new indigenous nationalism in power and the old Bolivian military nationalism is produced. Evo Morales revitalized the old popular-military alliance of Latin American nationalism and put it into practice at two key moments: the nationalization of hydrocarbons and the inauguration of the Constituent Assembly on August 6, with thousands of indigenous peoples and campesinos, coming from the most remote corners of Bolivia, marching together with the military in front of the Casa de la Libertad in Sucre.

MAS against the masses or the fantasies of the theoreticians of the multitude

How can we explain the limits of the sui generis experience that the government of Evo Morales represents, including the deficient law of convocation for the Constituent Assembly which gives the right wing the power of veto over the possibility of a radical change and self limits the power of MAS in its moment of greatest legitimacy? Raul Zibechi [1] has anticipated the failure of the convention and sustains that “as arduous as it may be, it needs to be recognized that a demand born out of the movements, defended in the heat of the massive uprisings since the “water war” of 2000 in Cochabamba, will remained trapped in the wilds of a state bureaucracy which is tending towards consolidating itself. That the colonial state machine remains covered by ponchos and polleras [traditional skirts] makes no substantial modification to the habits and ways of its functioning”. He attributes this occurring to the theory of the “catastrophic stand off” of Garcia Linera, to the “temptation of state power” and the passage from the “insurrectional moment to the institutional moment”.

“The law of convocation has reduced the political space opened by the social movements in the previous years of struggle” say Raquel Gutierrez and Dunia Mokrani [2], adding “given the capture of the ‘political constituent assembly of the multitudes’, that unfolded in the previous years, by the instituted legal order that has stained the current Law of Convocation for the Constituent Assembly written by the vice president Garcia Linera, the underlying political content seems to be curiously absent today from the debate”.

The problems described by these texts are real, but the attributions of responsibility seem to be taken way to fast (and not based on much). Anyone that has participated in union congresses in Bolivia knows that it was from there that the “thesis of the political instrument” – known electorally as MAS - came out of, which aimed to centralize popular political representation in the face of the right and to occupy the power of the state (the slogan of “changing the world without taking power” never resonated in Bolivia). Moreover, the current lecture is that if they had not achieved this centralization, today Evo Morales would not be in the Palacio Quemado and the story would be different - maybe the multitude would be resisting – and dying – in the streets. On the other hand, if “the current scenario has stopped being a broad space for deliberations and direct intervention” it is because of the dynamic of the Bolivian social movements themselves, who present peaks of collective action, to then withdraw back to their corporative outlook, that determines their logic of functioning - but these “limitations” of the social movements are outside of the horizon of these authors. As with many other times, these analysts draw on an ideal multitude which normally clashes with the real existing social movements, from which MAS has emerged.

From where perhaps does the legitimacy – and the political culture, including its caudillista facet – of Evo Morales come from if not from these social movements? It is another thing to say that these organizations do not adapt themselves to the molds of the theoreticians of the multitude. At the time of naming the “pure” representatives of the social movements who are not in the Constituent Assembly, Gutierrez and Mokrani mention Oscar Olivera, who had an important role in the “water war” but current lacks any capacity to mobilize. What is paradoxically is that Olivera did not stand because of the failure of the electoral front of those “excluded” from MAS, which included figures such as the major, David Vargas, leader of the police mutiny of February 2003, who has quite ambiguous ideological contours. It also seems that the “radical” social movements remain outside of this analysis, such as those from the city of El Alto who have supported all the electoral exits since 2003.

Reality seems to be going in a different direction. The MAS government, and its enormous difficulties of management, is not alien to the more earthly problems of the lack of cadres and complete inexperience in the management of the state (this was the most frequent criticism in the governmental self-evaluation after 7 months of management). Not only MAS, but the majority of the social movements, come to the Constituent Assembly with many difficulties in order to transform their will to “refound” the country into concrete proposals for institutional changes and the democratization of the state.

Within this framework the idea of “constitutionalising” the changes already initiated – such as the nationalization of hydrocarbons or the agrarian reform - is taking force, more so than the unfolding of a new social creativity. For the constituent delegate Yoni Bautista, MAS representative for La Paz, the Constituent Assembly must serve “so that the natural resources and the land become the inalienable property of the state, to establish new rights for the indigenous peoples, to democratize the state via autonomies different to that defended by the Santa Cruz oligarchies”. In synthesis: the limitations of Evo Morales are in great part the limitations of the social movements in this emancipatory path plagued by obstacles derived from centuries of colonial domination.

The current challenges

It is still too earlier to anticipate if a possibility for the refoundation of Bolivia will open up, or a path of disenchantment. “The Assembly will be the grand scenario of the ritual of integration and the connection of society in a moment of victory when, in general, the moments of unification of Bolivian society have taken place after great defeats, like the Pacific war, the Chaco war etc” synthesized recently Garcia Linera. “If we achieve a grand national armistice, the Constituent Assembly would have achieved its mission. But the convention will also establish a new balance of forces and meanwhile, will constitutionalise the principal measures taken by the government” [3]. The struggle against the political, business and regional right wing in the first weeks of the Constituent Assembly demonstrates that MAS is willing to battle so that the convention is “originaria” and not derived, and is above the already constituted powers.

At the time of writing this note, the United Union Confederation of Campesino Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB) was already threatening to mobilise in order to stop the two-thirds ending in a deadlock that would result in the failure of the Constituent Assembly. The Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, an organization that considers itself the “moral government” of this department and is the principal entertainer of regional autonomy, is doing the same in defense of that same two thirds, warming up the engines for the battle over autonomy. And this issue is one of the strongest bones of contention: for the powerful eastern elites, regional autonomy is a type of wall in front of the advance of “indigenous populism”, and, after losing its power in the national arena, is digging into its trenches in its region to defend its privileges. Beyond the analyses of certain sectors of the “radical” left, what is certain is that MAS won the December 18 elections by a wide margin with a reformist program, which proposed recuperating national sovereignty, reconstructing the state and leaving behind internal colonialism. It is in light of these parameters that the success of failure of the actual experience of change that Bolivia is living should be viewed.

Herve Do Alto is a historian and political scientist. Pablo Stefanoni is an economist and journalist. Together they published the book Evo Morales; From Coca to the Palace ed. Malatesta.



[1] “Bolivia: el deseado empate técnico”, La Jornada, México, 10-7-2006 available in English here
[2] Una Reflexión sobre el Proceso Constituyente en Bolivia, en Bolpress, 18-7-2006.
[3] Página/12, Buenos Aires, 5-7-2006. available in English here

Translated from Viento Sur No 88

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