Indigenous People March On Constituent Assembly

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Jul 10 (IPS) - Indigenous people are marching for their right to autonomy, heading from the lowland city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in central Bolivia to the constitutional and judicial capital, Sucre, where the country's Constituent Assembly is meeting.

About 400 men, women and children from the tropical zone's ethnic groups, belonging to the Confederation of Indigenous People from Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB), this weekend began their 608-kilometre march to take their claims to the Constituent Assembly, which began deliberations in August 2006.

In 1990, dozens of indigenous people took the first step in defence of their land, and in favour of constitutional reform, when they marched 600 km from the northern city of
Trinidad to La Paz, the seat of government. Now, again, indigenous people are on the move, demonstrating for autonomy for 36 ethnic groups.

The protest march to exert pressure on the Assembly's 255 members arises a week after a mass rally of Santa Cruz de la Sierra townspeople, which declared itself in favour of autonomy for four of the country's nine departments, but not for indigenous peoples, on the premise that further decentralisation would threaten the unity of the country.

CIDOB leader Adolfo Chávez said that their march is a demand for autonomy for indigenous peoples, their representation in Congress, the creation of a plurinational state, and respect for their lands and natural resources.

This action by the indigenous people from the eastern part of the country follows shortly after the period of deliberations of the Constituent Assembly was extended to Dec. 14, although those directing its proceedings wish to have a new constitution approved before Aug. 6, which was the original deadline.

In spite of the independence of action claimed by the members of the Assembly, the extension will by law have to be approved by Congress, where the governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party has a majority.

During the 11 months it has been sitting, two distinct visions of the country have emerged, and the debate is focused on issues related to autonomy, ownership of land and natural resources, the shape of a decentralised administration and a secular state, Franklin Pareja, postgraduate law school coordinator at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, told IPS.

The Constituent Assembly "generates a dialectical, rather than a belligerent, form of confrontation," Pareja said. Other topics have also been addressed, such as demands by the authorities in
Sucre that the executive and legislative branches (now located in La Paz) move to the capital.

At present only the judicial branch of government is located in
Sucre, which has been the constitutional capital of Bolivia since the republic was founded in August 1825.

According to Pareja, changing the seat of government has become a "blackmail tool" used by the Assembly members from the departments of
Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija (known collectively as "the crescent" because of the shape their borders create on the map). They are pushing for this reform in exchange for regional autonomies, which is their real goal, he said.

In his view, there are two positions on the subject of building the new Bolivian state: a new government architecture based on indigenous people's autonomies, or one based on the departmental autonomies.

This point has been reached through a complex process, in the context of a political and economic crisis, and at a time of polarisation between dominant sectors in the relatively rich, more developed west of the country and the impoverished east, Constituent Assembly Vice-President Roberto Aguilar told IPS.

The Assembly's presidents had to overcome a negative image, in the view of outsiders, of the apparent slowness of the work, in the midst of learning how to build consensus, while the political parties sought the extremes of total failure, or the success of radical visions, he said.

Exactly the same extremes were apparent last week in
Santa Cruz.

The Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee, an organisation led by landowners and members of the business community, celebrated the first anniversary of the local victory in the elections of the proposal for departmental autonomy, by presenting a controversial statute that would give the department of Santa Cruz absolute control over land, natural resources, the justice system and the forces of law and order.

It also proposed the department should have power to regulate migration of Bolivians from other parts of the country who want to settle in
Santa Cruz.

Almost simultaneously, the indigenous people of the east began their march, in outright opposition to this conservative proposal. They will take two or three weeks to reach
Sucre, where they aim to show the Assembly the strength of their feelings for their cause.

However, the indigenous people from the east of the country are not the first to put pressure on the Constituent Assembly. The quiet streets of
Sucre have already been taken by violent university students from state universities, in defence of administrative freedoms, and by students from private universities on behalf of their institutions of higher education.

Aguilar said he was convinced that a pluricultural state would not lead to the disintegration of the country, and suggested a fair distribution of power and responsibilities, and access to participation in decision-making, to consolidate the decentralisation process.

"Autonomy is a form of state architecture, and bears no relation to fragmentation, nor should it imply ethnic confrontation," Pareja agreed.

Autonomy is a way of creating a state structure by means of fiscal engineering that decentralises power, so that regions may take on the qualities of self-government, Pareja said.

Federal states such as
Brazil, Argentina and the United States are not at risk of dismemberment, although they have granted autonomy to their regions, he said.

But irreconcilable visions are to be avoided, because "the idea of autonomy cannot be used as an instrument by the dominant classes to protect private interests, nor should it be used by sectors that support the government as a radical way to redesign land ownership," he said.

Now that the traditional parties have sown disillusion and are discredited, the legally recognised government of President Evo Morales -- the country's first indigenous president -- has the historic challenge of bringing the country back to its democratic framework as the best way of living together in society, Pareja said.

First published at IPS News

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