The Constituent Assembly that could not be

Pablo Stefanoni, Pulso

Although prepared to “sweeten” its reforms, the government has not found a way to implement them. The dilemma of the “revolution in democracy” is still unresolved.

In three months Evo Morales will celebrate two years in the Palacio Quemado, Bolivia’s presidential office. His political standing remains high, with polls showing about 60% popular approval of his management.

This mass support for his leadership is somewhat independent of the government’s day-to-day difficulties — which are many — and it is the “bad” ministers who still take the blame for those. The reasons for the popularity of this leader, still a cocalero or coca farmer, and of his agenda of people’s nationalism with a developmentalist and redistributionist gloss that makes up the ideology of most of his government, are no mystery. On the one hand, the nationalization of the gas industry, which a year and a half later continues to inspire dreams among the masses of overcoming economic backwardness and “being like Switzerland”. On the other hand, most poor Bolivians, mainly farmers, strongly identify with the “first indigenous President in the history” of the nation. All of this in the context of the favourable macro-economic situation, linked with the international boom in raw materials prices that has produced record exports. To which must be added the investment in infrastructural projects using the gas income captured by the State as a result of the nationalizations, and Venezuela’s cooperation — expressed, among other things, in the financing of municipal development projects. As well, to a large degree an economic policy which continues to be framed by neoliberal formulas of a monetarist nature that promote fiscal equilibrium and avoid the use of such economic variables as controlled inflation as instruments for the redistribution of the surplus.

Stalemate again?

However, if 2006 was the year of the major announcements and utopias, 2007 is becoming the year when the truth is revealed about the limits to further progress in a “reformism with reforms” and to laying the initial foundations for a new institutionalization and trying to salvage the Constituent Assembly, which is close to shutting down because of the harassment of the hardest elements of the Right (who never wanted it) but also because of the difficulties the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) has in spelling out its agenda for change. The government’s management is wilting under the heavy media barrage but there is also little sense of continuity and an absence of clear strategic criteria that would help to generate a program of firm and sustainable management. So the “disastrous stalemate” threatens to return (if it hasn’t already). None of the political currents are managing to impose their vision of the country — although they can exercise a veto — nor is there any consensus on seeking a compromise agreement. Despite the discrediting of the old conservative politics, it is still much more influential in Bolivia than it is in Venezuela, Argentina or Ecuador, owing to its regional roots.

The Constituent Assembly was initially proposed by the indigenous people of the lowlands (Eastern Bolivia) in 1990, but the demand took on a national character in the “water war” of April 2000 and even more with the “gas war” of October 2003 along with the demand for nationalization of the hydrocarbons industry. The Congress was formally convened in March 2006, but in its very first year of operations a structural problem in Bolivia became clear: the chronic difficulty in translating the people-oriented projects (often expressed in “refoundational” terms) into realistic and effective institutional proposals for political, economic and social change. In addition to the MAS’s relative inability to articulate the corporate demands of its component sectors, the conception of the new Magna Carta as a trade-union “list of demands”; the ambivalent influence of the NGOs in the absence of suitable cadres of the indigenous left; and the deep differences between the peasant and urban middle class components conspired against the “constituent power”, conceived as a step to going beyond the neocolonial and neoliberal Bolivia.

The coup de grâce to agreement originated in the demand by one sector — always a minority — in Sucre, led by the mayor, Aydée Nava, to become again the seat of the Executive and Legislative powers (although it was sometimes that in practice). Obliged to meet in the “culta Charcas”,[1] the Constituent Assembly became a virtual hostage to the violent groups, headed by the university students, who under the banner of “full capital status” for Sucre and not a few racist insults (such as “If you don’t jump you’re a llama” during the demonstrations) pressed to introduce this theme into the agenda.

Sweetened reforms

In view of the increasing violence, it was decided to suspend the Assembly’s sessions for one month. This was the only way to calm things down and obtain an opening for an uncertain dialogue in an attempt to find a political agreement to bring about a new Magna Carta that, under the anticipated deadlines, would be drafted by next December 14. To avoid renewed confrontations, the government leaders appreciably toned down expectations in the Assembly. “Changing everything” became “constitutionalizing what has been done” by Evo Morales, including the introduction of “padlocks” to prevent the future privatization of natural resources. At the same time, there was a sweetening of controversial proposals such as the “fourth social power” — which became a sort of social forum outside the state structure — or the “plurinational State” which, in practice, will consist in a deepening of the municipal autonomies established in the 1990s.[2] The MAS rejected proposals for ethnic representation in a future legislative chamber that would, if adopted, have replaced the Senate — and this has alienated such ethnic organizations as the Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyo (Conamaq, the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu) or the Confederación de Indígenas del Oriente Boliviano (Cidob, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia).

However, the reversion of unproductive latifundias to the State without compensation has been maintained, as is the recognition of departmental autonomy demanded by the so-called “half moon” led by Santa Cruz. But where the MAS can not yield, notwithstanding the opposition of the Right, is in the dispute over the indefinite re-election of the president — with the possibility of a recall referendum — which is key to the continuity of the present government. There are no stand-ins, and under the present Constitution, neither the President nor the Vice-President are entitled to a second term of office. The MAS objective now is to isolate the hard Right and reach an agreement with UN (Unidad Nacional) and the MNR (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario). With those parties, the government leaders could obtain the two-thirds majority needed to avoid having controversial measures go to a popular vote for approval in the referendum provided for the final text of the new Magna Carta. But with each concession fewer Bolivians believe that this Constitution will in fact be adopted. Nevertheless, one possible interpretation of this evolution would be that it would advance the “pactista” or negotiating course favored by Vice-President Álvaro García Linera, which has been resisted for months by peasant representatives in the Assembly. Still to be resolved is whether this is a gradualist road — and with greater institutional density — to consolidate the process of change or a slowing down of the reforms and a short-sighted bet on governability (and re-election) in the context of the early elections under the new Constitution which, as Morales announced months ago, should be held in 2008.

Notwithstanding the talk about the “original” nature of the Constituent Assembly, the power was on the other side (and the legislation that created it, negotiated rapidly, was a constraint that is hard to undo). It is now clear that the MAS’s bargaining position is weaker than it was at the commencement of the Assembly, when the opposition had just suffered a huge electoral and political defeat. Right-wing personalities who then seemed out of the loop have returned, occupying spaces in the media with greater legitimacy than they had a few months ago.

Trials of the opposition

Still, the key to the “stalemate” is that the opposition’s actions are also displaying substantial limits. The recent civic strikes in “defense of democracy”, last August 28, and the weakening of the movement in Sucre[3] have revealed the fragility of the opposition. The violence exercised by assault groups like the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista [UJC – Union of Youth of Santa Cruz], in an effort to alter the balance of forces, triggered strong criticism, even from newspapers like La Razón, which characterized these militants as “fascists”. In addition to the photos of pro-autonomy youth running over a shopkeeper while they fled after looting a market stall, there was the postcard, circulated on the Internet, of two UJC members “patrolling” Santa Cruz on the roof of a red truck with swastikas prominently painted on its doors. On the other hand, Radio Erbol revealed that the workers in the Rico cooking oil plant owned by Branko Marinkovic, the president of the Santa Cruz civic committee and a promoter of the strike, were forced to work in the plant behind locked doors, even though “they were officially on strike”! Meanwhile, there was an obvious lack of compliance with the strikes in the barrios of the urban masses and the rural areas. In Santa Cruz, Tarija or Chuquisaca, the countryside continues to be an “Evista” bastion and a political counterweight to the local elites linked to the latifundist structure that survived and was consolidated after the 1953 agrarian reform.

In this context, a group of moderate personalities in Santa Cruz has published the manifesto “We are all Santa Cruz” in which they denounce the fact that “anyone who is not in heartfelt agreement with the official discourse that is supposedly characteristic of Santa Cruz, who does not endorse its violence, who do not accept its dogmas, is condemned to civil death.” These personalities are thus taking their distance from the Junta Nacional Democrática that is promoted by the civic and business committees in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija, Chuquisaca and Cochabamba and represented by [the political party] Podemos.

“October 17”

Notwithstanding the obstacles, it is clear that Bolivia is going through a turnover of elites that some well-to-do sectors read as the first breath of an “ethnic revenge” by the indigenous peoples. These groups of Spanish origin now recall that “in Bolivia we are all mestizos”, although some of their members are unable to contain their racist remarks. Referring to the stalemate in the Constituent Assembly, Manfredo Kempff, a former foreign minister and spokesman for [ex-dictator] Hugo Banzer, asked: “What could a collection of sheep-herders, cocaleros 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.” Still, a quick “sociological” overview of Evo Morales’ cabinet produces an image that is far from Indian ethnofundamentalism: only the foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, identifies himself as Indian, and besides him there is the Minister of Justice, Celima Torrico, herself a cocalera farmer by origin. That is why some radical Indian intellectuals talk of the existence of a “white-dominated environment” that is distancing Evo Morales from his base “under an indigenous mask”.

A recent editorial in Pulso noted: “Behind these disconnects there are two political elites at work. One, which is on the rise under the banner of equality and wants to distribute wealth and power at a high institutional cost; and another, which resists under the banner of freedom and defence of institutionality. Bolivia is going through the umpteenth version of the dispute that has paralyzed it from the beginning: the struggle over an insufficient quantity of resources”. And García Linera himself argues that any process of transformations involves tensions and that he is hoping that “the counter-revolutionary Right will not appropriate the conservative space, where there is a democratic Right”.

The problem, as an old Argentine Peronista militant has said, is that “Evo, unlike Chávez, has not had his 17th of October.” The reference here is to the day in 1945 when hundreds of thousands of workers and slum dwellers from the deprived neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires took to the streets, almost completely spontaneously, to demand the release of Perón, who was being held by the military junta to which he had belonged. And the election is not decisive; the need is to transform the political-electoral majority into a new, lasting political hegemony.

The State is not the “synthesis of the general will” but a correlation of forces, which must be built. It is still favourable to the popular sectors, because of the inertia of the October agenda and the initial “heroic” actions of the government. But this will not be so indefinitely. Nor will the conviction that “history is on our side” do the job. Politics is a permanent fight for legitimacy.

The challenge, in any case, is how to move this process forward — peacefully, but without demobilizing the plebeian urges to refound Bolivia — a process tending to build a Republic that is more egalitarian than the one that has prevailed since the country was founded in 1825.

Translated from Pulso by Richard Fidler

[1] The colonial epithet for the criollo/mestizo minority that has pillaged the Republic, irrigating the history of Bolivia with Indian blood. See – Translator.
[2] In the municipalities with an indigenous majority, some “traditional customs”, such as communitarian justice, are respected, and if these are consistent with those of other municipalities they may give rise to “indigenous regions”.
[3] Radio Erbol showed that the number of hunger strikers was a third of what was claimed by the sponsors of “full capital status”.

1 comment:

Dave Brown said...

So Bolivia has not had its 1945!
What did Peron do for the masses?

More importantly, Bolivia has had its 1952 revolution. And what led to the defeat of the masses in 1952 is in danger of happening today. Then the masses put their faith in a 'petty bourgeois' government and had their revolution stolen from them by the MNR.

Today imperialism and the national bourgeoisie have much more to lose in Bolivia. It isnt a question of having a majority in the CA to redistribute income, it is a question of the majority having the power to smash the fascists and to expropriate imperialist and bourgeois property.

Bolivia Rising