Bolivia: 'A project for the liberation of the poor’

Federico Fuentes, La Paz, Green Left Weekly

“Here in Bolivia, the majority have realised that the neoliberals have always betrayed us. Now the people cannot be so easily bought off, there is growing consciousness and a shift in the attitude of society. That is why it will be difficult for [the neoliberals] to defeat us now. We will continue governing for at least 50 to 100 years — some say forever.” This is how Roman Loayza, head of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) group of delegates to Bolivia’s constituent assembly, described the situation in Bolivia when Green Left Weekly spoke to him on October 17.

MAS is the party of Bolivian President Evo Morales, the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s history, elected in 2005 on a platform of reversing 500 years of colonialism and genocide against the indigenous majority, and reversing the impact of 20 years of neoliberalism that has left Bolivia South America’s poorest nation.

It is his confidence in the people that gives Loayza hope for the constituent assembly, which has not met since August and is rapidly approaching its second deadline of December 14. Its original one-year time frame was extended without a single article of the new constitution having been voted on.

GLW asked Loayza why the assembly has faced so many problems. He explained that “the traditional right-wing parties do not agree with the constituent assembly, they want to keep fooling the people, turning them against MAS. They don’t want to accept that they were defeated. They want to wear the people down, in order to finish off MAS, starting by finishing off the president.

“However, this will be difficult. Even if they do not allow us to approve the new constitution, we have the constitutional text, which is being finished off now and will be presented to the people, and the people will decide.”

‘A political project of the poor’

When Loayza, together with Morales, was first elected to parliament in 1997 it marked the entrance of the indigenous and campesino (peasant) movements onto the political stage nationally. Two years previously, three of Bolivia’s key indigenous and campesino organisations, including the United Union Confederation of Campesino Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB) headed by Loayza, came together to construct a “political instrument” that aimed to be “a political project of the poor, for the liberation of the poor”.

Following the 1997 elections, the Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (which took the electorally registered name of MAS) was formed. In 2002, MAS came second in national elections, with Morales just falling short of winning the highest vote for president.

Refusing to make alliances with the traditional parties, MAS won government outright with 53.7% of the vote in the December 2005 elections, on the back of rising indigenous, campesino and other social movements. Re-elected as deputy in 2002, Loayza is generally viewed as representing the more radical wing of the MAS, largely due to his role as a leader of the CSUTCB during the 2003 and 2005 uprisings.

A plurinational

The election of what Loayza describes as
Bolivia’s “first indigenous, originario government” allowed for the implementation of the two central demands arising from the struggles of the indigenous majority — the nationalisation of gas (decreed in May 2006) and the convoking of a constituent assembly (which began meeting in August 2006). In the election of assembly delegates, MAS won over 50%.

“[An] indigenous, originario government signifies a change because until now governments have always stolen our resources, becoming wealthy at the expense of the poor. We want to finish off the neoliberal economic model.”

Loayza explained that
Bolivia’s social movements “are proposing a united, plurinational communitarian social state. Why plurinational? Because the indigenous originario peoples from the east and west want our nations to be recognised and, having finally been recognised, to participate in all spheres — political, economic, social and cultural.”

He said that MAS is “neither from the traditional left nor the traditional right — we come out of our own cultural identity” adding, “we want to change the country because each of the 36 [indigenous] nations has its own culture, language and beliefs. They live in harmony with Mother Earth.” However, accepting these differences doesn’t mean division: “to change the country we want unity”.

Behind the emphasis on indigenous rights and culture is not the goal of returning to a romanticised past, but rather an expression of
Bolivia’s national revolutionary tradition: “After the new constitution is approved all authorities will have to support industrialisation … we could become an industrialised country, no longer underdeveloped.”

Political commission

Attempting to implement these changes has placed the indigenous peoples on a collision course with the old ruling elite. This clash has at times been physical, something Loayza can personally testify to. Loayza nearly lost his life, spending two months in a coma, after a scuffle in the assembly resulted in a fall from a three metre high stage, fracturing his skull.

The right-wing opposition has fanned the flames of discontent among the people of Sucre (known as the “white city” for its social composition), where the assembly is meeting, with the demand that the legislative and executive powers — which shifted to La Paz in 1899 following a civil war — return to the city. Violent protests forced the temporary suspension of the assembly and some MAS delegates were forced into hiding.

To overcome the stalemate, the government took the initiative of forming a “political commission” to bring together representatives from all groups in the assembly to negotiate contentious points and attempt to reach consensus. Having squandered eight months debating rules of procedure, and then unnecessarily aggravating tensions by declaring that the issue of the capital could not be discussed in the assembly, many are wondering how useful the assembly will ultimately prove to be, and whether it isn’t just the same old parties once again negotiating the future of the country among themselves.

A recent poll showed that nearly two thirds of Bolivians don’t think the assembly will complete its job by December 14, with support for the assembly dropping to 39% in October. From the original goal of “re-founding
Bolivia”, discussion has shifted to the more moderate idea of “constitutionalising” changes begun under Morales, such as the gas nationalisation.

The current stalemate in the assembly now as many in MAS focusing on ensuring the constitutional changes include the ability to re-elect presidents to allow for continuity in the process of change. Despite discontent with the assembly, and in the face of sustained opposition attacks on Morales, the same poll puts his support at 62%, an increase of 5% from two months previous.

Loayza told GLW: “The political commission was formed firstly to seek unity, and afterwards to discuss the principal issues that have caused the problems, such as [competing] visions for the country.

“Until now we have reached consensus on the economic issue: the new constitution will recognise the state economy, the private economy and the communitarian economy to benefit the communities … we have also reached agreement on autonomy” at the departmental (state), municipal and regional level as well as for indigenous communities, “two important issues”.

While the main opposition party, Podemos, participated in discussions over autonomy, they did not sign onto the agreement, nor did they sign onto the subsequent agreement reached on October 18 over the type of state that Bolivia would become, which in an attempt to include all views was defined as unitary, social, plurinational, communitarian, autonomous and decentralised, democratic, free, independent, sovereign and inter-cultural.

The assembly is yet to reconvene, with a negotiation team from the political commission travelling to
Sucre to see if local authorities are willing to provide the necessary safety precautions for delegates to meet. That same day, October 31, the directorate of the assembly, along with MAS delegates, travelled to Oruro to investigate the feasibility of transferring the assembly there.

Loayza told GLW that while MAS was working hard to get agreement from the two thirds of assembly delegates needed to approve the final text, “I think we will not get that unity”. In such a scenario “once we have a constitutional text we will approve it by majority [in the assembly], and once approved we will hand it over to the people. If the opposition does not let us approve it, the people are the sovereigns: they will approve what we have done.”

First published in Green Left Weekly

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