Bolivia Amends New Constitution and Faces Mutiny from Within

Norman Madarasz, December 26, 2007

By the end of the week before Christmas, Bolivia's President Evo Morales dealt with his country's constitutional reform as a leader ought to. He rallied a divided country by calling out to South America's soccer greats, Pele and Maradona, to help overturn FIFA's ban on high altitude games. La Paz has been blacklisted due to the altitude-borne ailments suffered by players of the foreign national selections trying to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

Needless to say, Bolivia's internal conflict is not a mere question of nationalism. Nor is its territorial division into low, mid and highland regions merely geographical. As Morales held a talk at a hotel on Friday in the rebel city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Cruzentistas ­ as the locals are known there ­ showered the hotel with debris until repelled by riot police. The city has become the political center of the Media Luna departments (Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando) that have rejected the governing MAS (Movement toward Socialism) party's new Constitution and its bid to redistribute earnings from natural resources to the totality of the country's population. Along with the Tarija, the departments have threatened autonomy and even separation from the Bolivian federation.

Constitutional reform is often seen in less heroic terms than all-out revolution. Whatever the effectiveness of the latter in striving for radical change, what constitutional reform has going for it is the persistence of dialogue and debate. Among the greatest contributions to the question are the reflections made by philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his day, he complicated quick assessments of the nature of the French Revolution by arguing that its greatest accomplishment was not the beheading of the monarchy and aristocratic nobility, in short establishing the radical egalitarian Jacobin regime, but implementing a breed of constitutional reform which introduced the notion of civil liberties. Furthermore, faced with the French Revolution's hyper-centralization and flattening of regional differences, Kant was well ahead of his time in vouching for a type of constitution which he called "cosmopolitan". Citizens became the key ingredient to its heady mix. In light of that debate, there is perhaps no situation in the world today treading the delicate line between revolution and reform more than Bolivia.

The country is led by the first indigenous President since the birth of the republic over a hundred and seventy years ago, or indeed since Contact. But you would not know that from reading most mainstream media reports in North America. From their perspective, it would appear that yet another Latin American country has been taken hostage by corrupt narcolords or, as in Bolivia's case, "coca-leaf growers". Despite the repetition of that rhyme by the likes of the Wall Street Journal's Mary Anastasia O'Grady, the coca-leaf agricultural economy is rarely given any type of objective analysis.

An Aymaran native by birth, Morales became a leader of Quechua farmers after moving to the town of Chapare. Prior to founding MAS, Morales rose to head the cocalero movement. This was a loose-federation of coca-leaf-growing farmers who are predominantly indigenous, poor and powerless. Morales turned the federation into a party and ran in local elections. In the 1997 vote, MAS managed to win four seats in Congress. In 2002, Morales finished second, and MAS became the main opposition in Congress. In 2003, Bolivia's democracy bore its soul when President Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada ordered the military to open fire on a crowd of predominantly indigenous people protesting against decrepit social conditions. More than 60 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, and 51 percent had no access to electricity. Losada was responsible for butchering 60 and leaving hundreds wounded. Faced with the breakdown of the Bolivian State and impending revolution, Losada fled and the country remained in limbo until the December 2005 elections. With the highlander natives as a supporting base, Morales united the left and opposition parties and won the elections with 54 percent of the vote.

Whereas huge farm domains in the lowlander Media Luna departments have focused on the monoculture of rice, cotton, sugar cane and then, more recently, soybeans, Bolivia's indigenous populations, living mainly in the mid and highland regions, have historically been left to fend for themselves with subsistence farming. The mines there have always been a source of slavery, even after their privatization in 1985. Part of the indigenous economy is the coca plant, which is cultivated for medical purposes and religious ceremonies. This localized activity came to an end with the market boom in North American demand for cocaine, whose chemical base is extracted from the coca leaf. Blaming the coca-leaf growers for their part in the expansion of cocaine, Ronald Reagan engaged an elite antinarcotics FDA taskforce in 1983 to locally fund and train the Rural Area Police Patrol Unit. Its task was to eradicate 4,000 hectares of crop over a three-year period in exchange for a $ 14.2 million aid package.

The war on drugs did not show the extreme non-compliance with international law of today's war on terror, although the efficiency of both is hollow to the core. Then as now, corruption was its main result. Yet back then, the sovereignty of nations had to be respected. The US would spray herbicides only in States calling for its assistance. Bolivia was one such country. Under pressure from Congress that crop eradication was not effective, the US Government suspended funding in June 1986. That was when Bolivia's President Paz Estenssoro secretly engaged Operation Blast Furnace involving more than 150 United States troops in a bid to destroy cocaine laboratories. Despite the drug-based motives for US military intervention in the region, Evo Morales made it clear in a recent speech that his aim is also to support an effective fight against drugs. Yet he stressed firmly that "neither cocaine nor drug trafficking are part of the Bolivian culture," and rejects the presence of U.S. military on Bolivian soil.

On December 15, the legislative assembly of Bolivia ratified the new Constitution crafted by the President and his MAS party delegates. Following the delegates, and then the legislators, the Constitution will now be submitted to a nationwide referendum by the people ­ if Bolivia as a united State makes it that far. One of the least admirable items in the Constitution dealt with the President's eligibility for indefinite re-elections. But President Morales was wise enough to quickly ditch the item after his Venezuelan ally, Hugo Chavez, had been forced to concede defeat over his own constitutional reform package due to a similar clause. The structural changes will now have to be caaried out according to the short-term mandates of today's Western-style media-machine democracies.

The new Constitution is centered on deep agrarian reform, which would particularly benefit the country's large indigenous population. Collective ownership is to be granted to them by new amendments. Ownership of natural resources would also become collective. For all that, the aim of the Constitution is not to abolish private property, but to submit it to the ethical norms and social and productive targets countering the standards that have long made Bolivia one of the most plutocratic democracies on the continent -- no small thanks to United Nations' Millennium Development Project head, Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs worked as economic advisor to President Paz Estenssoro to curb quadruple-digit to single-digit inflation, but the state of the country's poverty level fell flatly short of his economic "shock therapy". In addition to redrawing the country's economic map, the new Constitution also enshrines the rights of the country's ethnic groups. Cosmopolitan it is with respect to the rights of groups, though by all appearances its attempt at redirecting the economy has the citizen gaining most in the long term.

It is no overstament, then, to claim that the political reconstruction of Bolivia has become a real-time laboratory in constitutional innovation. Opposed to this process are the Media Luna region departments, home to the country's wealthiest and whitest. In addition to the soybean monoculture, Bolivia's huge natural gas resources are found there. In a country with an indigenous majority of some 70 percent, the Constitution directly challenges Media Luna's historical exclusiveness. As in an act of foresight, one of the key items in the Constitution is the granting of greater autonomy to the nation's departments. But this is an item to be negotiated on a federal basis. For all of Morales's posturing to cutting off unilateral declarations, an act of secession on the regions' part would obviously make the Constitution void.

At this point, one of the most extremist voices in Bolivia is the Croatian-born soybean magnate, Branko Marinkovic, owner of 3000 hectares of land. He also heads the Santa Cruz Civil Committee, which has openly called for civil disobedience to the new Constitution. The character of the conflict is ethnic as well as economic. Anti-indigenous racism is commonplace in Santa Cruz. In its December 19, 2007 issue, Brazil's left-of-center news weekly, CartaCapital reports mayor of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Percy Fernández, as saying: "from the look of things, we'll have to paint our faces and use feathered arrows to be able to exist in this country."

That's why the combined official visit of Chile and Brazil's governments to La Paz, accompanied by the CEO of Petrobras, on the Monday immediately following the Constitution's ratification was a key event. Petrobras committed itself to investments amounting to $1 billion in energy-based industry. This marked a return to the South American community of Brazil's giant conglomerate after the Morales-led nationalization of the gas industry in 2006. Petrobras was stripped of a history of development and Brazil's natural gas supply was jeopardized as the Morales government attempted to restore ownership of gas resources to the indigenous population. A year was to pass before Argentina brought Venezuela's sole support of Bolivia against a blockade of oil-industry corporations to an end. On October 19, former President Nestor Kirchner signed an agreement with Bolivia for a supply of 27 million cubic-meters of gas per day, at five dollars per million BTUs, and re-adjustable over time. For Bolivia, the deal was extremely favorable. As for Chile, President Michelle Bachelet has offered to develop a corridor to the Pacific, which would facilitate direct international trade for landlocked Bolivia.

In a public address given on the last day of his visit in La Paz, President Lula da Silva begged both sides for "patience, patience and more patience" to deal with internal "political disturbances". But his and Bachelet's message was clear. There would be no foreign support for regional separation and an undermining of Bolivia's federation.

A number of foreign observers fear that the country is on the verge of civil war. Reports cite the presence Colombian nationals, allegedly linked to rightwing paramilitary squads, in the Santa Cruz region. Considering that Bolivia's strategic Venezuelan ally is now in an open battle with Colombia's President Uribe, turmoil in Bolivia could draw in its two neighbors.

How does the US stand on Bolivia? Historically, the US crop war on Bolivia's coca plantations was both a direct and indirect support of the white population. Corruption has made it difficult to evaluate what has been achieved on the ground in terms of sponsoring indigenous agricultural alternatives. The US may also be involved in the increased presence of Colombians, given that through its Plan Colombia and other post-9/11 aid to counter "narcoterrorism" Colombia has become the largest recipient of aid in Latin America, second only to Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan worldwide. Morales' campaign pledge to decriminalize growing coca-leaves is being inflated as the injustice against which the US ought to act, thereby finally "reasserting" itself in its "historic role" in the region.

As for Lula and his astute foreign minister, Celso Amorim, throughout the ousting of Petrobras, both held to the ethical virtues of firm negotiations. This is one of the reasons why, liberal macroeconomic policies aside, both Chavez and Morales respect Lula. At any rate, Lula's microeconomic performance has been outstanding. From all the cynicism from the rightwing about "assistentialist" policies, his Bolsa Familia program has boosted millions out of dire poverty and has created a consumer base garnering enthusiastic applause even from such conservative economists as Antonio Delfim Netto. Growth has exceeded five percent in many of the country's poorer regions.

Questioned in a December 19 interview by the Brazilian on-line journal, Carta Maior, Bolivia's brilliant mathematician and sociologist Vice-President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, hides nothing of his Marxist analysis of the country's economic structure. Yet in terms of international trade, he clearly intends for his people to benefit from the best the market can offer. The question remains whether one can benefit from market forces from without while undermining their tendency to class and ethnic disparity from within. In his own words, Linera focuses the logic of State leadership on negotiating. He described his own commitment as "first, helping to reconvert some of the ways people think in the popular sectors and some of their resistance habits into managerial habits, whose decisions the State will carry out. Second, making the State into a true synthesis that entirely connotes society, and not merely the State as a faction. The State as the materialization of social alliances, of all citizens. It is the idea of a real State, not an apparent one."

One aspect surely worth pointing out in the Cruzenista calls for autonomy, without going into details of the country's history, is that the Santa Cruz department received direct transfer of funds and agricultural subsidies from the federal government until the 1990s. Now that it has struck it big with soybean and natural gas, its option is to go it alone. With a background of Croat ustachi, fascist and fascist-sympathetic immigration at the end of World War II, the region's social fiber is a far cry from the ethical blood required to carry out the reforms. The worst is to be feared regarding the measures Cruzenistas will implement to secure their tally.

As a probable portent, a bomb exploded on Christmas Eve at the headquarters of the syndicate Morales once led. Morales already reshuffled key army leadership positions in June, after a military-led coup was rumored to be taking shape. Even so, private intelligence analyses report that the armed forces remain under the control of, and loyal to, the presidency. At this point, the federal institutions do not seem to want to risk a civil war.

Norman Madarasz, a Canadian, is professor of philosophy at the Graduate School of Universidade Gama Filho and at the Law Department of the Universidade Estadual de Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), both in Rio de Janeiro. He welcomes comments at

First published at Counterpunch

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