Bolivia: Right-wing violence as draft constitution approved

Rachel Evans & Beatrice Bassi, November 30, 2007

Sucre, the home of Bolivia’s constituent assembly, has been subjected to right-wing attacks campesinos (peasants) were violently attacked when they arrived to defend the besieged assembly.

The campesinos were violently expelled from their sleeping quarters at the Pedagogical Institute by right-wing students. Evo Morales, the democratically elected indigenous president, moved the assembly meeting site to military barracks on the outskirts of Sucre to escape the violence.

Sucre, a city identified with the resource-rich eastern states (known as the “half moon”), has been home to the assembly since August 2006. The constituent assembly was a key demand of the uprisings that overthrew the two previous governments, as well as a key plank of Morales’ election platform. Its aim is to draw up a new constitution “refound” Bolivia on the basis of justice for the indigenous majority. The assembly, composed of elected delegates, passed its initial one year deadline in August without voting on a single article for a new constitution. Mass protests against the assembly have been led by right-wing civic committees — tied to the eastern-based oligarchy — are active in Surce.

Rosalio Tinta is an indigenous activist involved with the Coalition in Defence of Life and Water, which lead a successful uprising against water privatisation in 2000, spoke to Green Left Weekly about the situation with the assembly. “I believe that first one must state that the oligarchy never wanted to touch the issue of the constitution.”

Tinta explained that
Bolivia needs a new constitution, because since formal independence from Spain, the indigenous majority have remained oppressed. “When it is spoken of the liberators Simon Bolivar and Jose Antonio of Sucre”, who led the struggle against the Spanish, “we must understand something. They created the constitution — distributing territories and powers — on behalf of those of Spanish origin in Bolivia. Sucre and Bolivar did not resolve the issue of the indigenous people. The indigenous people were maintained in a state where we were compared to animals.”

Conflict between largely indigenous supporters of the constituent assembly process and forces backed by the oligarchy continued to grow in September over the issue of the location of the country’s capital. Currently
Sucre is the constitutional and judicial capital, while La Paz, in the impoverished west, is the administrative and political capital. The oligarchy called for Sucre to become the full capital. La Paz is Bolivia’s largest city and is home to highly organised social movements based on the impoverished indigenous majority.

Tensions in the assembly between the majority based on Morales’ party the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and its allies, and right-wing forces have at times led to violence, including an assault on MAS’s Silvia Lazarte, an indigenous woman elected the assembly’s president.

Tinta said “The constitution is important and must stand for inclusion. You should not forget that before Evo Morales, who is indigenous, we did not have anyone to represent us. Morales was first a leader of the coca growers, defending the right to grow coca, then defending water [from privatisation]. He is a leader of the social movements, and is therefore a comrade.”

Tinta noted, “The issue is that the opposition never wanted changes to the constitution. Since the start of the independence until today, they opposed modifying the constitution, because indigenous people are saying that the indigenous, poor and popular sectors should receive greater economic distribution from the state.”

Although MAS, and it allies, control a majority of seats in the assembly, to slow the process down right-wing parties, led by Podemos, insisted that a two-thirds vote was needed for committees to approve the different sections of the new constitution. Consequently advances were stalled for 16 months.

In an article posted on the
Bolivia Rising blog entitled “Final battle in Bolivia”, director of the Center for the Study of the Americas Roger Burbach chronicled the events leading to the recent wave of violence in Sucre. Following the moving of the assembly to military barracks, the head of the armed forces, General Wilfredo Vargas, backed the move declaring “it has to meet to continue — to modernise the state in all its features”.

Burbach explained that “Vargas — in a swipe at one of the regional political leaders allied with the Half Moon who claimed that Cuban and Venezuelan military units were in the country, declared: ‘No information exists of such units. And if it were the case, they are military units of the State and as part of the State they represent the Bolivian people’.”

Delegates from the right-wing parties, led by Podemos, responded to the move by boycotting the assembly, declaring it “illegal”. On
November 23, 139 of the 255 assembly delegates nonetheless met and approved the broad outlines of a new constitution to carry out the reforms championed by Morales and the country’s social movements. The next step is for the assembly to adopt the specific clauses and content of the constitution.

Burbach pointed out “Before that process could begin, the opposition in Sucre, led mainly by students and young people, violently took over all the major public buildings using dynamite and Molotov cocktails, demanding the resignation of ’the shitty Indian Morales’.”

Parts of
Sucre were in flames as assembly delegates abandoned the military barracks on November 24, and by Sunday rioting mobs controlled Sucre. The police were forced to retreat to the mining town of Potosi, two hours away. At least four people, possibly five, were killed with hundreds injured.

In a November 25 article in Bolivian newspaper Ukhampacha, Luis Gomez wrote that since November 24 “television networks such as Unitel and ATB (both owned by the Spanish media group PRISA), are blaming the government for
Sucre’s state of siege. They claim that [one of the deaths was caused by] police repression and that yesterday’s delegate session was illegal and is evidence of a dictatorship. They fail to report that forensic report [on the death] finds that the fatal bullet comes from a gun-type not used by the police. Not to mention the fact that, as the minister of the presidency Juan Ramon Quintana points out, the police were not armed this weekend in Sucre.”

Gomez explained: “In between repetitive images of
Sucre’s streets as battlefields, the networks broadcast the event’s rippling effects nationwide. They report on aggressive and premeditated acts as if they were spontaneous occurrences — the most notable of which occurred in Santa Cruz at dawn this morning. An angry group appeared in front of the house of MAS politician Osvaldo Peredo where several Cuban doctors also live. After screaming insults against the government, the group threw a Molotov cocktail towards the residence. Fortunately, there was only material — not human — damage. Similarly, TV images show groups of young Santa Cruz residents violently attacking the regional tax office headquarters.”

Gomez says that, “Some of Bolivia’s independent media outlets are having transmission problems. The internet signal of Radio Erbol (owned by the Catholic Church) is unavailable in certain parts of the country where there is normally a signal. Many journalists — employees of Erbol and its affiliate station in
Sucre — have received death threats. Many of Sucre’s few independent reporters, according to Ukhampacha sources, are in hiding.”

Morales addressed the nation on November 25 defending the constituent assembly and his government. Gomez wrote that “Evo Morales explained the minutia of the recently approved Constitution in painstaking detail. He asserted that his government would convene a full investigation into the weekend’s incidents and reiterated that the government had not instructed the police to use lethal weapons against the population.”

Morales’s address attacked the oligarchy. “They can’t accept that we the poor people can govern ourselves”, after explaining the long list of obstacles the constituent assembly has confronted over the past 16 months.

Morales also pleaded with the Bolivian people to remain calm, warning that the new constitution must now be approved by national referendum, as legally stipulated. Gomez pointed out that “Morales had spoken for almost 30 minutes yet practically no major television channel broadcast his words. Almost all were carrying their normally scheduled programs.”

Tinto told GLW that he believed “the opposition has called for civil disobedience. Before they defended legality, now they try pressure. Do not forget that we in previous years have been the last one of the poor countries and the leaders in corruption.”

Manuel Urisote, a political analyst and director of the Land Foundation, an independent research centre in
La Paz, declared “We are at a national impasse. The right-wing led by the Santa Cruz oligarchy is in open rebellion, but Morales, MAS and the popular movements will not back down. The military is supporting the president. As a national institution it intends to maintain the territorial integrity of Bolivia and it will not accept decrees of cession by Santa Cruz."

First published in Green Left Weekly

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