Bolivia’s indigenous, left-wing President Evo Morales has announced plans to hold a referendum on whether or not he will continue in office, according to a December 5 New York Times article. The aim is to overcome the stalemate the country has faced between the right-wing elite — opposed to the process of change pushed by Morales — and the poor and indigenous majority that put Morales in power. The vice president and nine state governors will also a vote on continuing in office.
The reasons for this move are easy to understand.
On November 24 it was decided to move the assembly, meeting in Sucre, to military barracks on the outskirts of the city in an attempt to escape the wave of violence already washing over the city — which saw the brutal eviction of 300 campesinos (peasants), who had arrived in Sucre to help physically defend the assembly, from their sleeping quarters. The move sparked further violent protests.
In an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the assembly, right-wing opposition delegates had already walked out, declaring the process had become “illegal”. On November 23 — free of the stalling tactics of the opposition that has seen the assembly miss its one-year deadline for a new constitution in August — 139 of the 255 assembly delegates approved the broad outlines for a new draft constitution. The assembly is yet to adopt the specific clauses and content of the constitution. Once completed, the proposed constitution will be put to voters in a referendum.
The fight to pass constitutional changes has been an important step in
In 2000, Morales helped lead the successful fight against the privitisation of water, the Bolivian poor taking on
In 2003, 67% of Bolivians lived in poverty, with only 64% of households equipped with electricity, and only 31% having sewerage access. Just days after his election, Morales explained to an “In Defence of Humanity” conference the aims of the mass movement he headed: “This uprising of the Bolivian people has been not only about gas and hydrocarbons, but an intersection of many issues: discrimination, marginalisation, and most importantly, the failure of neoliberalism.”
In 2006 the government completed the re-nationalisation of water companies, and is negotiating the re-nationalisation of the country’s main telecommunications company. Morales has instituted a retirement pension to all eligible Bolivians equal to the minimum wage. He increased teachers’ salaries by 10% and reduced parliamentary salaries by 50%.
With proceeds from gas nationalisation (and with significant help from Cuba and Venezuela) Bolivia now has 20 new hospitals, 2000 Cuban doctors providing free health care, and the beginnings of a land reform program that is redistributing land to landless campesinos as well as tractors to assist in working it.
However, the Morales government has faced its biggest challenge in the constituent assembly. The right-wing elite, backed by a savage and racist propaganda campaign in the private media, succeeded in stalling one of the key components of the process of change promoted by Morales and demanded by the poor. There have been often violent mobilisations for and against the assembly process, raising fears the country was slipping towards a civil war.
The decision to push ahead with the assembly in the face of the violent campaign on the streets, fuelled by racist propaganda in the media, is a sign that the Morales government is looking to break the stalemate that Bolivia has been in for much of the year, with neither the forces tied to the oligarchy nor the popular movement headed by Morales able to enforce its will on the nation. By turning to the people with the planned referendums, Morales is attempting to re-legitimise his government and its radical project. In a country where the private media remains powerful, and the forces opposed to change have a significant social base in the largely white middle class, it is a risky move, but perhaps unavoidable. The future of Bolivia hangs in the balance.