Bolivia: New constitution sparks right-wing revolt

Rachel Evans, La Paz

January 18, 2008

In December, after 16 months of wrangling, the elected delegates to the constituent assembly finally passed a draft constitution that will be put a national referendum sometime before September.

A new constitution to re-found the country in order to include the indigenous majority subjected to 500 years of racial oppression has been a key demand of Bolivia’s powerful social movements. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, was elected in December 2005 promising to convoke an assembly.

The draft constitution recognises the rights of the indigenous peoples and guarantees state control over natural resources, among other progressive changes — including protection for gays and lesbians from discrimination.

After the constitution was passed, right-wing forces backed by the Bolivian oligarchy led a violent campaign that saw four people killed in Sucre.

The main right-wing opposition party, Podemos, boycotted the final assembly session, allowing delegates from the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) — Morales’ party — and allies to pass the draft with the two thirds majority required. Opposition groups — backed by US imperialism — have refused to recognise the draft as legitimate.

In retaliation the oligarchy based in the “media luna” (“half moon” — the four departments in the east of the country home to much of Bolivia’s natural resources) have launched plans to hold referendums to declare “autonomy” from the Bolivian state.


The resource-rich eastern states are the main base of the racist white elite, with the predominantly indigenous, poorer, western departments being main base of support for Morales. The push for autonomy is a move aimed at securing control over gas reserves and land.

In an article posted on the Bolivia Rising blog on December 30, Bengamin Dangel explained that the autonomy plans for the eastern department of Santa Cruz includes refusing to send two thirds of all oil and gas revenue to the central government.

A separate proposed article on land reform for the new constitution will also be put to referendum and if passed will allow the government to redistrute large amounts of idle land to landless campesinos (peasants). Key figures in the opposition are also major landowners.

On December 15 the largest demonstrations of the autonomistas took place in Santa Cruz, rallying against land reform plans.

With the government declaring the plans for autonomy illegal and the oligarchy arguing the same about the draft constitution, the country is potentially on a dangerous collision course.

Last year saw a series of mobilisations and counter-mobilisations by opponents and supporters of the process of change, many of which were marred by violence. The right-wing mobilised fascist gangs in Sucre to attempt to stop the constitutional assembly from proceeding. The private media, viciously anti-Morales, has run a racist campaign to undermine the government, including presenting Morales as a puppet of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, Morales has announced referendums to be held sometime this year on whether or not he, his vice president and all nine department governors should stay in office. Despite the destabilisation campaign, Morales remains popular with an approval rating of 56% according to Dangel.

Murderous oligarchy

However, indigenous blood is being more readily split by an increasingly frustrated opposition. The latest battle has centred on the government’s creation of the “Dignity Pension” for elderly Bolivians, who have never had access to a pension before — a significant gain for the 37% of Bolivians who live in extreme poverty.

The new pension is being paid for by gas revenue redirected from the departments, and therefore is opposed by the “media luna” governments.

Morales has met with the eastern state leaders in pursuit of unity. A January 10 Inter Press Service article by Franz Chavez explained: “Morales opened the meeting with a report on his first two years in office, presenting results that would have been the envy of his predecessors. He pointed out that despite the social unrest … of 2007, GDP grew 4.2 percent … He also promised that public investment, which totalled 500 million dollars in 2005, would increase to [US[ 1.3 billion dollars in 2008.”

The initial meeting resolved to set up a commission, aiming to “reach agreements on issues like national unity, the cuts in the provincial governments’ budgets, the different kinds of autonomy, the defence of democracy, the state’s role in the economy, and the process of social change promoted by the government”.

Dignity and sovereignty

On January 14, an activist centre in my local area in La Paz held a meeting with two MAS leaders, Cynthia Cisneros and Juan Carlos, who explained the changes and argued for activists to promote them.

Cisneros argued that capitalism is being challenged by the power of the social movements. She spoke about revolution being necessary while Bolivian children have to work on the streets to survive. According to the National Statistics Institute, 67 percent of Bolivia’s 9.6 million people live in poverty, and 37 percent in extreme poverty.

Carlos argued that “the constitution is transitional. It is not socialist or communist but a liberal constitution. It is anti-colonial.” He explained that if the constitution is adopted, the poor will remain poor, and the main structures of domination will remain, however the new constitution can open the road to change.

Rallies pepper La Paz’s streets daily — demanding change in a range of areas. Radio programs are full of discussion about socialism, and news about the revolution in Venezuela is a major feature. As the mass movement of Bolivia’s oppressed gears up for the next steps in deepening democracy and social justice, we can be sure the right-wing will be on the offensive to prevent change.

Republished from Green Left Weekly

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