Constituting change in a divided Bolivia

Nick Buxton, January 21, 2008

Bolivia's proposed new constitution is an innovative and progressive document constructed out of the struggles by social movements in recent years, however securing national consensus will be an uphill struggle. An in-depth analysis of Bolivia's constitutional process.

Adolfo Chavez’s determined voice rang out across thousands of people gathered in the central square of La Paz, Bolivia: “For indigenous peoples, this is a truly historic day. We have lived through darkness. After years of struggle, demands to recognise our rights, after being abandoned and excluded, we finally for the first time have a constitution that recognises us.” His proclamation was greeted by people cheering and waving both the national flag and the multi-coloured indigenous flag known as the wiphala.

On 15 December 2007, just one week after Venezuela’s Chavez had suffered the defeat of a referendum for constitutional change, the Bolivian government’s campaign to win approval of a new Constitutional document via popular vote had just begun.

It was particularly symbolic that Adolfo Chavez was the first to speak. He is President of the Confederation of the Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), a federation of indigenous communities in the east of the country. CIDOB initiated the process towards a Constituent Assembly with a large march to La Paz seventeen years ago in 1990.

The symbolism was double-edged because the region Adolfo Chavez comes from is now controlled by an elite-led departmental government of Santa Cruz that is at the forefront of opposing the new constitution. On December 15, the opposition marked the day by launching “autonomy statutes” that propose a very different vision to that offered by Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), the governing party led by President Evo Morales.

Decolonisation and an end to neoliberalism

The heart of the new Constitutional document, drafted by a constituent assembly this past year and fiercely resisted by the Santa Cruz elite, is captured perhaps in two of its 411 articles:

“Article 102: The cosmovisions, myths, oral history, dances, cultural practices, knowledge, traditional technologies are patrimony of the nations and communities of indigenous, original agricultural peoples, and form part of the expression and identity of the State.”

“Article 306: The Unitary Social Communitarian Plurinational State of Law has human beings as its primary value, and will ensure development through equitable redistribution of economic earnings through social policies, health, education and culture. The Bolivian economic model is plural, and is designed to improve the quality of life, and “living well” of all Bolivians.”

These two articles reflect the struggle of social movements focused on decolonising the State, and ending a neoliberal economy and society that has deepened impoverishment and inequality. At the December 15 rally, President Evo Morales linked the two themes: “From the government palace, we are starting to decolonise Bolivia and this new Constitution guarantees the decolonisation of the country. We have to decolonise externally and internally. This is not about excluding anyone. It is about ensuring there are not groups that impose interests or policies on Bolivia.”

David Choquehuanca, Bolivia’s foreign minister explained that “living well”, which has become an oft-repeated mantra of the Bolivian government “is not about living better; that is the language of development which has caused great imbalance. Living well is about living in harmony with others and with nature.” The proposal that this should be developed through a plural economic model hopes to put an end to a model that believed that the private sector should dominate economic (and often social) relations and marks a tilt back towards an increased role of the state in the economy.

History of struggle

The struggle of Bolivia’s social movements, as many Bolivians will tell you, is one that has taken place over centuries. It is highlighted in the rebellions by indigenous leaders such as Tupac Katari who refused to accept Spanish rule, laid siege for several months to the capital La Paz in 1781 and was brutally killed and quartered. It was seen in the involvement of indigenous movements in the nationalist uprising in 1952 that finally secured the vote for indigenous peoples. It was crystalized in the rebellion of the indigenous city of El Alto in 2003 where 67 people lost their lives against government troops in a mass mobilisation for the nationalisation of Bolivia’s natural gas. However it is most obvious in the resilience of indigenous communities that continue to practice their distinct culture despite living within a state that has imposed artificial boundaries, a western system of governance, rule by a small white and mixed-race elite and values based on individualism and consumption.

When this hegemonic imposition was combined with an extreme free-market economic model in the 1980s and 1990s, indigenous communities started to take the offensive.. The struggles focused initially on natural resources: water, land and gas. But in the background was an ever-louder demand for a Constituent Assembly. The aim was to confront head on the exclusionary western republican identity of the state, and to undo the political and economic structures, policies and institutions which had led to the concentration of power in the hands of a few. At first the demand was scorned, laughed at and ignored by political elites, but the overthrow of two governments in three years made it clear that the social pact on which governments depend had broken down. Holding a constitutional assembly to reweave that pact was grudgingly accepted in 2003.

From that moment, Bolivia’s social movements moved on to discussions of what the constitution should include, belying the myth that protest movements are only good at opposing and not proposing. Across the country, a wide-range of social sectors held meetings at the regional and national level to work on proposals that were presented to the assembly throughout the past year. The federation of women’s organisations alone held 710 meetings before the Assembly met.

The process of selecting assembly members was highly criticised by some social movements because the elections were controlled by political parties rather than citizens’ groups. However nearly all social movements contributed to the work of the 21 commissions established to pull together key proposals from civil society. The principal indigenous and campesino movements coordinated their proposals via a Unity Pact whose proposal for a plurinational state contributed to the core basis of the new constitutional text. These organisations put forward proposals based not only on their recent struggles against neoliberalism but also from demands emerging from the international networks of which they have been part. This is reflected in proposals such as preventing privatisation of water and prohibiting the establishment of foreign military bases on Bolivia’s soil. As a result, Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly process reflects not only Bolivia’s own historical struggle but the global movement for a just and sustainable planet.

Constituting History

After 15 months of political delays, obstructions and conflicts, the resulting constitution is historical, innovative and internationally precedent-setting in several key areas:

1. Indigenous recognition

One of the striking elements in the constitution is the constant reference to indigenous communities throughout the document. In the previous constitution they were hardly mentioned except in vague references to cultural diversity. Yet the current constitution recognises the pre-colonial existence of 36 indigenous peoples in Bolivia, promotes indigenous principals such as “to live well” as fundamental to the state and continuously emphasises the importance of protecting and promoting indigenous culture, practices and rights. Indigenous people are guaranteed collective land rights, their own communication networks, intellectual property over traditional knowledge, proper consultation on use of non-renewable resources and complete control over renewable resources. In a gesture of radical significance, the state even admits that its reach is limited within the country by proclaiming the right of uncontacted indigenous peoples (those who have chosen to be isolated from society) to be left alone and have their land protected. There can’t be many states worldwide enlightened enough to mark out no-go areas for its authority within its own boundaries.

However more importantly indigenous recognition is not limited to indigenous regions, but is seen to cross-sect society including the very state and its institutions that have for so long imposed one western model. So education is now required to be intercultural and intracultural, healthcare is required to include support and research for traditional medicine, universities are called on to support and promote indigenous languages, perhaps most importantly every region now has to include at least one native indigenous language as an official language.

2. Plurality of structures

The result of integrating indigenous sovereignty into a western state is to introduce plurality into the state. One of the biggest fights within the Assembly was over MAS’ decision for the first sentence of the Constitution to include the word “Plurinational” in the description of the state to emphasise that Bolivia was made up of many nations. Indigenous movements said it was central to decolonising Bolivia. “What are nations?” argued Pedro Alvarez, technical advisor to the campesino federation CSUTCB, “but groups of peoples based on territory, culture, language and distinct values. So this State will recognise us for who we are.” Granting equality to different systems was crucial to unbinding the power of one model.

The plurality runs through the constitution recognising that a country can have different political, economic, judicial, cultural and linguistic systems within one united state. It is also recognised in different forms of democracy - representative, participative and communitarian. Most of all it is recognised in the granting of indigenous autonomy alongside regional and department autonomy which enables groups who have chosen autonomy to exercise jurisdiction, apply their own rules, and uphold distinct principles and cultural values whilst respecting fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution.

At the same time, all the key elements of western representative democracy remain: the presence of three separate powers (executive, judiciary and legislature), the use of universal secret vote, and the decentralisation of administrative authority to local levels where possible. In many ways, the state at the national level will seem no different in terms of its institutional structure, and some social movements are arguing it is not sufficiently changed or transformed. For the Right, however, these representative democracy safeguards are not enough. They continue to warn of authoritarianism and claim the indigenous emphasis is politically divisive and a threat to the unity of the country.

3. Re-assertion of the collective and the State against rights for private capital

After two decades when according to the Inter-American Development Bank, Bolivia became the country that most thoroughly applied the neoliberal model of the Washington Consensus, the new constitution marks a swing back towards reasserting collective rights, a renewed role for the state in economic policy, and prioritization of the collective interest over private interests. Internationally, it marks a very significant constitutional rejection of the free-market ethos of corporate-led globalisation.

Given the Water War in Cochabamba (in which US multinational Bechtel was thrown out in a popular rebellion from running the city’s water utility), it not surprisingly prohibits privatisation of water or the inclusion of water in trade agreements, but also goes much further banning private, for-profit control of basic services, energy companies and social security. Private property and private business is protected, but is contained within clauses that prevent excessive accumulation of power, monopolies or private actions against the public interest.

At the same time the state is given an increased role to regulate and at times control strategic resources, such as gas and mining to ensure collective benefits. The state is also required to give special treatment to micro-industries, cooperatives, community organisations and rural organic producers. The thrust of the constitution is to limit the monopolisation of economic power and to prioritise human rights and small producers over private businesses’ search for ever-more profit.

The increased state role is balanced by greater emphasis on social control, which is to be exercised at all levels of governance, within public bodies, judicial system, and state companies. This is to include participation in formulating policies, monitoring of resources and actions.

4. Broad assertion of rights

The constitution stands out for the number of chapters dedicated to rights - 93 articles rather than four in the last constitution – embracing the full gamut of economic, social, cultural, personal and collective rights. The rights include rights to water, food security, health, education, housing, basic services, a just wage and the right to strike and form a union. The rights embrace everyone from children to elderly to people with disabilities and those in prison. It is also much tougher on discrimination and violence due to gender, sexuality or handicap – with progress assessed by an annual report on the status of human rights conducted by an independent state institution known as the Peoples’ Defender. Innovatively it also recognises the economic value of household work (primarily done by women) whose contribution to societal well-being must be reflected in public accounts.

5. Asserting a new just globalisation

Modern states are of course more and more defined by international rules of commerce and finance, rather than the desires and demands of their citizens. It is interesting to see then that defining that process of engagement with globalisation is central to the Bolivian constitution. The constitution openly rejects conditionality and impositions by any international institutions, prohibits foreign military bases on Bolivian soil, or the sell-off of natural resources to foreign companies. In clauses that would theoretically rule out any free trade agreements, it states that international relations must be based on independence and equality of States, rejection of neocolonialism and imperialism, and on defending human, social, cultural and environmental rights, conservation of nature, access to generic medicines and preferences for Bolivian producers.

Any treaty which involves structural economic integration or giving up institutional competency to a supranational body has to be approved by a referendum – something EU nations would do well to learn from. The Bolivian constitution also declares itself as a pacifist State that rejects all wars of aggression.


A constitutional text inevitably leaves a great deal for interpretation. Much will depend on the elaboration of rules and most importantly procedures and institutions for enforcing changes. Even the government has admitted that parts of the constitution need to be more clearly drafted – something which is likely to happen before it is presented in a referendum. The overlapping boundaries and competencies of different autonomies at the regional level could certainly cause complications, as the Right seems happy to predict, but clearly-worded legislation and an effective tribunal could make the transition smoother. Similarly the issue of how social control is exercised could be clarified by a clear law.

However there is a distinct lack of policies that one would hope to find in a modern constitution. There is for example a noticeable lack of popular democracy initiatives, apart from the ability to revoke an authority’s mandate with a vote by 20% of the population. Meanwhile the executive which already holds considerable powers compared to the legislature is not made any more accountable and in fact has its authority strengthened in some areas. The dysfunction of modern-day political parties and unaccountable, often corrupt state bodies have not prompted innovative solutions. Given that even the application of the constitution will require effective citizen mechanisms for holding parties and public officials to account, this is likely to prove a major weakness in the future.

And whilst environmental issues appear throughout the constitution including interestingly the prohibition of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), the text reveals a contradiction between the conservation and the industrialisation of natural resources. This is not surprising given Bolivia’s economic dependence on exploiting fossil fuels and minerals. In this respect, the temporary detention by the Bolivian government of anti-dam activists protesting Brasilian President Lula’s visit the day after the constitution was proclaimed was not a positive sign as to how the environmental commitments will be carried out.

Right backlash

However most of the attacks on the constitution are not surprisingly coming from the Right (led by Bolivia’s former political elites and leading businessmen) who have attempted to obstruct a Constitutional Assembly that they never wanted in the first place. At first their opposition focused on demanding that every article by approved by two-thirds (which gave them an effective veto), then on putting the issue of where the capital should be on the table that opened up a long historical wound caused by a civil war between Sucre and La Paz in the 19th Century. This effectively stopped the constitutional assembly from meeting for months.

Then when the leading governing party MAS started to plough ahead, at the very least severely bending if not breaking certain rules, in the final days before the deadline, the Right have accused the government of unilaterally imposing a MAS authoritarian and illegal constitution. It is an argument that has been happily accepted wholesale by much of the international and particularly the US media that gleefully predicts the downfall of the Chavez project across Latin America, ignoring the fact that the struggle for the new constitution in Bolivia has a very different and distinct trajectory to that of Venezuela.

Very few mention that the actual constitution was approved by more than two-thirds of an assembly attended by 65% of the delegates, representing 10 political parties. They fail to highlight how the constitution clearly defends the liberty of religion, expression, meeting, setting up companies, commerce and even goes much further than western constitutions in defending “western” liberties such as the right to silence and the inviolable right to privacy in the home and in communications and correspondence. Even Samuel Doria Medina, a leading cement magnate and opposition party leader has admitted that “there is much that is good in this constitution.”
However it is clear that the constitution threatens the interests of an elite that historically ruled the country and continues to hold economic power. As Evo Morales himself said in an interview with the BBC: "In last year's election we only captured government ...... [but] who makes the decisions here - the poor and indigenous people or those families who've done so much damage to our country in the past? ... It's a political fight - it's a fight for power." And the elite who have maintained power are threatened by the constitution on several fronts: the potential restrictions on private sector business freedom, the limitations on landholdings, and the dilution of the their power at departmental level prompted by the introduction of a regional (at a more local level than the department) and indigenous autonomy.

The Right’s arguments are well summarised by Fernando Molina in an article in the weekly, Pulso, which examined the impact of the reforms through the lens of the three “fundamental western freedoms: life, liberty and property.” If you want to look of evidence of colonisation (or the idea that only western thought matters) you never have to look too far in Bolivia. Molina said “whilst the programme is not socialist, at the same time it is profoundly anti-liberal” and includes an “undisguised distrust of large private property.” He also warned that the “extreme nationalism” could “disrupt one of the main principles of the World Trade Organisation of which Bolivia is a member which talks of the equality between national and foreign investors by saying that Bolivian investment will be prioritised.”

Behind the pro-business rhetoric, there is also an undercurrent of racism with Molina criticising the constitution for “appearing to be designed to over-represent indigenous groupings.” As Yawar Niña, a Bolivian cultural activist argues, “this shows the racism embedded in our country can’t accept that the country is profoundly colonised in every fabric and structure. Only the recognition of indigenous values at its very heart can hope to undo this process.”

By contrast the autonomy statutes put forward first by the civic committee of Santa Cruz portray very clearly the Santa Cruz’s vision. And it can’t really be described as an alternative to that of the new constitution because it firstly unimaginatively copies parts of Catalan’s autonomy statutes wholesale and most importantly loyally maintains the old neoliberal system: statutes that allows Santa Cruz to control its own hydrocarbons resources, that turns indigenous nations into cultures easily subsumed under a “multicultural” label, which permits the contracting of transnationals in the exploitation of natural resources, puts no limits on the size of landholdings and transfers the process of land reform to regional level. This is pretty convenient given for example that Branko Marinkovich, the head of the Santa Cruz civic committee, is one of Santa Cruz’s biggest landowners and is facing legal action for illegal expropriation of land.

Fight to finish

With the two visions now lined up, Bolivia will be facing a fight to the finish in the year 2008, with what looks to be a year of elections. In early January, both the MAS and opposition regional governments were attempting to negotiate a compromise that would see a consensual constitution put forward. But it is hard to imagine this will take place without betraying MAS’ social movement base or the Right doing a completely improbable u-turn. A false consensus with the Right which excludes the social movement bases who fought for so long for the constitution will have little lasting power.

With or without consensus, both the constitution and the autonomy statutes will face referendums, whilst Evo Morales and the opposition department prefects have agreed to popular votes of confidence. It will be a close-run battle. The Right have the advantage of controlling most of the media, the support of the US government and have two years of fierce propaganda campaigns under the belt that have already swayed public opinion. They have also successfully exploited regional sentiments, most notably in Sucre, where the Right’s support for moving the capital has swung a region once loyal to MAS to having a leadership fiercely opposed to MAS.

The MAS government has the advantage of the support of neighbouring governments, who have notably stood firmly behind Evo Morales during recent confrontations. They block the ability of regions like Santa Cruz negotiating its own deals over hydrocarbons. MAS also has the potential with some campaigning to win people behind its message of “change” that was so effective in recent elections, and highlighting the obvious self-interests and muddied pasts of the political elites opposing the new constitution. But they will have an uphill struggle winning back the middle-class who blame the confrontations which have led to several deaths on a government whose rhetoric has often been provocative and played into the hands of the Right. Even if MAS wins a referendum, failure to gain support from a large proportion of the population and create a new national consensus could easily mean that the constitutional changes may last only until the Right wins in a future election.

However whilst the battle will play out in Bolivia, it has a global significance that goes beyond the struggles of one Andean nation to resolve the contradictions of its colonial past. For despite its flaws, the new constitution touches on themes such as addressing colonialism and exclusion, tackling racism and building true equal intercultural co-living, embedding environmental and social justice within a state, and asserting a globalization based on values of solidarity that are relevant to us all. These are all themes that can not be resolved in one document, as one of the leading constituent assembly members, Raul Prada made clear: “This is a constitution of transition. It does not institutionalise in totality all the demands of indigenous communities.”
Yet as analysts such as Caracas-based Edgardo Lander have noted, perhaps more important than the document in the current struggles for new constitutions is the process itself. In Bolivia’s case, the constitutional proccess arose out of struggle led by social movements who have moved from opposing neoliberalism to constructing ideas and proposals and prompting debates that will continue in Bolivia with or without a new constititution. In the words of Rafael Bautista, an indigenous journalist: “This is revolution, because it transforms society into something impossible which even society can’t envisage on its own; it is democratic because those who lead it are those who have been excluded; it is cultural (not culturalist) because it vindicates what has been the subject of negation, the logic of the ‘other.’ Now we have a project with universal significance, for humanity and the earth.”

Republished from Transnational Institute

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