"Let’s go unblock the road, compañeros!" a man in an old baseball cap yells as he joins a group of people hauling rocks and tires from a central intersection in Cochabamba. This group of students and union activists are mobilizing against a civic strike led by middle class foot soldiers of the Bolivian right. These actions in the street are part of a political roller coaster which is dramatically changing
Two major developments marked the close of the year in
In the final weeks of 2007, a variety of protest tactics were used by political factions to advocate competing visions for the future of the country. From November 24-25, clashes between security forces and opposition protesters in
Transformation Through a New Constitution?
On December 8-9, MAS assembly participants and their allies passed the new constitution in
The new constitution paves the way for many of the changes the government has been working toward since Morales was elected in 2005. The document gives the state greater control over natural resources and the economy, and guarantees expanded autonomy for departmental governments and indigenous communities. It also calls for a mixed economy, where the rights of private, public and communal industries are protected. Indigenous community justice systems are better recognized through the new constitution and the document establishes that Supreme Court judges are to be elected instead of appointed by congress. The constitution also lifts the block on second consecutive terms for the president. This change would allow Morales to run again for two more terms in a row, in addition to his current time in office.
Though it was passed in the assembly in
Rightwing assembly members from PODEMOS, civic leaders and governors announced that they will not recognize the new constitution as it was passed without their support. MAS’s take on this, as represented by Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, is that the light-skinned elite do not want to give up any of their privileges. Linera told the Los Angeles Times that these elites "have to understand that the state is no longer a prolongation of their haciendas [estates.]"
As a way out of the tense divisions, Morales announced that a referendum would be held in 2008 on his presidency and all governorships. In this referendum, which is scheduled to happen sometime before September 2008, Morales established a rule that he has to receive over 54% of votes – what he received when elected president in 2005 – supporting his presidency to remain in office. If he doesn’t receive this support, he is to hold elections within 90-120 days. At the same time, there will be a referendum on whether the governors will stay in office. If the governors do not receive more votes than they did when they were elected in 2005, then they can be replaced by an interim governor of Morales’ choosing until the next elections.
This referendum could be a way for Morales to strengthen his own mandate, while weakening the right. Though criticism among Morales’ base of support has increased recently, when given a choice between supporting the right and Morales, this large voter group would likely vote for Morales. There is also a lack of alternatives to Morales among the Bolivian left. A massive voter registration drive, largely in rural areas, launched by the Morales administration is also likely to play into the president’s favor in this referendum. A recent poll conducted by Ipsos Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado showed that 56% of the population currently approves the performance of Morales.
The Right and New Polarization
Shortly after Morales announced plans for the referendum, the right made another bold announcement which made political negotiations even more unlikely. On December 15, right wing leaders in
Meanwhile, strikes, road blockades and protests have been organized among all political factions and violence has often erupted throughout what has been a turbulent end to the year. There have been approximately eight political bombings in
Morales and his opponents have shown interest in meeting to negotiate some kind of compromise. Such a meeting was put at risk when on December 31 right wing leaders said they threw the new constitution into the garbage. Morales responded by saying that their autonomy statute should be thrown in the garbage. These declarations are likely to further erode relations between political opponents and increase division in the country.
A government plan to redirect gas industry taxes from departmental governments into a national pension plan has resulted in outcries from the right, and praise from MAS supporters. This pension, called the Dignity Salary, was approved in congress on November 27 without many opposition members present. The pension plan gives Bolivians over age 60 approximately $26 per month. The funds, which are to be an estimated $215 million annually, would be redirected from current gas tax funds which had previously gone to departmental governments. Right wing governors protested the pension, demanding that this redirected tax money stay in their departments.
Another of the right’s criticisms of the Morales administration is that the president’s policies are bad for business and international relations. Recent events and reports prove otherwise. On January 1, the government announced that in 2007 the Bolivian economy grew by 4.2%, which is more than the 1.7% growth in 2001 when Jorge Tuto Quiroga was vice president of the country. Quiroga, of PODEMOS, is a key leader of the current opposition against Morales.
In mid-December, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Chilean president Michelle Bachelet met with Morales in
Morales also cut a deal with a South Korean company to collaborate with Bolivian state-owned COMIBOL to exploit a copper mine in Corocoro, outside
Last November, in the cold lobby of a museum in
When he finally commented on the polarization and conflicts in the country, he warned about the risk of widespread division, and said this moment of "bifurcation" is "much closer than it appears." He spoke of how the "new state is consolidating itself" and how the right may "gradually accommodate" itself to these changes. Yet, he warned, the right could also work to block the government’s changes to revert to a past balance of power, which could create more tension. As
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007).