“For the social movements and the Bolivian people, the approval of the new constitution is key to reversing the centuries of discrimination”, Julio Salazar, executive secretary of the Six Federations of Coca Growers from the Tropics of Cochabamba, told Green Left Weekly.
Sitting in his office, covered with posters of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who also presides over the six federations, Salazar explained “no matter what happens, no matter what they say, no matter what it costs, the new constitution has to be approved”.
“The social movements are going to mobilise in order to ensure this happens.”
Together with a bus load of cocaleros, we arrived in Caracollo on October 13 to begin the 200km march on Congress, to force the body to agree to a referendum on the new constitution that was drafted by an elected constitution assembly.
At 2am in the morning of October 21, Morales signed the historic law of convocation for the referendum, while over 100,000 protesters — with whom he had spent the last eleven hours awaiting Congress’s decision — cheering and shouting for joy.
Bolivians will now go to the polls on January 25 to vote on the document — a demand that dates back to the peasant mobilisations of the early 1990s — that will dramatically increase the rights of the historically excluded indigenous majority, expand state control over natural resources and land, and give certain autonomy to departments, municipalities and indigenous peoples within the framework of a united plurinational state.
Once approved, new elections will be held in December 2009 for president, vice president, Congress, and departmental prefects.
Conversing at the start of the march, Salazar pointed to the crowd and explained: “Before they use to said ’its just the peasants, the cocalero, that are marching’. This time, other sectors are uniting with us: health workers, teachers, university students, neighbourhood committees, professionals are all participating in the march.”
Pedro Montes, head of the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), that joined forces with the National Coalition for Change (CONALCAM) to organise the march, told GLW that the protest was a demonstration of the type of unity that was required to ensure “the refounding of Bolivia”.
“Our recent national gathering voted to be part of this march. All our regional centrals and affiliated unions will be participating.”
Asked what would happened if some union leaders decided not to, Montes commented, “the bases will go over the top off them”.
“The people have woken up”, noted Leonilda Zurita, leader of the National Federation of Peasant Women of Bolivia–Bartolina Sisa (FNMCB-BS).
“Today, our president comes from the people, a people that have become the government. With or without Evo, this process will continue.
“It is the people that will decide, at the ballot box and not with arms as the oligarchs wanted … The choice is clear: continue the process of change or return to neoliberalism.”