There is no doubt that October 21, 2008, will go down as a historic day for the Bolivian people.
Around midday, as parliamentarians were sealing an agreement for a referendum on the new draft constitution — set for January 25 — emotions swept through Plaza Murillo, the site of the parliament and presidential palace, and where indigenous and peasant organisations had gathered following their week-long march on La Paz.
On the platform, various leaders, among them Fidel Surco, president of the National Coalition for Change (CONALCAM), and Pedro Montes, executive secretary of the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB), hugged Bolivian President Evo Morales, who had participated for all of the previous night in the vigil in front of Congress — together with thousands of gathered peasants.
Far from being triumphalist following Morales’s crushing victory in the August 10 recall referendum with 67.4% of the vote, the governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) sought to solve the nation’s political crisis, which had brought the constituent process to a halt, via a political pact with the opposition.
This was not without its costs. Various concessions were necessary over a wide range of issues.
Among them, over departmental autonomy — the banner of the Santa Cruz elites. These departments will now have greater powers, compared to those provided in the original draft of the New Political Constitution of the State (NCPE).
Another conflictive issue was land. A specific referendum has been approved to be held alongside the main constitution vote on January 25 has been approved, and the vote will define whether the maximum legal extension of land in Bolivia will be 5000 or 10,000 hectares, the law will not be retrospective.
In other words, the currently existing large landowners will not be affected, providing they can prove they use the land for a useful “social and economic function”.
Perhaps, however, the biggest concession does not directly have to do with the text as such, but rather the agreement that Morales will not stand for a second term if he wins the scheduled December 2009 elections.
Betrayal? Excessive concessions? Mere realpolitiks?
What’s true is that among the most radical Morales supporters — and his opponents from the left — some feelings of deception have potentially emerged after seeing important modifications introduced to the constitutional text adopted on December 14, 2007 by the elected constituent assembly.
They now see the year-and-a-half long work of this assembly being de-legitimised by a Congress capable of reaching a consensus that was never possible in the constitutional assembly sessions.
Yet, despite the rewriting of more than 140 articles, some key elements, such as state control over natural resources, suffered nearly no changes. With the approval of the text, together with the epic march that accompanied it, a feeling of having won a popular victory permeates the social organisations.
Moreover, the government also achieved something fundamental: the opposition has come out of the last two months of struggle totally worn down.
The tensions that built up over the last few months, between (part of) the parliamentary right inclined towards playing the democratic game and violent autonomist groups bunkered down in the east, has led to a clear fracture.
The parliamentarians of the right-wing Podemos party, who participated in the signing of the agreement, have been declared traitors to the Santa Cruz autonomist cause.
And it is very probable that part of the opposition will now campaign for a text that, only months ago, they had no qualms in denouncing as “a constitution stained in blood”.
Today, more than ever, the MAS faces a divided right, devoid of any project for the country and whose radical factions seemed to be temporarily neutralised.
Within this panorama, the government’s strategy has the appearance of a wager — one surely much more sensible than the wager that the constituent assembly would offer a “government-opposition pact” solution to the crisis back in 2006.
Without rivals, and having won hegemony over the popular camp, the path seems completely open for Morales, whose victory in 2009 appears to all to be self-evident.
Out of next year’s elections, a parliamentary majority could emerge capable of supporting a plan of radical reforms — reforms until now held back by the opposition-controlled Senate.
The history of Latin American constitutions is fundamentally one of ambitious texts whose application was almost always determined by the relationship of forces.
While the constitution has provisionally left some of the demands of the popular movement unsatisfied, perhaps it is Bolivia’s turn to demonstrate in the next few years that radical and efficient public policies can be more decisive in a process of change than a magna carter potentially confined to a piece of paper.
For now, this is the hope of those who continue believing in the capacity of this government to carry out the ambitions of social transformation expressed by the social movements since the Cochabamba “water wars” in 2000 — the first mass resistance by the Bolivian people to the neoliberal order.
Herve Do Alto is a member of the French Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), currently living in Bolivia and studying the MAS.