Evo Morales promises ‘democratic revolution’

Naomi Mapstone in Lima and Andres Schipani in La Paz, January 23

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s popular leftwing president, has ended his campaign for a new constitution ahead of Sunday’s national referendum with promises of “democratic revolution” and a new era of equality for the volatile Andean nation.

At a rally in La Paz, thousands of supporters waved the multicoloured check flag of indigenous people and chanted “Evo, yes!” beneath a giant inflatable figure of Mr Morales in a trademark striped woollen jumper.

For Mr Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, the rally was a celebration of three years in office, and a milestone in his bid to extend state control over natural resources and redistribute land and set quotas for indigenous groups in government.

“There will be millions and millions of Bolivians who will guarantee the approval of the new constitution to refound Bolivia so as to be a new state with equal opportunities, a new state where everyone will have the same rights and duties,” Mr Morales said. “Brothers and sisters, we have to guarantee this democratic revolution with Evo Morales or without Evo Morales.”

Bolivians are widely expected to vote in favour of the constitution, which endorses “community justice” and the election of judges, removes Catholicism as the state religion and, in a supplementary question, seeks to limit landholdings to 5,000 hectares or 10,000 ha.

A new constitution is unlikely to bring long-term stability or economic advancement, however, given the country’s fractured opposition, its weak congress and radical elements on both sides of the political divide, said Michael Shifter, director of the Andean programme at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

“In the short term, Mr Morales will be in a strong position. However, I don’t think he wants to either discourage foreign investors or to provoke more of a confrontation with the opposition to make the situation unstable, which could really hurt the economy and cut into his political capital.”

Opposition to the constitution and to Mr Morales is strongest in the country’s south-east, home to much of Bolivia’s wealth of natural gas and many of its biggest landholders. Race is an explosive issue in Santa Cruz and the eastern lowlands, where the proportion of indigenous Bolivians is much lower than in the capital, La Paz, and the sierra. In September, after months of clashes, more than 20 pro-government supporters were killed in the state of Pando, forcing Mr Morales to the negotiating table. He agreed to limit himself to running for a single further term of five years, and to curbs on his land reform agenda, including a promise that new limits would not be applied retrospectively.

Branco Marinkovic, a millionaire businessman who leads a pro-autonomy movement based in racially charged Santa Cruz, told supporters this week the constitution was a project of Cuba and Venezuela. “This constitution is racist. It makes differences among Bolivians because of their ethnic origins. It is a constitution that wants everything to go to La Paz,” he said.

Osvaldo Ulloa, opposition member of the Constituent Assembly, said the constitution was inherently flawed. “Justice will be weakened, the democratic equilibrium will be broken,” he said. “Everything will be managed by the executive and their taskforce of social and indigenous movements.”

Christian groups have also thrown their weight behind the No campaign, with banners urging Bolivians to “Choose God, vote No”. However, given that Mr Morales secured 67 per cent of the vote in an August recall referendum, the question for many now is not if the constitution will be approved but how it should be implemented in the lead-up to December’s congressional elections.

“Now comes the more difficult part of figuring out what policies to pursue, because the constitution has broad outlines but many of its statements are pretty ambiguous,” said Mr Shifter. “It’s going to require a lot of the same kinds of negotiation that was necessary to reach agreement on this draft.”

Republished from FT

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