In January 2009, I had the privilege of visiting Bolivia as part of a small group of Canadian community activists. We joined close to 4,000 registered observers from around the world to witness one of the most significant moments in Bolivian history: a national referendum, held January 25, which adopted a new Constitution by a 63% majority.
Our Toronto observer team filmed an extensive video record of this event, interviewing more than 50 Bolivians of every point of view. The assistance of OSSTF and several other unions enabled us to produce a 15-minute video, “Bolivia—The People Win,” which is now available for showing to union and community groups.
Nothing can prepare you for what you experience when you visit Bolivia. I am not just referring to the beauty of its topography, like the Andes Mountains or tropical lowlands, the riches of its culture, or the wisdom of its people. I’m referring to the atmosphere, energy, and excitement that permeates the air and that you feel the moment you arrive. The reason being is that Bolivia is experiencing a moment of kairos – a historic moment – unlike anything seen since the nation was founded in 1825. This kairos moment culminated in the election in 2006 of the nation’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales Ayma, and his party, Movement Towards Socialism.
Evo Morales is not your typical president. He did not attend university, nor does he wear business suits. He does not aspire to own mansions in Miami nor reach the highest echelons of academic excellence. Evo’s education comes from what he calls the “University of Life”.
His first act as president was to cut his own salary in half to $1,700 per month and then ask his cabinet ministers to do the same – with the savings to go towards funding additional teachers in public schools. Evo Morales said, “We need 6,000 new teachers and there is only money for 2,200.”
Once in office, Evo undertook the formidable task of constitutional reform, as mandated to him by the social movements that elected him and his party. The struggle for a new constitution preceded Evo, and goes back to the early nineties with the “Great March” lead by the Gurani people. This march from the eastern lowlands to La Paz was a symbol of Indigenous renaissance. The indigenous majority, who make up 62% of the population, felt that a new constitution would be a step towards the decolonization of the country, which for centuries had discriminated, marginalized, and excluded them.
The Aymara people of Bolivia have a saying, “the first step is the last step.” The energy and the sprit in which you start something is what you will end with. The previous constitution of Bolivia was exclusionist in spirit: it forgot the indigenous majority, women, workers, and campesinos (farmers). The new constitution represents a new beginning for the people of Bolivia, one that sets the stage for the “refounding” of the nation, as Evo Morales has said.
The new constitution was created in a radically different manner. The previous one was created by constitutional lawyers and senators behind closed doors. However, the new Constitutional process was lead by a Quechua, campesina woman, Silvia Lazarte, with the participation of the opposition, campesinos, indigenous groups, social movements, and workers. When sworn in as President of the Constitutional Assembly she declared, “We all have to think with our hearts; we women and men legislators have to think how to end our differences.”
At the core of the New Constitution are new values and characteristics that are reflective of Indigenous cosmology. These values make it one of the most progressive magna cartas in the world. These principles are enshrined in various articles and aspects of the new document:
Ethical principles: ama qhilla, ama llulla and ama suwa, don’t be lazy, don’t lie and don’t steal.
Inclusiveness: It recognizes the plurinational fabric of the nation, meaning the 36 indigenous cultures and also minorities like Afro-Bolivians.
Harmony: The Constitution has at its core a philosophy of respect for the environment or Pachamama and everything in it
Humanity: Access to the country’s natural resources like water and food is guaranteed as a human right. Also guaranteed is universal and free education (at all levels), health care, and work as essential for human life
Peace: Bolivia proclaims itself a pacifist state that "promotes a culture of peace."
Participatory democracy: The constitution enshrines the concept of participatory democracy in all areas of life not just electoral politics.
Respect: The state is independent of religion and
guarantees freedom of religion and spiritual beliefs in accordance with the Bolivian cosmovision.
Fraternity: The state guarantees the right to collective bargaining for all workers, both rural and urban.
The rise of Evo Morales and the MAS represents a major political and historical landmark for Bolivia and also for all of the Americas. The struggle for control of Bolivia’s natural resources is linked to the broader regional contest in Latin America over who will benefit from its wealth – the masses of the continent or the alliance of its traditional oligarchy with multinational corporations.
Evo has done what no other president in Bolivia’s history has had the courage to do, to govern on behalf of the majority. It is this courage that I witnessed and experienced while in La Paz, Bolivia.
I found the closing of the “yes” campaign, on January 22, particularly moving and inspirational. From early morning people started to gather in the city in anticipation of Evo speaking. We had made our way to la Plaza Murrillo, the historic city center of La Paz. There, I watched as thousands of campesinos, workers, Indigenous men and women descended from El Alto La Plaza, in essence invading the capital. Many came, waving wiphalas (the indigenous flag of the Andes), chewing coca leaves, and holding copies of the proposed constitution. The atmosphere was electrifying. As I stood there amongst close to 30,000 people, I felt that spirit and courage all around me. I could not help but be in awe of the process and think of the story of Tupac Katarí and Bartolina Sisa, because it is their courageous spirit that pervades what is happening in Bolivia today.
Tupac Katarí and his wife Barolina Sisa were Aymara revolutionaries of the 18th century. They managed to unite the Aymara and Quecha people in revolt against the Spanish invaders. Like many courageous revolutionaries they were eventually captured. Just before his execution at the hands of the Spaniards, Tupac Katarí prophesised the return of his people to power and said: “You will only kill me, but I will return and I will be millions.”
It was this prophesy that came to fruition on January 25, 2009 when over two million people, many of whom descendents of Tupac and Bartolina, voted “yes” for a new constitution, one that returns the nation to its rightful owners, the indigenous majority. What’s even more exceptional is that this revolution is led not by war or the bullet but rather by the ballot.
There was an important second vote in the January referendum – the vote for “land reform”. The vote sought to limit the size of personal land holdings to either 5, 000 hectares or 10,000 hectares. Overwhelmingly, 81% of Bolivians voted to limit the size of land holdings to 5,000 hectares. Although the measure does not affect existing landholdings, it is the beginning of the end of latifundios (great estates) and the condition of servitude for many Indigenous communities. According to Vice-Minister of Land Alejandro Almaraz, close 2,700 Guaraní communities in Santa Cruz still live today in a state of servitude. Just recently the government confiscated 94,000 acres of land from big land owners like Ronald Larsen, freeing Indigenous people from servitude. This is the first of many such actions to come, thanks in part to the new constitution.
In the mainstream media we hear a lot about Santa Cruz departments as a stronghold of the opposition. So as a group we decided to be there the day of the vote. I must confess I was expecting conflict and possible violence. However, much to our delight we found the city centre to be calm, picturesque, affluent, and modern. It possessed all the western amenities one could ever desire. The city seemed tranquil and full of life with people going about their regular activities. But we soon saw that under this layer of beauty and serenity lies a culture of fear.
While in Santa Cruz, we headed to La Plaza 24 de September, in the centre of town, to meet locals and get their opinion on the new constitution. This Plaza square is impeccably maintained with manicured grounds and mahogany benches. Upon arrival, our first encounter was a woman yelling at us that we weren’t welcome and should leave and go back to where we came from. We paid little heed and settled into our work. Not long after a car driven by youths passed by and one youth hung out of the car and started cursing at us telling us to go back where we came from. It was no coincidence that huge banners hung from church and government buildings conveying one key message – that of fear. Fear of communism, fear of losing their religion, fear of losing their property, fear of losing their children – all the myths spread by the opposition: the right-wing civic committee led by Branko Marinkovic; the prefect, Ruben Costas; and the Catholic church led by Cardinal Julio Terrazas. They have succeeded in creating a culture of fear amongst the local people. The majority of those we met in Santa Cruz opposed the proposed Constitution and or any changes, primarily out of fear of the unknown. I could not help but wonder how these people would think if not paralyzed by the culture of fear.
As we left Santa Cruz I was reminded of something that Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan writer and novelist said.
Our worst enemy is fear. We live in a world of the dictatorship of fear, the fear to be, the fear to recognize ourselves as we truly are. What is happening today in Bolivia is not just important for Bolivia but for the rest of the world because it teaches us that fear is not an undefeatable enemy. It teaches us that we can determine our own destinies; but for that we need courage, the courage that we can change ourselves and the reality around us, the courage to stand up to fear.
It can be said that Bolivians, under Evo Morales, have demonstrated to the word that courage can overcome the culture of fear. That people united under the banner of fraternity, peace and justice can never be defeated and Bolivia’s new constitution is the result of that victory.
Raúl Burbano is a member of Toronto Bolivia Solidarity. This article was written for the Ontario Secondary School Federation
To arrange a showing of the new film clip, “Bolivia: The People Win,” write Toronto Bolivia Solidarity at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 416-832-2897