BOLIVIA: Morales Leads March for New Constitution

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Oct 13 (IPS) - Bolivian President Evo Morales was at the head of a march that set off Monday to the capital from Caracollo, a town 200 km to the south, to press Congress to schedule a referendum on the new constitution that has been drafted by a constituent assembly.

The roughly 3,000 indigenous people, trade unionists and members of social organisations -- expected to be joined by thousands of other supporters along the way to La Paz -- plan to reach the capital in a week.

Morales and his support base want lawmakers to adopt a call for a referendum in which Bolivians would vote on the draft constitution approved in December by the constituent assembly, in which the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party holds a majority.

MAS also controls the lower house of Congress, but the rightwing opposition has a majority in the Senate.

In Bolivia, sectors like miners and indigenous people have a long tradition of protesting and putting forth their demands by means of lengthy cross-country marches.

This week’s demonstration marks a revival of the practice, as a sign of strength and unity around the policies of the administration of Morales, the country’s first indigenous president.

The leftist government is under fire from the conservative opposition led by wealthy landowners and business leaders from the eastern lowlands provinces of Beni, Chuquisaca, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija, who are demanding regional autonomy.

They also want greater control over the natural resources which are largely concentrated in their provinces, such as natural gas -- of which Bolivia has the second-largest reserves in South America, after Venezuela -- and fertile farmland.

"For the first time ever, our indigenous people will be recognised by the constitution," Morales said in a speech prior to the start of the march, in which he was accompanied by the head of the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) central trade union, Pedro Montes, a miner; the executive secretary of the Confederación Única de Trabajadores Campesinos small farmers’ union, Saúl Ávalos; and Fidel Surco, the powerful leader of a collective of social movements.

"This march is not one of pain, but is marked by honour and pride in our dear fatherland, for the quality of all Bolivians," said Morales, to the applause of thousands of people waving banners, the multicoloured flag of the Aymara people, and signs declaring support for the new constitution.

Morales urged opposition lawmakers to approve the call for a referendum before the demonstrators arrive in La Paz on Oct. 20, in order to make their arrival "a celebration."

For his part, Ávalos said that if the legislative debate stretches out beyond that date, the protesters will mount a vigil around the Congress building in La Paz.

The march is the expression of the "true Bolivians" who want "development and not bloodshed," said Montes, who was wearing a miners’ helmet.

The Oct. 5 breakdown of talks between Morales and the opposition governors led the president to seek parliamentary support for the call for a referendum on the draft constitution, which recognises the cultural and territorial rights of the country’s indigenous majority and sets a limit on the size of landholdings.

The march, which began in a festive atmosphere, is a peaceful response to the violence unleashed by pro-autonomy conservative sectors in the eastern lowlands provinces, in which public offices were occupied and destroyed by radical rightwing youth groups, and at least 17 people were killed on Sept. 11 in the northern province of Pando, for which the provincial governor is under arrest.

Typical indigenous sheep-wool hats, multicoloured caps and ponchos from the western highlands mixed with the light clothing and straw hats of people from Bolivia’s warmer eastern zones as they walked along the straight highway that crosses Bolivia’s extensive altiplano, where the asphalt burns during the day but temperatures drop below zero at night.

The demonstrators chanted "the people united will never be defeated" and the more recently adopted "fatherland or death, we will prevail".

The musical band in which Morales played the trumpet as a young man accompanied the marchers for the first few kilometres, to the rhythm of military marches that mixed with the drumbeats and the joyful sound of the tarkas (wooden flutes).

Before the demonstrators started out, Morales recalled that on one of the marches that he led in the past, an elderly woman came up to offer him a 10 boliviano bill (1.50 dollars), which he said he refused because she was so poor. Today, he said, that old woman has a lifelong monthly pension of 26 dollars a month -- a reference to an expanded universal pension programme for people over 60, whose approval was obtained by means of protests and marches on Congress.

In the past, as a leader of the six federations of coca growers of the central tropical region of Chapare, Morales led his followers on four 400-km marches defending the benefits of coca as a medicinal plant or as a traditional tea.

On several occasions, the anti-drug police and the army tried to block the progress of the coca farmers’ marches. But in the end, hundreds of coca growers made it to La Paz, where Morales won the support that eventually led him to the presidency.

Republished from IPS News

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