As fears of violence and talk of secession and civil war fade, and a fragile calm descends over this Andean country, Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, celebrated an important milestone. Completing 19 months and three weeks in office, Morales has surpassed the length of time in power of his four predecessors — not including the two who were forced to step down even before being sworn in.
In this highly polarised country, which has seen an insurgent indigenous majority tumble one president after another — until putting one of their own in the presidential palace in the December 2005 election — this is no small feat. However, recent social unrest has begun to produce an image of a Bolivia turned upside down, with mobilisations coming from none of the usual sources.
Today, the faces of the protest movement are people like millionaire cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina, who last year led a hunger strike in defence of "democracy", and private university students, who with the fascist Santa Cruz Youth Union have in recent weeks laid siege to the constituent assembly in Sucre, forcing the assembly's temporary suspension.
The constituent assembly — a key promise of Morales's election campaign — has been entrusted with the task of "refounding" Bolivia in order to include the indigenous majority. It has been the centre of an intense confrontation. Having surpassed its initial one year deadline on August 6 without voting on a single article for the new constitution, recent conflict over the issue of the location of the country's capital has ensured that it will not be able to meet for close to half of the four month extension it has received.
The most recent round of demonstrations by both sides included a partial stoppage organised by the opposition civic committees of the six eastern departments (states) and an indigenous and campesino mobilisation in Sucre on September 10 and Cochabamba three days later. During this round of confrontation, Santa Cruz's mayor openly called for the splitting of Bolivia into two different countries and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS — Morales's party) prefect of Chuquisaca resigned, stating he did not want to have blood on his hands as a result of confrontations as campesinos marched on Sucre. But, in what seems to have become a customary scenario in Bolivia, just as the country seemed to reaching the edge of the abyss, both sides decided to reopen dialogue.
Firstly, on September 14 David Sanchez resumed his position as prefect of Chuquisaca, ending a vacuum that had been created as a result of his resignation. Four days later, during a round of negotiations between heads of the different political factions in the assembly, six parties, including MAS, approved a three-point declaration. They agreed that any draft constitution to be put to referendum had to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the assembly; to form a "conciliation commission"; and to respect "consensus reached in the conciliation commission, and make clear to the Bolivian people our disposition to hand over a final text that responds to the democratic aspirations of the entire Bolivian people".
The main opposition party, PODEMOS, refused to sign because the document did not state that the forum would operate within the legal framework and obey the current constituted powers. National Unity signed the declaration but made clear it was not a blank cheque to MAS and that it would still challenge contentious issues such as no presidential term limits.
Two days later, in a meeting involving the directorate of the constituent assembly and a leader and two assembly delegates from all 16 parties in the assembly (two parties were unable to make it due to transport problems), a "national agreement" was made, committing the parties to working for the reopening of the constituent assembly, the setting up of a special conciliation commission, and continuing to hold similar meetings in order to keep track of the work of the assembly. With momentum around the dialogue building, PODEMOS gave its support.
Despite the agreements, Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera told Opinion that "the forces that want to destroy the constituent assembly continue standing firm, with strength, with their media, with resources". Asked what was behind the conflict, he explained that "the real issue which the conservative elites of this country have entrenched themselves over, is the issue of ownership of land, the issue of ownership of forests, of water, of mining wealth and hydrocarbons".
He told Opinion: "We maintain hope that the Constituent Assembly will continue along, we will do everything possible to ensure that it does. Nevertheless, no matter what happens to the Constituent Assembly, no one should have the slightest doubt that the process of change will continue.
"It is better through the Constituent Assembly, where we can come to an agreement on the text of the new constitution. If the right does not make use of this opportunity that we are giving them as the government, as civil society, as social movements, the process of change, with its radical content of equality and distribution of wealth will continue. And it will be the right who will have to come to us to ask us for agreements and dialogue".