Bolivia: Refounding a nation

Issue 

The historic struggle for national liberation, economic sovereignty, and the "refoundation" of Bolivia on the basis of justice for the impoverished indigenous majority achieved an important milestone on January 25, with the approval of the new Political Constitution of the State (CPE) by 61.43%.

On February 7, President Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, officially promulgated the CPE. Some reports estimate as many as 1 million people attended the event in the popular city of El Alto to celebrate the new constitution. Social movements and trade unions had an overwhelming presence at the event.

"Brothers and sisters of Bolivia, on this historic day, I proclaim enacted the new Political Constitution of the Bolivian state, the validity of the united plurinational, social, and economic state, and the communal socialism to begin from the promulgation of the new constitution", Morales stated.

In conjunction with the constitutional referendum, Bolivians also voted on the amount of land that could be privately owned, with 80.56% voting to limit it at 5000 hectares.

Bolivia has been marked by a struggle over land between poor indigenous campesinos (peasants) and predominantly white large landowners and powerful agribusiness interests.

However, as a result of negotiations last year between the right-wing opposition and the Morales the law will not be retrospective — that is, it will not apply to existing land holdings. However, all landownership is subject to government review to establish whether it is used productively or not. Under existing law, unproductive land may be redistributed.

The concessions reached in the negotiations were seen by some government supporters as necessary to ensure the passage of the bill for the constitutional referendum. However, some sectors viewed this as giving up too much and argued that the proposed land reform had been compromised.

New constitution

The new constitution marks a historic victory in the struggle of Bolivia's indigenous and working people.

With extreme neoliberal policies implemented in the 1980s and '90s resulting in widespread impoverishment, the December 2005 election of Morales was preceded by three popular uprisings (in 2000, 2003 and 2005).

Morales was elected on a platform that included the mass movement's key demands of nationalising the nation's gas reserves (carried out in 2006) and creating a new constitution to begin to reverse the oppression of indigenous people and neoliberalism.

Although a constituent assembly was elected to draft a new constitution in 2006, repeated violent protests by the right-wing opposition stalled the process and threatened to derail it.

However, a combination of mass mobilisations from the indigenous and other social movements, and negotiations by the government succeeded in securing the January 25 referendum.

The preamble of the constitution poetically summarises the background of social struggles that gave birth to the CPE: "The Bolivian people, of a plural composition, from the depths of history, inspired by past struggles, in the anti-colonial indigenous rebellion, in the independence [struglle], in the popular struggles for liberation, in the indigenous marches … in the struggles for land and territory, and with the memory of our martyrs, we construct a new state."

Enhancing the rights of the 32 indigenous nations within Bolivia, including autonomy over territory and the right to use their own language and traditional customs, the CPE also states universal health care is to be free and accessible; it is the responsibility of the state to provide basic services to the people; telecommunications are considered a fundamental right; and access to water is considered a human right and cannot be privatised.

Raul Prada, a former delegate to the constituent assembly argued in an article published on Bolpress.com that the new constitution redefines the conception of the state according to a "plurinational, multicultural and comunitarian logic".

"Thus", he continues, "it gives way to the notion of a state overseer, protector of natural resources, welfare, even institutionally incorporating forms and practices of the original peoples, constituting itself as a tool for equitable, sustainable, and sovereign development".

In a sign of the government's intentions, Reuters reported on February 9 that the government is "gearing up to nationalize foreign-owned electric power companies" with the aim of bringing back under state control energy companies privatised by previous neoliberal governments.

Polarisation

However, the project of refounding Bolivia takes place in the context of a polarised country.

In resource-rich eastern departments, with a much larger white population, that are strongholds of the opposition (the "half-moon" region of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija) the "yes" vote only achieved between 33% and 43%.

The result, consistent with previous elections, reflects the hegemony, consolidated by the private media, that the opposition has in the half-moon urban centres.

The corporate media carried out a campaign of disinformation and manipulation against the new constitution over issues such as religion, the family and private property.

"Choose God; vote no to the constitution", was one slogan, promoted by the Catholic Church.

In the aftermath of the referendum the opposition, once again displaying its rejection of the democratic decisions of the majority of Bolivians, emphatically claimed that the constitution referendum was only legitimate if it had achieved a majority in all departments.

Alternatively, they claimed it was a legal victory but without legitimacy, or else that the result was a "technical tie".

As has been demonstrated in the past, there is a difference between winning government and exercising state power.

The power of the old elite, especially in the east (where the opposition-controlled authorities helped launch a violent coup attempt against Morales in September last year) has, at times, debilitated the authority of state institutions and may plague attempts to implement the measures in the new CPE.

Changes

Some of the changes are due to be decreed by Morales, such as an increase in the salary for education and health workers by 14% and 12% for the public sector and the military.

Other fundamental laws required for the transition to the new constitution may reach a stalemate due to the opposition majority in the Senate, which blocked a gamut of progressive laws in the last few years, such as the increase in salaries, frustrating government projects.

However, with general elections expected for December, a new parliamentary relationship of forces may be created when the newly created "plurinational legislative assembly" comes into being.

Sectors of the opposition have responded to the referendum results by raising the idea of "dialogue" to achieve a "new national pact".

Undoubtedly, the opposition will be seeking to implement the "departmental autonomy" that is written into the new CPE for the departments it controls.

However, discrepancies remain between the opposition departmental authorities and the Morales government as to what type of "departmental autonomy" is to be applied.

The version of the "half moon" authorities is nothing less than a strategy to circumvent the authority of the national government and the CPE.

Morales has emphasised that any such "pact" would only be to ensure the fluid application of the CPE.

While some have argued that such a "pact" would help avoid a resurgence of regional conflict, various social movements that support the government stated that the government should not make any concessions to the opposition, stating they would be prepared to mobilise to assure the implementation of the CPE.

[Gonzalo Villanueva is an independent journalist.]