Bolivian President Evo Morales has called for a national referendum on the country's new draft constitution on December 7.
The demand of the Bolivian people for a new and inclusive constitution is at the heart of Bolivia's present political upheaval.
Right-wing forces representing the oligarchy have launched a secessionist movement in an attempt to block the referendum. They have organised murderous fascist gangs to terrorise the population.
They are backed by the US government, whose ambassador, Philip Goldberg, was expelled from Bolivia in September for his openly admitted interference in Bolivian political life.
On the other side are the vast majority of the Bolivians, with Morales winning more than 67% in a recall referendum in August.
The constitutional struggle in Bolivia is linked to the broader regional struggle in Latin America over who will benefit from its wealth — the masses of the continent or its traditional oligarchy backed by Washington.
The demand for a new constitution is not limited to Bolivia. Over the past 15 years there's been a demand for a constituent assembly to propose such a document in virtually every Andean country in Latin America: Colombia (1991), Peru (1993), Ecuador (1998), and Venezuela (1999).
All of these countries have rewritten or modified their constitutions. In contrast to some of these experiences, the demand for a constitution in Bolivia emerged from grassroots movements and has widespread national support.
Bolivia's demand for a constituent assembly is not a recent development; it goes back to the early 1990s. It emanated from the Guarani people with their "Great March" from the eastern lowlands of Bolivia to La Paz with their slogan "land, territory and dignity".
In 2000, the demand for a constituent assembly was raised by social movements who had suffered from neoliberalism.
This culminated in the Cochabamba "Water Wars", where residents poured into the streets to protest US corporation Bechtel's takeover of their water system, and the attempted privatisation of their gas, the 2003 "Gas Wars".
During this turbulent period the call for a constituent assembly merged with the call for a referendum on the gas issue.
In 2005, Morales, leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), was elected on a platform to "refound" the country through a constituent assembly in order to address endemic inequality.
The magnitude of this inequality can be summed up by land. According to the United Nations' Development Program, 25 million hectares of prime farmland is controlled by 100 families.
The remaining five million hectares are shared among two million campesinos.
This profound inequality is endemic and represents what is being challenged with the new constitution.
The law convoking the assembly resulted from negotiations between the parties in the Congress and executive headed by Morales.
Bolivians in each of the 70 voting districts elected three delegates. The party that received the most votes sent two representatives from the district and the second or third place party sent one, thus guaranteeing that no party could monopolise the assembly.
The only condition was that a minimum of 30% of the delegates had to be women.
In July 2006, Bolivians elected 255 delegates to the assembly. The MAS sent 137 delegates (64 women), the opposition 99, with the rest independents.
There are 411 articles in the new constitution. Many are progressive and outright revolutionary, promising to refound the country to the benefit of the majority.
The new constitution is controversial, but the majority of Bolivians, the indigenous people, fully support it — as the August recall referendum showed.
The following articles or sections of articles from the new constitution are the most important to the indigenous majority of Bolivia and also the most controversial.
Bolivia is a unitary, plurinational, communitarian and democratic State: This means that all 36 peoples, cultures, languages have the same rights and opportunities, and are recognised equally before the law, institutions, and society. It refers to a Bolivian unity that respects municipal, departmental, regional, indigenous, campesino and peasant autonomies. This guarantees the unity of the state and the democratic decentralisation of power.
Plurinational public administration: This refers to all public functionaries, requiring them to know the dominant indigenous language of the region where they work. This will enable them to be able communicate with the people they represent. They are also to know the Spanish language, to enable then to communicate with the rest of the Bolivians; and a foreign language, as a link to the outside world.
The nationalisation of natural resources, renewable and non-renewable, under the control and ownership of the Bolivian people: This would forbid the ownership of gas, oil, mining resources, water, land, and forests by foreigners. All natural resources will be the property of Bolivians, for use by Bolivians for the benefit of Bolivians, and administered by the state.
Sovereign natural resources: Non-state organisations are prohibited from directly involving themselves in the administration, management, control and preservation of forests, parks, and natural reserves, as well as biodiversity, all of which are under the control of the state.
Social and communitarian economy: The state will participate in the strategic sectors of the economy. Foreign private investment will be subordinated to national development plans. Private property should guarantee that it plays an effective social function for the benefit of human beings. Ownership in the economy will be public, private and communitarian.
Medium and small rural producers, agrarian communities and productive associations will receive state protection, economic support, credits, technology, and infrastructure in order to guarantee the well being of society. A mixed economy is proposed to reassure business interests and maintain market stability.
Expropriation without indemnification of latifundios (large private landholdings): The goal is to redistribute land among producers including those from the countryside and city who are willing to produce for the benefit of society. This is a major blow to the giant landholders — key leaders of the opposition.
Reelection and revocation by popular mandate of any elected authority: Never again will authorities be untouchable owners of their positions. The people are sovereign and the people can ratify or change their authorities when they so desire.
Election of all authorities of the judicial branch, including the Supreme Court: This is a change from the current undemocratic model of appointment by congress, which has seen nepotism flourish in the courts. It looks to redress the balance of power that has for so long been in the hand of the elites.
Recognition of communitarian justice as an alternative, complementary and ancestral form of solving conflicts: The indigenous systems of justice would be given the same standing in the official hierarchy as the existing system.
A plurinational parliament with only one chamber: In essence, this is a re-engineering of the political institutions. The goal is to break the oligarchies' traditional monopoly in the senate that has traditionally acted as an obstacle to all progressive governments.
All Bolivians have the right to free health care and education in equal conditions. Total elimination of illiteracy.
Other articles in the constitution those are important to note include a ban on sexual orientation discrimination.
It would also declare Bolivia a country of peace that promotes the culture of peace. It states that Bolivia repudiates all wars of aggression and prohibits the installation of foreign military bases on its national territory.
In the document, water is considered a human right. All the cultural rights for indigenous people are also accorded to the Afro-Bolivians.
A wide number of social rights are established for children, youth and older people, never before seen in 183 years of Bolivian history.
The national assembly approved the new constitution in December 2007. The country's main opposition party boycotted the assembly vote on the new charter.
The constitution now requires ratification in a national referendum. If voters reject the draft, the country's existing constitution will remain in effect.
A number of articles have to be specifically approved by the voters, including an article that would limit the size of individual land holdings to a maximum of 10,000 hectares.
This is bitterly opposed by the country's agribusinesses interests. If passed this would have a major impact on the historical injustice of unequal land distribution.
The opposition claims the constitution proposes the creation of two Bolivias, "one for indigenous people and another for non-indigenous people".
As one oppositionist said, "with separate and parallel judicial systems and languages effectively making the indigenous people first-class citizens and everyone else second class citizens".
The opposition claims the government is trying to establish a Cuban-type one-party-dominated state that will put an end to pluralism. They argue it is just following in the footsteps of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
@question = Decolonisation
Those who support the constitution feel that its plurinational communitarian aspect is a "decolonisation" of the state that for centuries has discriminated and marginalised the indigenous majority. They believe that it is designed to give every citizen equal access to Bolivia's resources.
Others see it as confronting the neoliberal doctrine and replacing it with a more humanist and just society.
Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera called it a first step to "improve the possibilities of the emancipation of the worker and community forces in the medium term".
The "refounding of Bolivia" with the new constitution and the re-engineering of the political institutions has widened the rift between the mountainous, largely poor, and indigenous part of the country that backs Morales, and rulers of the more prosperous eastern states, where the opposition has its base of support.
The conflict is now rapidly coming to a head. The opposition has said they would not allow the constitution to be imposed on them.
They are instigating a civil war in the country with the hope that direct US involvement in the conflict will turn the tide to their advantage.
Meanwhile, the government is pressing for a vote on the new constitution before the end of this year in the hope that it will, for once and for all, refound Bolivia.
[Reprinted from Socialist Voice, http://socialistvoice.ca. Raul Burbano is a member of Toronto Bolivia Solidarity and the Latin American Solidarity Network.]