Bolivia Poised for Historic Vote
Dozens of marches and rallies in support of Bolivia’s new constitution, to be voted on this Sunday, have filled the streets of the La Paz in recent days. On Tuesday, at a rally for the constitution and to celebrate Venezuela’s donation of 300 tons of asphalt to the city of La Paz, President Evo Morales took the stage, covered in confetti and with a coca leaf wreath around his neck. The crowd cheered and waved signs, one of them saying, "Thanks for the asphalt and the progress."
The new constitution, written in a diverse assembly which first convened in 2006, is expected to pass in the January 25th national referendum. Other governments led by left-leaning leaders in the region have also passed new constitutions in recent years, including Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1999, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador in 2008. In varying degrees, Bolivia’s new constitution is expected to play an important role in the implementation of progressive policies developed by the Morales administration and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).
At the Tuesday rally in La Paz, the sun was strong as drums and roman candles pounded at the air. The screech of packing tape shot out as one bearded participant secured his indigenous wiphala flag to a plastic pole. A group of women blocked off the expanse of one street with a banner that said, "The right wing will not pass – Yes to Evo."
A giant blown-up balloon statue of Evo Morales – present in nearly every La Paz rally in the days leading up the referendum – stood over the crowd. On his chest was the ballot voters were to face this Sunday: the "Si" box was checked, and, on two boxes regarding what hectare amounts to limit new land purchases at, the 5,000 hectare box was checked, the 10,000 hectare box left blank.
During his speech, Morales sounded a bit tired, no doubt from the nearly endless campaigning he’s been involved in for the new constitution. After the applause died down, he thanked various groups for arriving and urged people to vote for the new constitution. "Brothers and sisters we believe in you, we believe in the people of Bolivia, so that democratically we can transform Bolivia for all Bolivians," Morales said. He listed off some of the highlights of his three years in office so far, which he said included the nationalization of Bolivia’s gas and the fight against corruption. "But we need to constitutionalize these changes," he continued.
Morales pointed out that in the new constitution, basic services – such as water, sewage, gas and electricity – would be a human right, as would education and healthcare. Morales also reflected on the recent history of US intervention in the country and pointed out that the new constitution prohibits the creation of US bases in Bolivia. He clarified that, in spite of the right wing’s claims, the new constitution does not (unfortunately) legalize abortion and gay marriage. Above all, he explained, indigenous rights and indigenous representation in government would be empowered.
At this point in Morales’ speech, one security guard was already starting to yawn. A light rain began to fall, women pulled plastic bags over their bowler hats, and the "Viva La Nueva Constitución" cheers became weaker as people returned to work from their lunch breaks.
History and Division
Bolivian social movements have for decades been demanding that a constituent assembly be organized to rewrite the constitution. According to the book Impasse in Bolivia, by Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing, from 1826 to 2004, Bolivia has had 16 constitutions and six reforms. The first constitution, drafted by Simón Bolívar himself in 1826, promised to create the "world’s most liberal constitution." However, even the most liberal of constitutions is ineffective if its dictates are not enforced, which has been the case throughout Bolivian history. Kohl and Farthing also point out that, "Until 1945, all constitutions made a distinction between being a Bolivian – a person born in the country or married to a Bolivian – and being a citizen: a status restricted to literate, propertied men that specifically excluded domestic servants, regardless of income."
Calls for a new constitution as a tool to create a more egalitarian society re-emerged most recently in the 1990s when indigenous groups in the east of Bolivia demanded a constituent assembly to open new space for their political participation in decision-making at the government level. According to the Andean Information Network, indigenous organizations advocating a constituyente "sought greater participation in the political decisions regarding the use and distribution of land and natural resources, the allocation of state resources, and national development policies." In fact, these demands correspond to many of the un-applied rights and guarantees made by previous constitutions.
It’s this sense of overdue justice that is leading many people to support the new constitution. As university student Leidy Castro told Prensa Latina, "We will be in favor of a Constitution that for the first time includes all Bolivians, no matter how much money people have. In addition, it protects sectors that have been marginalized for a long time."
None the less, right wing opponents to the constitution have been active in recent weeks as well, organizing marches and campaigns across the country parallel to the activities of those supporting the constitution. Recently, when these groups collide, there have been some violent confrontations, or at least some strong words exchanged.
Around noon on Wednesday, January 21st, a march against the constitution went down the central Prado street in La Paz. Participants were waving the pink flags of the right wing Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) party with the message "Vamos por el No" written on them. They arrived in the Plaza de Estudiantes where the ever-present Evo Morales balloon was situated along with a giant "Sí" balloon. A crowd of supporters of the new constitution had already gathered there; one of them had a microphone through which he broadcasted his attacks on the right wing with comments such as "You traitors don’t have a real plan! We have a real plan with our new constitution!"
The tension escalated, and the two groups began tossing their ample literature and pamphlets at each other, yelling opposing chants. On one side were the blue flags of the MAS, and the multi-colored wiphala flag, and on the other were the pink flags of the MNR. After some spirited verbal battles, and a few scuffles and pushing matches, the MNR contingent marched back up the street, while the MAS supporters remained in the plaza, giving speeches and firing off roman candles into the evening. At a nearby university, revolutionary folk music blasted throughout the day from a speaker next to Palestinian flags and literature about Israel’s attacks on Gaza. (Morales recently expelled Israel’s ambassador to Bolivia in protest of the bombings in Gaza.) The university’s students have been hosting almost nightly marches and torch-filled, bonfire rallies in support of the new constitution.
Media and Change
There have been numerous street battles throughout the process of re-writing and approving the new constitution. But another battle has been waged in the country’s media. Major newspapers in Bolivia seem almost unanimously critical of the constitution and the MAS, spreading regular misinformation about both. For example, a recent headline in El Diario newspaper said, "Bolivia Will Return To Barbarism With Community Justice." (Community justice, practiced by many indigenous groups across the country, is officially recognized in the new constitution.) In numerous papers, opinion articles and pieces that draw exclusively from right wing politicians and civic leaders are regularly passed off as straight news, with headlines full of outright lies about the new constitution’s contents.
Edwin, a La Paz taxi driver who used to work hauling furniture and goods on his back at local markets, agreed that most media in Bolivia are against Morales and the new constitution. "But who cares what they say? The journalists are few, but we, the Bolivian people, are many."
In response to the media’s attacks against the government, Morales has announced the launch of new state newspaper, called "Cambio" (Change), which was released today, January 22. "We are organizing ourselves, we are preparing ourselves with media to broadcast the truth to the Bolivian people," Morales said in a recent speech. "This new newspaper will be launched, that won’t humiliate anyone, but will inform and educate us."
Regardless of the extent to which the changes in the new constitution are applied, the document is significant in that it has been a central part of the political battleground for the bulk of Morales’ time in office. The constitution is also a kind of mirror held up to Bolivian politics, representing the hopes, contradictions and shortcomings of various sides of the political divide.
There are many valid criticisms of the constitution from the left – that the document won’t allow for the break up of existing large land holdings, that it won’t legalize abortion, that it doesn’t go far enough in combating neoliberalism, that there exists a lot of vague language about how these changes will be implemented, and more. But of the many people who will cast their ballot for the constitution this Sunday, a significant number won’t be voting specifically for the new document, or even the MAS government, but against the right wing, and the racism, poverty and conflicts the right has exacerbated in recent years.
In any case, the passage of the constitution will open up a new phase for the Morales government, as well as a new period of electoral campaigning: if the constitution passes, general elections will be held on December 6th of this year. As Alfredo Rada, the Minister of the Government, said in an interview with Telesur, "The government is optimistic and believes that this Sunday we will win a majority triumph with the "Yes" vote, and with this open a new chapter in Bolivian history."
BENJAMIN DANGL is the author of "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia," (AK Press). He is an editor at UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email bendangl(at)gmail.com