Three years ago this weekend, Evo Morales was sworn in as President of Bolivia, having campaigned hard on a number of issues: nationalisation of natural resources, greater inclusion of indigenous peoples with official support for their languages and legal recognition for their systems of justice and landholding, agrarian reform, social justice and a roots-deep reform of the country’s consitution. Today, the Bolivian people vote again and decide how far the former are to be shored up by the latter, Constitutional reform. Does the Bolivian electorate support the current change in the country’s politics enough to alter its foundational legal document? Right now, early reports are indicating that yes it does.
The process of rewriting Bolivia’s constitution was arduous. Rather than appoint a closed commission of legal experts and scholars, the government called elections in July 2006 in order to let the public choose members to represent them in a popular assembly. Three representatives were sent from each constituency, from all backgrounds and occupations – professionals, workers, peasant farmers, men, women, Quechua speakers, Aymara speakers, Amazonian indigenous people, community activists and of course a fair sample of career politicians such as empresario and failed Presidential candidate Samuel Doria Medina. The assembly was inaugurated on 6 August 2006, Independence Day, with a great fanfare and massive participation by popular and indigenous sectors, celebrating the possibility for the nation’s Magna Carta to be rewritten with them in mind: to re-twist the legal DNA of the nation and reverse, or at least ameliorate, 181 years of exclusion. Symbolically, Silvia Lazarte, an indigenous woman with little formal education was named as president of the assembly. It was given a term of one year, which soon became filled with squabbles over procedure and participation without a pen being taken to the text. Violence and racism marred first the sessions of the assembly and then the atmosphere in the city where it was being held. The representative from the place where I was living at the time returned to tell peasant congresses how she was repeatedly racially abused (and physically attacked) both in the halls of the theatre where sessions were carried out, and in the plaza of Sucre, the city where the assembly was based. As an indigenous woman whose command of Spanish was at that time limited, she was singled out for special criticism from the right wing and the media, although few paused to criticise the middle class asambleistas who hadn’t bothered to learn her language, Quechua.
Eventually despite a concerted and violent effort by local civic groups in Sucre and the opposition to disrupt and delay proceedings, the bulk text of the new Constitution was passed by the assembly last December. Most opposition assembly members boycotted the final sessions (which took place in military barracks after continuous rioting meant the original theatre used for the assembly was no longer safe. Its completion on December 14th 2007 prompted a year of political tugs of war, which have been amply covered elsewhere: this particular story ends one chapter and begins another with today’s referendum. There’s still 10 minutes of January 25th left as of the time of writing: this post may well appear dated Jan 26th.
The new constitution makes significant amendments in the following areas: regional and ethnic autonomy, legal recognition for communitarian organisation (extending to the freedom of indigenous communities to choose their leaders by whichever method fits with their traditions), limitation of landholding to either 5,000 or 10,000 hectares (not retroactive, which was a large concession), and a basic definition of Bolivia’s economy as ‘statal’. Three principal forms of ownership are laid out: state property, private property and communal property. The last is most interesting to me, accommodating as it does ancestral usages of land, which in the highlands have sometimes involved rotational usage of communal territories, something which was undermined by land privatisation in the 19th century. Private property is guaranteed, but at the same time a greater emphasis is placed on state ownership of natural resources and basic services, including telecommunications.
If you hear any nonsense about the referendum taking away presidential term limits, don’t brook it: the opposite is true. Until 1994’s constitutional reform (carried out by World Bank-influenced bureaucrats and policy wonks rather than a popular assembly, but still groundbreaking in its own way, namely the first admission of Bolivia’s multicultural status, framed in a very neoliberal way but anyway, digression) two consecutive presidential terms were allowed, but this was changed to permit multiple attempts at re-election, when non-consecutive. The current proposal is to revert to the original two-term system. What is more, Evo Morales has guaranteed that, if re-elected later this year in the elections called after the adoption of the new consitution, he will only serve til 2014 and not seek re-election. So any dog-whistle attempts to associate him with Chavez by alluding to the removal of term limits should be taken with an Uyuni’s worth of salt.
I’ll be analysing more aspects of the new constitution in the upcoming week, here and elsewhere, but in the meantime if you too are interested in nerdishly following the process and outcome of the referendum (and who could blame you!), and you use Twitter (oh, and speak Spanish), then you can keep up with Bolivian netizens involved..